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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…

Like savory stew simmering over a low fire, so does Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water – Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (2011) excite my appetite for deeper union with my God.

Decades of ministering to the afflicted, beset by stinking thinking, led this Franciscan priest to study the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous by attending meetings in the church basement across the alley from which he lived in the 1970s. No matter that he did not suffer from alcoholism, so easily did his new friends welcome him into their spiritual fellowship. Inherent within their practice of the 12 Steps were Gospel teachings of healing releasing them from the bondage of addiction and filling them with zest for life. Rohr seized upon this synchronicity and continued listening.

Further refinement of this paradigm led Rohr to equate the disease of addiction with sin: our divisiveness from God, others, and ourselves. He also saw the 12 Steps mirrored in the three paths of classical Western spirituality: Purgation, Illumination, and Union: willingness to name hidden sins in our unconscious, willingness to purge them from our thinking and choices, willingness to make amends to those we’ve harmed, and willingness to carry this message of deliverance to others.

This simple practice entails arduous work, given our slothful natures. Without the support of Higher Power’s influence within sponsorship and fellowship, we flounder.

“This book is for you,” reads the dedication page, and so it is. Our powerlessness before life on life’s terms—even the pandemic—makes this so.

 

“Beauty does not linger, it only visits. Yet beauty’s visitation affects us and invites us into its rhythm, it calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world: to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.” So writes John O’Donohue (1956 -2008), Irish poet, Hegelian philosopher, and lecturer who sets my spirit a-shivering.

The lakes and mountains of Connemara, West Galway, imbued Donohue’s fluid aesthetics with rich dynamism, order, and harmony. From his stonemason father and Uncle Pete he learned the beauty of spirit and work. Widely read for decades, he culled insights of beauty from classical and contemporary poets and writers and psychologists and braided them into his personal sense of beauty.

In 2004 he published The Invisible Embrace – Beauty, essays articulating this amalgam, now his own; its ninth chapter, “The White Shadow: Beauty and Death,” seized my interest. Given the Creator’s affection for all that is, superimposing the lens of beauty over the underbelly of life reveals a different milieu: pathos. What seems weak, exhausted, broken, stunted, and breathless, is much more.

Such truth scrapes barnacles from doubt’s poison, catapults despair’s insanity, illumines the dying process with hope, and releases headwinds of change—inherent within this new direction is its own intimacy with Beauty who O’Donohue identifies with the mystery of God. Such finding evidences his compassionate listening to the terminally ill and resonates deeply within my psyche.

My study and waiting continues. Happily, I have another companion in John O’Donohue who made his crossing during sleep while vacationing in Avignon, France. So simple … just like his life was among us.

 

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