I am a spiritual seeker, a seeker who has "taken a drink from many cups." I love to accompany others on the deeper journey to witness to their True Self. Now a writer, photographer and poet, I have retired from full-time ministry as a pastor in downtown Oakland, CA.
Sometimes, a few words fill a void that has been within for a long, long time. Sometimes, I have heard those few words in a story, real or imagined.
“The Island” is a Russian language movie that tells the story of the sailor Anatoly and his captain, captured by a German vessel during World War 11. To save his own life, the Russians instruct him to kill his captain, Tikhon; afraid of death, Anatoly complies.
The next day Anatoly, who has survived, is saved by monks on the shore. Filled with guilt over his choice to kill his captain, Anatoly becomes the stoker – the keeper of the fire – for the monastery, and as the years pass, he also provides wisdom and healing to people who come to the monastery.
Many years later, an Admiral brings his daughter, possessed by a demon, to the monastery for healing. Anatoly exorcises the demon. Anatoly learns that the father of the girl is Tikhon, the man he thought he had killed to save his own life. Tikhon forgives Anatoly.
Within days, Anatoly prepares for his death. The monks bring him a coffin, and he lies in the coffin, apparently awaiting his death. A monk – a man who has frequently had difficulties with Anatoly, leans into the coffin and asks Anatoly for some words of wisdom, words that he might now have, as he faces imminent death.
Anatoly speaks: “Just live your life, and try not to sin too much.”
My little Grandma’s arthritic hands, her shuffling feet - bunions pushing through dime-store slippers - and me - A little scared girl at the table by the window: I absorb my Grandma, whole, into my skin.
“Yeat! Yeat! Yeat!”
Old wives’ tales, years of tears, the dead - not forgotten, but carried, heavy - filling the room - And sadness, never spoken. I am in that room, with Grandma - with Ma - with sunshine, old curtains, a dirty oilcloth: silent, watching: I sense the yearning to be set free.
“Yeat! Yeat! Yeat!”
Cabbage, tomatoes, sour salts and Slavic sounds sizzling into Old World Soup and me - sipping in the New World - I absorb my Grandma, whole,into my heart.
“Yeat!” “Yeat!” “Yeat!”
Love is not spoken here, but still, I hear it: I hear - in foreign tongue - “I love you.” Quiet, inside the words.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .
As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. – Thomas Merton, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”
“… if only everybody could realize this…” Merton writes. “If only…”
I am more and more taken with the light around me, the light of day, as it creeps into the sky, moment to moment. I often reflect on earlier days of my life, when I was busy, busy with important meetings, busy with preoccupations as I drove from one important meeting to another important meeting, all the time missing, not seeing, the light all around and in me, and in others. Now, I think of my inability to see the obvious all those years as a loss, a loss I can never recover. And now, I want to remember.
Like Merton, I am silently saying: “If only…”
Across from the bedroom window of the home that I live in in Oakland, there is a crimson maple tree. I love that tree. I love it, especially, because for just a couple of days, every autumn, and just for a couple of minutes, as the sun sets over San Francisco Bay, the light shines just so on that crimson maple. And it is lit then, lit with a light that it has at no other time, at no other moment. I wait for those few moments. sometimes I come out the back door and onto the stoop to wait for the light to hit that tree, just so.
The crimson maple reminds me of the light that is within us. Like the crimson maple, you and I are light. As children, we are that light, but the wounds and frailties of our care-givers, our parents and others, force that light inward – unseen by others – little by little. They do this because their own light has been extinguished. It is our task to use our lives to wipe away all the debris that has hidden that light.
This is not an easy work in life. It’s hard. It hurts. It brings tears, and memories, and losses to our consciousness. You will need courage to embark on this work. If you choose to do this work, you will need a witness, some large and compassionate presence, to give space to the bringing forth of your wounds. There are many paths that allow this work, and you must find yours. That is your mission, if you choose to take it…
I am convinced that it is because we have forgotten the light that is us, that allows for all the hatred and fear in the world. When we look at someone who is not like us in some way – in any way – we see only the outer shell of that person, that person who is suffering, just like us. Murder and war and racism and poverty and greed are only some of the wounds that cover the light. The media is filled with shallow and brittle – and murderous – witnesses to this forgetting.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” – “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint Exupéry
I remember when I first named you: “sister,”
your sisterhood, a gift to me:
you, sitting on the edge of the claw footed bathtub
in the crowded bathroom of an old Milwaukee flat, crying.
Smaller, I sat without a word, until we laughed - again.
Then, I knew:
You are my sweet, sweet sister, Sue.
I remember you, 8 months pregnant –
- your deep voice, your laughter until dawn
in the Carolina night,
the light from your cigarette, bright in the darkness.
During the day, you were Mom.
I remember you, marching with me to find the classical CD’s in the back
of Barnes and Noble.
You bought me Beethovan.
I listened, all spring long, to the minor notes,
mourning another Sue.
Now, these notes are for you.
I mourn for you.
Sweet, sweet Sue:
Your love was there:
a simple melody in the background of my life.
Your love, that spanned the miles, the years.
I remember, Sue, sweet, sweet Sue.
I remember you.
“I don’t know when I’ll see you again, Sue,” I said into your silence,
your deep hug.
I remember your silent wave: "goodbye."
(I watched you in the rear-view mirror).
You knew, you knew, you knew, my sweet, sweet sister, Sue.
“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is God who made us, and we belong to God. We are God’s people.” – Psalm 100:1-3a
“Mickey’s strong spirit shone through his hard work. He was ready with a kind word, with a cheerful word. His eyes lit up as we each were greeted warmly and readily by this man who had known war and spent his life telling the story of what war is like to others.
When I was the Pastor at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland, California, I knew that the community there loved a spirited hymn, and so we sang spirited hymns as often as we could. One of our favorite hymns as a community was “Marching to Zion.” I liked to have us sing that hymn as the closing hymn of the worship service, and I would stand at the center front of the sanctuary, just as happy to sing that song as everyone else:
“We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion,
We’re marching upward to Zion, that beautiful City of God..”
As we stood to sing, a few bars into the hymn, I would see Mickey Ganitch start to march around the perimeter of the sanctuary! I smile when I remember it, as I smiled then. Everyone in the sanctuary smiled! Mickey’s joy in life and in service to others was contagious! As Mickey marched, the children would follow, and then the adults, and we’d finish worship in a high spirit, having marched together to Zion! — Mary Elyn Bahlert, Opening Comments, 7/23/2022