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Ahead of me, cars and trucks inched up the exit ramp curving to the left, onto North Kingshighway Boulevard, site of the sprawling Barnes-Jewish Hospital and clinics. The afternoon sun wilted long grasses along the pavement; the air, sticky with humidity. City pigeons scrounged for seeds.

And yes, there was someone near the stoplight: short, stocky, walking with a limp. A slouch hat covered his head; a graying beard, his square jaw. Safety pins fastened his wrinkled khaki shirt. Around his neck hung three white plastic rosaries of varying lengths and a cardboard sign scrawled with words in black letters. Behind him, stood a battered shopping cart, filled with bags and opened boxes, their contents spilling over its side.

Missing was the City’s ordinance against panhandling, usually posted near the stoplight.

Upon seeing me wave, he hurried to my car, his dark eyes glinting in the sun, his wide mouth grinning, revealing missing teeth. He reminded me of a fun-loving grandpa, full of stories; of an old laborer with a broken body.

“God blesses you!” he repeated over and over, welcoming me into his home. No longer invisible, someone had seen him and he knew it. I was humbled.

Long ago, a friend had taught me that nothing is as it seems.

 

 

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Skeletal fingers disembowel fevered spirits, agonizing for a fix before the next holiday bash—and there are many, in the glitziest of venues. Desperation sours puke, hiccoughs frenzy the chest, joints scream in pain. Too chicken-hearted to opt for death, there seems no way out.

But there is—for those willing to change. It’s all about waking up to the full implications of our humanness, rife with loss. Within such losses that knee us before a Power greater than ourselves, we sense a faint voice emerging from our depths: so unlike the carping one with the bullwhip. We sink back on our haunches. We listen. Tears pool our eyes. Chests stop heaving. Hands fold in prayer. Something akin to peace surfaces like a fragrant lotus blossom: its glossy pink bespeaks Joy.

And then it’s over. Still on our haunches, we slip to the floor and prostate ourselves beneath the mantel of silence. We have been visited and we know it, but its memory mandates action.

Nothing left for us but to pick up our cell and call for help. It’s out there, even during the holidays.

 

“No! Not that! No way! I’ve no time for this! I’m outa here!”

Most squirm in the face of suffering as denial stomps with one-hundred-pound boots. Heart racing, breathing labored, shoulders tensed, the escape into palliatives, of whatever kind, is underway, until the distress is dulled within a soporific. Few are the individuals who explore their setbacks and learn from them.

One of these is Karen Armstrong, British author, world lecturer, and winner of the 2008 TED Prize. Her memoir, The Spiral Staircase – My Climb out of Darkness (2004) weaves thirteen years of daunting reversals within the first verse of T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday:” it reveals the paradox of progress from circular stairs that appear to go nowhere.

What seemed like missteps in Karen’s beginnings—leaving the convent, failing her doctoral orals at Oxford, researching and writing scripts on Christianity and Islam and interviewing notables for BBC television in the Holy Land, teaching college and high school students, flipping out with an undiagnosed frontal lobe epilepsy—were, in fact, priming her psyche toward compassion, a discovery that wrought her conversion to the God of her understanding. It became the lens through which she viewed her God, inherent within all religions.

So she took to her writing desk and produced A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (1993). Its publication changed her life. Her clipped voice, heard in lecture halls and YouTube, still carries the incisive ring for God’s compassion in our world. The question remains, is anyone listening?

 

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