The Prayer

Today I remember another day, a day thirteen years ago when I sat near the prayer table in our school atrium. Around me were gathered fifteen third graders who were waiting for me to talk about what had happened the day before, to offer them God’s explanation of the images they had seen playing in continuous loop on their television screens at home: planes crashing into the twin towers; fiery, collapsing buildings; ash strewn streets filled with crying people.

My heart was a desert. My tongue sered dry of words.

I escaped to the lesson plan I had prepared the week before, the week before we knew the terror, uncertainty, and grief that the day before had brought.

“We are studying the Maxims today,” I mumbled, refusing to meet their eyes. “A maxim is a moral commandment. These are commandments Jesus gave us.”

I rolled out the mat. Placed the ark containing the scriptures on the mat. Kept my eyes averted.

“Let’s take them out and see what we find.”

I took the set of tablets from the ark and shuffled them, face down, spread them in a fan on the floor, and asked three children to pick one tablet each and read it to themselves silently. Then while these three sat back to turn over their chosen tablets and discover the scripture written upon it, I scooped up the remaining tablets and returned them to the cabinet.

While I was still occupied, my eyes averted, I heard the first child begin to read the tablet he had chosen randomly from the stack.

“Pray for those who persecute you,” he read.

The stillness and silence in the room seemed suddenly expectant, as though an invisible presence waited amongst us.

I looked up and saw another child looking at me, her eyes asking if she too should read her tablet aloud.  I nodded to her.

“Love your enemies,” she read.

The silence felt like a great weight, and I felt an unreasonable anger well up in me.  No, these were not the words I wanted to hear.  I was afraid of the friends I might have lost; I was grieving those I knew I had lost.  While grappling with these emotions I heard the last child begin:

“I give you a new commandment.  Love one another as I have loved you.”

What could this mean? How could I approach these texts on this day, this September 12th, this day when the world had changed around us forever?

The children asked if we could light more candles on the prayer table, and so we did.  They asked if we could pass the prayer cross around and pray together, and we did.  Prayers for comfort, prayers for the injured, prayers for the responders were all offered.

The class of seven year olds left; the next class of seven year olds entered.  Again, I introduced the term “maxim.” Again, I shuffled the tablets and placed them face down in a fan on the floor. Again three children picked from amongst the fifteen tablets a few at random.

The first child read, “Love your enemies.”

The second child read, “Pray for those who persecute you.”

The third child read, “I give you a new commandment; love one another as I have loved you.”

Again, I sat speechless, struggling against these words that hammered me like stone tablets.

“It’s like Jesus,” said a small red head with a large bow.  “He told God to forgive the people who hurt him on the cross.”

The children all nodded.

Then one young boy who had been sitting in contemplation, rereading over and over the tablets which had by now been placed on a mat before the prayer table, looked up.

“Ms. Kay, isn’t God everywhere?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Remember how you told us that there are two kinds of time? That our time goes only one direction, and we can’t go back, but that for God all times are one time?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Then, Ms. Kay, can we pray for God to be with the people who flew those planes, to help them not be so sad and angry?  If we pray for them, and if God is in our time and their time too, then perhaps God will give our love to them and will help them.  Maybe then no one will be sad.”

It was not what I had wanted to pray. What I had been unconsciously praying all day  was a simpler, harsher prayer: “Give them, Lord, what they deserve.”  Yet in the expectant silence, in the midst of that invisible presence, and with the eyes of fifteen trusting children upon me, I knew my unspoken prayer took on a new meaning. Give them, give them all, the children in the room, the lost in the two towers, the hijackers, the mighty in their places, and the powerless in their refugee camps, give them all what they truly deserve: a love which knows no limits, a time when no one will be sad, a future when “nation shall not lift up arms against nation.” This was a prayer which could fill the room with light, peace, comfort, and meaning.

Yes, this was a prayer we could offer. I knew on that day, and I believe it still, that there will come a day when no one will hurt or destroy in all this holy creation, when “they shall beat their swords into pruning hooks and their spears into plowshares.” (Isaiah 2:4) I long for that time proclaimed in Isaiah when all creation will be sustained in harmony, and nothing living will inflict pain on any other living creature simply because “the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11)  Believing in the power of prayer to change the hearts of all men, in all times and all circumstances and spiritual conditions, we bowed our heads and prayed.

And prayer indeed worked miracles.  In one angry heart, in a small school in Texas,  vengeance and suffering was soothed though God’s grace to become, if not not sad, at least at peace . . . and trusting in a day to come.

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The Atrium and Nature: Sorting through the Sorting Materials

The mother and child peeked into the atrium as I was tidying away the materials left from the kindergarten group that had just left. Peering up over her glasses, the four year old bounced up on her toes, making the large bow on her red hair tremble and slip further sideways.

“Miss Kay, I want to show my mom the book,” she whispered.

“Of course,” I replied. The little girl grabbed her mother’s hand and tugged her towards the windows at the back of the room to the nature table. There on a square of soft felt rested the magnifying glass, an amethyst geode, a chunk of citrine, and a pyrite sun still embeded in its slate. Next to the specimans lay a pictorial guide to rocks and minerals.

Eagerly the small child opened the book, located the images which matched the objects on the table, then picking up the magnifying glass and chattering excitedly about the minerals, she urged her mother to examine the specimans with her.

Later, as the mother and daughter left the room, the mother thanked me.

“She just loves the objects in your room,” she said. “For the last three weeks, all I’ve heard about is “The Book.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I’ve promised we will find one for her. We’ve had to start collecting all kinds of rocks on every one of our walks; thank you for helping her really see the world around her.”

I was very grateful for her appreciation. I’m often self-conscious about my tendency toward natural history collections. A spring time walk with my husband will often bring us both home with hands full of objects I’ve picked up from the sidewalks and grass lawns of our neighborhood. At conferences I’m known to spend my breaks scanning the exterior surroundings for seed pods or lichens. Long after a colleague and I took an accreditation visit together to a distant school, he still teases me for the handfuls of bur oak acorns I celebrated finding there.

sorting eggsYet they do not see what I see in my atrium every day. I’ve had students look at the perfect cones of beatiful blue robins’ eggs and become angry because “the candy has already been eaten” from them; been afraid to touch the selenite roses because “rocks are dirty”; ask how I painted the stripes on the sea urchin tests.

I’ll never forget the day a child asked what the maple wings were which I’d found on my walk the night before. When I showed him how it spun and spiraled down after being tossed in the air, the contagion of excitement in the room was such that we had to leave the atrium and go outside to spend the rest of the class with every child throwing the seeds upward and running to catch them as they floated, spinning earthward. Imagine growing up surrounded by such a simple thing — a maple wing — and never knowing that it was designed to fly! Imagine not knowing that a robin’s egg contained a baby bird, not Easter candy, or that sea urchin tests come in a glorious diversity of colored stripes dependent upon the unique species into which their Maker made them.

sorting shellsA primary goal of Montessori education and of the children’s work in a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium is the orientation of the child to the reality in which they live. Such orientation to the beauty and generosity of the creation around them is the goal of the nature table in a Montessori room. A nature table — by providing a changing variety of natural objects in a space in which children are encouraged to examine them and in which children are given time to enter into meditative contemplation of them — assists children in falling in love with exploration of the natural world. It also invites the children into wonder over the creation as a great treasure given them by the Creator, to see the history of the kingdom of God as a history of God creating gifts for those whom God loves.

More than at any time in history, our children need these introductions to the created order. In 2005 Richard Louv first published his book, The Last Child in the Woods, and coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to diagnose a generation of children who are growing up without unstructured experiences in the natural environment. Louv argued that the human cost of “alienation from nature” was measured in “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses”. In 2011 Great Britain’s National Trust published a Natural Childhood report which suggests that “UK children are losing contact with nature at a ‘dramatic’ rate and their health and education are suffering.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17495032

The Natural Childhood study and Louv’s book identify consequences of alienating children from nature. Impaired abilities to learn from experience, under-developed traits of compassion and stewardship, obesity, decreased mental health and happiness are just a few of the results of nature deficit highlighted.

Exposure to nature however can rapidly reverse all of these. Studies have shown that ADHD symptoms improve when children are exposed to natural environments and that obesity drops and joy increases in children who are encouraged to enjoy unstructured, outdoor activities. In the Natural Childhood study, a surprising discovery was that children reported that their happiness depended more upon having things to do outside than in having more technological devices.

Are our schools meeting these needs of the children for nature? I recently spoke with a friend at another school who had searched her teacher’s workroom for natural materials to include in her Level 1 atrium sorting work. Common to all pre-school classrooms now, sorting works were introduced in Maria Montessori’s Casa dei Bambini. Comprised of a series of objects — say acorns, walnuts, and chestnuts clustered in a bowl — the work develops a child’s ability to observe and categorize objects by their characteristics. Because my friend, like me, liked to change the objects in the sorting work on a regular basis to invite interest and promote wonder, she had searched the workroom for something new to add to the work in the atrium.

She had searched to no avail. Oh, yes, she shared, if she had wanted to incorporate fluffy pompoms in varying sizes or colors or rubber erasers shaped like bunnies, eggs, or snowmen, such bits and pieces would have been plentiful. But she was searching for materials that would draw the children into wonder about the world around them, natural items which might inspire a response of love and stewardship for the abundant gifts of the creation. Plastics, Asian rubber toys, and colorful mass produced craft items abounded in the workroom, but nary a natural object was to be found.

Her futile search of the workroom revealed how nearly our contemporary environments often alienate our children from the created order around them. At home and at school we too often immerse our children with man-made objects in order to entertain them, and we find that this creates within them a craving for ever more, ever newer toys which lose value almost at the moment of their possession. By doing so we end up divorcing them from the reality of the world in which they live, depriving them of the joy of existing within endless abundance. This deprivation deviates a child’s natural development, his vital exigency for exploration, and, in addition to the consequences mentioned above, forces a child’s mind to find pleasure in fantasy rather than satisfaction in imagination.

What is the difference? Fantasy views the creation as incomplete and seeks to fill it with creatures which never existed. Imagination in comparison draws the child into wonder at the endless abundance of a creation so filled with miracles that the child encountering it is pulled ever deeper into its exploration. Or as Stephen Moss, the author of the Natural Childhood report, has said, “This is about changing the way children grow up and see the world. The natural world doesn’t come with an instruction leaflet, so it teaches you to use your creative imagination.”

So what are some readily accessible, natural materials for the sorting work in our atria? Our everyday environment presents a diversity and abundance of natural objects readily available for us.

The grocery store is a treasure house of sensory experiences from nature: whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, anise stars, and nutmegs are examples found on just one aisle. sorting seedsOn nature walks in my urban neighborhood I have picked up acorns of different species of oaks; cones from junipers, pines, and cedars; seeds balls of sycamore and poplar trees; the halves of robin, cardinal, sparrow and other bird eggs; a diversity of feathers; autumn leaves from oaks, maples, and Chinese pistache trees;and buds of hollyhocks, roses, and daisies from my own garden. A trip to San Francisco allowed me to bring back a tupperware container filled with eucalyptus nuts and their heady fragrance. On vacations by the sea my beach walks have yielded sea shells of endless diversity, shark’s teeth in sizes from less than a millimeter to as large as my palm, miniscule sand dollars, bits of coral, and even tiny horseshoe crab exoskeletons. My local farmers’ market brings a rainbow of organic heirloom seeds in varying sizes and shapes (care should be taken to ensure that seeds provided in a sorting work are non-toxic and free of pesticides and herbicides). Trips to science museums and mineral galleries have unearthed simple fossils such as orthoceras, ammonites, coprolites, and Green River formation fish as well as beautiful points of amethyst, citrine, flourite, and specimans of copper, pyrite, turquoise, optical calcite, selenite balls, and others minerals too numerous to mention. For all of these mineral specimans, I have sought untumbled and unpolished stones so that children can hold the natural material in their hands and see it unchanged from the state in which it was created.

sorting crystalsWhen presented with such objects, even in so simple a material as a sorting work, the world opens up to the child, and his attention is now gained by the abundant diversity of nature around him. Time seems to stop for the child who becomes fascinated by the light reflected back from the heart of a quartz crystal, who becomes wrapt in contemplation of the iridescence of a donkey’s ear abalone, who abandons himself to the scent of a cinnamon stick or wand of lavendar.

sorting conesAwakened interests in natural history can be extended by providing larger specimans of the natural materials at a “museum table” complete with a magnifying glass or microscope for children to use in their explorations of the materials’ appearances and properties. Older children who have become adept at reading can return to these same materials again if provided with simple printed guides to minerals or shells which allow the child to identify and categorize these objects using more sophisticated elements of classification.

Does this emphasis on natural materials belong within a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium? Absolutely.  Much can be said about the place of natural objects from the creation in the spiritual and moral formation of children, and a future post will explore the relationship between wonder, enjoyment, prayer, and the moral response of stewardship.

 

The Covenant in My Coffee

Amidst the multitude of wedding gifts which my husband and I received was one I set aside as insignificant.  There among the crystal, china, silver, and the linens – so exciting in their purity and sparkle – the small box with the two tear-shaped prisms seemed sadly out-of-place.  Now that I think back, I don’t even remember seeing them set out on the tables of gifts displayed at the reception; perhaps my mother herself thought them too small to display to the public.

I remember receiving them though, sitting on the couch and oohing and wowing at each beautiful gift box I opened at that one shower.  My husband’s maternal aunt had given them to me, offering her gift in her shaky hand as if the contents of her box were as precious as the rarest and most fragile jewel she possessed.

“These have meant the world to me,” she said as I opened her box.  “I always thank God for them each morning as I drink my coffee.  I don’t know how I would have found my way without them.”

Not really listening, I looked at the sad teardrops nestled in the yellowing cotton wool, and, already having dismissed them, already looking forward to the next gift, I murmured out some half-gracious reply and promptly forgot them.

* * *

Weeks later, after the honeymoon, I found them again while unpacking in my new home.  I am sorry to say that I nearly carried them to the barn and put them away in storage, but some memory stirred in my mind of the wistful joy I had half-heard in the voice of P.J.’s aunt as she offered me these bits of her life.  I washed them carefully, took a bit of twine, and – more to please my husband by honoring his aunt than for any other reason – hung them from the curtain rod above my kitchen sink.

And then I forgot about them again.  You see, the window above my sink faced east, and I have never been an early riser.  So I would come into the kitchen each morning long after the splendor of the morning sun had passed, and I would see only two chunks of oddly cut glass which gathered dust hanging in front of my window.  I wondered occasionally why they had been so special to my husband’s aunt.  Had they been gifts from her husband?  From a child?  Or perhaps from a childhood sweetheart?

 * * *

After our son was born, it became a tradition of mine to read morning prayer to him as he ate his morning cereal.  Belted in his high chair, he was a captive audience, and he responded to this attention with coos of delight.   As he grew older, outgrowing his high chair and his belt altogether, he outgrew this morning ritual too.  By the time he turned two, I had stopped including him in my reading for the simple fact that he had finished his breakfast and gone to his toy box before I would have even finished the reading of a psalm.  Even then, I began to anticipate having another child with whom I could resume this morning ritual.  Little did I know then that my son’s ability to sleep in with me in the morning was an anomaly; not all infants are born as owls who sleep more deeply as the sun begins to rise.

My second child took after her father and chose to be a lark.  Up at the slightest crack of dawn, she was impatient to get after everything the new day had to offer.  I don’t remember ever drinking coffee in the morning before Lauren was born; I couldn’t have survived the mornings after her birth without it.  Groggy and still half-asleep, I would carry her to her high chair in the dim half-light of pre-dawn, hang unsteadily to the handle of the microwave until her bottle and cereal was ready, and then slump into my chair with a comforting cup of warm, milky coffee in my hand.  Yet even in those painfully early hours, I hoped to recapture those joyful prayer sessions with my daughter, and when the warm caffeine began to flow through my veins, I would open my prayer book and try to begin.

Oh, alas, for young parents who expect all of their children to be alike!

Where my son had been attentive, my daughter was restless.  Where my son had been welcoming and malleable, my daughter was fiercely independent and well set in her opinions by the age of three months.  Where my son had had the attention span of a well-intentioned adult, my daughter was frankly disinterested within a matter of minutes.  So much for recapturing the joy of communal prayer in the pre-dawn hours!  As she fussed, I became more frustrated.

Then one spring morning, angrily giving up on yet another frustrating attempt to read even the opening collect of the office, I heard her coo with delight.  Looking up, I saw her reaching for my coffee mug with a look of joy and fascination.  There on my mug, covering my mug, dancing even in its interior rim, were rainbows.  The morning sun had pierced the window over my sink, and shining through the two dull prisms hanging there had made my coffee, my kitchen into a wonderland.

We shared that morning simply the joy of the rainbows.  I would chase them for her or make them dance madly by spinning the crystals in the window.  She would laugh in peals of glorious, musical laughter at the swirling colors around her.   Those rainbows brought us together as nothing in the months prior had, and as the rainbows in my coffee became a morning ritual for us, we learned to love each other more each day.

I would like to say that on that first morning I had a revelation about the prisms, but that would be untrue.  Over the years, as I sipped my milky coffee or made the prisms dance in the sunlight for my daughter, I thought about them, and only slowly did I come to understand what they mean to me and what a gift I was given on that long ago wedding day.

Those rainbows helped me understand the relationship I had not only with my daughter, but also my son, my husband, and all of the members of the community of God who I encounter in my journey through creation.

I came to understand that I was wrong to look to my daughter to be the reproduction of her brother or the replica of myself.  We were all of us, different as we were, like three adjacent facets on one of those prisms. We thought we knew clearly where our boundaries lay, where she or he or I began and ended, yet we did not know the greater things.  We had forgotten that we were not the maker of the prism, nor the source of the light which shone through us.

Long before our awareness even began, greater hands had taken a clump of wet sand and subjected the mud to so intense a fire that the sand was purified into crystal clarity.  Loving, unknown hands had carved this crystal to a design that only the maker fully understood, shaping each facet to reflect its own and individual beauty and binding each facet to its neighbors to create a greater beauty than any facet could present on its own.  A powerful and joyful light shone though us, giving us the ability to each, in our own way and in our own turn, release a small part of the great spectrum of that light into the world around us.

It is an uncomfortable fact of life that as we grow older we can no longer sleep in as we did when we were younger.  My bed no longer feels as comfortable to my fifty-year old arthritic body as it did when I was twenty, and so most mornings for several years now, I have been up and watching the rainbows in my coffee.  On most of those mornings, I see in my coffee those colorful reminders of the covenant of love which binds all of us in creation.  I believe that this daily reminder of God’s love for me, of my relationship to his other creatures and my fellow men, and of the precious gifts which he gives each of us to share with the world, has helped me be more loving and patient whenever trouble or discord has developed in my relationships.

I think now, on my daughter’s distant wedding day, I will take these crystals down from my window and carefully pack them in cotton wool in a beautifully wrapped box.  And then I will offer them to her as though they were the most rare and precious jewels I possess.  “Take them,” I will say. “These have meant the world to me; I always thank God for them each morning as I drink my coffee.  I don’t know how I would have found my way without them.”

I hope she will find the message in them that I found, and that she will be as grateful some day as I am now when I remember that dear, wonderful aunt of my husband’s whose hand shook as she offered her greatest gift to me.

Of Zacchaeus, Holy Week, And My Grandmother’s Favorite Song

Amazing Grace was my grandmother’s favorite hymn. I used to hear her humming it while the fried chicken sizzled in the Crisco of her electric skillet. Then, in the dreamy carefree vacation time when love was as simple as the measuring scoop sunk full in the sunlit flour of her kitchen, Amazing Grace was a song of summer. Each summer my family loaded up the station wagon and, like lost Okies, drove from the green California hills across the Nevada and Arizona deserts to the sun-baked paradise of Grandmother’s house in Oklahoma where love abided.

I was proud that someone had written such a beautiful song about my Grandmother. Grace Ensor was a kind, gentle woman who was true blue from the hair on her head to the loyal faith she had in those she loved. So, at the age of five, I wasn’t surprised that someone had written a song about her. I too thought she was amazing.

The only part of the song that confused me was that part about being lost and being found. I couldn’t remember my grandmother ever finding me. I could, however, clearly remember being lost.

It was the Christmas of my kindergarten year, and my parents had taken my brothers and me to the Cornish Christmas celebration in a neighboring town.  I was enthralled by everything that I saw: the costumed tommy-knockers who capered in the parade, the softly falling snow, the scent of the hot Cornish pasties for sale on the corner, and, most especially, the display of Christmas toys in the shop windows. Barbie with her platinum hair piled into a beehive waved from one window while Chatty Kathy called from another. Childhood offers tough decisions, but standing there I knew that if only I could have both of those beautiful dolls I would be happy until the day I died. I grabbed my mother’s sleeve, turned to tell her of my idea about the meaning of true happiness, and then everything I thought I knew came crashing to pieces.

The sleeve I had grabbed was not my mother’s. In fact, I could not see my mother anywhere. Or my father. Or my brothers. I knew then that silver haired Barbie and silver tongued Cathy meant nothing; my happiness, my whole world, depended on me finding my family again.

Of course, I didn’t.

I was too small.

The crowd was too large for a five year old to be able to find anyone in the crush of celebrators.

My parents, however, had realized that I was lost even before I knew it myself, and they had started a search for me. The place in my chest that had become empty and scary when I discovered I was lost overflowed with true and utter bliss when my mother’s arms scooped me back into her love, safe once more. So you see, my grandmother couldn’t have been the one in the song who found me. My mother had found me. I knew; I had proof; I had been there.

Little did I know then that being lost was a characteristic, a type of trait in the children of my family.  Perhaps this characteristic of being lost was what had drawn me to my husband when we were just young things in love. Perhaps I knew in some telepathic way that he too had been lost in his youth, had at the age of four rambled away from his mother in the mountains of New Mexico and had gone missing for eight hours. Of course, unlike me, he had delayed his finding like a true prodigal by refusing the assistance of those who found him. “Oh no”, he assured the man who found him. “I can’t go with you. My mother told me never to get in a stranger’s car.” So like all the lost who are found, his father and mother came to him.

Once when I was playful, I called him Zacchaeus. Just as my grandmother loved the hymn Amazing Grace, I loved the story of Zacchaeus. Because I could remember first hand the joy of being found, I could hear a million times the story of the short little man found in the tree by Christ. Like me, Zacchaeus had gone to see a parade, had been short, too short to find security in the midst of a crowd, and like me and my husband, he became the found, not the finder, despite his intentions.

If my husband and I bear the imprint of Zacchaeus, then the type strikes true in our son. Our similarities resonate in our offspring. Like his mother and father before him, our son is a master of getting lost. Far more painful than the memory of being lost myself is the remembrance of the time he disappeared in the blink of an eye from my side. He was four, we were walking one bright and sunny day into the museum where I worked, and then suddenly I was alone. He had taken a path different from the one I had chosen for us, and suddenly he was no longer with me, no longer where I could protect him and keep him safe.

Like my mother before me, I called the police, and we began a search for him which seemed to stretch for millenia. We searched every room, every closet, every nook and every cranny of that museum to no avail. It wasn’t until we had searched the surrounding park without finding him that the officer in charge asked for his complete description in order to put out an Amber Alert. At that moment I knew the true terror and despair of loss.

Beau, Beau, my son, my son was gone, he was lost, and I would have given my very life to find him and keep him safe. At that moment, before I could reply, I had to close my eyes, grip the reality of the torn and rough upholstery of the patrol car seat, and squeeze out from behind tightly closed eyes and mouth a heartfelt prayer, “Dear God, please find him; please find him safe and unharmed; please place him in my arms again.” Then, just as I opened my mouth to offer his description, the police radio crackled to life: “A man in white is waving in the parking lot; he appears to be carrying a child who matches the suspect’s description.” Soon, when I squeezed my son with all my being and asked if he had been afraid, he said with a wisdom beyond his years, “No. I knew you would find me.”

You see, somehow, even as a child, he knew – as I had not – that being lost is not about finding your way. It’s about being found, and Love is about finding.

Of course, by then I knew that my grandmother’s favorite song wasn’t just about her, and the next time we sang Amazing Grace in church, I suddenly realized that grace is only appreciated by those who have understood they are lost and who have suffered the emptiness such awareness brings.   Grace, like any true gift, is not sought. Like the love of my mother one Christmas long ago, it comes as a surprise and a great relief and brings joy more fulsome than I imagined at age five when I thought possessing beautiful toys would bring me happiness til the end of my days.

I share with my brothers, my husband, my son, Zacchaeus, the lost lambs of the Good Shepherd parables, and all of God’s children, a spiritual — not geographic — characteristic of being lost. Grace is the gift of the one who is searching. It was the gift of the Finder to all creation before our human history even began. And perhaps we remember this most appropriately in Holy Week, when our Father proved to us, to all of his children, that he so loves each of us, he would allow no power in the universe, not even death, to separate even one of us from him.

The last time we sang my grandmother’s favorite song in her presence was at her funeral. And that time, when the sunfilled emptiness near the flour cannister and skillet of her kitchen outlined so sharply the horizons of the love we had known there, the hymn was a comfort rather than a source of pride.

What is death?

What is death?  How can it be that at one moment life isn’t visible and that at the next we stand holding a living, breathing, wriggling infant in our arms?  And where does life go, when the child we hugged goodbye as he left for school suddenly lies before us without movement or awareness or a spark of that life which made him so real to us?  This spirit which animates each of us uniquely and individually, which provides a personality to each of us which is so unlike any other living being’s, can it suddenly cease to exist or disappear into nothingness?

No.

That life, that anima is eternal, and for just a moment we may glimpse its presence in our lives, for just an instant we may be graced by it as it passes through one stage of its life.

Like the wheat seed we keep treasured in the grain elevators in our communities, the life of our loved ones is present in the stage in which we best understand it, can best hold it in our hands, only for an instant.  Trying to explain his coming death to his disciples Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.”

What does this mean?

Before the great mystery of life and death we are told not to hold on to the present way of seeing, not to try to hold back the growth and transformation of life as it breaks forth into something new, unimagined, and for us, for now, unseen.

Try to hold the wheat seed for ever in the grain elevator, and, at best, it only remains a seed; at worst, never being freed to its purpose, it becomes corrupted.  But once hidden in the ground, the mystery of life itself is revealed, and the life within is set free: free to sink new, deep roots; free to sprout in hope; free to leap joyously sunward.  The seed in the ground appears flat, emptied, where once it was full and rounded to our touch, only because the life within it has sprung exponentially forward into such a miracle of life unleashed that we would marvel over it in every chance meeting, every cup of coffee at the Dairy Queen, if only it weren’t so seemingly commonplace in the yearly cycle of our agricultural lives.

“But if it falls to the ground and dies, it grows and becomes much wheat,” Jesus continued to try to explain to his disciples.

Much wheat.  We can only imagine now how our physical beings are like the seed, holding within an eternal life that is waiting to explode into abundance of life when our physical being falls to the ground and appears empty and flat to those who see us “die”.   We can only imagine, believe, trust, and know in our hearts and faith that which has been promised to us, that which Christ tried through parable to explain to ears that couldn’t quite believe.  The passing of the body here is not the end; it is only the beginning of a new and greater life beyond, a life our loved ones who have passed from us enjoy in abundance and a life which we too will share in our own time.

So I believe with every fiber of my being.

Why?

I remember a time when I glimpsed for a moment that which was beyond this husk, this stage of physical life.  I remember the moment when driving from the ranch to Stratford the hole in the road suddenly appeared before me, and, before I could react, my car flipped.  I remember the impact of the roof in the soft soil of the bar ditch, the spray of glass and soil which struck my face as the windows exploded, the oddly calm thought which crossed my mind, “Well, darn. This is it.”

Yet more real than any of this is what I remember next:  the light, warm and bright, which rushed toward me from a point over my gear shift and which expanded to envelope me like a shield; a presence there of great comfort and peace and joy; a Love that invited and yet simply waited for me in loving patience.

How much time passed in that realm of light?  I would have said to you, years. It felt like, I believe it to be, years.

At some point however, the light changed, became like the ending of a hug withdrawn, and moved away until it disappeared entirely, and I was left to find myself unharmed, hanging upside down from the seat belt, the next verse of the song tinkling from the still playing radio.  The life before the roll, the return to life after, these were that which was unreal; it was the life within that light that was all that was reality.

Love is waiting for us to welcome us into the greatest reality of life, a life so vibrant it is beyond our imagining.  This I know; this I have seen; this I believe.

And I know that sometimes we are given the grace to glimpse this joyous life, that sometimes we are given clear signs which point us with great joy toward the certainty of that life.

I remember the small girl, four or maybe five, who sat bewildered in my school atrium, bewildered because everyone around her was saddened by the presence of her grandmother in hospice.  She had been with me as we had explored the gesture of the preparation of the chalice for the Eucharist, the mixing of the water and the wine.  She had listened to a classmate whisper in wonder, “If the wine is Jesus, then are we the water, hugged in the chalice by him?”  That day they came to pull her out of class, because the family thought the worst had come.

The next time I saw her was the week following the funeral.  As she and her mother entered the preschool doors she saw me, and, running to leap upon me in a flying bear hug, she said, “Miss Kay, my grandma died.”

I hugged her close and said, “I know.  I’m so sorry.”

“No,” she admonished me before bursting out in joy, “Miss Kay, we went to church for my grandma, and my grandma was dancing in the chalice with Jesus!”

Let us become as a child.  Let us see with a child’s eyes the miracle of life which surrounds us.  Let us grieve for the passing of what we could hold in our hands, and let us rejoice with all our being in the Life that goes forth into glorious abundance.  Let us honor the spirit which animated our loved one.  We know the source from which it came; let us not doubt where it has gone.  It is, it lives, and we shall meet again amidst an exaltation of joy.

The Song of the Shepherd

As a child growing up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just a little west and down from Donner Pass, I loved to escape into the forest with an apple, a book, and a sketch pad in my knapsack. I would head to my secret place, a circle of pines so undisturbed that the cushion of pine needles was several feet thick and silence was the music of the day. Scooping up the needles to form a mattress and pillow, I would lie back and become still, and in that stillness and quiet I encountered God.

The nimbus of light on the tips of the pines, the warm colors of the fallen needles which framed the wild tiger lily that grew at the edge of the clearing, the clarity of the luminous sky above: the visual sumptuousness of the space melded with the glory of its silence. I think I can trace my love of art, of poetry, of music back to the richness of that quiet clearing. In the silence of the forest and in the books I read there — the Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, and others — I grew to a deeper relationship with God. Yet when we moved away in sixth grade, my memories of that place and my conscious knowledge of God faded into the background.

I had always planned to be a doctor like my grandfather, but God’s plans for me were quite different. Originally a molecular biochemistry and biophysics major in college, I found my decision to become a physician suddenly turned upside down when I attended a history of art lecture with a friend. Something in the art pierced my heart, and although I struggled to maintain my interest in my science career, I found myself inexplicably drawn to attend more and more lectures in art history. What I then thought was the call of artistic beauty, later in life I came to realize was a response to the call implicit in the Biblical subject matter of the art. Yahweh calls each of us in different ways and reached my heart through slides of nativities and resurrections in university lecture halls.

Changing majors I traveled to Cambridge, England to pursue my graduate degree. It can be no accident that the midway point between my college rooms and the university library was King’s College Chapel. One evening I stumbled through its doors to escape rain pouring down from darkening skies and encountered again the silent music pouring down like grace from heaven. Like my circle of pines before, the Gothic stone forest at King’s College became the place of stillness in which I heard again the voice of God.

Determined to be the first woman director of the National Gallery of Art, I pursued a career in the museum field. God, however, pursued me and pulled me kicking and screaming to a small museum in the fields of the Texas panhandle. There I not only met the love of my life, my husband P.J., but I began a life of desert asceticism in which all but the most important things in life faded away. As a rancher’s wife living forty miles over unpaved roads from the nearest grocery store or Laundromat, I was given an abundance of time to read, be in silence, and think. It was during this desert sojourn that I expressed concern to our small town vicar that our church lacked a Sunday school program for my toddler son.

Before a week had passed, my vicar had sent me to Amarillo to attend a new Christian formation program for adults wishing to work with young children. Although I was a cradle Episcopalian who had attended church with my parents throughout childhood, I had always approached church as mainly a social obligation. Seen through this social lens the formation was stripped of meaning and was only mildly interesting until one day, the day upon which we were presented with the passion narratives. One of the formation leaders, who was both a priest and a catechist, gave a lecture on the origins of the last supper in the Passover traditions of the Jewish people, and somewhere in the midst of that lecture, I was shocked with the revelation, “Well, if this is true . . .” From that moment on, nothing has ever been the same.

I found within the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd both a way of life and a meaning for so many of the facets of my individual being. My love of art was expressed through the making of the materials for the children or the creation of cloths of honor to hang behind our atrium prayer table. My love of stories and storytelling found a purpose in the communication of the scriptures. The majesty of the silence found validation in the catechesis’ premise that the adult sits with the children before the mystery of God rather than serving as a lecturer. My love of music swells the songs with which we greet each mystery and celebration within the atrium. All my gifts could be gathered in one place through one program to be laid before the one God with children who constantly teach me ever more about the divine spirit.

Within three years — that number of divine perfection, I had left my professional job as a strategic development consultant for non-profits, and I found myself pulled into the unending canon of catechesis, first as a volunteer in my churches and then as a teacher in our local Episcopal school. Although I chose to step away from medicine and then later from executive positions which would have seemed to many to offer more in pay and privilege than I make as a catechist, I am richer that I ever dreamed I could be.

Yet still I hunger. I still feel a call to know more and serve more fully the God who whispers my name.  So I sit with the children, observing them, and capturing through my writing more verses of the song sung to them by the shepherd, in order to know better the composer and chief artist of the silent music, and in order to be able to bring back to the children who grace my life a deeper relationship with God than I know how to offer at present.