As Though I Had Wings

 

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I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings. [1]

I am continually inspired by Mary Oliver’s poetry, today by her phrase, “as though I had wings.” In the past six months or so — since my kidney transplant — I have felt a little wing-less. Not so unusual, because a transplant — before, during and after — is a rather big deal, like a super colossal deal! If I ever thought the enormous physical challenge would be the surgery itself, I was wrong. I think I deluded myself on that. The aftershocks of the surgery proved to be enormous and enduring. Hence, my lack of wings.

Everywhere, one can see eloquently expressed promises of wings. You and I can “mount up with wings as eagles”[2] or “take the wings of the morning.” [3]  There is even a wing promise that God will “raise you up on eagle’s wings.” [4]

I know the promises and I love them, but I also love how poet Mary Oliver brings it all down to where I live — on shifting sands in an ever-shifting world. She expresses it like this: “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things . . . to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.” [5]

All of a sudden, I have a critical assignment, something I must do myself and for myself. It seems to me that I must start by focusing on my mind, thinking again of things noble and dangerous. Then I must allow my mind (my will) to move through my heart and soul, to the very center of my being, because there is the place inside me where dangerous acts are weighed and noble acts can become resolve. In one of the common phrases of my faith — an admonition I heard in church over and over again — a pastor or teacher would say, “count the cost.”

Here’s where I am honest. So I must admit that doing noble things has seemed impossible for me in the past few years. Prior to my illness, my life was a constant journey of determining the danger of noble things and doing them anyway. I miss the life of being a pastoral presence to a dying patient. I miss keeping vigil in the ER family room with grieving parents mourning the death of a child. I miss offering a memorial service  for a dear congregant and friend. I miss comforting victims of sexual assault as police officers question them, sometimes brusquely and accusingly. I miss trauma counseling with persons who have endured horrific emotional and physical trauma. I miss forensic interviewing even the youngest child victim of abuse. I miss standing firm as a court advocate for child victims of sexual abuse. I even miss being thrown out of the courtroom by a persnickety judge who did not appreciate the intensity level of my advocacy.

I miss it all. It was dangerous. All of this work was dangerous and it was noble. I could do it because of wings — the wings God gave me when I determined I would do dangerous and noble things and do them with urgency.

What about now, this season of my life? What am I doing that’s dangerous and noble? Should I even expect to be able to face danger at my age, with my physical limitations? Last night, a friend listened to me list all the things I cannot do when very intently she interrupted me and asked, “Kathy, what can you do?” She continued, as she so often does, “Your life is not about the things you can’t do. It’s about the things you can do!”

She nailed it. Perhaps she even nailed me, albeit with some gentleness. So I have to sit awhile with that provoking question: “What can you do?” I have to sit with that question with God close by to guide me and Spirit near to remind me of Spirit-wind and Spirit-fire. I am not precluded from Spirit-wind because of age or Spirit-fire because of physical limitations. It is up to me to discern what I need in my life right now. Will I be satisfied with what I have done in the past and let myself off the hook? What dangerous and noble things will I take on?

I cannot help but think of so many nurses and doctors who are caring for persons with COVID19 — how they enter the ICU knowing that a deadly virus is there, believing that they could take the virus home to their families. Dangerous and noble! Somehow, Spirit-wind is raising them up for the task.

I wonder if you have thought about this for yourself, considering the cost of doing dangerous and noble things. Have you considered that the things you are already doing — feeding the poor, caring for the sick, taking a meal to an elderly person sheltered alone in her home — are all dangerous and noble things? That you show mercy to others as you go? That you weep for a broken world with so many broken people in it? That you share in Christ’s compassion?

“Dangerous and noble things! Afraid of nothing as if we had wings!” [6]

I’ve given all of this a lot of thought and I think we might get our wings after we have made the determination to give ourselves to noble things, no matter the danger. I think we get wings when we move to the urgency of Christ’s compassion, when our rhythms begin to emulate the rhythms of God. I think we get wings when we have determined in our hearts and souls to act — after we have counted the cost and have said “Yes!”

Again, the eloquence of the poet may most fully express my deepest longing and yours.

I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings . . .

What I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world. [7]

May God make it so for us.

 



1 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
2 Isaiah 40:31
3 Psalm 139:9
4 “On Eagles Wing’s” composed by Michael Joncas
5 Starlings in Winter, a poem by Mary Oliver
6 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
7 The Ponds, a poem by Mary Oliver

A Very Unruly Woman of God

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Watercolor by Kathy Manis Findley

She described herself as an unruly woman of God — Mechthild of Magdeburg. “I want also to circle higher still,” she wrote in one of her mystical poems. She had her first vision of the Holy Spirit at the age of twelve. As a young woman, she left her home and “renounced worldly honour and worldly riches.” She was an ascetic, a writer and a mystic who viewed God’s will in unorthodox ways. Her criticism of church dignitaries for religious laxity and claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that some called for the burning of her writings. Her words seemed to have kept her in deep trouble!

Her story reminded me of Sue Monk Kidd’s book, “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter,” a book that set me on a pilgrimage in 1996 that changed my life. This was a book that screamed out to me, “Find your own soul! Nourish it! Protect it! Bind it closer to God’s soul and, for the first time, live out God’s call to you!”

Sue Monk Kidd said this as she reflected on writing the book’s first edition:

“The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” sparked heated, sometimes scathing reactions, including public accusations of heresy, boycotts of my lectures, and a plethora of derisive letters in my mailbox. One of the more memorable began: Dear Whore of Babylon. It was the “Dear” part that made is so indelible.

This statement rings true when I contemplate the life of Mechthild of Magdeburg. Before we get back to her, though, let’s look for a moment at The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, the book that left me with these nuggets of wisdom I will always hold close.

How many times have I denied my innermost wisdom and silenced this voice? How many times can a woman betray her soul before it gives up and ceases calling to her at all?

We must wake up, journey, name, challenge, shed, reclaim, ground, and heal.

When someone tries to put you back into a box from which you’ve already escaped, you might recall a line from the Indian poet Mirabai. She said, “I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders and now you want me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious!}

As women we have a right to ask the hard questions. The only way I have ever understood, broken free, emerged, healed, forgiven, flourished, and grown powerful is by asking the hardest questions and then living into the answers through opening up to my own terror and transmuting it into creativity. I have gotten nowhere by retreating into hand-me-down sureties or resisting the tensions that truth ignited.

The main thing is to stop struggling and nourish yourself. When you nourish yourself, your creative energy is renewed. You are able to pick up your lyre again and sing.

— Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter

Yes! Sing, and even dance your dissident dance! Your song may sound to all those around you like a revolutionary song, discordant to their ears. Your dancing may scandalize your observers. Still — Sing! Dance! — to the stirrings of Spirit within you!

2869C069-C448-475D-87A3-447D55A041B6That’s exactly what Mechthild of Magdeburg did and the religious world labeled her unruly. In her book, Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), she described her visions of God. She could not read and write in Latin, but she is known for being the first mystic to write in German. Her confessor, Heinrich von Halle, finally persuaded her in 1250 to write down her visions and spiritual experiences. She did this in her own hand, in the conviction that it was God’s will.

By 1270, six of the seven books of the “Flowing Light” were brought to parchment, collected and given chapter titles by Heinrich. Mechthild saw her book as a message to both believers and clergy, for she feared the church was in danger of being hollowed out from within; she called the powerful church officials, who often enjoyed worldly luxury, “stinking billy-goats.”

Thus, Mechthild was known as a very unruly woman of God — a defiant, dissident and radical rebel! “Stinking billy-goats!” No wonder she became known for her “rebelliousness and unorthodox ways.” The community she was a part of, the Beguine order, was known for the same kind of unorthodox rebelliousness. 

The Beguine order was a Christian religious movement active in Northern Europe during the 13th-16th centuries. The Beguines were women who lived as nuns in semi-monastic communities. Through their intense devotion to God and their somewhat ascetic lifestyle, they came to be known for their acts of rebellion and their unorthodox ways.

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Watercolor art: 2019; by Kathy Manis Findley

Mechthild of Magdeburg definitely danced to her own music!

With her order, she was part of a great spiritual revival movement of the thirteenth century, a time when the Catholic Church was falling into disfavor. The Beguines sought to imitate the life Christ through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion.

With advancing age, Mechthild was blind. She was alone, still the object of much criticism. With singing silenced and dancing impossible, she was left to sing songs in her heart and dance the dances of her imagination, always seeking Spirit promptings.

Some scholars have speculated that, due to increased persecution and failing health, Mechthild was forced to retire to the convent of Helfta around 1270. There, she met three other notable writers of the time, Gertrude of Hackeborne, Mechthild of Hackeborne, and Gertrude the Great. Helfta was a good place for a writer such as Mechthild. Under the leadership of Gertrude of Hackeborne, Helfta had become a hub of learning and writing for women and a center for book collecting, copying and illumination.

Still, Mechthild portrayed herself as a reluctant writer urged on by God and her director to continue her work. She calls her director “my dear schoolmaster,” who taught her, “simple and stupid as I am, to write this book.” About the urging of God she said, “I cannot nor do I wish to write “unless feeling the power of the Holy Spirit.” At one point, Mechthild wondered why God did not choose a priest rather than herself for this work, and she is told that God always seeks out the lowest and smallest so that “unlearned lips can teach the learned tongues of the Holy Spirit.”

In spite of the fact that Mechthild was unable to read and write in Latin, these are some powerful quotes by the graceful mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg, from her book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), where she describes her visions of God.

The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.

If you love the justice of Jesus Christ more than you fear human judgment then you will seek to do compassion. Compassion means that if I see my friend and my enemy in equal need, I shall help them both equally. Justice demands that we seek and find the stranger, the broken, the prisoner and comfort them and offer them our help. Here lies the holy compassion of God that causes the devils much distress.

From suffering I have learned this: that whoever is sore wounded by love will never be made whole unless she embraces the very same love which wounded her.

A Light of utmost splendor glows on the eyes of my soul. Therein have I seen the inexpressible ordering of all things, and recognized God’s unspeakable glory — that incomprehensible wonder — the tender caress between God and the soul . . . the unmingled joy of union, the living love of eternity as it now is and evermore shall be.


I cannot dance, Lord,
unless you lead me.

If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.

Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment
beyond all human sensations.

There I want to remain,
yet want also to circle higher still.

— Mechthild of Magdeburg

Like her, I want to “circle higher still.” I want to escape from chains that shackle the highest expression of my spirit. I want to sing the songs God placed in my heart! I want to dance to the Spirit’s rhythm hidden in my spirit!

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Acrylic art by Kathy Manis Findley

Without fear! Without fear . . .

taking the journey set before me to follow Christ into places of poverty, fear, sickness, desperation. Breaking the rules if I must. Taking criticism if I must. Being persecuted if that is in the cards for me. I want to move forward into my calling with the Spirit of God upon me . . .


The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.

 — Luke 4:18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

May God make it so for us. Amen.