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Starting Point

In the rain, grasped and held


It was that strange time, just before sleep comes, when the mind seems open to whatever thoughts wander into it. And when those thoughts come, they evolve on their own. If I suddenly become conscious of them they seem so foreign, as if someone else gave them to me. Such twilight images behave like the deer I see every night here at the monastery: Once they catch me watching them they run away.

But the image I had stayed with me, and I was thinking about it at Lauds -- a memory of something that had happened a long time ago.

The image was of my mom bringing in two heavy brown paper bags of groceries. Her arms were full, and the bags were heavy. The bottoms of the bags were wet, and it was all she could do to hold them in such a way that the bags did not tear or burst at their bottoms.

It was pouring rain outside. In the driveway, the car doors were wide open, and there were more bags on the back seat. “Help me with these,” she said, “and then please go get the rest.” She was weary from driving in the rain. She never liked driving, and to drive in a downpour was nerve racking.

I moved to help, but when she leaned over to place the bags on the kitchen table I saw that the bottoms of the bags were not going to clear the table. Before I could grab them, they both ripped open and their contents tumbled onto the chairs, the table and the floor. Cans and jars, boxes and vegetables, bottles and small goods rolled and smashed and bounced all over the kitchen.

We grabbed at the items as they fell and tried to quickly stretch the bag back to some last-second usefulness even as it was tearing and shredding apart. But the rain-drenched bags were no match for the heavy load. The weight won out. She was understandably exasperated, and the broken bags were almost more than she could take. But we picked the stuff up and cleaned up whatever mess there was.

And life moved on to sunnier days and more rainy days. And more shopping and wet bags. Such is life.

Yet why that memory?

It seems to me that dreaming and thinking have something to do with recovering who we are. Our lives are narrative. We chat in the day; we dream through our nights. We go over things in our minds and hearts to keep something, to retrieve what we have gone through and to hold onto what we can. Thinking and dreaming are a crucial part of the story-making mystery we are.

I remember Mom’s arms going every which direction as the bags started to break. When the stuff started falling out, she let go of one bag and reached for what was falling -- and of course the bag she had been holding spilled its contents onto the floor. Grab as she might, there was no holding onto anything.

Maybe the dream had to do with reaching and keeping. So much of life has to do with the reaching for the good and the lasting: the keeping of who we are, whom we love, where we have been.

The psalms have a lot to say about loss. We chant the psalms every day here. Sometimes the words seem like rain to me, a rain of words that is softening my soul.

Written at a time when people longing for God had all but despaired of his coming, many of the psalms are heartbreaking in their lament. They are born from such a profound sense of loss and a crushing inability to keep the most taken-for-granted things. Life is stripped away, and an ancient people chant their hunger and thirst for God.

Are our lives all that different? What shall we keep? What is worth keeping? These thoughts roamed through my heart as I chanted the psalms tonight and thought of Mom grasping for the falling groceries. The items, like the life of the bag itself, fell to the ground.

That was a long time ago. Time is tender -- it, too, has a wet bottom. Life slips away, loved ones have gone. Loved places have given way to new. Old times seem wondrous as memories replay them. They take on a magic when they fall from the life of the present and into the death of the past.

We picked up and carried on, no matter what was spilled or dropped. That is the way life is. Yet it slips out of my grasp as I write this. My memory is like my Mom’s arms. I reach out to hold what I know is falling. I thought about that: What is there to hold onto forever?

And then it hit me.

I believe that God is love. And love remembers.

I believe that Jesus lived in this rain of life and reached out but lost all that he had -- but came to life again. God’s arms reached out for him and loved him to life again.

I sense my reaching out for all I love. But my arms are weak and shall one day no longer be able to reach and to hold. I thought of God’s arms reaching out for me and taking me to God’s self, and in that taking I shall know all I have ever loved and longed for -- for God’s arms are big enough to hold it all.

So, let it rain. Let it pour.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001