"What is this thing?" I thought to myself upon encountering the odd sight.
My camera and I were wandering through the woods a few weeks ago when we nearly ran into it. It wasn't its attractiveness that it caught my eye. On the contrary, it looked rather like a small collection of debris hanging onto the remains of a spider web. Not the sort of thing that I go out of my way to photograph. And yet the image had presented itself to me. Dangling right in front of me, in fact.
Without really knowing why, I accepted the image with my camera and continued my walk.
Generally when I go walking, I must confess, I keep my eye open for beautiful things. I like to encounter plant and animal life in all of their splendorous sizes and colors. I am often drawn to detail - close up views of things that normally I would notice only from a distance, if at all. Occasionally a landscape or seascape will captivate me, especially on a brilliant sunny day.
In other words, I tend to seek out experiences that I naturally like. I doubt that makes me a great deal different from the average person. Who, after all, would venture out with a camera to find ugly or disturbing images? Or more broadly, who would seek out disappointment, pain or sorrow?
And yet, as we walk through life, we do not know what we will encounter. Although we make many choices along the way, a great many things occur about which we have no choice. And sometimes one choice or encounter starts us down a path to many other choices or encounters that we hadn't seen coming.
Today, for example, I was still trying to pull out of yesterday's migraine, feeling unpleasant but a bit more functional. Since it is holiday and I had no other plans, I thought I'd run by a local store that was having a sale on perennials. Get a few more plants in the butterfly garden, I thought, and maybe they'll come up again next year to fill in some of the empty spaces.
Seemed like a reasonable decision at the time...gardening is a nice, relaxing activity for a Labor Day afternoon when feeling a bit under the weather. "It will probably distract me from the lingering headache and upset stomach", I thought.
I found some lovely plants at a reasonable price and proceeded to find some vacant spots in the garden. With shovel and spade, I dug a couple of holes and stepped back to pick up one of the waiting plants.
Suddenly, there was a sharp, searing pain in my left foot. Aware that something had stung or bitten me, I surveyed the area in search of the culprit without success. "This really hurts!" I thought. Assuming that the pain would subside fairly soon, I proceeded to dig another hole and deposit another newcomer into my little patch of earth. The pain, however, was escalating, not remitting.
Limping, I dragged the remains of my garden project back to the house where I could examine the damage more closely. I could see that the sting site was red and swollen. The pain alternated between throbbing and stabbing, with no signs of relenting. It is now 4-5 hours later and it still hurts like the dickens, despite a baking soda paste and a frozen bagel - I didn't have any ice cubes - to numb it.
(For those of you inclined to worry about me, I did call medical advice and was screened and advised - I'm not dying, just really uncomfortable.)
Remembering what I had written yesterday...I can give thanks for every experience...There is Divine gift in every moment... I must have been delirious from the migraine. What nonsense! This hurts...
But let's stop and be open to whatever grace may await us.
Walking through life for most people is far more complicated and treacherous that anything I encountered today. I fret over a passing pain while others live almost perpetually in physical or emotional pain. In my years as a psychologist, I have listened to countless heart-rending stories and wondered, "Could I have survived that?"
Not just the "that" of the horrible experience - the abuse, the tragic loss, the war, the illness or the injury - though that is more than enough - but also all of the choices that grew out of those experiences and led to more painful experiences. Often, it seems, that people blame themselves for their distress because they can trace it back to a few key decisions made. "It's my fault", the spoken or unspoken protest begins, "I'm the one who..."
Doubtless, I should have worn sturdy shoes to protect my feet today while gardening. It was my fault.
However, there are no "sturdy shoes" that a child can choose to protect themselves from the impact of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. There are no "sturdy shoes" strong enough to protect the soul from war's atrocities, whether experienced as soldier or civilian. There are no "sturdy shoes" that can prevent serious illness or injury from devastating a life.
And once these things occur, all choices made thereafter are irrevocably influenced, often leading to a cascade of suffering that threatens to overwhelm. Often the years (or decades) of pain and perceived failure leave people feeling like they are hanging on by a mere thread. One more thing...
And here is where the grace enters. That odd-seeming image I received during my walk some weeks ago - it developed in a way I could never have anticipated. Somehow words began to grow around it and became a most astounding image - a gift that I offer now to you:
As I prepare to post this comment, the pain in my foot is finally starting to ease a bit. As you open yourself to God's gift, one far greater that this little image, may your pains ease as well. Many blessings.
(I welcome comments or creative offerings in this Week of Grace. You may e-mail them to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)