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Hands enhance life’s experiences: dimpled hands of a toddler mouthing everything within reach, sinewy hands of a laborer plying his trade, willowy hands of a dancer enhancing her art, knowing hands of a father responding to his children.

Other hands are set aside for matters of spirit: those of the Jesuit priest James Keegan come to mind. Decades of holding the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass, of holding others’ torments, of holding words until matured into images, of holding spiritual directors under his care, of holding his God in the face of debilitating illness that culminated in his death—all marked his scarred hands with an uncanny beauty.

Its reflection is found in These Hands (2017), the slim volume of his poems drawn from the crucible of his lifelong humble service. Nothing escaped his attention: seascapes, seasons, people, animals, death, even his Parkinson disease. His chaste spirit foraged for precise words until the sought-for image burst into consciousness, imbued with humor and compassion. Within each poem shimmers an intimacy toward something larger than life. He, too, played with words during his final days, sourced by his Creator. Such fired his imagination and now surprises his readers with “Ah!” The book’s cover suggests this response.

Keegan’s concluding poem, And Give Our Best to Uncle, contains such a moment: “Before my teeth fall out/ and more joints start to click/ like a metronome collecting silence,/ I want to say, ‘I love you,’ once/ and have it understood/ the way the mirror/ understands my face.”

 Such a relationship he had with his God…

I awoke with this dream feathering my awareness:

A dung beetle meanders down the sidewalk, its stout body glistening with moisture, its fan-shaped antennas slanting sideways. Sidling toward it is a monster insect, its mandibles grinding as if anticipating a meal. The moment I try redirecting the beetle, it darts into the arms of the insect that leaves beetle parts strewn upon the ground. It happened that fast.

While I composed this blog, memories of my 1996 Egyptian tour warmed me.

The dung beetle’s intake of excrement from the ground offends most sensibilities, but not so the ancient Egyptians. In their religious imagination, the beetle’s rolling pieces of dung into burrows morphed into their god Khepri: each morning he created the sun, then carried it across the sky to its demise, only to reappear the next morning and nurture plowed fields dependent upon that energy. In time, the dung beetle became likened to transformation, renewal, and resurrection.

 

So what has the dung beetle to teach me in my present circumstances?

In the dream my slowness prevented moving the beetle out of harm’s way and left me frustrated. I did have a plan, but the beetle had another: within the jaws of death.

Perhaps my denial still hides out beneath meticulous self-care, despite subtle diminishments. In no way can I my restore my depleted energy. I’m following a life path designed by Another. Yet, my dung beetle wants out of here and has no fear of monster insects. Would that I felt similarly. Perhaps I will, in time…

 

Like a single grain of wheat tossed upon parched ground, we feel huge discomfit: estrangement from familiar routines, isolation in lockdown homes and solitary walks, the constriction of unaccustomed silence, and starvation for vital nutrients. Gone are the predictable sources of affirmation, save for our pets. Such pain and suffering are getting old: the funny jokes, no longer funny, topics of conversation lapsing into fickle weather patterns. Each morning’s tally of the victims seems to preclude considering our own.

Yet, Kovid-19 intensifies its killing swath like trigger-happy ghouls firing into the empty night. An epidemiologist likened this virus to an unpredictable Mexican jumping bean—no telling where its contagion will next appear.

How face this crisis that seems to have longer legs than first anticipated? How remain intact before its dismembering, despite slow-burning fears roasting our innards?

Back to the single grain of wheat for a response: it must die to its shortsighted will, it must allow the combing of the new deceased, it must scour the heart of stuff, it must acknowledge its creatureliness. With acceptance, comes fresh growth—this is God’s work.

Such life lessons continue informing my hospice experience, soon to enter its sixth month of praying, listening, and waiting. There’s still much to learn.

Jesus also spoke of the single grain of wheat in the Gospel of John. We’re in good company.

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