Brian Doyle’s essay “The Day I Stood Shimmering in Shame” begins this way:
Committed a sin yesterday, in the hallway, at noon. I roared at my son, I grabbed him by the shirt collar, I frightened him so badly that he cowered and wept, and then he turned to run, I grabbed him by the arm so roughly that he flinched, and it was that flicker of fear and pain across his face, the bright eager holy riveting face I have loved for ten years, that stopped me then and haunts me this morning; for I am the father of his fear, I sent it snarling into his heart, and I can never get it out now, which torments me.
Here’s the start of Ginny Kubitz Moyer’s essay “The Hands We Hold Are Gifts”:
I was sitting at my prayer desk the other night, two flickering candles in front of me, letting my mind wander as I looked at the small framed icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that once belonged to my grandmother. It’s an inexpensive framed image, that she must have had since the 1960s at least, but in the candlelight it shone like pure gold. And as I looked at it — a picture I see every single day — I noticed something. For the first time, I realized that Mary and Jesus were holding hands.
John Shea’s essay “Have a Defiant Christmas” opens with these words:
In those long ago days of Christmas innocence when it always snowed gently in a starry windless night, my parents would hustle my sisters and me into the back seat of the car. We would drive slowly, snow crunching under cold tires, into the neighborhoods of the rich to see the lights.
Those three opening paragraphs give a flavor of the 56 essays in the newly published Soul Seeing: Light, Love, Forgiveness (Orbis Books, 280 pages, $22), compiled by Michael Leach. These are meditations on spirituality that is rooted deeply in the everyday. Who hasn’t witnessed or taken part in the sort of angry father-fearful son scene that Doyle describes? Who doesn’t know the feel of holding hands? Who hasn’t gone looking for great lighted celebrations of the Christmas season?
I’m sure I’m prejudiced in favor of this tidy, hearty volume. These essays — by Leach and a wide panoply of “friends,” including Joyce Rupp, Richard Rohr and James Martin — originally saw print in the Soul Seeing column in the National Catholic Reporter. And I am proud to say I’m one of the friends that Mike has included here, an essay titled “What Death Is Trying to Tell Us.”
The light of God
While John Shea starts with those trips out to look at lights, his essay quickly gets to a deeper meat: “It was only when I was older that I reflected on what my child’s heart had intuited. Christmas celebrates an inner light, a tree of lights inside the house of our being, and invites us to come close and ponder its beauty.”
He goes on to write, “We need to push back. When the outer world is darkness, we need to find and rest in the inner world of light and bring that light into the intimidating darkness.”
In other words, Christmas is about hope. It’s about seeing the light of God, feeling it inside and then sharing it.
“My soul began to see”
Ginny Kubitz Moyer segues from Jesus and Mary holding hands to a time when her son Luke was a rambunctious two-and-a-half. The family of four was crammed in a taxi with their many suitcases, and Moyer was dreading the trip to the airport and the redeye flight to follow.
And suddenly, without saying anything, Luke reached out his hand and took mine. With that gesture my mind quieted and my soul began to see. I held his sweet little hand and stroked it and watched the hotels flash past on the freeway and thought: This moment is a gift. This moment in time is precious to me.
We are spiritual beings in the flesh we inhabit. We are not just words and thoughts, Moyer is saying, but also emotions — and touch. If we are open to being touched, we can receive a gift from a child. We are not alone, although we often need reminding and need to remind others.
“Hand in hand”
When Brian Doyle writes about screaming at his son and grabbing the boy’s arm, every parent, I imagine, cringes with ugly memories. As parents, we try to do the right thing, but we are flawed human beings, and we hurt the ones we love.
The opening of Doyle’s essay is sickening for me because I’ve been there and done that. I have also — but probably not enough — participated in another scene that ends the piece:
The instant I let got of my son’s sinewy arm in the hallway, he sprinted away and slammed the door and flew off the porch and ran down the street, and I stood there simmering in shame. Then I walked down the hill into the laurel thicket as dense and silent as the dawn of the world and found him there huddled and sobbing. We sat in the moist green dark for a long time, not saying anything, the branches burly and patient. Finally, I asked quietly for his forgiveness and he asked for mine and we walked out of the woods hand in hand, changed men.
There’s that touch again, communicating deeper than words. In this case, an expression of connection and union despite the pain and hurt and shame that went before.
To open our eyes
Yeah, I’m prejudiced in favor of this book — because I like open, honest writing that recognizes the way the spirit and flesh, the way you and me, the way we and God are interwoven.
These essays are reminders to stop and to think and to open our eyes.
Soul Seeing is about looking at the mystery and wonder and, yes, the suffering of life, full-face. It’s about opening our eyes to what’s real and deep and enduring.
It’s about love and God and hope and beauty.
Patrick T. Reardon