"Were you a blazing ball of fire
before you were ever born
Did you find the cure for polio?
Invent the telephone?
Or were you disobedient at
the age of thirty-three
When some old Roman soldier
had you nailed up to a tree?
Maybe you were black and tired,
on the front seat of a bus,
Or on a protest march in Bombay
lying face down in the dust.
Maybe you were all of this and more,
Borrowed light from those who came before.
And the children who haven't yet been named
are stronger for your spark,
Stronger for your flame…"
- Randall Williams
from "Praying for Land"
This week's Bible study is begging me to repost this snake story....with Love:
I absolutely Randall William's, "Stronger for Your Flame," (the song starts at 1:40), and when I hear it I am reminded of a poem that has been a longtime...but missing-in-action...companion. Until yesterday, that is. My copy of this 1990 Godfrey John poem found its way back into my hands. I originally discovered it in the Christian Science Monitor one morning almost twenty years ago, and it became my touchstone through a very difficult period.
Someone I loved and respected for his devotion to public service was being maligned, vilified, and treated with disdisdain, after decades of admiration and trust. I was heartbroken…but he wasn't. His spiritual poise seemed untouched…unshakable. When we spoke on the phone, or met in person I was always stunned by his grace...his simple, unflappable grace.
And because we were friends, my integrity (and that of his other friends) had also been called into question. And it felt awful. I finally had the courage to phone him. I was hungry for some direction about how I could proceed in correcting the impositions. He calmly and joyfully asked me if I knew my own truth. I responded that yes, I did. I was certain that I had done nothing wrong. I knew that my motives at every juncture had been pure. And that even though, in hindsight, I might have taken different steps today, I was absolutely sure that I had been honest, prayerful, and humble in asking for divine guidance, at the time.
He then turned me to a story Mary Baker Eddy relates in the article "Taking Offense" from her book, Miscellaneous Writings 1883 – 1896:
"A courtier told Constantine that a mob had broken the head of
his statue with stones. The emperor lifted his hands to his head,
saying: "It is very surprising, but I don't feel hurt in the least."
He then shared with me that "you are not there." You are not "who" they are throwing stones at. They are attacking their own concept of the office you occupy…healer, director, mother…they are throwing stones at a version of that office that they are holding in consciousness that they don't like. But only you know if that is you…and if it is…it is only between you and God to correct it. If it is not you…then you can't feel hurt in the least. You do not live in their consciousness of you...you live in your consciousness...and you must ask yourself who is the source of your consciousness of you...and of them.
"So what should I do when I see them, think of them, or are told stories about what they are saying?" I asked. I could hear his silent smile through the phone as he sighed, "Why, what else is there to do….you love them…truly love them."
This set me back on my heels. Wasn't I supposed to defend him, me…all of us?
Then he reminded me of how Mary Baker Eddy follows up her story about about Constantine and the mob, she says:
"We should remember that the world is wide;
that there are a thousand million different human wills,
opinions, ambitions, tastes, and loves; that each person
has a different history, constitution, culture, character,
from all the rest; that human life is the work, the play,
the ceaseless action and reaction upon each other of
these different atoms.
Then, we should go forth into lifewith the smallest
expectations, but with the largest patience; with a
keen relish for and appreciation of everything beautiful,
great, and good, but with a temper so genial that the
friction of the world shall not wear upon our sensibilities;
with an equanimity so settled that no passing breath
nor accidental disturbance shall agitate or ruffle it;
with a charity broad enough to cover the whole world's evil,
and sweet enough to neutralize what is bitter in it,
--determined not to be offended when no wrong is meant,
nor even when it is, unless the offense be against God.
Nothing short of our own errors should offend us."
(There is more, but for the purpose of this piece, I would like to stop here with that statement. )
These statements became a staff and a rod for me over the ensuing months. A staff to lean on and a rod prodding me forward towards greater understanding, humility, grace. However I am a visual person. I love mental pictures to connect with as I exercise new spiritual muscles. The Constantine story was wearing thin…I needed something fresh, something I could identify with. I just didn't feel like an emperor and the image of a mob scared me.
That was when Godfrey John's poem appeared on my doorstep wrapped in newsprint.
Here it is:
(Note from poet: This poem is spun from a story
I was told of an actual little girl in South Africa)
Slowly and with no mistake
the giant snake is inching up
the veranda where the five year old
sits, joyfully sloshing her cereal
As if planned and without noise,
the boa constrictor guiltlessly
encircles the chair and the child in his coils.
He lets his eyes come close to hers.
"Nice snake!" she says, lifting
a spoonful of milk up to his mouth.
He feels excused. He sips the milk.
She lifts the spoon to her own lips.
His innocence coincides
with hers. Valued now, he waits.
She feeds him again with special care
"One for you and one for me."
Suddenly he dips his mouth
deep into the bowl. The child
taps his head with her spoon and laughs:
"Naughty, naughty! Wait your turn!"
The boa constrictor meekly places
his scaled face against her cheek.
Repentance is responsive to love.
Once again she lifts her spoon
full of light. His lips sip.
They take turns till the bowl is empty.
Unhurriedly, then, he uncoils
and slides beneath the veranda steps.
We must de-mythologize.
Innocence can not be earned:
innocence is immanent;
innocence is untouched
by guilt or hurt or old age.
is a child with a snake and a bowl of cereal –
astonishing the day,
- Godfrey John
I connected with this poem on such a deep level…I had just been to Africa, I had seen snakes, I knew the way they were feared. I had a little girl who was fearless when it came to snakes, and bugs, and growling dogs…I wanted to be like her.
This poem became a space I lived in. It became my posture in loving. I was willing to share my cereal, but I was also clear about identifying my tablemate as eager to share too. It also helped me to understand my friend's spiritual poise…his unshakable dignity, grace and compassion.
This poem was my companion. In fact it was such a priceless treasure, that we gave it as a gift to our friends in our Christmas cards that year. More than one asked if the little girl in the poem was our South African daughter…it was not.
Through my many moves since then I had misplaced my original copy of the poem and would often try to recall those words I had memorized twenty years earlier. I would have a strong grip on ten or twelve lines and then miss a word and not be able to find the rhythm again. I had been thinking about it a lot over the last year or so and had on a number of occasions searched folders full of scrips and scraps of quotes, the insides of books (a favorite home for poems and quotes in my library) and old journals, but to no avail.
When out of the blue a letter from my mom arrived. She was harvesting some of her old files and came upon some Christmas cards, photos, and clippings from "once upon a time" and decided to send them to me…and in that packet was a copy of the Christmas card with our gift of the "Nice Snake" poem.
So, today I am sending out this early Christmas card to each of you…some of you received it almost 20 years ago…others will read it for the first time today…its message, for me, is still one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.
My utmost thanks to Godfrey John, to my dear friend who taught me to live with dignity while under fire as a "whole-souled woman," and to each of you, I am so blessed…