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Tag: saints among us

a consideration of saints

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long long ago, when i was a wee little thing falling asleep in my tight twin bed, the hand-sewn squares of quilt pulled up to my nose, i, like many a girl who donned scratchy plaid uniform skirt and buttoned all the way up (no matter how hot or humid outside) my navy blue uniform cardigan each day for holy cross school, i drifted off to dreamland wondering what it would take to become a saint, a little flower of jesus, perhaps, or the patron saint of fallen feathered things. i wouldn’t have minded aspiring to patron saint of bicycle pedals, or patron saint of clearing the table, two fundamentals of life i knew well, fundamentals i could work at — perfect even — if given the hope of a life under halo.

it’s not a bad thing to each and every night pluck from among a roster of heroes, sainted not for their football-field prowess, nor the velocity with which they swung a bat at a ball, but for those more ephemeral, ineffable things: gentle kindness, a selflessness that verged on self-erasure. it’s a good thing i hadn’t yet read too deeply of the tortures some of the saints endured. i might have swerved left from a life of good grace. i’ve utterly no interest in strapping myself to a windmill, going round and round in eternal upchucking dizziness. nor any one of the other tricks from the saintly bag of horrors (too gruesome to type at this early hour).

but — tortures aside — the morning after all-hallowed sugar-high (aka trick-or-treating) dawned onto what might have been the super bowl for saint seekers: november 1 in the catholic vernacular is the day of all saints, a feast day of joyous proportion. and that brings us to today, when with a few decades under my belt, i still awake with a particular zing.

only now, my consideration of saints has been jangled a bit. and moved far beyond ecclesiastical strictures. i’m more inclined to look to the everyday for my roster of saints. i see saints every day. have spent a good chunk of my life keeping watch. worry that we live in an age antithetical to saintliness. no saint seeker ever imagined an instagram reel of a life where every good deed was captured, captioned, and cast to the cybersphere. utter humility, a sense of one’s smallness against the vast majesty and unimaginable genius of the one we call God or Abba or Adonai, that’s non-negotiable, an essential place to begin.

the world we live in — at least the public world — seems to have turned it all on its head. it’s all bombast and braggadocio. when, to my mind, the deepest ripples are those that move through the world with barely a whisper. the gentle soul who considered it his life’s holiest work to show kindness to pigeons, to call them by name, to notice when one of his flock was wounded or lame. the one who knew 100,000 cars each and every day passed by him and the fire hydrant upon which he sat, the one who quietly told me “i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude.”

the woman who lives down my alley, who cooks by the gallon and, like a sprite in the night, sprints from house to house, doorknob to doorknob, leaving her wares in large plastic bags dangling from handles and knobs. because to her, to feed is to love, and her heart knows no bounds.

i know saints gather at this very table. saints who seed love, day after day in a thousand unscripted ways: the one who feeds a banquet of fine organic greens to her bevy of hard-shelled centenarians; the one who whispers a prayer into every stitch and tug and pull of her needle and thread; the one who every other weekend flies halfway across the country to sit beside her faraway, struggling son; the ones who day after day visit old friends who no longer remember, who feed them spoonful by spoonful, who read them love letters from long ago in hopes that it just might spark a burst of remembering, of story, of unfettered joy.

on this day for considering saints, and counting the saints among us, i turn to a glorious book i reviewed a few years ago, a book of poetry by susan l. miller titled, communion of saints. it opens with this glorious beauty, “manual for the would-be saint,” and it begins like this:

Manual for the Would-Be Saint

by Susan L. Miller

The first principle: Do no harm.

The second: The air calls us home.

Third, we must fill the bowls of others

before we drain our own wells dry.

The fourth is the dark night; the fifth

a subtle scent of smoke and pine.

The sixth is awareness of our duties,

the burnt offering of our own pride.

Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.

Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.

The ninth takes time: it is to discover

what inside the seed makes the seed increase.

…(the poem goes on for 14 more lines…)

please, do yourself an all saint’s day favor, and find it and read to the end. and now, quietly, without even a ripple, i will leave you to your own consideration of saints…

what might be the opening lines of your manual for the would-be saint?

p.s. do you know the saint pictured above? here’s a hint: she was kicked out of the calendar of saints for reasons i will never know, yet she remains in some books as the patron saint of architects. it’s saint babs, aka barbara, as a matter of fact, and isn’t it uncanny that de-sainted though she is, her affinity for architecture is akin to the one to which i’ve wed my life…(a saintly patronage that must have brought my jewish husband so much relief upon discovery!) (st. babs is linked to architecture because her father is said to have locked her in a tower after she rejected an offer of marriage he’d relayed to her. egad. i’m telling you, some of these saintly tales belong in the annals of the absurd. forgive me….) 

if all the world had a sarah…

sarah bd card

the doorknob, most often, is where i find her. or, rather, the bulging evidence of her having sashayed through the night, traipsing along the alley, lit by the moon and the beam of her iPhone, ferrying bags weighed down with her wares.

on any given midnight run, the wares might be tomatoes, enough to fill a stockpot and feed a small army; soups, bulging from zip-lock sacks; cakes, by whole or by half; marinara sauce, with meat or without; cucumbers in sizes and shapes and colors i never knew they’d invented.

some mornings, i swear the doorknob’s going to crack off its stem. some mornings, a vase of perky zinnias, or a rose clipped from her mama’s bush, or basil by the sinkful stands guard beneath the dangling bags.

used to be my fat cat would be waiting there too. he, too, waited for sarah. she’s the saint of the alley. she feeds a whole flock of us, night after night. the cats, she feeds always. and any stray critter who’s lame, or been bonked by the wilds. us humans she feeds whenever she finds a few extra hours in her kitchen. or when she finds time to get to her wild jungle of a tomato bed, where those red orbs of summer are all but bursting right now.

sarah comes, like santa or tooth fairies, without being seen. she comes in the night, and though i’ve only once or twice caught sight of her flashlight beaming ahead through the bushes, i imagine the gleam in her eye, as she sets out from her house with her arms full of deliciousness.

sarah lives to take care of folk. she moved home a few years ago to be by the side of her mama and papa, as they got old and older. as the steps in their fine old house got steeper and steeper, and the distance from the front door to the sidewalk, where the newspapers were plopped, it got farther and farther.

sarah moved home and in no time, their basement freezer was filled with her wares. (wasn’t long till ours was too.) sarah could open a restaurant. or a bakery. but instead she cooks and she bakes for love and love only.

long ago, she decided my little guy was a guy she could cook for. she knows all his favorite cookies and cakes. now, his friends do too. they come over to see what sarah’s got tucked under the glass cookie dome.

sarah’s birthday was yesterday, and, well, there was no way we could make enough of a fuss to capture the whole of the love in our hearts. but we tried. and the card up above is the one my not-so-little guy stayed up late in the night to draw and to pen with his poetry (that outline of an angel, and the words, “st. sarah”!!!). he left it on the kitchen table, so when i awoke on sarah’s birthday, there was — as there so often is — something that melted my heart. only this time it was for sarah, instead of from sarah. i tucked it into the little bundle of somethings we’d gathered. and i shuffled it down the alley, just like sarah does. i hung my sack on her doorknob, the hardware of the heart in this particular equation.

if all the world had a sarah….

if all the world knew what it was to awake to a fat bulging sack of pure goodness. if all the world was populated with neighbors who put in particular tomatoes, and certain kinds of herbs, just because they know someone nearby likes those particular certain somethings. if all the world had folk shuffling through the night, delivering kindness. dangling it from doorknobs.

i think of houston and the pictures i’ve been watching all week. the pictures of strangers hoisting old men and old ladies, tiny bundles of baby cradled in mamas’ arms. i think maybe there are quite a few sarahs. and maybe when the waters recede, the kindness will keep on rising. maybe…

i started this thinking wouldn’t it be grand if all the world had a sarah, and i’m wrapping it up thinking emphatically this: wouldn’t it be even more grand if we could all try just a little bit harder to be a sarah? to come under cloak of darkness, delivering goodness and kindness, leaving satchels of joy in our wake?

thank you, dear blessed sarah, patron saint of unheralded kindness and great bulging hearts. thank you for teaching my boys the wonder of kindness delivered by doorknob, night after night, with no desire for folderol or hoopla. and thank you too for the world’s best salt-sprinkled sliced tomato on rye.

love, me and t. and all of us who’ve been indulged by your infinite goodness

do you have a sarah in your life, and how has your sarah opened your heart and filled it with unheralded goodness?

gobsmacked by everyday prophets

Dew Drops

proph-et (n.) 1. (in some religions) a person believed to have been sent by God to teach people about his intentions. 2. a person who predicts the future. 3. a person who promotes or supports a new belief or theory.

and so it is that as we motor along the patched asphalt roads of our everyday, suddenly we screech to a stop when we realize, right before our eyes, a wise soul, a prophet, a shaker-upper has flung his or her wisdom splat in the middle of the lane. stuck there, not able to never mind, not able to turn the wheel and steer around it, we succumb to the roadblock. loosen our grip on the wheel, stare wide-eyed through the windshield, soak up every last tidbit of what’s there in a pile clogging the throughway.

sometimes that’s what it takes to get us to pause, to pay attention.

and so it was, not so many days ago, when sitting in the dim-lit auditorium where our synagogue holds the talk part of sunday school. the rabbi was up at the front, at the mike, sipping his starbucks grande whatever. and, once again, the conversation seemed to be steering into one of those ones i’ve heard far too often. the topic, more or less: how in the world do you talk to your kids about God, when you’ve no clue who or what that might be?

i’ve learned to sit on my hands. to mostly not raise one or the other. over the years, i’ve made it clear on several occasions that i DO have a clue who that is. that i find the Holiness all around and within. that it’s there at the dawn when i tiptoe outside and find the heavens alight with pinpoints of stars. that it’s there when the voice on the other end of the line breathes hope into my emptiness. that it’s there when the words that spill from the mouth of the child i’m tucking in bed hit me with a compassion i’d not expect from a grownup, let alone a 12-year-old who can’t for the life of him untangle the distributive property upon which his pre-algebra homework is hinged.

i’d more or less surrendered to the conversation, felt myself sinking lower and lower — in spirit and chair. but then, the long lanky fellow a few seats to the east in my row, he raised his hand. now, i know this fellow to be wise, and i know he’s lived through some tragedy. his wife died when his children were little, one still in diapers, one just past toddling. he speaks with a gravely voice, the result of a cancer.

here’s what he said: “when my son asked why people die, i said: because it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.”

it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters… 

i sat there, low in my spring-loaded chair, and suddenly bolted upright. humbled. stunned. turning the words over and over in my head, as if marbles i held to the light. examining, absorbing.

how we live matters….

these words from a father to son, a son who’d just lost his mother.

i did what i do when i know i’ve heard wisdom: i reached for my backpack, i pulled out a pen and my red little moleskin. i loosened the elastic snap that holds open the next empty page. i scribbled. i suddenly was wide awake and taking in every word of this conversation, no longer the same old, same old.

all week i’ve drifted back to that moment. when suddenly, out of the almost dark, a gravely voice spoke words that stirred me, top to bottom, inside to out.

i was knocked over by what he said — especially since i’ve too heavy a dose of black irish soul, the sort that too often fears the end is just around the next bend, and this notion of using that as a wedge to take it up a notch, to live each blessed day as if it could be the last or the second to last, is rather a zap to the noggin, to the soul.

but even more i was knocked over by the blessed truth that we never know where the wisdom will come, we never guess the prophets around us. and that’s why it matters that we stand at attention. that we live on the lookout — for wisdom, for truth, for gentlest kindness and full-bodied compassion.

if instead of sinking low in our chairs, if instead of surrendering to the ho-hum humdrum we think is unfurling, we stay awake to the possibility that someone far wiser than we’ll ever be is about to brush up against us, pass along a kernel of all that’s holy and wise and forever.

and that’s why this mystery called life is so utterly and wholly capable of taking our breath away — without drumroll or siren — and filling it in with high-octane Holy.

so, who’s your prophet of late? and what wisdom was plopped in your lap?

photo credit above: my sweet will kamin. a morning’s dew captured in magnificent light. not unlike the gift of the prophet….

the barefoot monk and his God of pots & pans

the tale of brother lawrence

dispatch from 02139 (in which we meet a 17th-century monk with wisdom for the ages….)

the snows have been tumbling since the cloak of twilight fell last eve. a short pause here and there, but mostly tumbling, tumbling. with little sound but the shooshing of slush as it spits out from under thirsty tires on the street below, i’m tucked inside, home alone, curled up with a tiny blue slip of a book.

i’d not heard of the book, nor its author, until just a week or so ago, when a wise woman of letters likened something i’d written to the musings of brother lawrence, he with his God of pots and pans.

she mentioned this in passing, as if of course i knew the fellow. i did not.

no more need be whispered. i stood intrigued. and i set out to unearth this humble fellow who stumbled on the Holy amid the clangings of his monastery kitchen, not long after the pilgrims pulled ashore at plymouth.

i marched straight to the nearest epicenter of literary procurement — aka, the cambridge public library — and there i found the shelves were hollowed of brother lawrence and his sole literary offering, “practice of the presence of God,” a line i’d heard over the years — been struck by, really — though i never knew its origins. nor ever thought to wonder.

my friendly librarian managed to scrounge up a solitary copy from the bowels of some far-flung college archives. she dispatched it swiftly, and it came into my possession just days ago.

this white-freckled morn of mounding drifts offered the perfect occasion for making its acquaintance.

so down i plopped. and here i share the tale.

no bigger than a folded-in-half index card, a mere 80 yellowed pages, the title etched in gold gothic letters across a navy canvas, it’s a wisp of a volume. weightless as the wing of a dove. a book that might get swallowed whole at the bottom of a satchel, where it nearly did get lost this week.

yet it packs a mighty wallop.

it’s a humble collection of conversations and letters of one barefoot monk who, back in 1666, spilled the wisdoms soaked up in its now fragile pages.

the gentle fellow took the name “brother lawrence” upon entering the monastery of the barefooted carmelites in paris, not long after an uncanny conversion that came one winter’s day, staring at a tree, dry and leafless. seems the good brother absorbed the stark emptiness, but in that way that saints and wise souls do, he saw beyond it.

he imagined the possible.

as is written in the six-itty-bitty-page preface: the soon-to-be brother lawrence stood before the naked tree “reflecting on what a change God would make in it with the returning spring.”

and thus he was hit, head-on. the surging sense of the immensity of the Holy One all but knocked him down, realizing the life force, the Beautiful that would burst from the Barren.

again, from the preface: “it may seem strange so affecting a sense of Divine attributes should have been occasioned by so common an incident as seeing a tree, dry and leafless in the winter, and by reflecting what a change God would make in it with the returning spring. this may seem strange; but, in fact, it is rather to be wondered at, that others are not affected as he was, and that the little miracles of nature make so little impression upon us.”

and so, a little miracle of nature led the man, born nicholas herman of lorraine, to the great stone monastery in paris around the year 1626, when he was but 18.

there, brother lawrence, who described himself as “a great awkward fellow who broke everything,” (indeed, so kindred a spirit is my newfound bumbling ally, ol’ larry) found himself dispatched to the kitchen, “to which he had naturally a great aversion.” for some 15 years, he was cook to the society of monks.

amid the pots and pans, he established a profound yet simple spiritual practice: “i began to live as if there was none but He and i in the world,” he writes in the first of 14 letters pressed into the pages of his book.

in his second letter, he writes: “i make it my business only to persevere in His holy Presence…an habitual, silent, and secret conversation of the soul with God.”

in other words, imagine that God is always near, dangling over your shoulder, tucked in the pocket of your dungarees. no need for piety, or gilded cathedral walls. no need for practiced vespers, or slipping away from the cacophony of the everyday. brother lawrence’s is the God of the here and now, especially when it’s messy.

“it is not necessary for being with God to be always at church,” he says. “we make an oratory of our heart, wherein to retire from time to time, to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love…”

from the tenth letter: “He is always near you and with you; leave Him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone, who came to visit you; why then must God be neglected? do not then forget Him.”

and in perhaps brother lawrence’s most oft-quoted line, and one which i’ll now carry to the cookstove, especially in the harried half-hour when tummies are growling, and what’s in the skillet spews coils of smoke:

“it was observed, that in the greatest hurry of the business of the kitchen, he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. he was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even composure and tranquility of spirit. ‘the time of business,’ said he, ‘does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, i possess God in as great tranquility as if i were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.’

surely, i was meant to know the barefooted brother. a fellow as likely to be thunderstruck by the lifeless silhouette of woods in winter, a good soul brought to bended knee by delphinium on the brink of brilliant blue. a reluctant cook who carries on heavenly discourse while the spaghetti scorches in the pot.

Brother_Lawrence_in_the_kitchen

who, pray tell, inspired you this week? 

and before i go, a few more lines from brother lawrence:

“…we ought not be weary of doing little things for the love of God, Who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

“our only business was to love and delight ourselves in God.”

“…his prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God…”

lysol’s got nothin’ on st. babs in a can

i know, i know, now you think i’ve been holding out on you, keeping all my secrets shrouded in the back hall closet. back behind the moldy tennis rackets, and the shoes that lost their strings.

you’ve been wondering–for months and months, i’ll bet–why everything–oh, excuse me, i seem to be coughing–runs so smoothly–no, i’m surely choking–here in the world i call my house. how come the broccoli never burns. and the children never pout.

well, i figured today’s as good as any to pull out all the stops. and while i’m at it, i might as well let you in on my supernatural* domestic secret.

you see, upstairs right now, there is a 6-foot-something creature who is trying hard to sleep. but he’s got finals any hour now, and he is moaning in his dreams. i am not thinking these would be the moans of growing child rolling in whipped cream. these seem to be the utterances of a pupil in distress.

then, over in the next room, the only one with heat, the one that feels a bit like sleeping in an anteroom of hades, is a little one who went to bed last night in tears. he nearly water-logged his pillow telling me that of all the children in his class, he’s the “unsmartest one.” in every single thing.

oh, lord, God almighty. where did i tuck the all-purpose house-protecting spray? it seems i’ve not been keeping up with all the troubles seeping in the cracks.

and, no, people, the spritz for which i grope is not some hyperallergenic thing that will keep away the microbes. phht, on little germs. i’ve no cares for them.

it’s the woopsy-daisy vibes that i intend to spray away.

you thought, perhaps, that all it took was hours on your knees. and perhaps a hundred dollars to the nearest voodoo doc. mais, non, i have an angel friend who came riding to my rescue.

who knew that you could buy a saint and tuck her in a can? complete with aerosol spitzer, no less.

this one, the one in pink who’s pirouetting up above, well, she came to me, as if in a fevered dream. she came to me just as i was blowing out the candles on my latest birthday cake. (51 candles, thank you, is as close to fevered dream as i’m inclined to get.)

so really i’ve not been holding out on you for all that long at all. in fact, i’ve only really just begun to understand her powers*.

what, you ask, is with all the little asterisks, the floating stars every time i mention all her super*celestial magic tricks?

well, i am only being fair, only being forthcoming, for the little tiny print running up the seam of that pink paper label spells out, in no uncertain terms, the limits of her contents: “does not have supernatural powers,” it says, in teensy-weensy caution. just in case you thought maybe you could turn the family frog into something altogether else.

oh, darn. it’s right there, in black-on-pink. my jewish husband saw it, the disclaiming, right away. (hmm, do we think it odd that the back-pedaling had escaped me, little catholic me, completely?)

ah well, the label then informs me–and i, in turn, am informing you, lest we get some lawsuit; what, the saints on high will come down and haul me off to court?–that there is nothing truly sacred about the piney mist that comes splurting from the nozzle.

ha. that’s what they think. unbeknownst to fellow inhabitants of this house (they just thought the christmas tree had gotten old and redolent), i have been unleashing little clouds of holy mist for the past few days, in hopes of keeping bad, bad karma out of doors where it belongs, where it stands a chance of going up in most unholy smoke.

but, given the elevated state of dread around here this morning, i intend to up the ante of my holy showers.

heck, i will spray until we’re in a rainy forest here, if that’s what it takes to rid these walls of all the angst of children up against the rigors of the blackboard.

i have no idea why such a godsend is so hard to find. i’ve no clue why it’s not there on the highest shelf of every single grocery. you would think the world would clamor for sanctified and pressurized protection.

praise God, then, that i’ve got allies with divine connections.

my blessed angel friend, the one whose wings, i swear, are tucked beneath her sweater, she rode miles and miles to drum up my new-year supply of saint babs’ artillery. the spray promises “peace in the home,” the candle is all-purpose, and the parfum i’m guessing is for the girl on the go, just a dab behind the ears and you are covered till you take a shower.

i’m told it all comes in a few saintly flavors: besides ol’ babs (who, by the way, was debunked of her saintliness nearly 40 years ago, but don’t tell the fine souls who make these aromatic vapors), there’s chris (yet another debunked saint–hmm, maybe after all this is the dumping ground for saints no longer). and i’m pretty sure there’s dearest saint theresa, who is forever the little flower.

so, dang, if you don’t find your holy patron among those three, just ask, and i will let you borrow mine.

but first i need to go see if i can shush the nasty smells coming from the boot tray.

bet you didn’t realize you could find such housekeeping secrets here. come back again, and i’ll let you in on how i keep my oven bright and shining. anyone else have a trick divine up their blessed sleeve?