Last week, we had four people in the same hospital: a hit and run, a baby born early, and two broken bodies driven to madness by broken minds. I cannot fathom what it would be like to feel my flesh and bones give way to a rush of metal, to give birth to a child without a home, to be haunted by voices no one else hears. I walked the sterile, weaving, windowless hallways feeling heavy, reminding myself I cannot fix people. They said both his legs were broken, that his lungs were not fully formed, that she was severely malnourished, that he would get to keep his feet. Plastic tubes with legal drugs spilled into their veins quieting the voices, numbing the pain. For now, they will all make it, but in their varying states, what do they hunger for? Is it stillness, silence, reprieve, escape? Is it human touch, meaning, answers, grace? When I visited him, he could barely speak. He opened the slits of his eyes long enough to know I was there, that it was me, and reached out for my hand. He took my hand in his, squeezed it, and kissed it. He knew he was not alone, and for the moment, that was enough.
There are times when my body craves stillness and silence more than it hungers for bread, more than it thirsts for water. I can drive around for weeks at a time without turning on the radio or listening to music just to experience those few moments of silence in the protective shell of my car, just for a brief reprieve from the chaos of ringing phones and the clamor of should’s and ought’s and yes’s where we should have said no. There are days where I come home to a hushed house and all I can do is sit and stare out the window at the bare branches of oaks. I think I could stare for hours at a time in silence if I would let myself step away from the rising and falling tide of things to do that keeps me writhing in the waters, tossed in the waves. I must, during this season of Lent, learn when and how to step away, to breathe underwater, to let go.
Yes, some days, the silence and stillness call to me, beckoning me to slow down and take it all in, days where I am so exhausted and humbled by this work that it brings me to tears. And then there are times that I feel taken by a holy restlessness that courses through my veins, lighting me up from the inside out. In these times, I feel so alive, so alert, so charged with a swell of love and longing that for a short time other distractions fade away and I feel I can see so clearly down into the deepest crevices of tortured souls, of tainted soil. What I find in these depths is tenderness, what I find is the pulse of the universe whispering life and love back into wounded feathers of flesh and loam. And for this short time, I’m one with that pure pulse of energy that propels the seasons, that drives our bodies to yearn for fresh air, for human touch, for a better world.
This seed of light and life also grows in so many of the men and women I know on the streets. They have endured the unthinkable, survived the unfathomable. They have known the ache of physical hurt and hunger in ways I can only imagine. Some of them live in a revolving door, spinning from hospitals to streets to jails and back again. “How many times have you been to the emergency room in the last six months,” I asked. “Twelve, fifteen maybe,” he answered. “I really don’t even know.” He told me of the time he, too, was hit by a car that sped away. It was late and cold and no one was around, so in a bloody stupor, he somehow managed to haul his body back to his friend’s campsite. His friend, however, had been whisked to the hospital himself, and he blacked out in a wilderness of filth and pain. He said he was there alone for four or five days without food or water. His whole body ached and throbbed, pulled in and out of a restless sleep, and he knew he was a goner if he stayed. He fought off the lure of death and mustered every ounce of energy that was left in his bones to drag his body out of the tent, alongside the tracks, and crawl out to the road where someone could find him and help.
Days upon days without food and water, days of pleading and writhing, days alone in the wilderness. I’m reminded of Jesus and his 40 days in the desert… days of hunger, of temptation, of hearing voices. Turn these stones into bread, unveil your power, dominate others, they said, sweetly. It would feel so good. Why hunger and hurt? Why be misunderstood? Give into your needs, let your strength drive you—not your weakness. You know where your weakness will take you… At the end of the 40 days, he must have been a bag of bones, dry and weary, malnourished and reeking. I wonder how he dragged his body forward. I wonder what seed of life smoldered like embers within him and sustained his being. It is written that angels attended him, but I think it must have been desert women—strong women in the dusty guise of angels or vice versa. When they found him, I doubt he could speak. Everything he had was poured out and he was a withered shell of a man with only holy embers feeding his soul, fighting off the lure of temptation, of death. They must have taken this stranger in at their own expense and nursed him back to health. He came out of the ordeal with the kind of quiet knowing that ignites the soul into flames. “The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire,” says Ferdinand Foch.
I went for years feeling numb to this surge of life, this fire of knowing, nostalgic and longing for its return. Now, there are days I feel so full of life and love and knowing that I can barely contain it… that I’m driven to both cling to it like mad and pour it wholly out to everyone and everything. “We shrink from touching our power,” writes the poet Adrienne Rich. “We shrink away, we starve ourselves/ and each other, we’re scared shitless/ of what it could be to take and use our love,/ hose it on a city, on a world,/ to wield and guide its spray, destroying/ poisons, parasites, rats, viruses—/ like the terrible mothers we long and dread to be.” And I think of the life wholly poured out and all I see is flame.
In college, my friends and I use to kayak out to Bear Island on Percy Priest Lake in Nashville and set up a simple camp for the night. Just as the sun was beginning to set, we would drift around the small island, basking in the warm, fading light. There were times when the sky was hot and ravaged with yellows, oranges, and pinks, blushing like would-be-lovers, and we were all suspended on the surface of the cool water, afloat in a sea of fire. Fire above us, fire below us, fire within us blushing and burning. We drank it in, feeling that rush of pure presence that drowns out all worry of what was and is and is to come. And when the sun set into the darkness of blues, our silence propelled us back to the shore.
Yes, that pure presence, that still, fiery, moment of connectedness, is the bread my tired body craves. Last week, I saw the first green sign of spring resurrection on the very herbs that have seemed so brittle and dead all winter long. The soft, ferny furls of feverfew were the first to emerge. For months, its energy burrowed beneath the surface while its withered stalk waited to sense the lengthening light. Soon, the mint, thyme, lavender, rosemary, lemon balm, and sage will follow suit, dragging themselves out of their winter slumber. And now, after my own winter of exposure, I want to both burrow and bloom. I want to burrow deep into the seasons of Lent and spring to feel the depths of wilderness and wanting. I want to wander through the hospitals, feeling myself begin to be healed by the touch of dry, broken lips. I want to bloom on the shaded trails of Radnor alone in silence and take it all in. I want to bury my hands in the moist, wormy soil and dig. I want to turn the ground over and over and feel it under my nails, speckling my arms and cheeks and chest. And I want to be like the seed that rests in the cool ground when it first awakes, digging its roots ever deeper, stretching its shoots ever higher, reaching its way to the warm open air, the fiery blushing light.
Give us, O tempted and suffering God, the strength to drag ourselves forward so our healing can begin. Light in us a holy fire that cannot be quenched. Feed our hunger with the bread of life that comes in the guise of strangers and silence and stones. And teach us to take and use our life, our love, our longing, and pour it out on one another, on our groaning city, on our bruised and blooming world. Amen.