Sister Alma Rose among the Meek and Lowly

praying-in-church

Sister Alma Rose surprises me on a daily basis. Hourly. By the minute, even, as in the case of Mrs. Ebenezer Grippe (which rhymes with trip, not with trippy, which Mrs. Grippe definitely is, in her austere and haughty way).

Having known Sister Alma Rose all my life, I saw her first as God’s right hand—as near perfection as might be possible for a great sequoia of a woman possessing apparently infinite patience, wisdom, compassion, and authority, and a comfortable quirkiness—her saving grace when it came to befriending small children, who might otherwise have found her a bit frightening.

As it was, by the age of seven or eight I was more often to be found on Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green porch, which wraps around her hilltop farmhouse like a woolen shawl on a winter night, than in my own home across the road. I went to my parents with cuts and scrapes and scratchy throats and runny noses, which they attended to with skill and love and a great many hugs and kisses. I went to Sister Alma Rose with wounds of the heart and yearnings of the spirit—existential growing pains unusual in one so young, I can see now. My parents and Sister Alma Rose behaved as if nothing were more natural than a first-grader’s proposing to become a Roman Catholic because her Presbyterian church had lost all reverence for the sacred and the mystical.

“The Prethbyterians,” I scornfully declared, not having learned to honor people’s chosen paths as different routes to the same destination; also not having learned to pronounce my esses, “treat God ath if he were a conthept, like Open Marriage or being a Whig.” Certainly I understood nothing of Whiggism and less than nothing of Open Marriage, but I knew my Presbyterians (who were typified by Mrs. Ebenezer Grippe) and they were a cynical lot. And the surprise was that Sister Alma Rose seemed to agree with me and offered a parody of Mrs. Ebenezer Grippe and her ilk in church saying the Lord’s Prayer, which clunked along like a wagon that got mired in mud at the end of each phrase:

Our FATH-er [pause],

who art in HEAV-en [longer pause, during which certain women ungently pinch or poke their spouses, occasionally rousing them to at least the appearance of paying attention],

hallowed-be-thy-name [or its alternative rendering, hollowed-be-thy-name; rushing here, momentum all but lost, bodies slackening as if in mute suggestion to the prayer leader that praying, even by rote, is well and good in moderation but enough is, after all, enough, and besides, the next part is unpalatable to hardworking, self-made men and women. But the prayer leader has a job to do and trudges gamely on like someone drained of energy after mowing half the lawn and finishing by sheer willpower].

Thy kingdom COME [full stop. Are we done yet?],

thy-will-be-done [mumbled in a hurry lest God hear and understand what the reluctant petitioner has said and, worse yet, identify the individual pray-ers and take them at their word, plucking them straightaway out of their comfortable four-bedroom homes, newly roofed and painted, water heaters recently replaced, brick patios with propane barbecues installed, and setting them down in vermin- and disease-infested refugee camps]…

on Earth, as it is in Heaven [absently, having forgotten the topic and becoming aware of a nagging pain in the lower back].

Give us this day our daily bread [with new robustness, since everybody knows what it means and likes to ask God for stuff, which must be okay because Jesus sanctions it, right here, right now, in his own prayer],

and forgive us our tresspasses [or debts. Now here the congregation divides, because there are those who know they’ve been bad and genuinely want forgiveness, and there are the others, who are pretty sure they haven’t done anything wrong, or at least anything that everybody else wouldn’t do in the same situation, such as not reporting the receipt of cash payments on their income-tax returns… and still others, whose minds have long since fled the sanctuary and are wondering if they remembered to thaw the chicken or who just really have to pee],

as we forgive those who have trespassed against us [or our debtors, and either way, this can’t be done in an offhand, Sunday-morning-prayer sort of way, because some things just stick in our craw—and what, exactly, is a craw? Is it that place in the throat where a shallow cough starts? And should I take the trouble now to forgive my mother-in-law for never having warmed up to me, when she’ll just keep dissing my housekeeping and criticizing my children? Can’t I wait until she’s done being an old snipe once and for all, and do one big, overarching forgiveness?].

And lead us not into temptation [which we have never understood, because isn’t it God’s job to shoo us away from temptation, and if God doesn’t do his job, then is it our fault if we eat an entire pineapple upside-down cake meant for the potluck supper and take a bag of doughnuts instead?]…

but deliver us from evil [resoundingly, because that’s one we can all get behind]…

for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever [spoken fervently, and a little louder, because (a) the prayer is all but over and (b) we are aware that we have been less than attentive throughout and want to make up for it with this final burst of piety].

Amen [Omigosh, is that my cell phone that’s cheeping?].

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It Is Finished

Piero della Francesca The Resurrection c 1463-5

The Resurrection, Piero della Francesca, 1463-1465

Meditation for Easter Sunday

All that perishes is done, its temporality
expired, its finite span come to an end.
Love dawns, and darkness runs for cover,
scattering to its mysterious retreats,
its caverns damp and chill and inhospitable to all
except the twisted denizens of night. But light
now floods the caves and crevices, and darkness
has no place to hide.

It is finished. Now everything begins, and
what now is, what has begun, is born of love
and cannot die. Remember this, in winters
that descend untimely, blighted by disease
or grief, when pain extinguishes anticipation,
faith is tested and found wanting, hope is lost.
But hopelessness is finished, and despair died
on the cross.

Now everything begins, and we reside
in that eternal morning where the sun
forever rises, lavishing magnificent
abundance on the living—energy for
what we are and what we shall become.

Like seeds dropped carelessly among dry weeds,
for what seemed an eternity we waited, tiny
miracles of life and possibility. We waited
comfortlessly, frozen, numb below the crust
of earth where we’d arrived, not understanding
why or how, borne by which wind or for what
purpose. There we lay, absurdly small and
weak, without the power to exchange our
situation with what we aspired to be—the oak,
the grapevine, even (if we had no other choice)
the common milkweed—anything alive
and free. We waited, with our destinies
obscure, obeying the imperative of life, until
the earth around us warmed and softened,
waking our imaginations. Smothering in
darkness, blind but sensing that the equinox
had come and gone—the sun returned at
last and lengthening the days—how urgently
we longed to break our bonds and dance.
And still we waited, waited on, exhilarated,
frightened, eager to explore; we would have
chosen to emerge before our time, too soon
discarding our protection but for intuition’s
wise reluctance, warning of another killing
frost… and so we waited, waited on, until
we thought that we must climb out of the
grave or die. Denied, we grew impatient, tried
to plan how it would be, and doubted our
ability to push through the detritus of
innumerable seasons, layers of debris that
moldered as we slept—dead grass; damp,
matted leaves; entangled roots of ancient trees
compounded by neglect and entropy… a feast
for worms, perhaps… for us, a trap, impenetrable
by such means as we possessed, without
momentum, drained of will, and utterly unequal
to the task.

So suddenly the moment comes, we are astonished
by the ease of our ascent despite our lack of
preparation, effortlessly rising through the loam
into the gentle light while slender threads roam
underground, revealing infinite supply.  Around us,
pomegranate, lavender, mesquite, and rose bloom
copiously, bearing fruit and indiscriminately offering
their attributes to creatures winged or crawling, great
or minuscule. We have been here before, astride
the grand continuum, awakening in spring, disporting
gleefully on endless-seeming summer afternoons, then
wonderfully ripening, as if we had reserved our true
magnificence for this extravagant display, this final
surge of life before the cycle of decay begins.

But we shall not descend again. Nature now is
satisfied, her laws suspended. She requires nothing
further from us. It is finished, and there will be
no more winters. Without limit, light becoming life
eternally, joy flows in rivers; bliss crowns the forests,
fields, and groves; and we have just begun to live.

All is as the Gospel promised:

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.*

It has begun, will be—and we shine on. Amen.

____

* From the Canticle of Zechariah, Luke 1:78-79

Forgiven

The-crucifixion-Pietro Lorenzetti-1340s

The Crucifixion, Pietro Lorenzetti, 1340s

Poem for Good Friday

I wondered at another’s strength,
begrudged her victory despite the cost,
and was ashamed of being not as strong.

I contemplated Jesus on the cross
while I forgot the resurrection
and the lessons: gratitude, compassion;
and I walked away from grace, ashamed
of clinging to my body and not
making of it such an offering.

I shunned companionship, ashamed
of wanting it—a friend, an intimate
would be too soft a pillow for a
head that ought to bear a crown
of thorns instead—and with such cruel
thoughts, in solitude, I clawed my spirit
even as I prayed for God to spare me
suffering and loss

Sweet Celebration

Jan_van_Eyck_-_The_Ghent_Altarpiece_-_Singing_Angels_1427-1429

The Ghent Altarpiece: Singing Angels, Jan Van Eyck, c. 1427-1429

Hymn for the Forty-Third Day of Lent

Somewhere, somehow,
even now in the universe,
all is joy; all is peace;
all is well.

Show me the place where
the stars celebrate thee;
thine angels and saints dwell
in harmony there.

Prayer is the doorway;
love is the key to the
place where Creation
rejoices in thee.

We must be near, for
the music I hear
is a sweet celebration
in praise of thee.

All of Creation sings,
“All is joy; all is peace;
“all is sweet harmony;
“all is well;
“all is well, indeed.”

Amen.

 

Safely to the Shore

Duccio di Buoninsegna The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew 1308-1311

Calling of the Apostles Simon and Andrew, Duccio Di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311

Prayer for the Forty-Second Day of Lent

God who made us and sustains us— God, immortal and mysterious— when we are ungrateful, even our complaints are manifest of sweet abundance: air and water; bread and butter; shelter from the cold; and your embrace when we surrender deep in prayer—as babies, weary even of exploring all the wonders of the world, its lights and colors, sounds and textures, burrow into Mother’s shoulder, fearless in her equanimity.

Yet we fancy ourselves victims of ungentle circumstance. A small annoyance, not attended to, becomes infected. Swollen, red, and tender to the touch, it spreads to the extremities, and farther— others suffer the contagion. Thus can friends on Saturday be enemies on Sunday, and, by Monday, legion.

Gratitude does not require the sky to be forever blue, or that the sun appear at every moment we consider opportune. Not every day is halcyon, not every month is June, and there are bitter winds that penetrate each layer of protection, entering through skin and bone to pierce the heart. Small comfort then to know that even when the sun’s invisible behind the storm or hidden by the circle of the Earth, it shines as bright and will be visible precisely when it ought to be. Small comfort too are food and shelter — even friends, if friends remain (we might have driven them away). A few are stubborn: let them in, for they can rub our feet and startle languid faculties awake — the ones that sense not heat or cold but grace.

We are not patient, though, no matter that we’ve had our share of warm, fair days and peaceful nights. We hear the thunder of a distant storm; we witness human cruelty, we wonder at the blind impartiality of nature, and we are bewildered at the magnitude of evil, at the unpredictable caprice of fate, or doom. Disaster may be out of sight but looms in some malicious posture, poised to strike when least expected. So we watch and worry, like a sentry whose antagonist has neither form nor name; and we neglect whatever bounty has accrued in our distraction. We forget to feast. We lack the energy and appetite for our accustomed satisfaction. Those who suffer and survive have told us they were somehow more alive than when the breezes were benevolent and calm. They learned to be astonished that amid catastrophe and cataclysm, life goes on.

You have warned us to be leery of the sleek vocabulary of the merchants of salvation. When they speak, their words are vacant. When they pray, their prayers are memorized and animated, artful, eloquent, and uninspired. Their lines are well rehearsed, but had they truly died and been redeemed, their phrases would reflect (it seems to me, and I have been there) something of the grave; not so articulate—there are no words; would be forever fresh, a quiet wonder— if they had been saved. If one has been to the abyss and fallen in, then one is humble, having little need to understand, no reason to pontificate… but rather one is moved to celebrate the mystery and to be newly grateful, day by day by day.

Having suffered condemnation, having been appraised and come up short, and having then been lifted and embraced — one cannot judge, cannot condemn. The court has been adjourned and all the prisoners released. We have no jurisdiction; it is not our place to round the sinners up and put them back again. Our duty, then, is light and brings us joy: To know as friend a stranger, one who will, like each of us, be tried; and one thing more: To gratefully remember how the tide that swept us out to sea — when we, in mortal danger, cried out, “Save me!”— pulled us gently to the shore.

Amen.

 

Sigh from a Lady Robin

robin-female-wikipedia

Poem for the Thirty-Third Day of Lent

It seemed a small, inconsequential ripple on the
surface of an ordinary day; a causeless wind
had risen from a placid bit of sky, dislodging a
mimosa stem distinctive for its pinkish silkiness
and scarcity—the only blossom of its kind for
acres upon miles and recognizable by rows of
arches bearing tiny, oval leaves in pairs,
unanimated partners in an English country
dance; the petals too are unremarkable at first,
too pale to draw the eye, and circular, like
almost-white confetti.

Then I wondered why I noticed it at all, this
inconspicuous, lopsided, faintly aromatic bit of
tree, though, inattentive as I tend to be, it likely
thwacked me on the head. Perhaps I was
reminded of a sigh as from a lady robin settling
in—a plumpish mound of feathers, rust-red belly,
glossy wings, and watchful eye, a shelter for the
objects of her sole responsibility… her task
exquisitely uncomplicated, satisfying
nonetheless, affording her the sweetest possible
contentment, since—without the least idea
why—she does the job she absolutely must, the
very thing the universe insists upon and in the
only way that she, in body, soul, and spirit, can
give comfort and receive it.

There are those more learned and articulate
than I who understand the management of
such impeccable performances—some who, in
the name of knowledge, out of curiosity, assign
particular behavior to material stimuli and dare
to ask if creatures love or merely seek to share a
warm, dry place in order to survive. But I am
certain that, when something seeming
unextraordinary tugs at my attention, God has
sent an invitation to be witness to a miracle,
reminding me to scrape the cobwebs from my
eyes and clear my vision, so that when a
common dawn throws warm, fresh sunlight in
great bands across the sleeping plain, which
fairly leaps with sudden jubilation at the hint of
summer, greening as days lengthen, quickening
apace, I see in the changing, always and
inevitably, grace.

robin-baby-eggs-wikipedia

Waiting for Resurrection

acorn-time-lapse-geekologie-dot-com

Acorn underground, part of time-lapse video of an acorn becoming an oak. See the 3-minute video on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZK4LjURtaDw

Poem for the Thirtieth Day of Lent

Like seeds dropped carelessly among dry weeds,
for what seemed an eternity we waited, tiny
miracles of life and possibility. We waited
comfortlessly, frozen, numb below the crust
of earth where we’d arrived, not understanding
why or how, borne by which wind or for what
purpose. There we lay, absurdly small and
weak, without the power to exchange our
situation with what we aspired to be—the oak,
the grapevine, even (if we had no other choice)
the common milkweed—anything alive
and free. We waited, with our destinies
obscure, obeying the imperative of life, until
the earth around us warmed and softened,
waking our imaginations. Smothering in
darkness, blind but sensing that the equinox
had come and gone—the sun returned at
last and lengthening the days—how urgently
we longed to break our bonds and dance.
And still we waited, waited on, exhilarated,
frightened, eager to explore; we would have
chosen to emerge before our time, too soon
discarding our protection but for intuition’s
wise reluctance, warning of another killing
frost… and so we waited, waited on, until
we thought that we must climb out of the
grave or die. Denied, we grew impatient, tried
to plan how it would be, and doubted our
ability to push through the detritus of
innumerable seasons, layers of debris that
moldered as we slept—dead grass; damp,
matted leaves; entangled roots of ancient trees
compounded by neglect and entropy… a feast
for worms, perhaps… for us, a trap, impenetrable
by such means as we possessed, without
momentum, drained of will, and utterly unequal
to the task….