That Mysterious and Mystical Reality

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Watercolor art by Kalliope, Holy Ghosts

You might be thinking that both mysterious and mystical are the antithesis of reality. If you are thinking that, you might be wrong. So might I. But in my experience, life itself is a mysterious and mystical reality. That reality fills my spirit with hope in my darkest moments. Dark moments, hours of grief, dark nights of the soul, lamentations of the spirit — all have been part of my life journey. My pathways have often been rough and rocky. My life’s travel has often taken me to disconcerting forks in the road and confusing crossroads. I have known times of despairing and times of uncertainty — reluctance, despondency, angst, heartbreak, fear — “break-out-in-a-sweat times” that forced me into dangerous depths of anguish. For me, taking my own life was not something I could consider. Yet there was that one day — that span of just a few moments — when I was alone, afraid and very far from home.

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Japan’s Aokigahara Suicide Forest

One of the most thoughtful and intriguing movies I have ever experienced is The Sea of Trees. I was captivated by the film that tells the story of a despondent professor. After the death of his wife, he despaired of life and searched for a way to end his. His reflective, angst-filled search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as The Sea of Trees or The Suicide Forest. Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

Don’t worry. This post is not about suicide. Rather it is about the people who loved us in life and continue to love us in death, those who watch over us in our times of deepest anguish. It is about the mysterious and mystical reality that between us and our loved ones in heaven, there is but a thin separation. Heaven and earth,” the Celtic saying goes, “are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”

To know that my sweet Yiayia (grandmother in Greek) and my Thea Koula might still be protecting me from harm and life disaster is soul-comforting for me. Perhaps the strength and hope I felt as I was chaplain to disheartened hospital patients came from them. Perhaps they sent me the staying power to comfort, protect and advocate for thousands of abused women and children. Maybe the deep grief of losing my brother to cancer was eased by their prayers from heaven.

I often wondered if my mourning of the loss of the life I knew — replaced by daily dialysis — was lightened by their loving presence with me in a horrible time. I wonder, Yiayia, were you watching over me on November 12th when I closed my eyes in the operating room to receive my kidney transplant? I wonder, Thea Koula, did your intercession save my life on those times when my life literally hung in the balance?

This life is not an easy one. No person gets through life unscathed. No one travels a path smooth and straight. Like me, you have more than likely walked on a rough pathway with stones in the road, dangerous curves and life-altering crossroads. Robert Frost wrote eloquently in his poem, The Road Not Taken, about someone standing at a fork in the road pondering a life-altering choice:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .

Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear . . .

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

My life is filled with “roads not taken,” some not taken by my choice, others thwarted by chance or fate or maybe even God. It is almost like traveling through a “sea of trees” that hide our view of the way ahead, causing us to lose our way. For my art today, I chose one of my watercolor paintings. A few years ago, I painted this “sea” of leafless trees against an ethereal, melancholy wash of color. Interspersed among the trees are ghost-like figures hovering. Actually I titled the painting Holy Ghosts. The painting was inspired by the words of a friend.

When the dead come to mind, they are like holy ghosts, as real as hope or faith, as tangible as trust and love.  – Ragan Courtney

This painting was never meant to be disconcerting or morbid. It represents just the opposite for me. It represents the souls who hover over me for protection, those with whom I shared love and life. It represents my aunt and my Yiayia and my brother because I am certain they protect me, pray for me, lift me up and cheer me on.

Who knows! Maybe my brother Pete, who died of renal cell carcinoma, hovered above me in a kind of holy kidney disease kinship and protected me when I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease in 2014. Maybe he prayed for me during my transplant surgery in 2019. I can, of course, never know that for sure. The veil between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is a mystery we simply do not understand. Our understanding does not reach that far, but what we feel in our spirit does reach that far.

In the end, my spirit senses that between us there is but a thin separation, that the spirits of my loved ones are are connected to mine, especially when I am disconsolate and in despair.

In the comfort of that mysterious and mystical reality, I can heal. I can rest. I can continue my journey of dangers, toils and snares. I can know the amazing grace that comes from sacred connections. I can know peace after sorrow. And so can you.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

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Jesus and the Stubbornly Tenacious Woman from Canaan


Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied,

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

(Matthew 15:21-28)

I wonder . . . was it her faith or her stubborn tenacity that led to her daughter’s healing? Stubbornness is typically not one of the virtues to which Christians aspire. In fact most of Christendom would rebuke a stubborn woman, in ages past as well as in our day. I know this to be truth! I have been rebuked a time or two, or at least received “strong suggestions” that I should dial back my demeanor. The woman of Canaan, though, returned to Jesus again and again until he healed her suffering daughter.

I can be a bit tenacious, but no one would describe me as stubborn. I typically have a very calm and quiet demeanor, but I remember well one of the few times in my life when I was fierce and stubborn. Our son Jonathan was quite young and very sick with severe vomiting, along with strong spasms that caused him to be unable to breathe. The loud inhalations as he struggled to get a breath were extremely frightening to us, especially to him. Jonathan was a strong boy, an athlete, and very self-sufficient, but these long episodes brought him directly to his Momma. We had been to the hospital emergency room and were now in his pediatrician’s office. This violent gasping for air had been going on for hours, and it should have been obvious to the office staff that Jonathan was in trouble.

Now they would know real trouble!

Jonathan had another violent attack. I jumped up from my chair, went to the desk, and had some strong words to say, in a loud voice, with the passion of a mother desperate to protect her child. I got the familiar line about the doctor running behind.

You know, I don’t care if the doctor is behind! (in my loudest voice) Can you not see and hear that my child is throwing up all over your waiting area and is unable to breathe? Do you realize that he could be infecting every child in here? Take us to an exam room, NOW, and get the doctor away from whatever he’s doing! Because if you don’t, I am headed to the president of Baptist Medical Center who knows me very well because I am a chaplain in this hospital!

Not like me at all! But that is a “Momma response” that almost always erupts when her child is hurting or in trouble. We were in a desperate place and were being ignored. Jonathan was terribly frightened and had been dealing with these spasms for hours. In time (too much time) it was resolved and we were able to get Jonathan settled and resting.

And about the “Canaanite Momma” . . . well, she was definitely stubborn and persistent that day. Clearly, Jesus did not realize who he was dealing with. Maybe he did know! Perhaps Jesus knew precisely what he was doing and chose to use his encounter with the woman from Canaan as a teaching moment for his hearers. Or perhaps he was simply in a stubborn mood and found himself facing someone who could easily match him, stubborn for stubborn!

Either way, the story shows us that when it comes to saving what needs to be saved, being merely nice and calm won’t usually win the day. Sometimes we need to dig in our heels and do some hollering! The text simply portrays the Canaanite woman as a stubborn, persistent mother of a very sick daughter.

Remember, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. She was obviously making a lot of noise, crying out and disturbing their quietude! On top of that, Jesus was somewhat stubborn himself, saying that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.

But this “Canaanite Momma” went back to Jesus straightaway, knelt down before him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

And we know what Jesus finally did. He praised her faith and healed her daughter. So was it faith or was it stubbornness, persistence? Maybe it was both, that her faith empowered her to stubborn persistence. Clearly, she believed Jesus was able to heal her daughter, so she tried to convince Jesus more than once. The disciples didn’t deter her. Jesus Could not dissuade her with his statement about dogs!

“Woman, you have great faith.”

A wonderful portrayal of what this woman might have said about her encounter with Jesus is a poem written by Jan Richardson entitled “Stubborn Blessing.”

Stubborn Blessing

Don’t tell me no.
i have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill from your hands like water, like wine,
seen you with circles and circles of crowds pressed around you
and not one soul turned away.

Don’t start with me.

i am saying
you can close the door
but i will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but i will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but i will trace a bigger one
around you,
around the life of my child
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother for stubbornness.

i am saying
i know what you
can do with crumbs
and i am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
unclench your hand,
your heart.
let the scraps fall
like manna,
like mercy
for the life
of my child,
the life of
the world.

Don’t you tell me no.

— Jan Richardson
https://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/08/11/stubborn-blessing/

The work of protection is definitely not for the faint of heart. The work of advocacy on behalf of another person may take some stubborn persistence, the kind of stubborn persistence that Jesus seemed to call by another name — “great faith.” When we advocate for people who are suffering, especially people in need of profound physical healing or deep spiritual healing, their greatest need calls us to our greatest resolve, a fierce resolve. Maybe a touch of defiance! It is in those moments that we call on our hearts to give us strength for sacred stubbornness that will heal the broken, comfort the brokenhearted, restore justice to those who are oppressed.

That is faith! “Great faith!”