SATURDAY READING: Severe Grace by Sue Monk Kidd

Severe Grace by Sue Monk Kidd

From Firstlight

God calls us throughout our life to severe grace, the grace of the cocoon.

We are called to separate from the old, to die in order to be born.  If we open ourselves to this severe grace, we encounter God in new places: in the cyclone, in the dark, in the crisis that shatters our old confining consciousness.  It is this severity that makes us new.

Last year I visited a woman in the hospital who is a poet and deeply contemplative.  She was in a lot of pain from crippling arthritis, but she said with confounding vibrancy, “Today I have discovered God as the awful throbbing in my joints.  God is the pitiful crying of the woman in the next bed.  God is my loneliness.  God is the angry nurse who avoids me.  I did not expect God to be these things.  But here in the hospital before all these agonies, I keep wanting to drop to my knees.  Do you think I’m strange?”

“No,” I said.  “Not strange.  Blessed.”

Did you know that grain seeds that had lain for thousands of years in the pyramids of Egypt sprouted after being planted?  Not only that, weed seeds recovered from the sunken Spanish galleon Atocha sprouted after three hundred fifty years in salt water!  Seeds, I learned, no matter how old, are alive.  Dormant but still alive.  When the right conditions come along – the right amount of warmth or soil or moisture – they wake up and bloom.

While reading Thoreau’s Walden, I happened upon a similar story:

There was a table made of applewood, which stood in a farmer’s kitchen in New England for sixty years.  One day a gnawing sound began to emanate from the table.  It kept up for several weeks, until at last a bug emerged from the table, unfurled its wings and took flight.

An insect egg had been deposited in the trunk of the apple tree before it was made into a table and had remained in the wood all those years.  Warmed, perhaps by the heat of a coffee urn placed on the table, it hatched, and the little bug gnawed its way out.

Who knows what unhatched potential – what dormant seeds – lie in our lives?

We are seeded with hidden promise.

My local newspaper carried a picture of a house with a caved-in roof.  The living room was waist-high with snow.  It covered the sofa, the chairs, and tables.  The caption read, “Roof gives way under weeks of accumulated snow.”  The owner had let the drifts pile up till it all came tumbling down at once.

It is easy to be critical of this kind of negligence, but I’ve done the same thing with anger.  Storing it up in bits and pieces – a few silent irritations here, some inward resentments there – until I have an overloaded roof ready to cave in on someone.

There is both spiritual and psychological wisdom in the adage, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”  I made a promise to myself to shovel it daily.

Sometimes at night when I wake up thirsty or sometimes on August afternoons when I walk barefoot on hot, cracked earth, I remember the African girl seeking water.  She came out of nowhere, a small thirsty child.

It was 1975.  My husband and I were living in East Africa.  Drought had seared the plains that stretched beyond our rented farmhouse.  Rivers had turned to dust, corn had dried away, and people wandered in search of water.  I saw the girl from my car.  She was hunched on her knees in a dry riverbed.  As I drew closer, I saw that she was digging.  Her small black hands scraped out a hole, hoping for a puddle of dirty water to fill her gourd.  “How far have you come?” I asked her in Swahili.

“Five miles.  The wells are all empty.”  I was amazed by the distance she’d walked.  All my life, water was something that flowed magically into my house by twisting my wrist, something I washed my car in, something I took for granted.

I handed her my canteen, which brimmed with fresh, clean water, and she turned it up and drank deeply.  “Asante, asante,” she said.  Thank you.  Thank you.

The encounter brought to mind the words of Jesus: “I am living water.”  With exploding new clarity, I realized what faith in God meant to a parched, dying life, to someone roaming and digging in dusty places for hope.  The spiritual life is an endless river, a bottomless spring, a deep well.

We stood on the rotten steps of a crumbling house in our prim public health blue, clutching our nurses’ black bags.  We had come to see Juan.  He was seven, a reluctant fellow desperately in need of immunizations.  I was all of twenty-two years old, newly graduated.  A complete novice.  On my last visit Juan had refused to let me touch him.  So this time I had brought Maggie, the veteran.

Juan’s dark, suspicious eyes peered at us from the doorway.  In his hand was the grimiest bologna sandwich I had ever seen.

“Hello, Juan,” Maggie said.

He stared at her glumly and took a bite of that filthy sandwich that looked as if it had been fished out of a mud puddle.

Maggie knelt beside him and said, “I sure am hungry.”  Juan gave her an uncertain look.  “I really like bologna,” she said.  He studied his half-eaten sandwich and slowly, hesitantly, held it out to her.  She took a bite.  A big bite.  With that hard ball of bread and bologna and dirt in her mouth, she looked positively humble.  Juan flashed her a smile, then he held out his arm and became immune to some pretty terrible diseases.

Maggie taught me that often the best way to reach someone on the other side of an invisible wall is to stoop under it.

Once I prayed for patience.  The next day my washing machine broke down, leaving me with three dozen dirty cloth diapers.  Then, so help me, the dryer quit working five minutes after a monsoon started!

That day I was reminded of something that C. R. Findley once observed: God doesn’t always answer prayer as we expect.  Sometimes when we pray for a certain virtue – like patience – God does not necessarily send it to us in a package ready for instant use.  We are much more likely to be put in a situation where we are given the opportunity to develop that virtue.

I am more patient today than I was before I washed thirty-six diapers by hand in a bathtub and hung them to dry from the chandeliers.

I strolled along a trail in the Kentucky woods, unsure where it led.  I had been walking quite awhile when I came upon a huge bronze sculpture of two men sleeping.  It was an exquisite work of art.  How had it come to be in the middle of hundreds of wooded acres in rural Kentucky?  I circled it, gradually realizing that it was a depiction of two of Christ’s disciples sleeping in the Garden of Gethsemane.

When I resumed my walk, I quickly stumbled upon another life-sized bronze, this one quite obviously Christ in agony on his knees – a depiction of his suffering in the garden.  Surrounded by the hush of the woods, I was moved by the lonely solitude of Jesus.  I sat on the ground, watching sunlight fleck across the dark surface of the sculpture.  It brought to mind the woman at Hiroshima whose shadow was scorched into a wall, Jews in concentration camps, Africans in slavery, the missing and murdered, abused children – the interminable suffering world.

Later, when I passed back by the statue of the sleeping disciples, I was forced to think of the apathy that contributed to the suffering.  I was forced to think of how I slept.

My little brother, Wade, and I were playing hide-and-seek.  He was hiding, I was seeking.  After searching for a long time, I heard frantic, muffled cries coming from the bathroom.  Finding the door locked, I hurried to tell my mother.  She grabbed a kitchen chair and dragged it outside across the grass where she positioned it under the bathroom window and climbed up.

“The window screen is locked,” Mother said, desperation edging into her voice.

As the strangled sound of my brother’s cry filtered through the window, my mother, an average-sized woman, tore the sealed screen right off the window frame with her bare hands, and wrenched open a steel lock.  She climbed through the window and found my brother stuck inside the clothes hamper.

The memory of my mother standing on the chair beneath the bathroom window has never left me.  It reassures me that when the time comes, I will have the resources I need in order to cope.  Something in us rises up to meet the moment.

One spring during routine surgery, my husband lost his voice.  He woke up from anesthesia speaking in a raspy whisper.  We were told the laryngeal nerve had been cut.  The damage was permanent and irreparable.  I still remember the cold, numbing shock I felt.  My husband was thirty years old, a college teacher, a chaplain.

For months, every time I watched him struggle to be understood, I would ask God for a miracle.  Every time I saw him unable to call the children in from play or unable to sing his silly songs, I would ask again.

A year passed.  I prayed, but there was no miracle.  His voice did not return.

Still struggling to accept what had happened, I opened the mail one morning to find a letter from a college teacher whom I’d not heard from in eight years.  Out fell an orange sticker, as small as a postage stamp.  On it was a gull, its wings spread in flight across the sky, and these words, “There is a miracle inside you.”

It caused me to remember the lines in the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The miracle we found was acceptance.

It was scarcely midafternoon, yet the doctor’s waiting room was dark.  Outside, enormous black clouds roiled and rolled.  A storm was on the way.  From my green chair in the corner, I felt strangely part of it – the peculiar darkness the impending storm.  I’d come here because of a lump in my breast.  I’d discovered it myself, and naturally I’d gone to the family doctor hoping he would pat my hand and say, “Nothing to it.”  Instead he’d sent me here, to a surgeon.

Lump.  I turned the word over in my mind.  It always rang the same ominous note, striking a particular chord buried years before when I’d worked as a nurse.  It was a memory I never tampered with.  Now it came back.

Mrs. Holly was literally the first patient I ever had.  She’s had a lump, one that began her long battle with cancer.  I cared for her for weeks.  In all that time she never had a visitor.  One morning as I brought her breakfast tray, I found her leaning at the window.  Against the breaking light her frail silhouette reminded me of the dark contours of pain and longing that seemed to shape so much of her life.  “Where is God?” she asked, gazing into the distance.

“Right here with us,” I replied, serving up the answer almost as easily as her meal.

She turned and looked at me intently.  “I wonder,” she whispered.  At that moment I felt nearly as lost and unconvinced as she did.  We never spoke of it again, but the episode always hung unfinished between us like a puzzle you can’t solve or a book you never complete.

I sat by her bed as she died.  There were just the two of us.  I kept thinking about the question she’d asked that day.  Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt she was thinking of it too.  She was too weak to talk, but near the end she gave me a faint smile.  Then she closed her eyes and died.  I had never seen anyone die.  It was stunning in its finality.  That last caving breath extrapolated her question: Where is God?  I didn’t know the answer.  I honestly didn’t know.  And I did not know how to bear the doubt.

I felt unsettled for weeks afterward.  Sometimes my eyes mysteriously filled with tears when I passed her room.  “I know she was your first patient,” a colleague said.  “But you can’t get emotionally involved like this.”  I took her advice.  I packed up the hurt, the unanswerable question and buried it.  All that remained of the experience was the small dread that twisted in my stomach at every mention of the word lump.

The nurse’s words cut through my thoughts, “Mrs. Kidd, the doctor will see you.”  I followed her, trying to shake the disquieting memory.

After the exam the surgeon cleared his throat.  “We need to take out the lump and get a biopsy,” he said.

“Do you think it could be malignant?” I asked.

He smiled.  “Most lumps turn out to be benign and I think it’s entirely probable yours will be also.  But you know I can’t make absolute promises.”

Surgery was set.  I would check into the hospital in a few days.

As I pulled into the driveway at home, the first drops of rain broke from the swollen skies.  I spotted my son in the backyard pulling his bicycle out of the rain.  “Hurry, it’s already coming down!” I yelled.

Bob bumped his wheels over the roots of the oak tree, scaring up a chipmunk that lived in the woodpile.  “Will the storm hurt the chipmunks?” he asked.

“They’ll be okay.”

“How about them?”  He looked up to the crook of an oak limb, at a bird’s nest that he’d discovered the week before.

My life was imploding and he was standing in the rain worrying about birds and chipmunks.  “Yes, the entire animal kingdom will be fine!”  I practically shouted, “Now come one!”

The incongruity continued all evening – the collision of small inconsequential details and the uncertainty of life, of God.

While everyone was asleep.  I tossed on my pillow, listening to the rain pound the roof.  Raveled in my thoughts and fears were images of Mrs. Holly.

Not wanting to wake my husband, I wandered to the den, where I sank into a chair.  Lightning irradiated the panes with light, illuminating the backyard.  For an instant I glimpsed the oak branches pitching and swaying in the night.  I drew my knees beneath my chin and listened to the wind slap like helicopter blades in the blackness.  “Where is God?”  Only this time it was no longer an echo lost in the years between us.  It was my own question.

I was startled to realize how abandoned I’d felt since discovering the lump.  It wasn’t just facing this uncertainty that seemed so fearful: it was facing it alone, without my faith.  Where were you when Mrs. Holly looked for you?  How do I know you’re real?  That you care?  I felt relief saying it.  I went back to bed lighter, as if a clean new space had been created inside me.

The next morning a bit of sunshine dribbled over a cloud.  The children scurried out to play.  It wasn’t long before shouts erupted from the backyard, “Mama!  Mama!”

I leaped a row of puddles.  Beneath the oak, at the tips of the children’s tennis shoes, lay the bird’s nest.  Sprawled beside it were two baby birds.  They groped in the grass, looking helpless and wet.  “They fell from the tree!” cried Bob.  “And you said they’d be okay.  You said —.”

“I know,” I interrupted, remembering how the branches had lashed about in the wind.

As I scooped the hatchlings into my hands and placed them in the nest, a fragment of an old familiar Bible verse came to me:

Consider the birds of the air…
One of them shall not fall on the ground
without your Father.

I held the words in my mind and felt them descend slowly into my heart – into that clean, new space.

I tucked the nest into the ivy that draped the brick fence, while the children agonized over whether the mother bird would find it.  The next day, however, she appeared on the fence with a beak full of food.  The birds were fine.

And I was too.  The lump was benign.

Gradually, the memory of Mrs. Holly healed inside me.  I want to believe she found the assurance of God’s presence before she died.

I found it through honesty, through faith, through choice.

This old Hasidic story is one of my favorites.

A rabbi asked his students a question.  “When does night end and day begin?”

“Is it the moment you can see the difference between an olive tree and a fig tree?” one student asked.

“No,” said the rabbi.  “That’s not it.”

“Is it the moment you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog?” asked another.

The rabbi shook his head.  “No, that’s not it either.

“Rather, it is the moment you look at the face of a stranger and recognize that it is really the face of your brother.”

When I visited Israel in 1980, I walked through the Garden of Gethsemane at dusk, pausing beside the gnarled trunk of an olive tree.  As the tour guide recited the story of the night Jesus had slipped into the garden and grappled with his suffering, I noticed a thorny vine growing at the base of the tree.  The guide identified it as the Crown of Thorns.

I stooped down and touched my finger to a thorn.  As I did, I noticed something I’d almost missed.  A vibrant red bloom grew from the stem.

That was the image from the trip that haunted me long after I returned home: the fiery red flower on the crown of thorns.

Every suffering has its eruption of beauty and life.

It is early afternoon as I step through the cold clumps of fog to my grandparents’ house.  I am home from college for the Christmas holidays, eager to see my grandfather, who has become ill and weak while I was away.  Recently he has been confined to a wheelchair.

I turn and wave to my father as he drives away, headed for the farm he and my grandfather have tended for a lifetime.

The five hundred acres of land have been in the Monk family since the early 1800s, passed down from generation to generation.  My great-grandparents, William and Alcy, are buried here.  My grandfather does not just love the land, he reverences it.  He knows every row of corn, every spindle-leg calf, every seedling pine.  The farm is the crucible of his childhood, the place his soul understands as home.

“Merry Christmas, Granddaddy,” I say, walking into the room my grandmother calls the parlor.

He looks up from his wheelchair and smiles, his eyes faded and watery.  “How’s my girl?”  It is the way he says it that pierces me, the same way he said it when I was six and ten and fourteen.  I am his girl.  I have always been his girl.

A chill winter rain begins to sift through the grayness at the window as I try to strike up a cheery conversation, first about my college courses, and then the weather.  He listens, but my words wander into little cul-de-sacs.  He sits there and sadness rises up.  We end up listening to the rain.

“The rain will do the farm good,” Granddaddy says suddenly.

I sit straight up and know that it’s the farm that fills his eyes with such longing.  For weeks now he has been too weak to make the seven-mile trip.

He pulls out his pocket watch.  “I imagine the cows are feeding now.  They’ll be in the front pasture now, bunched under the pines like they do on wet days.”

“You miss the farm,” I say.

“I miss it,” he responds and looks away so I cannot see how much.

The afternoon darkens.  I put on the lamp and settle back in the chair while Granddaddy nods with sleep.  He wakes as my father stomps across the porch.  The front door opens.

“I’m back,” he calls, and appears in the doorway holding a tiny pine tree.  It is three feet tall, shimmering with crystals of rain and tied all over with small red velvet bows.  My father stands the radiant little tree at the window.

“You know that stand of pines in the front pasture?” he says, “I was there feeding the cows.  They were huddled there under the trees.  I looked down by the fence and saw this pine growing, and somehow I thought it would make a nice Christmas tree.”

I wheel my grandfather over so he can touch the needles.  I watch how his eyes fill up – the only tears I’ve ever seen him cry.  How he smiles through them.  How Christmas shines around us.

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