Wednesday, February 22, 2012

...reflection on ashes and mercy

Merton’s Voice 
Let my trust be in Your mercy, not in myself. Let my hope be in Your love, not in health, or strength, or ability or human resources. If I trust you, everything else will become, for me, strength, health, and support. Everything will bring me to heaven. If I do not trust You, everything will be my destruction.
Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux). 29,30
Psalm 51: 3
Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love; in your abundant compassion 
blot out my transgressions
Contemplative Pause 
Throughout this day, pause, take a breath, and listen with your heart. How is God's mercy unfolding in your life?

Ash Wednesday. The day when complete strangers walk up - in their most polite fashion - to stare at my forehead. And wonder about my personal hygiene. The lady in front and the gentleman behind me walk away from the sanctuary with proper markings. But my ashen smudge seems never to look like a cross. A few have tried to wipe away the stain. 

Wipe away the stain. William Blake’s poem, Songs of Innocence, evokes strong opinions in literary critics. They argue about the theme and the imagery. But I think of Dr. Oscar Stembridge when I read this poem. Of one particular morning in his college class, when I lifted my hand - not unlike Hermoine Granger, alas - to comment on a single line: “I raised my rural pen, and I stain’d the water clear.” Interpretations point to baptism, Christ’s blood in the water that washes away all sin. That day I questioned whether we are bound by a single interpretation - even one offered by the author - or if the power of poetry lies in its evocative nature.

Dr. Stembridge asked what stirred when I read that line. Here is my response: Water is, of itself, transparent. The silica of glaciers gives a turquoise glow to northern lakes. We add substances to create ink and with this give form to ideas. Much like stained glass windows. Glass allows what is outside to enter our view. But stain the glass and the colorful bits woven together into a mosaic tell a story. When I cry, the salt in tears that stream down my cheeks to my lips, speaks to me of sorrow and regret. A Blake critic would rip my thoughts to shreds rather quickly. But I take my “aha” moments where I can get them. 

Back to the stain. Shorthand for “no cheap grace.” How is God’s mercy unfolding in my life? Constantly. In the quiet whisper of the Spirit that convicts and gently moves me. In the presence of family and friends whose love and hugs, whose struggles and fears, grow me. Here is a specific example that relates to my oft-mentioned aching back. I will spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say, I’m not supposed to sit for long periods. My definition of “long periods” is quite different from that of my physical therapist. Bill. To whom I am married. 

I am a pig-headed, mildly incalcitrant creature. My interests are far-ranging. Many - writing, graphics, etc. - take me to the computer. I am currently writing this while flat on my back. My goal is to write for thirty minutes, then get up, walk a bit. Stretch. This part involves draping my body over a large rubber ball. Balance, in all its forms, is not my strong suit. And Bill actually cringes when he sees me lurching wildly before rolling onto the floor with a thud. 

I'm on the ball, sweetheart. Don't quibble about photo quality.
It's hard enough to stay on the thing
much less take a picture with my iPhone.
I'm impressed.

Banned from the living room after nearly pulling a table down on my head, I’m now limited to the bedroom where I can get leverage against the bed frame. 

have a plan to increase my productivity. And sometimes I adhere to it. But I relapse: cross-legged on the sofa, head bent forward, pecking away on a keyboard.  In the kitchen, I stand with weight on one hip, one knee hyperextended, while I stir.

So what does my doctor/therapist/husband do? Does he throw his hands in the air and rant? No. Does he lecture? No. Sunday he walked past me in the kitchen and lightly touched my leg. A quiet reminder of my stance. This morning after we talked about our respective plans for the day, he texted a photo. One that he took Saturday when I wrote my last post. Cross-legged on the sofa, head bent forward, pecking away on a keyboard. Again. Just a quick and dirty get-thoughts-on-”paper” moment, or so I thought. I wrote the whole post that way. 

Bill put the paper down while I was writing and stretched himself over the ball. “Boy, I needed a good stretch. That drive last night left me tight.” That’s all he said. Those words and the photo this morning didn’t scream guilt. Just a quiet, mercy-filled reminder. When I self-correct my stance, he praises me. Makes me giddy with delight. [I think I'm part Labrador or Rottweiler. The good part.] 

I watch Bill treat everyone this way. Because he treats people who can no longer stand upright. Whose feet are turned in so badly they can barely walk. Postural habits wreak havoc on the spine over time. The needless suffering breaks his heart. Much like choices and habits wreak havoc on the soul. And God weeps.

Mercy from my Creator
Not the crushing judgment I deserve
from Bill, from the kiddoes, from complete strangers
Not the harangues I invite
Are my actions, my words, an unfolding as well?
Do they nourish and encourage?
Something to think about today.

Portia speaks in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. . . .
. . .
It is enthron├Ęd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, [Shylock],
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.


GretchenJoanna said...

For many long periods, adding up to years, my back problems prevented me from sitting much at all. A friend gave me a kneeling chair that was a life saver -- without it I had to stand, walk, or lie down. I kneeled at the table, at the computer, etc. Do they still make those things?

Celeste said...

They do make them. I asked Bill about this. His comment is that, without periodic interruption of sitting (stand, walk, stretch, lie down), the load shifts to the knees and the anterior-whatchamacallit then deteriorates. I aggravated (translation: did all the things I shouldn't do) my back and it became inflamed...thus, Celeste's Big Ole Time-Out. We have a tall work table with stools that allow my legs to drop properly and my back to arch properly. Once I get past this acute phase, I'll be a tad more normal (For me, this has always been a stretch. I know, bad pun.) His advice: use the kneeling stool but make sure to interrupt the stillness before the load shifts to the knees and causes your anterior thingy to be damaged. Aren't we just a load of fun?

Celeste said...

By the way, Ms. Gladsome Lights, I failed to mention how nice is always is to hear from you. Wishing you a blessed Lenten season. Your posts are an important part of mine. Thank you.