Invitation to Prayer

 childrens-feet-geelongfootclinic-com-au

Come pray with me.

Come with bare feet, dig your toes into the sand, and feel the grains, each one by one, one at a time. Don’t try to count them. You’ll run out of names for numbers long before the strand runs out of silica.

Come with joy and gratitude, if you have those today, and if you don’t, come anyway. Bag your anxiety and heave it through the groves, along the lanes, past cottages and fields of ripe late-summer grain. It’s worth the trek if at the end you give it all away. Cast your fear upon the waves and watch them sport with it. Observed, it will evaporate, or sink, or change. Presently it may become a bird (a pelican?), swoop down, and capture supper in its perfect catching apparatus, made for such accommodation in the way of all Divine Creation.

pelican-natl-geographic-laurent-mercey

National Geographic photograph by Laurent Mercey

Ought you bring your anger? Needs must, if it clings like cockleburs that grab your socks and scratch your legs and won’t let go. It has no will or power of its own. Your stockings, though, will have to go. The planet has a use for them. Some mama bird will pick apart the knitting, patiently, as is the way of purposeful activity, and carry off the threads to fortify and decorate her home. Who would have known your thorny socks would ever line some nestling’s cozy bed?

Come pray with me. I’m never far away. Come empty-handed if you can, or bring your baggage. No one minds your temper or your trembling—so many willing hands, strong arms, and sturdy backs there are to share what you can’t manage for the moment. Prayer is never solitary, even when you pray alone.

Come pray with me. You don’t need to wear a hat or shine your shoes or wipe the sleep out of your eyes. Come just as you are into the presence of the Holy One, All-Knowing,
-Loving, -Wise.

As you contemplate the Universe, or fresh growth on the shrubbery, or lunch—and there you are, smug and complacent, having choked down lettuce you don’t care for much—listen for the spirits in the sighing of the wind, as it weaves its way among the trees and scoops up untidy piles of dry leaves. Hear the messages from the Divine. and see eternity in glints of sunlight on metallic specks in sheets of rock… choruses spontaneously composed, arranged, played and sung… the music of vibrations out of silence grown… once begun, not ever interrupted…

…all repeat in every tongue,
“Life loves you. All is well.”

ocean-inhabitat-comNEEDS MUST—Necessity compels. In current usage this phrase is usually used to express something that is done unwillingly but with an acceptance that it can’t be avoided; for example, I really don’t want to cook tonight, but needs must, I suppose.

The phrase is old. In earlier texts it is almost always given in its fuller form – needs must when the devil drives. that is, if the devil is driving you, you have no choice. This dates back to Middle English texts, for example Assembly of Gods, circa 1500:

“He must nedys go that the deuell dryues.”

Shakespeare used the phrase several times; for example, in All’s Well That Ends Well, 1601:

Countess: Tell me thy reason why thou wilt marry.
Clown: My poor body, madam, requires it: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives.

 

The Creation of Prayer

PRAYER-GROUP-SAR

The Creation of Prayer

Before there was anything else on Earth, there was a great sea. The Creator reached out and touched the sea, and thus began life. A tiny cell thrived in the great sea, moving, moving, always toward the light. And the one became many, and the many grew in size and in variety and beauty, and in something that was not quite knowledge. The living things in the sea did not know the sea, because there was nothing else, only the sea that was vast and green and beautiful. They did not know that without the sea they could not live. They did not know about the sun or the moon or the stars.

Then the Creator reached out again and caused a great upheaval of the Earth, and mountains rose up out of the sea. In time the rains and the sun and the wind gentled the mountains, and there were shores and valleys. The sun raised water from the sea, and the wind blew the water over the land and baptized it with life—green and spreading, growing, and growing more, according to its nature.

Then the tides hurled creatures from the sea onto the dry land, and some were carried back into the deep, but one found the land to be hospitable, and that one thrived, now creeping upon the land, now swimming in the sea. And the one became many, and the many grew in size and in variety and beauty, and in something that was not quite knowledge, but rather in a sense of the difference between dry land and water. Moving, moving, always toward the light, they found that streams flowed from the mountains to the sea, and they thrived in and alongside the streams, which came from the rain, which the sun raised from the sea.

The green things—spreading, growing, and growing more, always toward the light—became strong and tall, and invited the creeping things to feast on their fruit. In time, the strongest of the creatures developed claws to scale the trees, and some with fins grew wings instead to soar over oceans and rivers and land. But even those who built nests and lived and bore their young in trees required water to survive, just as did the creatures who swam only in the sea.

And the dryland creatures became many, and the many grew in size and in variety and beauty, and in something a little more like knowledge, until one arose from all the creatures who roamed the earth, and that one had knowledge and more; that one had curiosity. And the one became many, and the many grew in size and in variety and strength, according to their nature.

But some of them turned their intelligence toward small, inward things, and forgot about the sea, and with all their curiosity, they did not know that—like the creatures who swam in the sea—they required it to survive. They injured the streams, though they required them to survive. They injured the creatures who swam in the streams; they injured the air and the land and the sea; they blocked the sun and shut their eyes to the light—though they required all these things to grow according to their nature, even to survive.

In their minds, they forgot about the eternal sea, though their hearts remembered, and pulsed with admonition. And they became uneasy, because they believed that their minds were greater than their hearts. And so they defied their hearts, and thus they injured even the streams that flowed through their bodies, pulsing from their hearts with admonition.

But in every age, among all the creatures, there have been those who remember the eternal sea, who understand that, where pure streams cannot flow, living things shrivel and perish, and where the mind is not nourished by the heart, the mind withers and is sterile. Those who remember are the teachers and sages, the Wise Ones, the Ancients, the embodied admonitions of the heart’s pulsing.

They tell us, Swim, always, in the remembered pure streams that flow to the sea. Immerse yourself always in that awareness, which is prayer. When you drink clear water, let it be a ceremony and celebrate the eternal sea, which is something that we know of God. For prayer is to the spirit as water is to the body… and those who immerse themselves in

Sister Alma Rose Finds God Beneath the Bed

Sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree

...in the filtered sunlight

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Remembering to breathe

Green, green countryside, dotted with evergreen and deciduous trees, bisected by a paved country road that curves and climbs with the landscape

All roads lead to Heaven

Sister Alma Rose uncharacteristically threw the newspaper down in disgust. Raising her eyes toward Heaven, she sighed deeply.

“I try, Lord. Y’all know how hard I’ve tried. This animosity weighs heavy on me, and I am truly sorry, but I am so very, very weary of atheists.”

Sister Alma Rose is like a deep, clear stream flowing with love. I forget sometimes that she is human, too.

“Sister Alma Rose,” I chided, “you’ve taught me that unbelievers are just on a different road than we are and their journey to God is just beginning.”

Pretty girl, about 12 years old

I, Fanny

“Yes, Fanny McElroy,” she smiled, “y’all are right, of course. Sometimes it just seems like these folks are taking giant steps backward, and if they keep on that way they’re just gonna take one step too many and fall back into the crick, and right now I just don’t feel like fishing them out.”

“You’d better go pray, Sister Alma Rose,” I said soberly.

She beamed at me and disappeared into the house. “And meditate,” I called after her.

Later I found her in the chapel, and she handed me this sheet of paper, covered with her handwriting, which is big and she makes her letters real rounded.

Biracial toddler out with his dad, practicing his walking.

...We cleave to him because we cling to life

IF GOD ISN’T

Some say, “There is no God,” as if they had
looked everywhere, beneath the beds, in every
room, in all the corners and the closets.

Some say, “God is dead,” assuming, one
supposes, that there used to be a God and now
there’s not, perhaps he failed to take his
antioxidants and got pneumonia and
succumbed. Then all the lights went out. Love
fled the universe. How odd I didn’t notice.

Atheist — a scary word, invoking images of iris
petals wilted, sweet-faced shelties’ tails gone
still, and all the patients dying in the hospital.
Cold, cold wind no longer softly stirring leaves
on cottonwoods to start them chattering in
muted voices, whispering the secrets of the
universe, and fluttering, bright green and silver,
in the filtered sunlight. Now the wind is without
mercy, angry, for it’s lost its destination, willful,
but without an object, turning all the foliage
brown for spite, the way a spoiled child might
sweep a tray of heirloom china to the floor and
grasp a moments’ satisfaction in the shattering,
but instantly it passes and the child is discontent
again and looking frantically for more.

But no. Not even this. For if God isn’t, nothing lives.

In the end, it comes down to semantics, if one
knows Love and Life and dares to breathe, which
is an affirmation. Love, and Life, and Inspiration are
his synonyms, whose name is lost in mystery. And
yet we know him by sublime emotion, we could
even find him in the exercise of reason; and we
cleave to him because we cling to Life.

So look for him, ye seekers all, beneath the bed,
in cobwebs, kings and counts and cabbages, and
cups of chocolate. Behold! You’ve found his hiding
place! For if God isn’t, nothing is.

A row of cottonwood trees, probably a windbreak once

...cottonwoods chattering in muted voices

Sister Alma Rose is full of surprises sometimes.

* * *

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Daylight

Two Girls with Their Shelties - Victorian Images

Victorian art showing two little girls with their best friends

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The Sacrament of Being a Good Friend to Your Friends

So, Henry has been to see me. Henry from the past, Henry from the Ancients, Henry from Richmond, Henry the Hiker, Henry Morgan McKenzie, Jr., who vanished ten years ago. And being with Henry is the biggest and best thing in my life, and I can’t talk about it.

Girl with art project

Marianna in fourth grade

Oh, I can talk to Mama and Daddy, and Sister Alma Rose, but then I have to go to school and act like I’m interested that Kevin Olander has been walking Marianna Dempsey home after cheerleading. Well, that’s actually not a very good example of trivial junior-high gossip, because I AM sort of interested, because Kevin Olander is very cute and very shy, and Marianna is a real sweetheart and we were inseparable in fourth grade, when we had the same teacher, and she is that rare specimen of junior-high girl who is truly kind and neither knows nor cares what people, in general, think of her.

Sister Alma Rose gives me assignments, and the one I’m working on right now is what she calls the Sacrament of Being a Good Friend to Your Friends. “It takes a little bit of effort to keep up y’all’s friendships with youngsters* y’all don’t run into regularly,” she said, “not counting Pablo, who’s always around. But keep a-hold of those who love and don’t compete with y’all, and the other way ’round, by which I mean y’all want them to be happy and don’t begrudge them their successes. Those friendships are rare, and they’re sacred.”

Sometimes it’s just a real treat to listen to Sister Alma Rose talk.

Peter the Creep

Marianna is the friend I cherish most when I’m feeling… I don’t know the right word— not “excluded,” because I’m the one who’s avoiding people— “separate,” maybe, like I’m 12 going on 57, when I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about spiritual stuff, and meditating especially intensely, and none of this is of interest to my other school friends, not even Pablo.

Marianna is a Christian Scientist and totally into spirituality. She sees everyone as a perfect child of a perfect God who does not create imperfection. But she doesn’t take herself too seriously. I mean, she takes Christian Science seriously, because she’s seen and experienced all these amazing healings, but she says, very dryly, “Fanny, you might find this hard to believe, but I don’t always manifest perfect love.”

A typical American fire escape; SoHo, Manhattan

A typical American fire escape; SoHo, Manhattan

Then she giggles. “I really have to work at seeing Peter Gaines as a perfect child of God.” She doesn’t say “Peter the Creep,” which everyone calls him because he’s just creepy. Whenever there’s a fire drill, he makes sure he’s one of the first kids out so he can stand under the iron-bar steps that are the fire escapes and look up girls’ skirts until one of the teachers makes him go stand across the street in the practice field, which is where we’re supposed to go. And he’s been seen a bunch of times standing outside girls’ houses at night, being a peeping Tom with these high-dollar binoculars he has, including Marianna’s house.

The rest of the time he’s just there, not talking to anyone, sort of shuffling to his classes, and, in each of them, effortlessly committing every spoken and written word to memory and always getting straight A’s. Marianna tried to talk to him once, asking him a question about the subjunctive mood or something, which they were studying in their English class, and he just stared at  her with distaste, “like I was a particularly loathsome beetle,” she said.

Something so heinous

Sunny Victorian parlor

She and I talked to Sister Alma Rose about him one day when we went to her house after school seeking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incredible limeade.

“How can someone that intelligent be that clueless?” I asked.

“There has to be a reason for a boy to be so warped at such a young age,” she said, “but this is how sex offenders start out. They don’t just change from healthy into sick human beings when they’re 30.”

Sister Alma Rose made us pray for him — I mean, we wanted to, and we did, silently, for quite a while. It was hard at first, because he was, after all, Peter the Creep, and I couldn’t get past that until I thought of him as a newborn, a gurgling infant, a toddler, taking those first, unsteady steps, all bright eyes and wondering at the big, wide world, and reminded myself that his true self was still that fresh and innocent.

I was sure that Sister Alma Rose would go and talk to his parents, and, of course, she did, and they are just regular nice people— they own the sheet-music and musical-instrument store in Hillside— and they were “concerned” about both Peter and his older sister, Alice, who, it turns out, was bulimic, though her parents didn’t know that until after. I can only imagine what family dinners were like at their house. But Peter and Alice were getting good grades and their parents convinced themselves that the kids were just “going through a phase.”

WAKE UP, MOMS AND DADS! Your 12-year-old son has no friends and has no interests and he is a zombie most of the time. Your teenage daughter is five-foot-five and weighs 87 pounds. IS ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION HERE?

Well, after a lot of gentle but persistent pressure on Sister Alma Rose’s part, a lot of patient conversations with Peter and Alice, and a lot of just plain snooping, Sister Alma Rose uncovered something so heinous I don’t even know how to put it into words… so disturbing that she would tell Marianna and me about it only with our parents’ permission and with our parents actually with us, gathered in our cheerful, sunny living room.

Okay, here goes

Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France. Photo: Massimiliano Mariani

Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France. Photo: Massimiliano Mariani

Peter and Alice have an aunt and uncle — their mom’s brother and his wife — who are called Hector and Carol Mote and who owned the music store in La Mesa. When the music store in Hilltop came available, the Motes urged the Gaineses to buy it and move from Chicago to Hilltop— which, they assured Mr. and Mrs. Gaines, was such a picturesque small town… so wholesome, so much safer than Chicago.

The Motes’ store was much bigger and busier than the Gaineses’ in Hilltop, because of there being a music college in La Mesa, so the Motes “hired” Peter and Alice, and paid them well, to “help in the stock room” on Saturdays, starting when Peter was 9 and Alice was 10.

But they didn’t work in the stock room. They “worked” in the plush master bedroom of the Motes’ house behind the store, where they not only were sexually abused(1) by the Motes but also were forced to do things with each other, which kindly Uncle Hector recorded on video,(2) and he sold the videos to people all over the world, which made it an FBI matter (also a matter for the U.S. Customs Service and possibly Interpol!) when Sister Alma Rose blew the whistle.

Pretty little red-haired girl with freckles

Me, Fanny

“How could they force them?” Marianna asked, and her voice sounded so strange that my eyes, which had been glued to Sister Alma Rose, slid over to Marianna, looking like a wounded bird between her mom and dad, and her mom had her arm around Marianna’s shoulders and was stroking her hair, and her dad looked dangerous, like an angry wolf might look protecting its cub. Or do wolves have pups? Anyway, Marianna was holding tight to her dad’s hand and very quietly sobbing her heart out.

“With threats,” Sister Alma Rose said gently, “to tell the children’s folks all sorts of lies— that they had caught the children together in bed, or that Alice had seduced her uncle— that kind of thing. And y’all need to understand that the abuse had been going on, during family visits, since before Peter and Alice were even in kindergarten.”

I made it to the bathroom just in time to lose the lunch I was wishing I hadn’t eaten. When I was done retching, Mama cleaned my sweaty face with a warm washcloth and got the mouthwash out of the cabinet. She looked a question at me, and I said, “No, I want to hear the rest.” I rinsed the bad taste out of my mouth as well as I could and went into the living room and sat down on the love seat next to Mama. Daddy, on the other side of me in “Only His” Chair, gave my shoulders a squeeze and handed me a peppermint. What a dad!

Then Marianna and I both started laughing. It wasn’t hysteria, it was our mutual realization— through some kind of cosmic connection, I guess, but it was as clear as a fingersnap— that we’d both been expelling toxins, Marianna washing them away with tears and I upchucking them out. Sorry, but that’s what it was.

Why friendships are sacred

Okay, so now, as I write this, the Motes are in prison, “but folks like them ain’t safe in or out of the penitentiary,” Sister Alma Rose said. She rarely says ain’t any more unless she’s “in a state,” and I was pretty sure she wasn’t losing any sleep over whatever peril the Motes might be facing.

Lexington, Kentucky, is "horse country." Photo: Wes Blevins

Lexington, Kentucky, is "horse country." Photo: Wes Blevins

Peter and Alice were long gone, even before our family conclave. Mama told me that the Gaineses’ house had been sold, as had both of the music stores, and Mr. and Mrs. Gaines were moving to Lexington, Kentucky, where Mr. Gaines’s parents and brothers lived with their families.

“But where are the kids?” I asked, wondering what kind of counseling could erase all those years of abuse and shame and secrecy.

“They’re in the best place they could possibly be,” Mama said with a wistful smile, “the most beautiful place in the world, a place where you take in healing and kindness and wholesomeness with every breath. They’re in Daylight.”

I knew where she meant, the place where the Ancients live when they’re not Out in the World, but I’d never heard it given a name (Henry just says, “up the mountain”), and I’d also never heard of anyone going there who wasn’t from the Ancients, and I told Mama that, and she smiled that wistful smile again.

“I was there,” she said simply. “After my father died, and Mama drank herself to death in front of my eyes and I went to pieces, Daddy Pete took me up. You’ll go yourself, of course, probably sooner rather than later, and you’ll never want to leave, but you’ll know you can go up there whenever you need to, and you’ll be full of zeal to come back and help mend the broken world.”

Asparagus: German botanical illustration

Asparagus: German botanical illustration

A week or so after our gathering, Sister Alma Rose gave a little party in honor of Marianna and me. It was just the three of us and Mr. Truman LaFollette, but we devoured baked salmon and tender asparagus spears and Sister Alma Rose’s famous fruit salad that’s like dessert, and warm, dark homemade bread, and then we had dessert, chocolate mousse so rich that the small piece was almost more than I could handle, although I can pretty much always find room for more chocolate.

Then Sister Alma Rose explained how Marianna’s and my friendship had started something that would bless the world for a very long time. I thought that was giving it more than its due, and started to say so, but Sister Alma Rose shushed me.

“The two of y’all was thrown together in fourth grade,” she said, “but you’ve gone out of your way to keep on being friends. Now, if y’all weren’t who you are, y’all would have paid no attention to Peter Gaines. He was easy to ignore, like everybody else did. Marianna, y’all made an effort to see him for what he is, a perfect child of God. Even so, if y’all hadn’t talked about him with each other, and then come to me, Peter Gaines and his sister probably would have fallen through the cracks. The parents are in denial, nobody else notices or cares, and those youngsters grow up and they’re just full of poison.

The Mother Church; the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston

The Mother Church; the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston

“Now, think not only of them and the hell their lives would have been,” she went on, “but think of the people who might have been harmed by them but who won’t be, now, because of y’all. Think of Peter and Alice’s parents, who will recover because their children got help before someone else was hurt. Think of them two in prison, who won’t be brutalizing any more innocents. And think of all the circles of lives around these, like ripples. Poison travels fast and far.”

“But it’s not like we did something hard or made any sacrifices,” Marianna protested.

“Y’all made a choice,” said Sister Alma Rose, taking Marianna’s hand, and, Lord, I hoped she wouldn’t squeeze it and turn those delicate bones into little bitty Chiclets. “Instead of taking the path of least resistance, y’all chose to notice, to pray, and to act. Poison travels fast,” she repeated, “but love travels faster.”

I decided to wait for another time, when we weren’t celebrating, to ask Marianna and Sister Alma Rose if they were able to see the Motes as God’s perfect, innocent children. It’s still hard for me to use the words love and Peter Gaines in the same sentence. But I guess we did what Marianna calls “the loving thing,” and that, it seems, can change more than just our little corner of the world….

*The first time Sister Alma Rose referred to my friends and me as youngsters, I tried to explain that the only adults who use words like youngster are those who have little or no rapport with kids, which is definitely not the case with Sister Alma Rose. She laughed and said we’re lucky she doesn’t call us younglings, which was au courant before the seventeenth century, when youngster came into general use.

(1) Approximately 15% to 25% of women and 5% to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children. Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as ‘friends’ of the family, babysitters, or neighbors…. Wikipedia

(2) Children of all ages, including infants, are abused in the production of pornography internationally. The United States Department of Justice estimates that pornographers have recorded the abuse of more than one million children in the United States alone. —Wikipedia

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Dancing with Angels

Sunset on the sea

A Tim Tidwell (age 9) escapade: The tide was going out, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and Tim and his little boat, which he'd taken without permission, were just a dot on the horizon, halfway to China

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Raising Tim

Terri Tidwell had gone completely gray by 40. To be fair, Tim Tidwell, Terri’s son, didn’t put all those gray hairs there, just most of them.

Fanny, the author

I, Fanny McElroy

Terri has three other children, now grown, and had two husbands: Chip, whom she divorced, and Arthur, Tim’s daddy, whom she buried. Arthur was dead at the time, as luck would have it. Three days earlier he’d been walking across the street and was run over by a drunk driver (who was uninjured), someone traveling on the highway who didn’t slow down when he reached the narrow brick street in downtown Hilltop.

It was sad, because Arthur was a fine fellow, but I think his untimely death kept Terri out of prison, because she was on the point of murdering his dreadful mother, who, after Arthur died, went to live with Arthur’s brother and his family. God bless ’em.

Everyone likes Tim…

Confident young man, handsome

Sister Alma Rose says Tim is 'too foxy for his own good'

…even the three mothers of his three children. He’s approaching 30, but since he’s been drinking since junior high as a way of dealing with pretty much everything, he’s emotionally stuck in junior high—at least that’s Sister Alma Rose’s assessment. So he’s kind of everybody’s little brother — handsome, funny, full of mischief, and, when he’s been drinking, either game for some escapade beyond mischief, or else just plain mean.

When Terri feels like she wants to run his life or else “enable” him in some way, she talks to Sister Alma Rose. “Y’all stay out of God’s way,” Sister Alma Rose tells her. “God has big plans for that boy.”

A recovering codependent

Attractive middle-aged woman

Terri, after her makeover that included collagen cheek implants; Sister Alma Rose says, "You go, Girl"

So, with Sister Alma Rose’s constant support, Terri doesn’t enable, and she doesn’t tell Tim what to do; she gives him calm advice when he asks for it and leaves it up to him whether or not to follow it. She doesn’t make appointments for him to see therapists (as she used to), and she doesn’t call him every day to make sure he’s not in jail. She has surrendered Tim and his fate to God, so she’s learned to stop worrying. And she doesn’t feel guilty or wonder what she might or might not have done during his childhood that could have made Tim happier and more well-adjusted.

And he’s not a happy guy, and Terri suffers with him. That’s a habit she hasn’t been able to shake.

Angels or hysteria?

Last week, Terri had a bizarre experience that she told Sister Alma Rose was either an encounter with angels or a very elaborate hallucination.  We were sitting at Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wicker table on her grass-green wraparound porch, and Terri had made copies for each of us, which made me feel very grown up, of her poetic account of the incident:

Peach rose

Terri's poem

Pink rose

“Sister Alma Rose,” I said, after Terri had left, whistling cheerfully as she walked toward the road, because Sister Alma Rose and I not only affirmed her experience but also shed a few tears with her, in the way of women, of sisters, which I am just beginning to understand —

Medieval rendering of angels; source unknown

Medieval rendering of angels; source unknown

“I mean, I know that Terri’s angels were real, she’s not crazy or making things up, and I know she’s feeling reassured about Tim being in their ‘custody,’ — and maybe it shouldn’t matter, but I just wonder where this all took place. In a room in her house, or in her mind, or a dream, or was she transported to heaven, or what?”

“Fanny, my love,” said Sister Alma Rose, placing her broad, brown forehead against my freckled one, “y’all’s training starts right now. There are many dimensions y’all have never experienced, or else you weren’t aware of it. Scientists, now, they work in dozens of dimensions, but only in the realm of math and physics.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

The classic fantasy novel for kids AND grownups, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

“Y’all remember the experience in your daddy’s hospital room, when y’all saw your future self and you were standing above the room and walking down them stairs?”

Oh, wow, did I ever. “That’s something I’m never likely to forget,” I said.

“Well, now, I’ve been in that hospital room dozens of times, and I’ve never seen it with the ceiling gone out of it and a flight of steps leading up to nowhere.”

“Oh!” I said, understanding. “It was really us, and it was really happening, but it was in another dimension. Like we slipped through a tessaract,” I added, thinking of Madeleine L’Engle‘s book A Wrinkle in Time, one of my favorites.

“Sort of like that,” Sister Alma Rose agreed. “And Fanny, do y’all remember the young man who was standing beside your grownup self?” she asked with a twinkle.

“Oh, sure,” I said, “because I remember it flashed through my mind that he looked a lot like Matthew McCon— Well, I’ll be a flat rabbit on toast,” I said, looking with wonder, and a little embarrassment, at Sister Alma Rose.

“It was Henry,” I whispered in awe. “The man in my future is Henry.”

* * *


Everybody’s Magic

country road

'Henry was hiking on country roads, with no particular route or destination'

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Secrets of the Ancients Revealed

Me, Fanny McElroy, age 12

Me, Fanny McElroy, age 12

(Continued from previous post…) So I went home and began babbling to Mama — my little brothers were off spending a few days with Aunt Belle and her monsters, excuse me, her dear little ones, Tigger and Anja, who are just freely expressing their unspoiled innocence when they yank on your hair and stomp on other kids’ toys if they’re not allowed to play with them, and Aunt Belle, who is dear and kind and rather vague and stares in an unfocused way at Tigger and Anja like she’s not quite sure who they are or how they got there, literally wrings her hands — and then I had to start babbling all over again when Daddy came in, but he wanted a shower first, which was probably good because it gave me a chance to gather my thoughts, and then, wearing clean Levi’s and a purple (which is not Daddy’s color, it makes him look sallow) “Kansas State University Athletic Department” T-shirt and holding a bottle of Harp beer, he sat in the blue Morris chair that is Only His (Daddy says that by now the chair is perfectly molded to his butt)…

Antimacassar

My grandmother crocheted antimacassars and placed them on the "headrest" parts of chairs to prevent men's hair oil, specifically "Macassar Oil," from soiling the chair

…and Mama sat beside him in her grandmother Dolly’s overstuffed rocking chair, which I don’t know why she likes it because the upholstery is cow-patty brown and scratchy and covered with doilies and, I swear, an antimacassar, unlike Mama, who was, of course, not covered with doilies but was, rather, aglow in a white sundress with huge red polka dots and who was, uncharacteristically, drinking a glass of Rhine wine mixed with pineapple juice and a dab of peach brandy (a delicious punch she made for the wedding shower she hosted for her piano student Clarissa Whitney earlier that day, otherwise Mama rarely drinks alcohol, but gosh that punch is crisp and refreshing, and yes, I was given permission to have a small sip)…

(I really was)

President Obama delivering the 2010 State of the Union address

President Obama delivering the 2010 State of the Union address

…and she and Daddy held hands and looked at me expectantly, as if I were about to deliver the State of the Union address, so I said, “My fellow Americans,” and then launched into the story of Henry the Hiker and told them, Mama and Daddy, I mean, that he, Henry, is the spit and image of Matthew McConaughey, and about my premonition, and Pablo’s, and the 2000 newspaper article, with the photo of Henry, Ben, and Portia, reporting Henry’s disappearance, and my suspicion, confirmed by Sister Alma Rose, that Henry was one of the Ancients, and then Sister Alma Rose’s cryptic comment, which she refused to elaborate on, that Henry had not come to see her, Sister Alma Rose, but rather to see me, Fanny McElroy, 12 years old last October 4.

“What would he want with me?” I asked in great perplexity. “Oh, I know! He’s come to give me tennis lessons!”

Helen Keller, 1904

Helen Keller, 1904

That was supposed to be a joke, but no one laughed. Mama and Daddy had exchanged “significant glances” a few times, but they didn’t seem surprised by my “shocking revelations.” Sometimes I almost think Mama and Sister Alma Rose have this mental-telepathy thing going, because I can tell Mama about something that happened at Sister Alma Rose’s and it’s like she already knows, though either of them would die before they would betray a confidence, so I’m thinking Vulcan Mind Meld or else a convergence of highly developed women’s intuition.

Pray without ceasing

Growing up, I had known about the Ancients, in the same way you know about stuff like the Italian Riviera, and plantain (the fruit, not the weed), and Helen Keller: It’s out there (except for Helen Keller), and you have a vague idea what it is, and someday maybe you’ll care, but for now it’s just a Frito in the Massive Smorgasbord of Knowledge. In our house, if you had an odd sock, it was, like, “Maybe the Ancients took the other one,” and I used to think of them as Gollum-like creatures who slithered around and stole your homework or fiddled with your carburetor so your truck wouldn’t start — sort of like poltergeists in the flesh.

Portofino, the Italian Riviera; photo, Stan Shebs

Portofino, the Italian Riviera; photo, Stan Shebs

But from time to time I would overhear somebody — Mama or Daddy, Sister Alma Rose or Cousin Dulcie — saying “the Ancients” in a conversation that was respectful in tone, even reverential. So I came to believe that the Ancients were real people and somehow near, and eventually I just knew without being told that Sister Alma Rose and Cousin Dulcie had come from the Ancients, and, of course, dear, misguided Portia, who is fey, which means

(a) slightly insane
(b) elfin: suggestive of an elf in strangeness and otherworldliness; “thunderbolts quivered with elfin flares of heat lightning”; “the fey quality was there, the ability to see the moon at midday” — John Mason Brown
wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

NOTHING AT ALL LIKE THE ANCIENTS: Gollum, as depicted in the most recent film version of The Lord of the Rings

Portia notwithstanding, knowing about the Ancients has always given me a warm, safe feeling, like these almost-angels are keeping an eye on things while we clueless more-mortal mortals lurch around trying to make sense of our lives and, ideally, help other people be more comfortable in their skin, but often not succeeding, as evidenced by the number of times (average 12.7 per day) that you hear someone whine, “But I was JUST trying to HELP.”

Sister Alma Rose seldom discusses the Ancients with me, but she has told me one thing I love: that they literally pray without ceasing — so I can be conversing with Sister Alma Rose, and I have her full attention, but at the same time, in another part of her brain, or maybe in her heart, or her gallbladder (an organ not possessed, according to Wikipedia, by lampreys), I don’t understand the physiology of it, she is praying for me, or praying that she’ll understand what I’m saying, et cetera, and she says that anyone can do this praying without ceasing, you don’t have to be a monk or an Old One, and it brings great peace and health and vigor, and, of course, love, and you never, ever worry. I’m working on that.

Lampreys. People EAT them. There are EYES looking out of those tentacles

Lampreys. People EAT them. There are EYES looking out of those tentacles. Photo: Drow Male

* * *

So when I finished telling Mama and Daddy about Henry, et cetera, Mama announced that she had decided that the time had come to tell me as much as she could about the Ancients, and my heart did a little cardiac happy dance and in my mind was the cover of some magazine like People with Mama’s picture and the teaser “SECRETS OF THE ANCIENTS REVEALED.”

Or not. In any case, I sat cross-legged on the ottoman and scooched it over near Mama and Daddy and waited for Mama to begin. What you will read below are Mama’s words, minus the “ums,” et cetera, though I think she must have been practicing because she hardly had to stop to scratch or sneeze, or lose her place and find it again, or anything….

The Legend of the Ancients

Little girl, all dressed up, playing in clover

'Get in touch with your inner child'

There are many tales about the Ancients, or the Old Ones [see “The Old Ones,” below], and most of them contain at least SOME truth. So shut down your skeptic’s brain and pay attention, with a willingness to be enchanted. “Get in touch with your inner child,” because this is a lovely story, and it is mostly true. I know, because I was there.

The Old Ones, in one form or another, exist in every culture, but this story is about the Old Ones in North America because the author has personal experience with them. It is said that they have been on this continent for at least three thousand years, but the author cannot verify that.

Mountains of the Ancients?

Mountains of the Ancients?

According to one legend, many centuries ago a group of mystically inclined Indians created a village at the top of the highest mountain they could find and dedicated themselves to Knowing God. Since they could not at the same time dedicate themselves to learning the warriors’ ways, they needed to make their homes in a safe, secluded place, and they wanted to be close to the sky.

Over the millenia, they learned the arts and sciences that were revealed to them, and, because God was in their hearts and they were compassionate, some of them left the mountain community and went down to live quietly among the valley people, teaching and healing. 

BlueRidgeMountainRoad-Istock

No one can find them unless they want to be found

A small group of Europeans — just a handful of families, the story goes — with much the same vision stumbled upon the Indian village in their search for a mountain refuge. (No one today seems to know how they got to North America from Europe.) The Europeans and the Indians compared notes, in a manner of speaking, and found that the Europeans knew a great deal that the Indians did not, and the Indians knew much that the Europeans did not, so that by combining their knowledge they became more powerful and more compassionate, and the two communities became one.

MotherDaughter

They are...

They are still there, in that original settlement. No one — no person, no army, no camera or satellite — can find them unless they want to be found. Small groups and individuals have been led there — escaped slaves and refugees as well as mystics, gifted healers, and gypsies.

They are a beautiful people, physically and spiritually. Many have golden brown skin, wavy chestnut hair, and whiskey-brown eyes, though it is not unusual to see a blue-eyed blond in the village.

Dad Lifting Young Son

...a beautiful people

The Ancients are fully human, though they use more than the five senses you and I were taught about; in fact, all their senses are highly developed, including intuition, the so-called sixth sense, as well as manifestation, healing, and tapping the collective unconscious. They can literally make quantum leaps, and time travel is old hat to them, though, by unanimous agreement, they do not visit the future.

None of this is “supernatural.” It is simply science, advanced knowledge, mastered by people who are in continuous communication with God. The author has been told that as long as the Ancients remain in their mountain home, they age very slowly. They are completely self-sufficient in providing shelter, clothing, herbal cures and other forms of healing, and food. Meditation is a way of life. Prayer comes naturally, easily… it is second nature. Negative stress is practically unknown.

Reincarnation — ‘enormous compassion’

But the mountaintop home of the Ancients is no Shangri-La. Like their “Ancient” brothers and sisters throughout the world, they live in harmony and bear good will toward all people. They dwell apart but journey into the larger world to bring peace and healing. As in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition,

…they are moved by enormous compassion to be
reborn again and again in order to help all
living creatures discover in themselves
complete freedom from pain and
suffering….  —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Blonde in Autumn Grain Field

The Ancients are exuberant by nature; Portia is no exception

The mission of the Ancients is to share their gentle wisdom with all humanity, so they come, singly or as families, to live among us, often but not always in rural areas. They are your neighbors, teachers, mechanics, clergy, hair stylists, carpenters, architects, and landscapers.

Some stay for a year, others for a hundred or more. The latter have, apparently, exceptional tolerance for pollution, artificial pesticides, questionable food additives, the blare of media, and the accelerated lifestyle; but there is no question that they age much faster “down here” than “up there,” in spite of the serenity they gain from habitual prayer and meditation, which are, however, powerful protection from mental and physical illness and deterioration.

The Ancients believe, in a nutshell, (a) that the attributes they have developed and strengthened over countless lifetimes can and must be transmitted “down here” to certain people — those who are intelligent, intuitive, and generous of spirit — and (b) that, beginning with these people, peace, love, and joy will spread over all the earth.

Dad carrying young daughter on shoulders

...reincarnated through a family "down here"

The author has been told that from time to time one of the ancients is reincarnated through a family “down here”; such children might or might not remember their past lives among the Ancients. These little ones are usually looked after and mentored by one or more of the Ancients dwelling nearby for just that purpose.

The author has only a vague idea of how all this works, since she was not privy to the secrets of reincarnation among the Ancients. She was told, however, that most “reincarnates,” at an early age, remember their past lives.

The light sensor

The Ancients claim that everyone has, on his or her head, at the crown, a sensory receptor for light. This receptor opens and closes, like an eye, but on the general population it is practically invisible. If there is no hair on the head to cover it and someone happens to notice it, that person thinks little of it, believing it to be a freckle or a small mole.

man-with-outstretched-arms

'Flooding the body with light'

But the Ancients have “exercised” this receptor for hundreds and hundreds of years, for the purpose of flooding the body with light for healing, and it has evolved into a larger circular “discoloration” about half an inch in diameter and very slightly raised. This, apparently, is the only outward difference between the Ancients and “ordinary” people.

Having my head examined

Mama stopped talking and took a sip of her drink.

Fanny McElroy at about age 4

Sister Alma Rose has always known that I was 'unusual'

“Dear One, we’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you all this,” Daddy said, taking my face gently between his hands, “though Sister Alma Rose has been urging us along for the past month or two. You’ve been a happy, well-adjusted child, you see, and there was no need, and a small part of us — a very small part — hoped that she was wrong. But you’ve been drawn more and more to Sister Alma Rose, who’s known since she first laid eyes on you as a newborn that you were… um… unusual.”

My heart was thumping wildly. I was about to be told something important, crossing an invisible line that would change my life, in a good way but also challenging… a quest, maybe, like Frodo’s with the One Ring, but not so dangerous and not, I devoutly hoped, involving a fiery-eyed wizard and the undead on winged chargers.

Brand-new puppies

All must leave the warmth, familiarity, and perceived safety of the womb

For a moment, more than anything, I wanted to stay on the not-knowing side of the line and go on as I always had, but that would be impossible, just as it is impossible for a baby to refuse to be born.

I didn’t want to hear it. I couldn’t wait to hear it. I needed to hear it, because it would lead me to my place in Creation, and nothing would bring more good to the world or more satisfaction to my spirit than doing what God had meant for me to do.

And then I knew. I lifted my hand and held it over my head, above the crown. The feeling of warmth was unmistakable. I slipped my fingers under my hair and I could feel the raised half-inch circle.

“I’m one of them, aren’t I?” I asked, my voice shaking, looking at Mama, then Daddy, for confirmation, and their eyes told me all. “I’m one of the Ancients.”

Young girl happily dancing

One of the Ancients...

Sidebar: The Old Ones—Other Legends

A great many older religions may believe that Old Ones are the beings that existed at the creation of the universe and everything in it, possibly considered to be minor gods or deities or… co-existing with gods…. In The Dark Tower series written by Stephen King, the Old Ones (also sometimes called Great Old Ones) were a highly advanced civilization, called the Imperium, that ruled the All-World many centuries, or possibly millennia ago…. In The Dark Is Rising sequence by the British author Susan Cooper, the Old Ones are agents of the Light, born as men and women, whose task is to prevent the Powers of the Dark from taking control of the world.

“They are immortal but are not Gods and most do not appear different than late middle age humans…. Their abilities include time-travel, shape-shifting, and ability to speak and understand various languages without having learned them….

Madeleine L'engle's Murry Family series

Madeleine L'Engle's Murry Family series

“In Madeleine L’Engle‘s… science fantasy books about the Murry family, [the]… Old Ones are similar to the ones in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series—humans born with unusual mystical powers and dedicated to a never-ending struggle against the powers of darkness and evil. In both series, the Old Ones are associated with an Old Music.” —Wikipedia

* * *

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Catholic Things part 2

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Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

‘Pray Without Ceasing’

From ancient times the Church has had the custom of celebrating each day the liturgy of the hours. In this way the Church fulfills the Lord’s precept to pray without ceasing, at once offering its praise to God the Father and interceding for the salvation of the world. —Office of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship

Fanny McElroy

I, Fanny McElroy

When I, Fanny McElroy, first discovered The Brother Cadfael Mysteries, by Ellis Peters, I ripped through them like a scairt rabbit about to be et by a hawk, as Sister Alma Rose says her Daddy Pete says, or maybe it’s “a hawk after a scairt rabbit.” Anyway, I read them fast. And then there weren’t any more, because Ellis Peters died, so for the longest time I put off reading the final book, the twentieth, because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Brother Cadfael, a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey during the 12th century, but I found other books to read because I had become fascinated by all things medieval and all things Roman Catholic.

Compline — Coronation of the Virgin

Compline — Coronation of the Virgin

I loved Brother Cadfael’s irreverent way of being genuinely and truly religious, his painstaking cultivation of herbs for healing, his humor and his kindness. And the way he told the time not by the clock but by the Canonical Hours for Prayer — Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline, and so forth. Sister Alma Rose has specific times for prayer during the day, and if I am at her house when one of those times comes, we go into her chapel and pray together, and sometimes we pray out loud, sometimes we don’t, and she reads a psalm and we sing a hymn — harmonizing rather nicely, if I do say so — but the thing is, she always seems to know what she’s doing, I mean there aren’t any awkward “what should we do now?” moments. And now I know why.

The Liturgy of the Hours

Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1410

Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1410

One lazy summer afternoon I was sitting on the steps of Sister Alma Rose’s great green wraparound porch half-listening to Sister Alma Rose talking with Father Dooley and his sister Bernadette, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and who is a willowy, fair-haired, freckled young woman who has, as she says, “quite enough money,” and her occupation is Doer of Good Deeds, and she would have become a nun, she told us, but she wanted to get married and have children, which she hasn’t, yet, but she’s only something like twenty-two, so she spends her time visiting the sick and does what she calls “healing prayer work,” and sometimes she takes in the homeless, temporarily, like mothers with children running from an abusive man, that sort of thing, not scary people or drug addicts.

Versicle: Poem on a Stick?

So I’m sitting there, drowsy with the sun and the hum of a summer afternoon, and I perk up when I hear Bernadette say “Compline,” so I get up from the step and go over to the green wicker table and sit in the one vacant green wicker chair and listen to Bernadette talking about the Liturgy of the Hours, which is also called the Divine Office, I have no idea why, but Catholics have funny names for everything, like antiphon and breviary and versicle, which is not “a poem on a stick,” as I suggested, and everyone laughed, which was very gratifying because when one thinks that one is being very clever, it’s good to know that others think so too.

The Hours of Jeanne D'Evreaux

The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreaux

I think that everyone was surprised by my fascination with such a dry subject as the Divine Office, which I had thought was something from long ago… well, which it is, but it is still practiced, or “celebrated,” as Father Dooley says, and he as a priest is obligated to “celebrate” the Liturgy of the Hours, but it is a joy to him, he says, and Bernadette also “celebrates” the Liturgy of the Hours, and Sister Alma Rose says that her daily prayer times are “based on” the Liturgy of the Hours. “Fanny McElroy,” she says, “y’all have been celebrating it with me for years,” and then she laughs and pours me a glass of Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incomparable lemonade.

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1410

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1410

Sister Alma Rose is not Catholic (she has referred to herself as “a Christian Jewish Buddhist,” probably offending adherents of all three religions, but she doesn’t mind — like J. Krishnamurti, she doesn’t mind much of anything, she says, and she is certainly the most serene person I have ever known, though in a crisis she becomes very exercised and shouts prayers to Heaven).

I am not a Catholic either, but there are many things I like about Catholicism, and here is one of them: For two thousand years or so, in spite of corruption and scandal and competition from other religions, and popes who had mistresses and children, and bishops who plotted royal assassinations, and so forth, the Catholic Church has inspired, comforted, counseled, educated, and healed. Irish monks preserved the knowledge from Roman and Greek antiquity by copying a huge lot of documents by hand (read How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill).

Sister Alma Rose has told me about the vile perverted priests who prey on young boys, but I don’t think that those sick men’s transgressions erase all the good that the church has done. And I love the idea of Confession, and the Rosary, and having one’s own personal saint, and Mary the Mother of Jesus, with her woman’s wisdom and her tender heart, and, of course, the Liturgy of the Hours. And, basically, that Catholic worship has gone on uninterrupted for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Some facts about the Liturgy of the Hours

So I ask a thousand questions, and here is some of what I find out about the Divine Office:

It sprang from Jewish prayer practices (“Seven times a day I praise you,” it says in the Psalms)

It began rather simply, with reading or chanting psalms; reading from the Old Testament, the  Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and epistles; and canticles, which are basically hymns from the Bible but not usually from the psalms.

By the end of the fifth century, the Canonical Hours were — and this is a lot of praying and involves getting up in the middle of the night

  • Matins (during the night), sometimes referred to as Vigils or Nocturns, or in monastic usage the Night Office; it is now called the Office of Readings
  • Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at Dawn)
  • Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = 6 a.m.)
  • Terce (rhymes with “purse”) or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = 9 a.m.)
  • Sext (rhymes with “next”) or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = 12 noon)
  • None (rhymes with “John”?) or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = 3 p.m.)
  • Vespers or Evening Prayer (“at the lighting of the lamps”)
  • Compline (KOM-plin) or Night Prayer (before retiring)

Wow! Don’t you love it that the time for Vespers is “at the lighting of the lamps”?

The complete Liturgy of the Hours is contained in the Roman Breviary. Most of the pictures on this page are from personal breviaries made for wealthy people in the Middle Ages.

Très Riches Heures calendar page

Très Riches Heures calendar page

All hours begin with Ps. 69-70 v.2, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me,” and then the doxology:  “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”

The Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer may consist of

  • opening versicle (a short verse said or sung by a priest or minister in public worship and followed by a response from the congregation) or (for morning prayer) the invitatory (Psalm 94)
  • a hymn, composed by the Church
  • two psalms, or parts of psalms with a scriptural canticle. At Morning Prayer, this consists of a psalm of praise, a canticle from the Old Testament, followed by another psalm. At Evening Prayer this consists of two psalms, or one psalm divided into two parts, and a scriptural canticle taken from the New Testament.
  • a short passage from scripture
  • a responsory (chant or anthem recited after a reading in a church service) typically a verse of scripture, but sometimes liturgical poetry
  • a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke: the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus [Blessed be]) for morning prayer, and the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat: The “Song of Mary” from the Gospel of Luke, Magnificat anima mea Dominum = My soul doth magnify the Lord) for evening prayer

    Russian Orthodox icon, Zechariah

    Zechariah, Russian Orthodox icon

Nativity from an Antiphon

Nativity from an Antiphon

It looks complicated, doesn’t it? But I have to tell you, it is refreshing and renewing to drop everything at 3 p.m. or whatever because that is the time you have set aside for prayer. And if you’re not Catholic, you can develop your own structure for prayer and praise, as Sister Alma Rose has done, she created a sort of hybrid of the Divine Office, and Father Dooley says that’s fine with him, he encourages everyone to pray in the way that suits them best, as long as there’s no mutilation of poultry and stuff like that.

Well, you can buy the complete Liturgy of the Hours in four volumes for more money than I have in my piggy bank, which last time I counted was $97.13, I am saving for a school trip to walk the Appalachian Trail, but there are less expensive books, such as those that have only the Morning Prayer and the Evening Prayer.

There is much, much more to be told about the subject, but Bernadette had to leave to go back to Grand Rapids and her Good Works, which she does out of love and not to earn points toward Heaven or anything like that. So I will just tell you that I, Fanny, “celebrate” the Hours four times a day using the website DivineOffice.org, which has an audio version with beautiful music, and there are other websites with text versions. Sometimes I pray with Mama, and sometimes with Sister Alma Rose, and sometimes it’s just I, Fanny.

Even if you are not a Christian, you might enjoy this prayer discipline, which is principally made up of psalms anyway, though the references to Jesus Christ Our Savior might make you cringe, I don’t know. What I do know is that I need and enjoy discipline and structure in my prayer life, and for me, Fanny McElroy, the Divine Office is the beginning of that discipline and structure.

Chant; Troparion; hook-and-banner notation

Chant; Troparion; hook-and-banner notation

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The Battle of the Barbers, conclusion

If you need to refresh your memory, please see “The Battle of the Barbers,” part 1 and part 2.

There is, as you know if you have been paying attention, a large meeting room in the library, and that is where half the town gathered on Sunday after church, it seems like, though there were maybe about two hundred people, really, Daddy says I tend to exaggerate so I am trying to see and describe things more accurately —

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

— what Daddy said, actually, is, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times, don’t exaggerate! —

… and we were gathered, as you will also recall, to resolve the matter of The Competing Barbers: Henry Hunter, who had set up The Other Barber Shop across the street from the barber shop of his father, Bill the Barber, whom I previously reported as being 150 years old, but I will amend that age estimate, in the interest of accuracy, and, having asked Mrs. Bill, I am forced to report that he is only a little more than half that age, 78, to be precise, though he looks much older, as I tactlessly exclaimed to Mrs. Bill…

Henry Hunter with a customer

Henry Hunter with a customer

… but she sweetly ignored my rudeness and told me that a combination of arthritis, workaholicism, lack of exercise, and a tendency to raid, several times a day, the soda and candy-bar machines he has in his barber shop, have all made him age prematurely, but she is sanguine — a word I learned recently, which means “optimistic and cheerful” — that if she can just get him to their villa on Corfu, all those problems will be solved in one fell swoop — a phrase that originated, we think, with Shakespeare, and that refers to the “fell” (savage, cruel; same root as felon) descent of a hunting bird.

The Revelation at the
Hilltop Library

Synopsis of previous episodes: [Mr. Bill was getting on in years and in any case, no matter what the customer asked for, Mr. Bill always gave him a crew cut.] So as soon as Henry Hunter’s barber shop opened, the customers came in droves, apparently believing, though they would soon discover that they were sadly mistaken, that Mr. Bill wouldn’t mind if his old customers didn’t patronize his shop as long as they were taking their unruly hair to be cut by Henry Hunter. This was doubly unfortunate in that Henry Hunter’s barber shop is right across the street from Mr. Bill’s. It is also a very delicate situation, this rivalry, I mean, because Henry Hunter is Mr. Bill’s only son.

Sister Alma Rose has heard about the entire misbegotten affair from Mrs. Bill, who is very worried about her husband because his heart is “hinky” and she’s afraid he will have a heart attack one of these days, that’s how angry he gets at Henry Hunter, his face turns about as red as Mrs. Bertie’s unbecoming lipstick. And of course she’s concerned about her son. She wonders whether Bill’s vicious campaign might actually drive Henry out of business. Secretly, Mrs. Bill wants Mr. Bill to retire so that they can go live in their villa on Corfu. Who knew?…

little_boy_with_crew_cut_istock

Little boy with crew cut

Several employers have asked the mayor to Do Something, because none of their employees is getting any work done, they are having noisy partisan arguments about Henry Hunter vs. Mr. Bill instead. Mayor Atticus Hines, unable to cool things off through his official status, has appealed to a higher authority: He has asked Sister Alma Rose to restore peace and quiet to Hilltop, one way or another.

Residents of Hilltop are nothing if not creatures of habit, and two of the strongest traditions are Sunday Dinner and Sunday Afternoon Football on Television, and Mr. Bill is the biggest Football on Television fan of them all, which is one of the reasons that Mrs. Bill is so desperate to get him to Corfu — not that Mrs. Bill doesn’t like professional football, in fact she adores football, she grew up in Wisconsin and she is a Cheesehead, big time, but watching football is just another sedentary thing that Mr. Bill does that makes Mrs. Bill fret. Mr. Bill eats his big Sunday dinner, then he sits down to watch the game, and then he takes a nap, and after that it’s nearly bedtime, but first — a snack! Probably another helping of dessert. (Mrs. Bill, to her credit, has tried Not Making Dessert, but if she doesn’t, then Mr. Bill goes to the corner store and buys one of those heavy, lard-laden fruit pies.)

Cheesehead hat, by Allen Wonder

Cheesehead hat, by Allen Wonder

Sister Alma Rose did not just fall off the turnip truck, and so it was no accident that she scheduled this meeting for 1 p.m. on Sunday, because another Hilltop Tradition is that everybody goes to church, Sister Alma Rose’s strategy being that everyone is already Out and About.

Prayer works wonders

So there we all were, the assembled semi-multitude, and of course the mayor had to reiterate what everybody already knew, to wit, why we were there and who the perpetrators were, et cetera, ad infinitum, and after the mayor’s fifteen-minute speech, Sister Alma Rose stepped up onto the podium, looked pointedly at Mr. Bill and his son, Henry Hunter, and then she said in her y’all-better-mind-me-or-else voice,

“Will y’all please join me in silent prayer? Let us pray.”

Now, there is an unwritten, unofficial time limit for silent prayer, after which feet start to shuffle and coughs become more frequent and people even whisper audibly to one another, and as the silent-prayer time in that library stretched from ten to fifteen to twenty minutes, which was my own personal time limit, I looked around the room and I could see that some folks were genuinely absorbed in silent prayer but others were looking anxiously at their wristwatches (or, in a few cases, pocket watches) or toward the rest rooms, and the sound of stomachs grumbling was audible, and I looked up at Sister Alma Rose, her large, brown hands folded tidily upon the lectern, and I could see that she was either oblivious or pretending to be oblivious to the restlessness in the room.

Pocket watch

Pocket watch

The silence, or the approximation thereof, crept on, and a few people had actually slipped out of the room — you could hear cars starting in the parking lot — until 1:45, and there was mutiny in the ambience, until Mrs. Bill cleared her throat, rather loudly, for Mrs. Bill, and heads shot up all over the room, as if there were a giant puppeteer up in the rafters yanking on strings, and the room was suddenly more nearly completely silent than it had ever been during “silent prayer.”

“Bill,” said Mrs. Bill in a low, clear voice — and here she looked apologetically at Henry Hunter — “it was I who set Henry up in  his barber shop.”

There was, of course, the collective gasp, and it occurred to me that the Packers were playing that afternoon and that the kickoff was at 2:00, which explained why Mrs. Bill had been among the most restless individuals in the room.

Henry Hunter looked down at the table and Mr. Bill, along with everyone else in the room, gaped at Mrs. Bill, who was searching among the spectators for Dr. Deirdre Barstow, who stood quickly, apparently in order to get Mrs. Bill off the hook, if only for a moment.

Beach in Acharavi village on the Greek island ...

Corfu; image via Wikipedia

“Mr. Bill,” said Dr. Deirdre Barstow, “I don’t think I’m violating any privacy laws by saying that I have suggested many times to you that it is time for you to retire, because you are ruining your health, and I don’t understand why you have been holding on to that villa in Corfu unless you intend to be an invalid by the time you get there. The sunshine will be salutary for your arthritis,” she went on, “and the Mediterranean diet for your heart, and you can stop working yourself to death and start sailing and hiking and all the other things you used to enjoy before you became a workaholic barber.

“It’s time for Henry to take over, Mr. Bill,” Dr. Deirdre Barstow concluded. “I didn’t suggest this particular strategy to your wife, of setting Henry up across the street, I mean, and creating this rift between the two of you, but I do know that both Mrs. Bill and Henry had your best interest at heart.”

* * *

And so it was that Henry Hunter moved into the house of Mr. and Mrs. Bill, who spent most of the year at their villa in Corfu, and on their visits home Mr. Bill looked tan and sleek and hardy while Mrs. Bill looked as if she had spent most of the winter trying to find a way to view Green Bay Packers football games, and it is rumored that Henry Hunter mailed her videotapes of the games, but as to that, I could not say for sure. As for Henry himself, he retained “The Other Barber Shop” and by the grace of God found a very able barber by the name of Bill, and leased Bill’s old barber shop to the new Bill.

“Do y’all see, Miss Fanny?” Sister Alma Rose said to me as we walked up the hill to Sister Alma Rose’s farmhouse after the meeting at the library. “God is good, and prayer works wonders.”

The Greek island of Strongili

The Greek island of Strongili

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The Guru

Country Road

Image by annamon (Livin' la Vida Loca) via Flickr

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Sister Alma Rose is on vacation

All Paths Converge in the End

by Mary Campbell

A real spiritual teacher assists you in finding Yourself. They help you find, not their truth, but your own Truth Within. Teacher is a mediocre word for someone who does this; spiritual sponsor would be a more accurate description. Or reciprociter. Personally, I’d call them Friends and Family, that’s Who We Are. In Equality, who has greater Equality? The one who knows more than somebody else, or the one who shares what they understand? —Will on Care2

Journey to Bliss

The gift of any true teacher to his or her student is (1) to impart a love of learning and (2) to supply, or point to, resources… then to sit back and watch the student devour the resources and look for more.

The teacher walks a fine line, as does the writer. At what point does information become dogma? I believe that the tenacity with which some “teachers” impose their views on others has to do with a belief in mortality. “Gotta hurry and get my perpetually angry 35-year-old son on medication, or into meditation and on a spiritual path. His anger is ruining his life.”

Bristol Maraton, 2006; photo by Steve Gregory

Bristol Maraton, 2006; photo by Steve Gregory

But everything snaps into place when you understand that everyone is already on a spiritual path. Your path, and my son’s, will undoubtedly be different from my path, and I can accept that, even be joyful about it, because I know that the spiritual journey spans uncounted lifetimes, and that all paths converge in the end.

Prayers are powerful

Many pray for my son and their prayers are powerful. Occasionally I am sad to see my son struggle, every day, just to be. His brother and his sister both seem to have slipped, with varying degrees of ease, into their “place in creation.”

But I also see spiritual progress in my son, and it has been many years since I have despaired of him. When he was a little boy — who did not know the meaning of serenity — I tried to impose my remedies (my truth) upon him, because his chronic anger and unhappiness broke my heart. This is what mothers do, a lot — try to fix people, especially their children — until they (the mothers) have used themselves up.

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott

So, making a virtue of necessity, I surrendered him to God, I practiced not worrying until not worrying became a habit, and in the process I came I understand that we are all in different places on our journey to bliss, and that there are no wrong paths, merely detours.

Many people have asked me how I learned to stop worrying, how I ceased feeling guilty and having regrets. Well, as someone whom I once had to study in World Lit. said, “I have been to the abyss.” When a hand finally reached down to pull me out, I promised God that I would always be happy and I would never fret about anything again.

I have died and been reborn — quite a number of times, actually.

GraceAnne Lamott writes, “means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had no way to get there on your own.”

* * *

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    Splenectomy

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    The Touch God Gives Only to Mothers

    Charity, by Bouguereau, 1878

    Charity, by Bouguereau, 1878

    I, Fanny McElroy, ruptured my spleen last week. I did a belly-flop off Sister Alma Rose’s porch railing, which she has warned me not to do many, many times, at least a thousand.

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    When she saw me hit the ground — splat! — Sister Alma Rose started spewing prayers like a one-woman revival meeting, between calling an ambulance and calling my mama and calling Dr. Dierdre Barstow. “Sweet Jesus,” she hollered, “heal this foolish girl right now, even though Sister Alma Rose did tell her a thousand times not to climb on the porch railing.”

    Here, for your elucidation, is a small description of the spleen:

    In humans, the spleen is located in the abdomen of the body, where it has three primary functions: 1) Removal and destruction of old, aged red blood cells, 2) Synthesis of antibodies in the white pulp, and 3) Removal of antibody-coated bacteria and antibody-coated blood cells from the circulation. It is one of the centers of activity of the reticuloendothelial system (part of the immune system). Its absence leads to a predisposition to certain infections. —Wikipedia

    The human spleen; click on image for source The human spleen; click on image for source

    The ambulance rushed me to the hospital, which is, like, three feet from Sister Alma Rose’s farmhouse, and Dr. Deirdre Barstow proceeded to knock me out (actually, the anesthesiologist did that), cut me open, remove the spleen, and sew me back up.

    Mineral water (photo by Walter J. Pilsak)

    Mineral water (photo by Walter J. Pilsak)

    I was never afraid. Sister Alma Rose has a Special Relationship with God, and her prayers are solid gold. Plus my mom was there, and, just as they were wheeling me into surgery, my dad arrived, wiping sweat and dirt from his face with his bandana.

    After the operation, I had to swallow a tube through my nose! Right now there are tubes draining blood out of my abdominal cavity and transfusing new blood into my veins and feeding me — I cannot eat anything, I can’t even drink water! I am so thirsty! But I get to stay in bed and read for two weeks after I go home from the hospital.

    “Anonymous” wrote the following sexist axiom:

    God made mothers because he loves us and he wants us to be happy.
    God made fathers because he wants us to be just a little bit afraid.

    To be perfectly honest, I am more afraid of my mom than I am of my dad, and I’m more afraid of Sister Alma Rose than of my mom and dad together. I’m supposed to be at an age when I begin “distancing myself” from my mother. Some of my friends act like their moms are subhuman life forms from the planet Zongo.

    But my mom is okay; she’s semi-with it but doesn’t try to be. Anyway, there was nobody I wanted when I woke up from surgery more than Mama. This is a poem I wrote for her today, because I am getting a little bored and I AM DEFINITELY READY TO GO HOME….

    At first there were only a lemony glow
    and a few pale shadows murmuring, and
    then I remembered, because of the tube
    in my nose, a suggestion of roses, and
    something besides: eau de hospital
    disinfectant, I guess. I felt wretched, and
    that wretchedness was somehow
    reassuring. I felt; ergo, I lived… had
    emerged from that netherland
    entered when someone had
    covered my face with a cloth and
    said, “Take a deep breath.”

    rosebud_pink_gorgeousShe had betrayed me — the
    nurse with the red, jolly face;
    she had read to me kindly and
    led me to death — not a final,
    forever extinction, but
    nightmarish darkness and sinking
    in cold, nauseous, suffocating fog.

    And then there were sunlight and
    someone in white, and I wondered
    if I were in heaven. Impossible, not
    without Mama and Daddy, my
    brothers, and Sister Alma Rose,
    and lemonade, please God,
    particularly.

    lemonade

    Then a hand, small and delicate, but strong —
    I know that hand — slipped a
    tidbit of ice throgh my dry,
    burning lips; then the hand
    stroked my hair. On account of
    the tube in my wrist, I was
    forced to lie still, or of course
    I’d have reached for it.

    But I knew it was you
    by the touch God gives only
    to mothers; for each of your
    fingers, so slender, so soft, gave
    its own benediction; tender and
    eloquent, telling of longing and
    love, reassurance and gratitude,
    anxious solicitousness, and
    fatigue; most of all, “All is well;
    you are safe,” said your hands —
    and your face, when the shadows
    resolved, held a smile only
    slightly uncertain and tremulous.

    Is that how it was on the day I
    was born years ago at a quarter
    to noon? Yet again I am born
    unto you in a hospital room,
    with my person invaded by tubes and incisions,
    delivered from death by invisible
    arms with a power that surgeons
    might only wish for.

    Tuscany_sunrise

    Then I drifted away again, lulled
    by those strange, misty voices,
    some soft and some deep. Gliding
    smoothly to sleep, I heard you
    and the angel of mercy beside
    you, in white with her aura of
    unearthly light.

    angel_baroque_bernini

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