She Responded | November 13, 2022 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
The opening song was going through my head this past week as I started a new job in a nursing home. Meeting with patients was hard…walking through the hallways was hard. Most people I met with were not happy about being there. Many described feeling “trapped and abandoned”…relegated to only half of a life. Many seemed to be without hope. But some people that I connected with miraculously had a firm hope…a sense that this was their life right now and that they had the responsibility to make the best of it.
We are, all of us, at times in need of this lift…as symbolized by the bird in this poem by Hafiz:
The birds’ favorite songs you do not hear,
for their most flamboyant music takes place
when their wings are stretched above the trees
and they are smoking the opium of pure freedom.
It is healthy for the prisoner to have faith that one day
he will again move about wherever he wants;
feel the wondrous grit of life-less structured-
find all wounds, debts stamped, canceled, paid.
I once asked a bird, “How is it that you fly in this gravity of darkness?”
She responded, “Love lifts me.”
This is exactly what one of the patients I met with said to me. It is as if she were reading Hafiz! Her lifting came in the form of listening to Gospel music and I know she will benefit from regular visits. Her sense of hope has not been extinguished…through serious health issues, family problems, drug addiction, mental health issues…through the grit of life. How is this possible…when she is unable to leave her bed without help…when she is, in a way, incarcerated? I thought a lot about that this week as I was adjusting to my new role. How do I embody this hope…this love that can move mountains…that can overcome the gravity of darkness experienced by so many…the reality of the loss of limbs, of ability to speak, to use the toilet independently…so much loss. Under these conditions it is profoundly challenging to find that sense of hope. Meister Eckhart spoke of this sense of hope as the spark of the soul…
In the spark of the soul there is hidden something like the original outbreak of all goodness, something like a brilliant light which incessantly gleams, and something like a burning fire which burns incessantly.
Eckhart called this the Holy Spirit. It is the spark that each of us has within that urges us on to live each day. It is a spark that we can see and feel when we meet another being…human and otherwise that tells us that person is alive.
I was reading a book recently entitled, God’s Hotel. It is a book written by Dr. Victoria Sweet about San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital. She writes of the first time she witnessed the autopsy of one of her patients. She describes the man with a “thick, short neck and gravely voice”. She also described him as “cheerful and lively”. Faced with this man’s dead body, Dr. Sweet realized that he didn’t seem like the same person. She watched as the body was opened up and organ by organ examined. And then she says they were done. She writes:
I found myself strangely disappointed. There was nothing else to see. No hidden place, unexplored and unexplorable... Something was missing. But what? What I had expected…was some sort of thing, some unopenable last nubbin, like what you find at the center of a baseball when you unroll it. I had expected some thing that was, well, ineradically Mr. Baker, something the pathologist’s saw could not open and destroy. But there was no such thing; I could see for myself.
Dr. Sweet goes on to say that later she realized that medicine had once had two words for this thing: spiritus, being the regular, rhythmic breathing of the live body and anima, often translated as soul. Sweet says that the Latin anima is more descriptive of what she was getting at with Mr. Baker. She says that anima is “the invisible force that animates the body, that moves it, not only willfully but also unconsciously…”
Later, Dr. Sweet discovered another way to describe this thing that was not present in Mr. Baker’s body. Interestingly, Dr. Sweet wrote another book entitled, Rooted in the Earth, Rooted in the Sky in which she explores the premodern medicine of Hildegard of Bingen. It was through this study that she came upon the term viriditas that I introduced a couple of weeks ago. It is a greening…a vigor that tells us that something is alive and thriving. In her study of Hildegard as a medical practitioner, a gardener, a musician and artist, Dr. Sweet was able to recognize her spirituality as having a power that was hard to miss, even for a medical doctor. It was Hildegard who truly defined that thing that she could not find in the corpse after death. It is, I think that spark of the soul that Eckhart spoke of and it is the love that lifts the bird up, high in the air, experiencing a pure freedom, singing their favorite songs.
There is viriditas in this recording! Nina Simone is full of spiritus and anima. The song speaks to the curiosity of the human being watching the bird…the longing of an earthbound creature for flight. But this is a song of hope…a song of expansive imagination. We are able to imagine being a bird…to imagine a symbolic flight above the trees…a place where we find all wounds, debts stamped, canceled, paid.
I think that Simone would have responded to Hafiz’s question, “How is it that you fly in this gravity of darkness?” in the same way as the bird…it is love that lifted her up from the darkness of her days…it is that spark of viriditas that resides within that helped her to fly. It is, at times the only thing that allows us to go on…to get up each morning to do what we need to do…and hopefully we do it with joy.
We will see how I will be able to communicate this hope…to reflect this hope to the patients in the nursing homes. I know that it is inside each one of us…just needing, at times, to be rekindled.
Howard Thurman had some good advice for us. He wrote:
I determine to live the outer life in the inward sanctuary. The outer life must find its meaning, the source of its strength in the inward sanctuary. As this is done, the gulf between outer and inner will narrow and my life will be increasingly whole and of one piece. What I do in the outer will be blessed by the holiness of the inward sanctuary; for indeed it shall all be one.
And this seems to be what we are longing for…a unity within ourselves that may eventually spread to the whole world…a freedom that is contagious…a love that is all-inclusive…that can be found in the inward sanctuary and can be practiced in the outer life. May the spark within each of us be rekindled…be encouraged…that we are able to answer that question about flying in the gravity of darkness. We can fly because we have the light…the spark of the soul that animates and allows us to breathe freely in the present, no matter where we find ourselves. May we reflect the inner sanctuary in our outer lives and realize our unity of spirit. May we each respond as the bird does, by saying that love lifts each one of us.