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Frayed and tattered -- and holy


Near the cabin that my wife and I keep in the Missouri Ozarks there is a grove of wild plum trees perched at the brink of a remote valley. I often visit the grove, loving its peaceful yet quirky spirit. Under the sassafras and plums, wildflowers sparkle with raindrops after a storm. Moss carpets the forest floor, interrupted here and there by clumps of little red lichens, bright against the pale green. Whippoorwills serenade the grove at dusk. Owls haunt it by night. The eyes of raccoons sparkle like stars up in the high branches. And on spring mornings and evenings, the flute-like music of the wood thrush haunts the green hush. On the best days in that thicket, it feels like some magic sleep could come and snatch you from the plainness and struggle of your life.

When summer heat and the insects arrive, however, the grove is plundered, looted and pillaged. By August every leaf is tattered and eaten. Tent caterpillars devastate the limbs of the plum trees. Drought drains the moss and lichens of their bright colors. Most songbirds, I read once, are plagued with pests. So the wood thrush that sings so sweetly hides lice in its feathers, maybe even worms in its heart. A lover of this grove, I can’t help but notice -- and feel somewhat dismayed at -- the wrack and ruin that its passage through the seasons brings.passage through the seasons brings. Sometimes we over-romanticize the natural world. Houston Smith, world-renowned expert on the world’s religions, writes: “In nature the emphasis is on what is rather than what ought to be.” Annie Dillard writes, “Ten percent of all the world’s species are parasitic insects. It is hard to believe. What if you were an inventor, and you made 10 percent of your inventions in such a way that they could only work by harassing, disfiguring or totally destroying the other 90 percent? These things are not well enough known.”

I can’t help but notice that the wild plum groves of my life and the lives of others share the same fate as the one in the Ozarks. As we go along, we all become nibbled, torn, patched and a little wormy.

On the threshold of life, we write in our teenage diaries: What will the future bring? What’s in store for me? Work, friendships, loves and fruitful associations and, if we’re lucky, adventures, travel and many successes. But also these: Cancer will strike. One fourth of us will be plagued by serious mental illness. One out of five women will be molested, raped or stalked. Then there are chronic physical ailments and maladies, encounters with bigotry, sexism, ageism, divorce, loss. In my own life, and in the lives of my closest family, we can catalog encounters with Alzheimer’s, two instances of bipolar disorder, chronic heart disease, hypertension, meningitis, divorce, major job losses and any number of lesser yet disruptive crises.

We can all make our own lists, our litanies. We run a gauntlet, and few of us escape major struggles. In any room filled with the likes of us, we could simply fill it to the rafters with tears. We might long for an ethereal, bodiless, heavenly spirituality, free of the messiness, tears and mortality of bodies. But in this world in which we draw our breath, matter mediates the divine. It’s elemental theology that human life, in all its imperfections and glory, is a key source of revelation. The struggles and the depredations tell us something about God.

Our parish yearbook this year tells of the people of the parish chipping in to help a sixth-grader diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Joe, the little boy, was quoted saying he thought God was testing him and that, by hanging in there with his treatments, he was passing the test. I cringed inside of myself. Once at a funeral for a colleague’s son who had died at the age of 6, the priest eulogized the child by saying that perhaps it was fortunate he died before he reached the age of reason, as this assured him a place in heaven. Many in the congregation, I’m sure, winced at this -- the huge, nearly inconsolable, mystery of innocent suffering reduced to a heaven ticket punched at an arbitrary age limit.

Christianity, if it means anything, means Love-with-us. God who is infinite Love doesn’t test us: God is there with us in the chemotherapy room or as we draw our last breath. God is with us in our huge grief and pain. Pat Livingston puts it this way: “Love-with-me doesn’t mean I have some magic charm that will make my wishes come true, that will shield me from ever being injured. It means ... that this deeply Mysterious Other who is the source of all being is closer to me than my own heart.” We grow strong at the broken places -- maybe so does God!

What’s more, from the ancient story of Job to the most recent creation spirituality, our best religious thinkers have urged that suffering is not merely the wages we pay for sin. Rather it is built into the birth process of the entire cosmos. Creation has to do with sacrifice and yielding, with receiving and birthing forth. Suffering has accompanied all the creativity of the universe from the big bang right up to the latest pangs of a mother giving birth in the hospital down the street from you.

Physicist Brian Swimme says that the only explanation for the inexplicable suffering of the innocent is the whole backdrop of the universe. Only the universe so vast in time and space can contain, embrace and give meaning to aberrant cells that devastate the lives and bodies of little ones. Job, devastated by loss and ultimate hardship, is visited by God in a whirlwind and asked: “Where were you when I put the stars in the heavens and laid the foundations of the deeps?” Prayers of awe and wonder are the proper response to these visiting whirlwinds.

From this wider perspective, nature’s depradations in the wild plum grove and the awful things she does to us in our lives take on a deeper aspect of mystery. Chaos dances with creation within and without -- and leads to who knows what. Science is finding out more about this; our theology needs to catch up.

The worms in the heart of the wood thrush share reality with quantum mechanics and the theories of relativity deep beyond anyone’s wildest speculations: wave functions, probabilities, quantum tunneling, the ceaseless roiling energy fluctuations of the vacuum; the smearing together of space and time; the relative nature of simultaneity; non-local causality; the warping of the space-time fabric; black holes, the big bang. Who would have guessed that the old Newtonian clockwork mechanical world would turn out to be so parochial -- that there was a whole new, mind-boggling world lying just beneath the surface of things as they are ordinarily experienced? Who would have guessed that reality would turn out to be so paradoxical?

“Is our birthright and heritage to be ring-streaked, speckled and spotted not with the spangling marks of grace where beauty rained down from eternity, but with the blotched assaults and quarryings of time?” asks Annie Dillard. “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along.” Struggles and disasters come to us all, and we do the best we can, everyday heroes and heroines. The paradox (similar to the paschal mystery of Christ) is that we become whole by becoming torn and tattered.

Christianity’s message? Love is with us, praying the simple prayer of solidarity with us, and reminding us, through Christ and the church, that in the words of that great Oklahoma mystic, Merle Haggard: “We’re all drinkin’ that free Bubble-Up and eatin’ that rainbow stew.” Everyone, every frayed and tattered thing that lives, is holy.

Rich Heffern is the former editor of Praying magazine and a frequent contributor to NCR. His e-mail address is Tinseltigr@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000