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“Liz, will you please take me to the Galleria? I want to pick out a Lladro figurine for my new great grand-baby,” said Mother, her white wavy hair feathering her youthful face as she hunched over the kitchen phone. Many times, we had made this trip to Bailey, Banks, and Biddle, and always the selection had taken a while.

I look back on these occasions, and so many more, when Mother had introduced me to beauty, given multiple expressions in the arts, here and abroad. Unfortunately, chronic knee pain washed much of it over me. Yet, a residual remained, enough to see the Sacred’s co-creating within the artists.

The impoverished Lladro brothers, Jose, Benjamin, and Juan, evidence this revelation. So right was their hunch about using their hands for something other than their parents’ farm in Almassera, Spain. Instead, they experimented with bowls of wet porcelain in their courtyard, then fired rudely-shaped molds into the kiln they had built. Excitement mounted as life-like figurines emerged. That was in 1953.

More training at the School of Arts and Crafts in San Carlos, Valencia, honed the basics of their craft and drew around them sculptors, ornamental artists, technicians, painters, and flower artists. Then, as well as today, many hands hand-crafted each piece, unique in design and color, with no urgency for mass production. Time was unimportant. 

While waiting for Mother’s selection, I used to invite each Lladro piece to speak its unique beauty. I was not disappointed.

From this vantage point, I honor Mother’s knack of opening my psyche to beauty wherein I still discover the Sacred.

Like a mechanical toy with moveable parts, he lurched across the gym floor at the Y, his right hand splaying his cane before him, his mouth, a perfect round O. He was young—perhaps in his twenties, his stunted body wearing a black-and-white striped T-shirt and black pants. Still focused upon the next step, he headed toward the stairs and the indoor track for walking. Then, he was gone, unaware of my having waved to him.

A few minutes later, he emerged, running, the left hand loosely gripping the rail, and the right, his cane. In a short while, he completed the circular track, then stopped to catch his breath as two joggers passed him. A few moments later, he resumed walking, his dark hair swiping his full forehead as he studied each step with his cane. Although chronically off balance—perhaps the result of cerebral palsy—he was very much his own person, seemingly adjusted to living in a body that jerked, but one that was trim. He cared, or someone else cared, deeply.

Then, he was gone again, but his impression sank within my psyche—another life teacher, with indomitable spirit.

Such displays of quiet spirit evidence God’s healing, at work everywhere—even in life’s reversals—if we have courage to participate.

Some stories have lives of their own, flitting among fertile imaginations and rendered in varied art forms down through the centuries. One of these is the Cherry Tree Carol:

When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee.

And one day as they went walking, all in the garden green
There were berries and cherries as thick as may be seen.

Then Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild,
“Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child.”

Then Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he.
“Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.”

Then up spoke baby Jesus, from out Mary’s womb.
“Bow down ye tallest tree that my mother might have some.”

So bent down the tallest tree to touch Mary’s hand.
Said she, “Oh look now Joseph, I have cherries at command”

When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee.

The ancient Christian liturgy in Aleppo, Syria, first embedded this tale, intended to serve as filler for the sparse Nativity narratives found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Joseph’s pique toward the father of Mary’s baby still jars listeners, variously handled in ensuing versions of the tale.

It next surfaces in the pseudo-gospel of Matthew, ascribed to the Carolingian noble family in 650 CE. In place of the cherry tree, however, there is a date palm. More backstory is also found: the births of Mary and Jesus and more details of His childhood. Such additions speak to the religious imaginations of those believers and the simple faith that enabled their survival.  

One biblical scholar, Mary Joan Winn Leith, speculates that eleventh-century Crusaders in the Holy land recognized the legitimacy of the Syrian Christians’ liturgy and brought it home for their spiritual enrichment, including the carol.

The Cherry Tree Carol next surfaced in the biblical mystery plays, set in England’s East Midlands in the 1500s; it opened the Nativity Play, followed by Joseph’s humble apology. The sets for the performers, mounted upon wheels, were rolled to neighboring villages to inspire and educate the locals.

And centuries ago, The Cherry Tree Carol presumably made its way to the United States through English and Irish immigrants carrying their folk tunes and traditions with them. And in our time, Appalachian singer Jean Ritchie picked up this carol and recorded two traditional versions. Joan Baez reworked one of them in 1961, with guitar accompaniment; it can be heard on YouTube.

So The Cherry Tree Carol still inspires its listeners. That’s what graced stories have always done—they carry the élan for those willing to receive and rejoice. We’re in good company.

Fourteenth Century Mosaic of Pregnant Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem in Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey

Available on Amazon

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