Shield of virtue

A Spiritual Journey Thursday offering

with thanks to my Spiritual Journey writing friends and to Karen Eastlund for hosting on this first Thursday in September. Our theme is “virtue.” I began writing on this topic last month: What is virtue?

Allow me to start my circuitous spiritual journey route today with a question, Dear Readers: Do any of you remember a vintage device called Viewmaster? From back in the olden days before cable, videos, DVDs, movie channels, and Virtual Reality headsets?

My grandmother bought one for me in the early ’70s. It looked exactly like this:

My Batman & Robin Viewmaster 3D Viewer and Reels. 1966. Jimmy Big Potatoes. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

You’d remove the reels, ever so carefully holding them by the rim, not getting your fingerprints on the little squares of film. Notches on the rim indicated proper insertion; these would be centered at the top. Then you’d hold the Viewmaster up to your eyes, aim for a light source—lamp, overhead fixture, or window—and voilà! The magical 3D scene would draw you in. When you were ready for the next scene, you’d push down the little lever on the right.

I didn’t have Batman reels as pictured in the photo above. I had Lassie, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Bambi, some others I can’t recall at the moment, and the first set Grandma ever purchased for me: Sleeping Beauty.

I recall my childhood horror of Disney’s Maleficent and her curse on Princess Aurora, who was subsequently disguised as Briar Rose, relegated to living in the woods. My child’s blood ran cold at the spindle scene in which the young girl pricked her finger (creepy multiple hands appeared there), which ushered in her enchanted sleep instead of death…

Enter Prince Philip, her rescuer.

The good fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, always working on Aurora’s behalf, gave two objects to the Prince: The Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue.

That Shield of Virtue has lain dormant in my memory for decades.

Today I retrieve it, blow off the layers of dust, and consider its gleaming significance.

The Shield of Virtue (vignette). C-Lemon. CC BY-NC-ND.

The shield, emblazoned with a cross, protected Philip from Maleficent’s fiery breath when she transformed into a dragon; in the movie, she cries: “Now you shall deal with me, O Prince, and all the powers of hell!” (yes, this is an animated Disney movie made for children. Fairy tales, as you know, can be quite Grimm).

As I contemplated writing on the topic of virtue again, this shield kept rising to the viscous surface of my thoughts. It is more than a magical token.

There’s a real Shield of Virtue. A gold one, awarded to the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus (Octavian), so inscribed: The senate and the Roman people give to Augustus, son of the divine Caesar, in his 8th consulate, the shield for virtue, clemency, justice, and piety towards the gods and his native land.

Marble copy of the Shield of Virtue (Clipeus Virtutis) of Augustus. Carol Raddato. CC BY-SA

The Shield of Virtue is a thing that was given. It denotes battle. Above all, valor. It is a defense. By very nature of its name, the Shield of Virtue represents high standards, mercy, fairness, loyalty, acting on behalf of others.

I return now to the spiritual journey. A path of treacherous turns, often littered with brokenness. Dark forests of encroaching thorns and dragonfire as ever the fictitious Prince Philip faced. Ongoing warfare, threat of destruction…

Armor is desperately needed. As Paul wrote to the Ephesian believers:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm…in all circumstances, take up the shield of faith, with which can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one…(Ephesians 6:11-16).

The spiritual battle is real. A shield is given; one of faith. It occurs to me that virtue and faith are inextricably intertwined. Courage is born of believing in something greater than oneself (my favorite definition of awe). Tapping into this disperses unique fuel in one’s veins, enabling one to grasp the shield and to power through, trusting. Scriptures repeat that the battle isn’t even ours, but the Lord’s. His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart… (Psalm 91:4).

Somehow, an acrostic seems called for.

Valor. Let it not be born of vainglory but of an
Infusion of love, of mercy, of divine strength.
Righteousness not fashioned by humanity,
Tempered and refined in heat of battle.
Upward, toward the light, let me always cast my
Eyes.

Strength to all.

*******

Another lens through which to view virtue, from my previous post on this theme:

Within the angelic hierarchy of Judeo-Christian tradition is a class of angels known as Virtues. They are connected to motion and order of the cosmos, dispensers of grace, exceptional courage, unshakeable faith, and miracles. They are balance-bringers; in a world so unbalanced of late, the angelic Virtues must have their hands full. As I write, I imagine them roaming the streets, unseen, fervently seeking ways they can impart divine strength.

What is virtue?

A Spiritual Journey Thursday offering


While walking with my son this week, out of nowhere a shape descends upon us…

A dog. Not just any dog…

A pit bull.

Wriggling all over for joy, jumping up as if he knows us.

Begging to be petted and to play.

Glossy back coat, merry eyes, laughing face (yes really). Still a puppy, soft-mouthing our hands in greeting. Same as my older son’s pit, Henry, does.

“He is beautiful,” I say to my son. “He must belong to somebody.”

“I wish he was mine,” says my boy. Never mind that he already owns one of the mightiest breeds of all time: a dachshund.

The dog follows us home. We put him in our backyard until we can locate his owner. He doesn’t like being left alone. He cries when we are out of sight. He rejoices on our return. When we sit on on the deck chairs, he lies at our feet; when we rise, he rises to stand by, ready and willing to do whatever it is we are getting ready to do.

We learn from asking around the neighborhood that he’s roamed the streets before and that people shoo him away. Uninvited dogs, especially pits, are not especially welcome. I begin to think about harm that could befall him, aside from the danger of being in the street: What might a startled, frightened, or angry person do to him?

He raises his head as if he hears my thoughts. He looks at me with a wistful expression.

We find his owners. We send him home.

The next morning, he’s back. Curled up on our front porch mat.

Poor sweet boy. He shouldn’t be allowed to roam…or maybe he’s just an escape artist.

And I realize how powerless I am to do anything except hope for his safety and enjoy him whenever he should visit. He’s not mine and he’s disappeared again. I find myself missing him, looking for him.

He’s on my mind as Spiritual Journey Thursday rolls around; he seems, somehow, to be connected to the question, “What is virtue?” The four cardinal virtues of classical philosophy and Christian theology are Prudence (wisdom), Justice (righteousness) Fortitude (strength; overcoming fear), and Temperance (restraint; self-control). We usually think of virtue as people demonstrating goodness or excellence of character (the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31), or as the beneficial quality of a thing: patience is a virtue.

I cannot help thinking that this pit embodies virtue, too. He’s a good dog. He is loving. He is eager to share his affection and exuberant joy with whomever he encounters…he’s perceptive, willing to to serve, and, I suspect, highly trainable even if somewhat uncontainable at present. Above all, he’s one of God’s creatures.

Which reminds me that within the angelic hierarchy of Judeo-Christian tradition is a class of angels known as Virtues. They are connected to motion and order of the cosmos, dispensers of grace, exceptional courage, unshakeable faith, and miracles. They are balance-bringers; in a world so unbalanced of late, the angelic Virtues must have their hands full. As I write, I imagine them roaming the streets, unseen, fervently seeking ways they can impart divine strength.

I am not sure of connections between the Virtues and the mass adoption of dogs during the COVID pandemic…just musing over shapes that heavenly comfort, courage, and sustained strength might take.

Most of all I think about the desire to serve, to do good versus harm in a spirit of fear and distrust.

Perhaps…perhaps virtue arises where it is welcomed, and when it does, it opens our eyes to the virtue of others.

*******

with thanks to my Spiritual Journey writing friends and to Linda Mitchell for hosting on this first Thursday in August. As it turns out, “virtue” is supposed to be theme for September. Today the group is focusing on “respect.” I caught this after I wrote the post, alas, which leaves me with a choice: write another one and save this for September or let this one fly, regardless. I’m choosing to post now. It is, after all, written from a place of respect for the cosmically happy adventurer we’ve taken to calling “Harold.”

Apothecary of the soul

Today, the first Thursday of the month, my Spiritual Journey gathering writes around the theme of “Nurturing Our Summer Souls.” Deepest thanks to my friend, teacher-poet-artist Carol Varsalona, for hosting.

Summer itself is about journeys, is it not

In my previous post, A walk back in time, I told of a long-awaited trip to the Country Doctor Museum in the small town of Bailey, NC. I expected to learn about rural physicians and their practices in the 19th to early 20th centuries. I didn’t expect to be mesmerized by the first exhibit, a reproduction apothecary shop replete with show globes (which became the official symbol for pharmacies), exquisite leech jars, real live leeches, rows of dried herbs and powders displayed in large glass jars bearing labels of names so poetic and compelling I itched to look them all up right there on the spot, and black pills made in the shape of tiny coffins because they contain a measure of poisons like mercury, so an illiterate population would be mindful not to overdose.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the large painting on the wall behind the counter…

Apothecary of the soul painting, circa 1700-1750. Artist unknown.
Image: Joyner Library, East Carolina University.

It dominated the wall—the whole room.

“These ‘apothecary of the soul’ paintings are rare,” the docent told our tiny tour group of four, one other couple plus my husband and I. “Most come from Germany. You can see here that Christ is the apothecary. He’s holding the scales, weighing his Crucifixion against the weight of a man’s soul… behind them, jars are labeled with the virtues…we’ve had visitors who are fluent in German and they tell us that this is an old form of the language, much of it is complicated to translate…”

I can make out two Bible references, though. Here’s the King James translation:

Matthew 11:28:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Isaiah 55:1:

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

My tour group moved on too soon. I couldn’t linger to study the work at length, to grasp more of its symbolism, so I’ve since visited the Museum’s website for more information. There I learned that an apothecary may have commissioned the painting. Apothecaries wanted to draw people to their shops; they sought to be alluring, to the point of extravagance (hence the elaborate show globe towers and gilded leech jars). But imagine the effect on the ordinary townsperson, in need of help, relief, comfort, entering the shop to find Christ adorning the wall. If customers weren’t able to read the verses (from Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible, I wonder?), they could see that Christ’s right hand holds the scales and that his sacrifice outweighs the man’s sins, represented by a horned beast. The man holds a banner reading My sins are heavy and overwhelming and grieve me from the heart.* Christ’s left hand rests on what appears to be crosswort, a plant often used to treat wounds, headaches, and other ailments, possibly representing a cure-all from the hands of the Great Physician (or Apothecary) himself: the dispensation of spiritual healing as well as physical, “without money and without price.”

I left the shop thinking about the level of trust one must have in the apothecary, and feeling as if I’d been on a pilgrimage versus a museum tour. This happened to be my first journey of summer, which has come at last, bright and beckoning, as the world strives to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic…

Here is to rest, ongoing spiritual journeys, and nurturing the soul.

*******

*Source: Apothecary of the Soul video, ECU Digital Collections, via the Country Doctor Museum website (see Learning). The Museum belongs to the Medical Foundation of East Carolina University, under the management of the Laupus Health Sciences Library.

Other Apothecary of the Soul paintings can be found online; they contain much of the same symbolism.

Prosody of life: Revisiting awe

A Slice of Life doubling as a Spiritual Journey offering later this week, on the first Thursday of the month (thanks to Ruth for hosting). The SJT participants are revisiting the “one little word” each of us chose at the beginning of the year. At that time, I wasn’t in the frame of mind to choose a defining word for the year…but “awe” chose me, in spite of myself. Also practicing a bit for my poetry course this week; we are writing prose poems. Priming the pump, if you will…

Where am I now in relation to awe?

Perhaps more in tune to its vibrations each day…

Late in the evenings, a whipporwhill sings, three notes repeated over and over in the dark; yet it is the brightest of songs, summoning summer, beckoning life, new life in the making, love echoing from the treetops. Whipporwhills are seldom seen and their numbers are declining, yet the song illuminates the night, vibrant, rising and falling, going on and on, like rhythmic patterns of life itself…my granddaughter comes to visit with a book she’s reading, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I say, “Oh, I love that book! It was my favorite when I was little,” except that I was ten when I first read it and she is five. Five. And she laughs when I tell her that I’ve dubbed her bedroom here in my house the “Spare Oom” in honor of the faun, Mr. Tumnus. She reads to me, her little voice rising and falling in all the right places; I marvel that she’s been in the world so short a time…I recall my son telling me how she stood on a box at the pulpit with him on Easter Sunday to read the Scriptures, the story of life overcoming death; images of trees crowd into my mind, for around this part of the country storms swept through as winter gave way to spring, snapping off the top-heavy crowns of young trees. Their crowns are still lying dead where they fell but on the broken tree trunks, new shoots are already growing tall, reaching their green arms skyward, waving in the breeze, new life from old, wholeness and healing springing from broken places… meanwhile, my son’s wife cradles her belly, just beginning to swell with my new grandchild; at the end of this this week we will get to see the pictures, and will learn if it’s a boy or a girl, and the naming process will be solidified…my younger son comes in from his work at the funeral home and speaks of birds, barn swallows with basket-like nests tucked at the tops of columns in the entryway, hatching brood after brood as the bereaved pass by to mourn beside the caskets of their loved ones awaiting burial, and how one of the funeral directors who lives alone in the apartment above likes to open the windows on pretty days to toss bread crumbs to the birds on the rooftop, taking pleasure in watching them eat…in it all I find a rhythm, a song, the prosody of life, awe flickering like flame in the shadows, whipporwhill, whipporwhill, whipporwhill…

Reading the old, old story

Spiritual Journey: Blossoming of joy

with thanks to my fellow Spiritual Journey writers who gather on the first Thursday of each month, and to Carol Varsalona for hosting today. Carol chose the theme “Blossoming of Joy.”

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
Song of Solomon 2:12

One of my favorite things about spring in North Carolina is the birdsong. Each morning when I rise, it’s to a chorus of cheery songs in myriad bird voices, a tiny angelic choir singing praise for the day from the pines surrounding my home. I listen, and am strengthened.

Another favorite thing is wisteria. It usually blooms for a short while in April. The pendulous blossoms hanging from trees fill my soul with nostalgia, for bygone times walking with my grandmother along the old dirt road of her country home, listening to stories of people who lived, loved, and died long ago. Wisteria threads through the landscape like pale purple banners of celebration for spring. It’s both old and new every year, full of secrets and mystery…and this year, for some reason, it is continuing to bloom into May.

I am not questioning.

I am just savoring.

Mysterious how
wisteria lingers on
disregarding May

This week I have been working with some kindergarteners on letter sounds and names. One little boy had his head down on his desk, buried in his arms, when I arrived. We started a game of naming objects that begin with “y” and he informed me that “yacht” is a boat and “people have parties on them.”

I sat blinking while he played with the toy yacht. He smiled at me: “I am feeling happier now.”

On leaving school, I saw a dandelion growing as close as it could to an old tree:

Y is for yellow
the self-confident color
of dandelion

Thanks to Carol’s prompt today, I am thinking of many facets of “blossoming of joy.” An image returns to mind from last week. At my church there are three women expecting babies in May, June, and July. We threw a shower for them on Sunday; it was one of those perfect spring afternoons, when the sun shines bright and a soft breeze blows like a comforting and encouraging caress from on high.

Sunday afternoon
three young women sat outside
their fellowship hall

greeting well-wishers
arriving in the driveway
bearing baby gifts

a drive-through shower
a celebration of love
a church family

multiplying grace
blessing by blessing outpoured
on expectant moms

blossoming with joy
and the new life they carry 
despite pandemics

My own son and his wife are expecting a baby in the fall.

There’s simply just so much to celebrate.

Abundant blossoming of joy.

All things new: Spiritual Journey

An offering for the Spiritual Journey group, comprised of faithful friends who gather on the first Thursday of each month. Today’s theme is “all things new.”

Spring arrives, clad in rich new vestments of green. Every day, more of the color ripples across the landscape. Here in the central part of North Carolina the Bradford pears have already exchanged their ethereal veil-clouds of wedding lace blossoms for something more matronly and verdant. A whirlwind ceremony, that five-minute flowering of pear.

The birds began preparing back in winter. Flashes of electric blue on my back deck; a brilliant bluebird, dropping by like a friendly neighbor. Darts of fiery red across the road while I’m driving; cardinals, making me stress over potentially ensnaring them in the grille (why DO they fly so low?). Today, a darling brown Carolina wren on my back deck—clearly doing Deacon of the Week rotation with the bluebird—singing its heart out, full-throated, unrestrained, magnificent. How can such a small bird have such a big voice? Bocelli can’t hold a candle to you, Little Wren. From the pines and budding hardwoods, bird choirs swell, as in the song “The King is Coming”:

Regal robes are now unfolding,
Heaven’s grandstand’s all in place,
Heaven’s choir now assembled,
Start to sing “Amazing Grace!”

All in earthly bird language, naturally… but no less celestial.

All but the finches, that is.

For several consecutive years a finch family has built a nest on my from door wreath and raised generations of little broods. I’d find a total of three baby-blue eggs in the nest, sometimes four, laid precisely between seven and eight o’clock every morning. My family has been treated to an insider’s view of the whole process, from nest-building to egg-laying to the hatching of tiny pink things so frail and helpless that a person might think they can’t possibly manage to stay alive; yet in no time they’re fledglings working on flying lessons. We’ve even had a batch of babies in the spring and another in summer; that makes for a long time of roping off my front-door bird sanctuary.

Then, with the advent of COVID-19 last March, a curious thing occurred. As the human world reeled, and became strapped in the strange straitjacket of pandemic, as businesses shut down, as hospitals and mortuaries overflowed, spring came anyway. Nature, in fact, outdid herself with resplendent finery. The finches came to build their nest as always and this little act of constancy lifted my flagging spirits: At least there will be baby birds to watch while we are all under stay-at-home orders.

But there were no eggs last spring. The nest remained empty all season. The finches… they vanished. No warning, just—poof!—gone. I didn’t see when, how, or why.

After a while, bereft, I quit looking for them.

I didn’t take the wreath down until late fall.

I saved the little unused nest.

I didn’t have the heart to throw away such a labor of love (you can say instinct all you want but the perfect craftsmanship of nests amazes me).

With the return of March, I waited for the finches to join the rest of the avian throng having revival beyond my windows. Every day I looked.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Then, day before yesterday…on the top of the wreath, one lone strand of grass, lying in a telltale curve…could it be, could it be…?

And yesterday…

“THEY’RE BACK! THEY’RE BACK! COME SEE!”

My family humored me with only a slight rolling of eyes…my granddaughter, at least, seemed interested. She made my son hold her up high for a better, bird’s-eye view.

I marveled at the greenness of the nest. Is it just me, or is this how they always look? This green, this fresh? I do not think so. No, they have never been so green before.

And today…

Almost complete. Look at that leafy lining, so carefully placed.

By Easter—dare I hope?—we might have an egg.

A tiny, age-old symbol of rebirth and resurrection.

I marvel at this fresh greenery, this new grass, this preparation for new life, the hope that’s in it. If not for the birds, then for me. Especially after the year that’s passed, marked by so much bleakness and loss, down to the former little nest that contained no life.

I recall the promise of Christ: one day there will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain. Behold, I am making all things new (Revelation 21:4-5, ESV).

Every spring hints at it. My personal winged messengers, harbingers of blessed assurance.

A little foretaste of glory divine.

Hymns of the heart. I step outside, away from the constraints of the house, watching the two finches take flight, zigzagging skyward, sunlight gleaming on their sandy backs, calling, calling, calling, how sweet the sound.

I come to the sanctuary in the cool of the day to behold
these moments of Earth’s remembering, an altar call where I
respond, walking the greening aisle just as I am
to a fanfare of wingbeats and music-making.
Holy holy holy, I surrender all
in wordless doxology on the returning. Let all things
their Creator bless, with ancient morningsong, yet ever new
.

*******

Update, Thursday evening… first egg!
Holy Week blessings to all.

*******

with thanks to Karen Eastlund for hosting today’s Spiritual Journey

and also shared with the writing community on SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, in response to the open invitation to write around the many meanings of “spring.”

Deep

A Spiritual Journey/Slice of Life Story Challenge Offering

My Spiritual Journey group writes on the first Thursday of the month.
Margaret Simon is our hostess today.
Our theme is March Spirit Wind.

On the evening news, on the second day of March: We are entering our severe storm season…

In central North Carolina, that means tornadoes. Schools will conduct required drills next week.

Metaphorically speaking, though: When is it not severe storm season? Potentially? Consider this past year, March to March…without warning, we found ourselves in uncharted waters. We faced the unknown. We weathered the weird (monster snow in Texas?). On every side, things dangerous, destructive, and deadly threatened, still threaten, our existence.

Sometimes it seems relentless. Endless.

Sometimes our spirits fail. We grow tired. We want to trust, but we wonder if we can make it through.

So it is for the disciples, when the miracle happens.

The Sea of Galilee, almost seven hundred feet below sea level, is subject to violent downdrafts and sudden storms. On this night, the storm is fierce. It is also long; in the fishing boat, the disciples have been battling the wind and waves for nine hours. They are exhausted, physically and mentally. They know death can come for them at any moment. They are afraid. This turns to sheer terror at the vision of a figure walking on the water: “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear (Matthew 14:26).

Jesus responds immediately: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

That’s when Peter—impulsive, passionate Peter—asks if it is really the Lord out there on the waves, and, if so, then command him to walk on the water. Jesus says Come. We know what happens. Peter climbs out of the boat, starts walking on the water, suddenly loses his nerve, and begins to sink. He cries for the Lord to save him. Jesus reaches out his hand, grabs hold of Peter, and chides him for his “little faith”—I cannot help hearing an exasperated tone, like that of a parent to a child: Why did you doubt?

Here is what I find interesting: The storm is raging this whole time. The furious winds don’t stop until Jesus and Peter are in the boat together. Peter’s desire to trust is obvious. I sense his earnest belief. Peter was a fisherman; he’d seen these kinds of storms all of his life. He probably knew the Sea of Galilee was littered with broken vessels (one dating to the first century was found there in 1986). Peter loved the Lord and knew he had exactly what he needed to accomplish this supernatural feat—in fact, he asked for and was granted the opportunity—yet his human nature failed him. Why?

When he saw the wind, he was afraid (v. 30).

It wasn’t the wind that threatened to annihilate Peter. It was his own fear.

You may know the haunting song that alludes to this story. I didn’t until my musician son mentioned hearing it in a dream. My boy has faced mighty storms in his young life with exceptional courage and unfailing compassion for others, even when others haven’t treated him well. He’s one of the gentlest, bravest souls I know, constant throughout moments of deep anguish. After the death of a friend— he’s lost several, suddenly and far too early—he dreamed he heard her singing in the darkened church:

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

The storm season may be severe. Relentless, exhausting, depleting. Fear’s going to run deep, sometimes. It’s natural. As natural as the wind and the sea.

Faith running deeper…that’s supernatural. A boat can’t come close to containing it.

Which I believe, in the deepest part of his heart, Peter knew.

Lyrics are to “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” by Hillsong United, performed here on the Sea of Galilee.

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 4, I am writing around a word beginning with letter d.

Note this, in connection with “deep”: After years of drought and levels so low that irreversible damage was imminent, scientists now consider the Sea of Galilee to be nearly full.

Lead photo credit: Stormy seas. Ishature Dawn. CC BY-SA

Take heart

For Spiritual Journey Thursday

As it’s February, the word heart came to mind when I prepared to write for Spiritual Journey Thursday (the first Thursday of each month).

No doubt Valentine’s Day conjured the word. Still feels a bit early for that, although I saw grocery shelves being stocked for it back before Christmas.

I began thinking more along the lines of taking heart. As in courage, which derives from Latin cor, meaning heart, and encourage, from Old French encoragier, to make strong, or to hearten.

One of my favorite images of courage and being encouraged is a scene from the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, young Prince Caspian’s ship has sailed into a mysterious, enchanted darkness where nightmares come true. Lucy prays to Aslan, the Narnian lion-god: “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us, send us help now.” The darkness doesn’t change but Lucy senses an inner change. She sees a speck of white materializing above. It comes closer and closer. An albatross, which whispers in her ear as it sweeps past: “Courage, Dear Heart.” And it leads the vessel through the infernal, terrifying darkness to the light just ahead.

We are nearing the year mark of nightmarish things come true. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Numbers are still high. New and more virulent strains are developing before vaccines can be obtained. Schools closed last spring and are still in various stages of reopening. There’s been turbulence in the streets, at the Capitol, a heavy toll taken on people’s lives, livelihoods, psyches, and souls…a long, long darkness.

Yet there is faith. And prayer.

Even when it seems eternal
Night cannot last forever.
Courage, dear hearts
One guides you onward
Until the morning comes.
Remember you are never
Alone.
God Himself walks alongside you
Every step of the way
.

While the darkness may not have lifted, we can always sense the light.

There are, after all, the children.

They are unique encouragers. At the end of some of my remote learning sessions, students have signed off by holding up “heart hands.” My own heart lightens as I give heart hands back. While our church was closed, kids mailed handmade cards covered with crayoned hearts to my husband and me: “Pastor Bill and Miss Fran, we miss you!” Years ago, long before I entered the education profession, my oldest son, around the age of five, spent his own money to buy me a little piece of artwork bearing this quote on encouragement: A teacher in wisdom and kindness helps children learn to do exactly what they thought could not be done.

That is true. For it is exactly what the Teacher did for His students, otherwise known as the disciples, just before the the darkest days they’d ever experience. They could hardly have imagined the light ahead. Nor, I imagine, can we. But the heart, it senses. And clings to that hope.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. —John 16:33

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Spiritual Word Journey

As the calendar turned from 2020 to 2021, I thought about words.

Particularly the word “weary.” It had seeped into my bones.

And I wondered if maybe, maybe…as much as I love them…I was tired of words.

Tired of the way they are wielded to wound.

Tired of the clamor.

One word with appeal: hibernation. Yes. Give me that word. It is, after all, winter.

I’ve just begun reading the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. Early in the book, May speaks of how plants and animals don’t fight winter. They don’t pretend it’s not happening or carry on living the same as they would in summer: They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight, but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

It is winter. My country is in a metaphorical winter. A bitter one. Certainly a crucible. What is being forged, I cannot say; the combination of a pandemic, many types of loss, from jobs to loved ones, to food insecurity, to strife and political unrest, seems almost more crucible than can be withstood. It takes its toll. Mentally, physically, emotionally. Withdrawing, at least from social media where vitriol is most rampant and draining, has great appeal. In the name of preservation, if not of one’s sanity, then certainly of one’s spirit.

Vanishing from sight. Alluring.

Makes me think of little bats I read about recently, how they survive the winter by making tiny dens in the snow. Took scientists years to figure out how they survived—only polar bears were known to make snow caves.

Ussurian tube-nosed bat, hibernating in Japan. Photo: Hirofumi Hirakawa. Science Magazine.

I am not a fan of bats, long before COVID-19. But that this tiny creature weighing less than a quarter ounce can endure, knows to endure, such harsh conditions in this way fills me with awe.

And that is the word I am clinging to in 2021.

Not hibernation. Awe.

I didn’t feel like choosing a word as a focus for the year. Remember, I was weary beyond words. Yet when I flipped my planner to January 1, I found this quote: Experiencing awe, the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you, can improve your physical health and make you feel more altruistic. Intentionally create awe this month by spending time in nature, meditating, volunteering, etc.

So that is how awe chose me as a guiding word for the year, extracting an unwritten promise from me that I would look for it each day. I started capturing an “awe of the day” in a notebook…for three whole days. Then I started back to remote teaching with sketchy Internet and a plethora of other school-related issues that weighed heavy enough to bring tears, a rare thing for me. All which were obscured today by the long shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Tonight another word from my planner’s awe-quote, altruistic, rises to the surface: having a genuine and selfless concern for others.

Where is it?

Like awe from which it is born, it must be looked for.

When I see it happening, I take heart. I am awed by others who, in the darkest of times, are the light-bearers. The healing-bringers. In these moments I know I am in the presence of something greater than myself.

I also happened to read this quote from Albert S. Rossi in Becoming a Healing Presence:

We need to push “pause” often and avoid reacting to the latest and loudest…The Lord expects us to live a life of love for Him and for others.

We have all the time we need to do all the things God has us here to do, in a peaceful way…We revere time as a way to remain peaceful, no matter what, to please God who gave us time. We have time to be come more of a healing presence during our remaining time on Earth.

We don’t live life. Life lives us.

Those words and that wisdom fill me with awe, like the little bats which know to burrow in the snow. Like the stars, like the ocean that I haven’t seen in eighteen months and am longing to see again, for the healing it offers my soul, for the taste of salt and infinity on its breeze. Like the children at school (on the screen) who are so buoyant. Like my son’s music—I can hear the keyboard upstairs, as I write—and his beautiful voice when he sings. Like his older brother’s way with words and his deepening altruistic nature. Like my daughter-in-law, a gift straight from God to our family, and her artwork in both painting and baking. Awe. Like my granddaughter’s face, lit with joy, every time she comes to see us. She has changed our world.

Just one more reminder that I’m in the presence of something far, far greater than me.

What the world needs now might not be as much love, sweet love, as awe, healing awe.

Did you see the two widowed penguins with their wings around each other in an award-winning photo, touted one of the best of 2020? Animals know. Let us humans likewise be a healing presence to one another, moving forward.

Two penguins look into the distance in Melbourne

Tobias Baumgaertner. Ocean Photography Awards. BBC News

Here’s to claiming your awe. Or letting it claim you.

Just little more of mine:

Unicorn cake my daughter-in-law made for my granddaughter’s birthday…
unicorns, by the way, are a symbol of healing.

My granddaughter’s portrait, painted by her mom, as a Christmas gift to my husband and me.

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With much gratitude to my Spiritual Journey Thursday group. You all are another source of awe. Special thanks to Carol Varsalona for hosting at Beyond Literacy Link. Per Carol’s suggestion, I am including a link to a prayer-poem here that I wrote earlier, tying “awe” (note the beginning letters in the title) to being a vessel of the Spirit: Alight with Expectancy.

Spiritual Journey: Seeled

seel: close (a person’s eyes); prevent (someone) from seeing. —Dictionary.com

seel: to close the eyes of (a bird, such as a hawk) by drawing threads through the eyelids. —Merriam-Webster.com

A Spiritual Journey Thursday reflection

Over Thanksgiving break from school, I read a book about a family of twelve children, six of whom (all boys) were diagnosed with schizophrenia: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family. I expected to learn more about the disorder, how it manifests as a distorted, alternate reality, affecting a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. I expected to learn about the part genetics play (six siblings!). I expected loads of medical research and new scientific insights…more than anything, I expected to be moved by the story.

I did. I was.

In a word: Devastating.

I never expected to learn a haunting little detail about falconry.

Originating in ancient times as a form of hunting, it became a sport and status symbol of the nobility in medieval Europe. A pastime of the Galvin family in Hidden Valley Road, falconry involves trapping a bird and training it to be completely dependent on the bidding of the falconer by “seeling” its eyes—stitching its eyelids closed.

Young Don and Mimi, parents of four boys at the time, trapped their first bird of prey, a red-tailed hawk. They consulted the local zoologist for guidance on training. He said, “Now sew the eyelids together”:

Stabler explained that [falcons’] eyelids protect them as they dive at speeds upwards of two hundred miles per hour. But in order to train a falcon the way Henry VIII’s falconers did it, the bird’s eyelids should be temporarily sewn shut. With no visual distractions, a falcon can be made dependent on the will of the falconer—the sound of his voice, the touch of his hands. The zoologist cautioned Mimi: Be careful the stitches aren’t too tight or too loose, and that the needle never pricks the hawk’s eyes. There seemed to be any number of ways to make hash of the bird…Mimi went to work on the edge of each eyelid, one after the other…Stabler complimented Mimi on her work. “Now,” he said, “you have to keep it on the fist for forty-eight hours”…At the end of those forty-eight hours, Mimi and Don had successfully domesticated a hawk. They felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. This was about embracing the wild, natural world and also about bringing it under one’s control. Taming these birds could be brutal and punishing. But with consistency and devotion and discipline, it was unbelievably rewarding.

Not unlike, they often thought, the parenting of a child.

For me, the fleeting sense of wonder is outweighed by horror on reading these lines… for suffering of the bird, for the foreshadowed suffering of these parents, these children.

The image will not leave my mind. I think about what a falcon symbolizes. Among many things, freedom. Which was taken away, here.

Also wisdom.

The most famous book of wisdom and suffering happens to mention a falcon. In Job 28, the title character continues a speech around the question “Where is wisdom?” Job marvels at the precious resources hidden in the earth and humans’ ability to extract them through mining. Human industry brings silver, gold, iron, copper, sapphires from the depths to the light.

Job speaks of the hidden way to such treasures:

That path no bird of prey knows, and the falcon’s eye has not seen it (28:7).

The metaphor is for wisdom, how elusive it is to mankind, and that its value is far above any earthly riches: “Man does not know its worth” (v. 13). The word “hidden” is referenced or alluded to over and over; wisdom can’t be seen even by the creatures with the keenest eyesight, birds of the air. Wisdom comes only from God (v. 28).

A song also plays in my mind, this line from Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind”: How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Hidden wisdom, hidden treasure. Hidden Valley Road. Hidden suffering, to an unimaginable degree…

I can’t help but think, as the year 2020 comes to a close, how those numbers stand for perfect vision—and the irony of so much we never saw coming.

Moving forward, let us seek wisdom, above all. Let us not be guilty of seeling our own eyes—or our hearts—to suffering beyond our own. Let us see.

Most of all, Dear God, don’t let us perpetuate more of it.

Photo: el7bara. CC BY

Quotation: Robert Kolker, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, 2020, p. 5-6.

Written with gratitude for my Spiritual Journey family. See more at A Word Edgewise – thank you, Linda, for hosting.