Certain Slants of Light by George Merrill

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My wife, Jo, has dragged me kicking and screaming into the electronic age. I can almost manage Facebook and survive fatal errors. I’ve learned what a blog is. I can text, albeit at a painfully slow pace and, although I will never be a truly renaissance man of the postmodern era, at least I can get messages and compose on the computer.

One of the marvelous gifts of electronic communication is its capacity to offer talks by informed people. I can listen to the wise and learned as they share their wisdom with me. Just the other day I listened to a clip where Krista Tippett (recently at the Avon Theater in Easton) was interviewing Rabbi Rachel Naomi Remen, a remarkable woman, and one of many I am hopeful will spiritually feed and guide more of us as we make our way in this increasingly uncertain world.

Rabbi Rachel Remen, MD, Clinical professor of Family and Community Medicine at U.C.S.F. has a vision. She relates a story as told by her grandfather. It’s a myth with deep roots in Jewish spiritual wisdom that I believe has profound healing qualities especially for this time. In her pioneering work in Holistic and Integrative medicine, while suffering herself with Crohn’s disease for sixty years, she’s no stranger to suffering or to the mystery of healing. She is wise in the art of living wholly (holy) in the midst of brokenness – which, for all of us, is life’s primary task.

She relates her grandfather’s story, a pivotal myth that has guided her along her spiritual path of healing that she’s trod during her life. Like all inspired myths, it reveals truth without artifice, in such an ingenuous way that it touches the heart and soul deeply. She offers a vision of hope for healing in this broken world. As I heard the story for the first time, I understood more clearly the ancient psalm that speaks of “the beauty of holiness.” The story goes as follows:

“In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then…at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. The vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness and light…was scattered into a thousands of fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

“Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew, the restoration of the world. And this is a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. Not making a huge difference, only healing the world that touches me and is around me.”

I read of a man who lived in Greenwich and commuted daily to the financial district in New York. No sooner out of the train and he’d meet on a few corners men and women begging for change. It’s a fixture in most big cities. It bothered him. He decided that each day when he left for the city he’d take ten dollars in singles. When asked, “Can you help me out,” he’d say yes and give the person a dollar. When the sum for that day had been given it was enough but he did the same the next day and the next.
His story came up at a dinner party. A couple of people suggested that while he meant well they gently chided him saying if he was serious he might do much more and concluded that this tiny gesture would do no good; “They’ll just buy drugs or alcohol” was the prevailing sentiment.
I saw the scenario differently. The issue wasn’t what the needy might do with the money, or even how significantly it would address their plight, but that he in some small way attempted to meet these people not “making a huge difference,” but reaching out to those in his world that touched him and that gathered around him every morning on his way to work. I was moved by how, when he became aware of the deprivation that faced him daily, he felt overwhelmed like most of us do, but became intentional and committed about addressing it at least in some small way.

Acts of kindness and compassion can be trivialized, as they don’t at first “make a huge difference.” However, they set into motion unexpected consequences that potentially mobilize all kinds of healing, social, physical and spiritual. The good news in the Rabbi’s grandfather’s story is, that from the beginning, we – each one of us – has been assigned the task of healing the world, a tiny bit at a time.

Keep an eye peeled for signs of inner light.

I wrote this piece during the inauguration on Friday while just outside my window I could hear the gentle and plaintive cooing of a mourning dove.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Liz Freedlander says:

    George,
    What I take away from the story of the commuter from Greenwich was that in the giving of each dollar, he demonstrated to each beggar that he SAW and acknowledged the human suffering each of them was experiencing. I’ve had an extraordinary gift given to me in the last six months of providing a little fundraising help to Channel Marker. This organization changes the lives of people living with serious, persistent mental illness. These are people who are quite often easily recognizable as “not looking quite right.” The gift I am referring to is that Channel Marker staff SEE the person who has the mental illness and respond with affection and kindness beyond their work of proving services. I feel privileged to witness this.

  2. Julie Lowe says:

    George, another superb story that resonates on many levels of ‘humanness’. I, like Liz, see everyday the small but cumulatively huge acts of kindness shown by supporters of Talbot Interfaith Shelter making a real difference in the lives of people struggling with poverty. Thank you George!

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