A rainbow in the sprinkler’s mist, and I am happy.
Our garden is small, planted in an old flowerbed. Not every seed that we meticulously pushed into the soil decided to show its newborn face, but what did is flourishing. My plump little children. I remember hunkering down in Grandma’s garden and crunching away on carrots, rooting for strawberries in the tangled patch, and spilling peas into my mouth. Food was simple but good—and so it always can be. I am particularly enthralled with the cabbages; there is enough to supply us with sauerkraut all year long. Call me an old woman, a baba, and I will grin and nod.
After a dismal winter, the island has been blessed with eager sunshine. I find myself frequently wandering away from my writing to gaze out the window, to sneak out and check on the vegetables, to stroll down the road between furrowed crops. Already, we’ve been to the sea too many times to remember: those vast peach-colored beaches, the dunes crested with swishing grass, and the water—shimmering, creamy on bare legs, bobbing with plum-colored jellyfish. Not long ago, I sat on a sandbar and laughed as the waves came rumbling over me, filling my face with salty bubbles. Driving home, I found myself smiling sleepily, my cheeks pink, my hair curled by the water and wind. I remembered those sun-soaked days at the lake of my childhood: digging pools in the sand, collecting snails, and chasing after multicolored butterflies as big as my hand—and then, as the sun set, running up through the evergreens and across the cool, green lawn to the cabin, my wet towel flapping behind me.
Today, with my beautiful friend, I scavenged for sea glass, lunched on mussels, paddle-boarded in a basin abounding with sea life (I held a blue starfish!), and swam under the silent regard of coastal windmills. Once again, my cheeks are pink, my hair curled, and my heart nearly full (soon my husband will be home, and then it will be overflowing).
I am tempted to cling to these days of consolation, to look beyond the present moment and grimace at the inevitable return of snow and ice. But I figure it’s better to learn now, while I’m young, that seasons are simply a part of life and always will be. Why waste energy fighting them? Furthermore, they are not something to resign myself to, but rather to embrace. After all, without winter (desolation), would summer be so sweet?
Not long ago, a man might spend his entire day in the woods, swinging an ax, his senses inundated by the smells and songs of a wild world. Or in a field, alone with his horses, tilling up the layers of deep, rich soil. Or he might find himself coasting toward the horizon, white sails rippling above his head as he sank his net into the depths and drew up silver fish. Life then was hard, often too hard, but there exists many a testimony from those who discovered profound beauty within their struggles. Call me a romantic, but then you would have to call the pioneers romantics as well.
They rose and slept to the rhythm of the sun, felt their hearts swell with pride to watch their cattle grow strong and fat or the garden burst with leaf and color, and delighted in gathering around the table to share stories at day’s end. They knew the stars and could find their way home even be they leagues out on the crystal sea. And they knew intimately the land they had broken; indeed, like husband and wife, blood was spilled that they may be united and bear fruit. Pain gave birth to beauty.
Today, we fear suffering; we’ve cut ourselves off from anything that may cause us discomfort. And thus we find ourselves in a cushioned, air-conditioned, sterilized, instant, pre-made, synthetic environment where we are rarely, if ever, challenged to draw on our deepest strength, to fight and win a battle for life itself. Consider the woods and fields, the mountains and sea: beauty thrives in an unfettered, even dangerous, environment. The woodcutter fought for life alongside the bear and bird and squirrel; the fisherman alongside the fish; the farmer alongside the weeds—and every man learned to surrender to the weather. No doubt it is daunting to embrace what we cannot always control, but only ask the pioneer and he will tell you it is worth it.
Naturally, not everyone was called to a skin-to-skin relationship with creation. Indeed, there existed many a philosopher, poet, and politician—but they too were connected to the beauty surrounding them, whether to muse on it, to write about it, or to defend it. Today is no different: not everyone is called to garden, and even fewer to till a field by horse-drawn plow. No, I do not argue that we should return to lanternlight and carriages and hand-pumped water—not if we can use our creative technology to strike a balance between life being too hard and life being too easy. The cold may kill a man’s body, but modernity may kill a man’s soul. Yes, it’s no wonder this generation is crying out, “Where is God? Where is He?”
We must rediscover beauty before we can find He who is Beauty.
But beauty is not only found within suffering. As children, were we not often spellbound by simplicity—a dandelion plucked to give to Mother? What did we see in that humble little weed? Or maybe the question is, What do we not see now?
As we grow, stepping beyond our backyard into the Great Wide Open, we often become jaded—the bubble bursts and we realize that an evil witch dwells in the lovely land of Oz. Some begin searching for beauty in the cold, the grotesque, the indecent, as if childhood is mere illusion. But we cannot thrive in the heart of darkness; it is a void into which our cries echo for eternity. Like color, beauty is only present when light is present.
But even within the sphere of sunlight and starlight and moonlight and firelight, we can find ourselves crying out for more. We wonder how we can make the beauty last longer, how we can capture it and never let it go—rather than simply being and soaking it in. We’ve learned to be greedy, rather than grateful. We must remember what it was to be a child who lived solely in the moment . . .
Not long ago, a friend and I stepped barefoot into a meadow of lupins and searched for our favorites—whether magenta or pale pink or violet or cornflower blue or white-tipped. We gathered bouquets that overflowed our hands and our hearts. They wilted the next day but sweetened our lives while they lasted, and that was what mattered.
For many, beauty is not at their fingertips. While it is indeed possible to climb over the wall into a hidden garden and behold dewy roses growing rampant—need beauty be so elusive? Can it not be integrated into an ordinary day, as it once was? No wonder we grasp and cling when beauty shimmers its wings. Somehow, it has become a rare gem found by few, rather than the hearth by which every man, woman, and child can warm themselves. Every now and then I am struck deeply when I remember that this earth was given to us to be home, and yet many spend more time under a roof, suffocated by forests of concrete and steel, than among breezy cathedrals of trees where the soul is free to breathe.
Again, I do not argue that we should reject everything that is not of the old world. But we must awake and realize that the new world, for all its progress, may well be birthing the regress of human flourishing.
A breath appears as nothing more than a mere puff of air, does it not? And yet it would be a mistake to believe it is as simple as that. Just as many parts of the body must work together, in harmony, to create a breath, so must many parts work together to create a human. Like a breath, a human may appear simple, but there is much more to being human than meets the eye.
One who is truly human is noble.
For me, the word noble has at long last been resurrected from the historical museum, removed from among the rusted swords and breastplates, polished, and set on a pedestal in the centre of the world, of my being. I now understand that to be noble is to be whole and healthy in body, mind, and soul—a work of art, as Aristotle wrote.
For me, nobility can be expressed in three ways: kombucha, splurging, and prayer.
Kombucha. Within the confines of our little apartment in the countryside, I’ve delved heart-first into several traditional ways of preparing food that have been tossed out the window by comfortable, convenient North America. What a joy it is to create my own kombucha, kimchi, and sourdough; not only is it satisfying and economic, but also far more nutritious than our ancestors could have known. Yes, I am shamelessly passionate about food as it was—that is, in the days before the food industry was corrupted. Not long ago, humanity danced with the earth. But now we hear the earth crying out as we rape precisely what we were given to nurture and protect. And in betraying the earth, we’ve betrayed our bodies as well.
But even if my body is whole and healthy and I appear to be thriving, if my mind is malnourished, I am no less sick than the obese man down the street—just not in the same way.
Splurging. I have always struggled with an all-or-nothing mentality. Ah, how much easier it is to say no every time to a certain something than to repeatedly step back and discern in this particular moment if it might be better to say yes, even if yesterday it was better to say no. Contrary to what some may believe (as I myself have often believed), that is not compromise, but prudence—because nobility requires balance. And to balance a scale, one must weigh between goods. What is good for me in this moment? To splurge on cheesecake or not? Do I need to practice temperance and say no, or practice gratitude/loosen up/slay vanity/make a sweet memory and say yes? If saying no this time foments anxiety, resentment, or division (as I have experienced), my mind is now suffering, and probably my soul too—and thus my very humanity. Such is why it may be better to splurge on cheesecake today, even if yesterday it was better to say no and take a hike instead.
Maybe you are wondering: How I can be still be whole and healthy in every way if my mind is nourished but my body is not? Today, during weekday Mass, I was reflecting on the fact that Christ gave up His body for us. Being beaten, scourged, and crucified was certainly a detriment to His physical health. And what about severe fasting? What about the saints who mortified themselves?
Well, the simple truth is that everything we are—body, mind, and soul—exists for Love. Our bodies are for more than the perfect balance of muscle, fat, and nutrients, etc. They are for more than comfort. You may or may not ace a checkup at the doctor’s office—what matters is that you are able to serve Love. Maybe the doctor is right—maybe you do need to eat less junk—but this is that you may better serve Love. How much belly fat, then, is too much? Simply, that is between you and God. Consider: too much junk can lead to addictions, debilitating symptoms, and even premature death. Maybe we often fail at sticking to a clean diet and exercise because our only motivation is to lose weight and feel better—which often doesn’t hold up when faced with a choice between cheesecake or an apple and you’re asking yourself why it’s that important to have a trim waistline and more energy—but what about loving better?
With this is mind, we are indeed called to care for our temples—but as soon as we begin caring too much, we have begun worshiping the temple itself and not God who dwells within. My body is not only a receptor for nutrients, but also a conduit for grace. I am called to use my body to serve the poor, not to serve my body over the poor. Yes, we exist for Love.
Prayer. I cannot determine the balance on my own. God alone knows how to weigh the goods on the scale. He is always there, standing over my shoulder like a father tutoring his child in the family trade. If I try to proceed without Him, I will inevitably make the wrong decision—or I will not be able to make a decision at all (blasted scrupulosity). I know then that my soul is starving. Prayer—communication between the mortal and the Immortal—is the food of the soul and served in many forms. Often, God will speak to me through my beloved husband or through Scripture, and sometimes through a saint’s quote. Always, whether using words or not, He speaks through peace. I truly believe peace is the compass of the soul. If my soul is restless, I know God is urging me to add a little more this or a little less that until the balance is struck.
Like kombucha, nobility is not a thing of the past, of medieval knights and crowned queens, but of every human who desires to be who they truly are.
I finally realize I am a tomato plant. I am flowering, but I am not yet fruiting. That does not mean I am failing at being a tomato plant; it means I am growing. Not only is it natural, it is necessary. Pride and impatience leave me wanting to be fruitful now—but this is the stage in which virtues are grown. Without it (and accepting that it is a long, slow process), I will merely produce stunted humility and patience and prudence and—and everything necessary to become a truly fruitful tomato plant. Ironic, isn’t it, that if I do not embrace these days in which I often feel terribly incomplete and disappointing, I will not become all I can be.
Thus I show my young, delicate flowers to the sun and wait for the rain.
Imagine: already He has suffered verbal and physical battering, a scourging that has flayed His back into ribbons, and thorns skewered into His brow. And now His bleeding body must carry the heavy, rugged tool that is to ensure His death. He must drag it up through the streets of Jerusalem as He is slammed with bloodthirsty screams, knowing that escape from this agony is not yet at hand.
I have often wondered what part of His Passion Christ found the most difficult. And I believe it must have been the carrying of His cross.
I think I understand why, if only a little. As I find find myself carrying my weaknesses, I see how far I have come, but I also see how much farther I have to go. I can’t help but wonder if I will make it, for the road looks impossibly steep, and I continually stumble and cut my knees on sharp stones, barely able to pick myself up again. I am bleeding, bruised, struggling to remember why I should not give up.
And yet, somehow, hope is a smoking flame that refuses to be snuffed out. I cling to the promise that my weaknesses will eventually be put to death on that faraway hilltop—and then, only then, will my strengths rise. This promise was made by He who walked the Way before me, carrying the weaknesses of the world, who died only to rise in a glory that far surpassed His suffering.
He is the reason I do not give up. I am not suffering alone. No, He suffered first that I may unite my suffering with His.
I am learning how to make sourdough bread. Once upon a time, this was how all bread was made. Wild yeast is drawn from the air into a flour-water mixture and left to ferment in a jar on your countertop—thus everyone’s “starter” will taste slightly or muchly different, depending on your air.
Starter is much like prayer. Prayer looks different for one person to the next. But, just like the starter that needs to be fed a little flour every day to keep the hungry yeast happy, everyone needs to pray every day. Even if you only bake bread once a week—or go to Mass on Sunday—that starter needs to be fed or it will fall asleep. If starved, it won’t be good for baking, which is the point of it all. And so it is with your soul. A little prayer every day will keep you awake; fail to prayer and you will begin to drift into apathy. You will likely emerge from Mass as one helluva flat loaf.
But—praise God—there is an abundance of yeast in the air! If your soul has fallen asleep, you can always begin again.
At times, I feel I am floating in ink.
Have I been damned like the leviathan that Saint Columba banished into the deep? Am I to be forgotten here, forever aching to return to the light flickering far, far above?
And then I hear the smallest voice. It is like a gentle current rising from a crack in the ocean floor—rising to stir the water in which I find myself suspended. It says to me:
In the stillness is where you will find Me. In the silence where nothing can be heard but My voice, even be it the faintest whisper. Here, the sun cannot blind you, salty breezes cannot swoon you, crashing waves cannot deafen you. Here, you will discover who you are, for I dwell within you, and I am the Light who reveals all.
Here, only I AM.
And it is then that I realize I am breathing—I am alive. I am not lost.
I am found.
There is a window before my face, as there is before yours. Sometimes, I want to scream and punch through the glass. But it is thick; my scream is silent, my fist is bruised.
Sometimes, the glass is frosted and I see and understand only as much as a newborn understands its mother’s lullabies. By my own effort, I cannot dissolve the mystery, for it resides on the other side; I must wait for the veil to melt away and bless me with clarity.
Then there is night. There may be particles of starlight to ease the pain, or there may be nothing, and when there is nothing, I rock and weep and press my face to the glass and beg the light to return. It always does.
I have come to see that one’s home is a prison without the window. Many a soul has pulled a curtain over the window and turned away to artificial light, and I truly do not understand how they can go on. What of hope?
Sometimes, I see a face at the window. It is often mine—especially visible at night—and then ensues the bitterest struggle to see beyond my self. And then there are the euphoric moments when I see a face other than my own; I see a reflection: Nicholas. By his face I am reminded that he too is searching and that there is One more beautiful even than he.
I search, we search, and bask in His light when He is near; beg when He is far. But I think I know why He does not press His face to the glass of our earthly home: He must know our hearts would burst with longing to touch the Face of Love.
You want to be free, but what is freedom for?
You are roaming the world. You are drinking in this freedom, your heart flaming with life on the pinnacle of a mountain. But your heart yet yearns, for you are searching. Searching, searching for something, your heart driving you onward.
And then one day you discover a little gate in a stone wall. Your heart, which has been beating wildly all the while that you’ve roamed, suddenly is quiet in your chest. You lean against the gate and peer through.
You glimpse something beautiful, something more beautiful than anything you’ve yet seen. How is this, when you have traversed jungles and rivers and caves? You think you may understand: the world never belonged to you, but this—this is the place you have been searching for. And yet—there is a lock on the gate. And you do not have the key.
Suddenly, there is the warmth of a presence beside you. It is another—and when he opens his hand to reveal a key, you realize he is your other.
Together you enter into the hidden place beyond the wall. Here, in the secrecy of a garden, you discover that there is always something new to be found under every leaf, behind every rock, and even in the coolness behind the little waterfall. It is not nearly as vast as the world outside the garden, but in its smallness you realize something: the freedom that you knew before was only ever to carry you to this place where you and he are discovering, day after day, the intricate beauty of the garden that is yours and yours alone.
You realize that freedom exists for love.
I was given two gifts this Christmas that cannot be weighed. First, a flight to visit my family over two thousand miles away. There is a thing or two you should know about the Mallett home: it is saturated in warmth and light, food and wine, teasing and laughter, wisdom and beauty. Whether slurping Father’s Thai soup or nibbling Mother’s whipped shortbread, we shared many a conversation that reached the heights of a kite one moment and the depths of an anchor the next. We bantered over boardgames, ate late, woke late, played more boardgames, and throughout it all cached many more bright memories next to those already cherished (these newest including additions to the family, such as the seriously edible and ever-smiling Clara-Beara).
Yes, gifted with my family. And gifted, unexpectedly, with clarity of sight. Curled up on the couch against my husband’s chest, studying my loved ones, I suddenly saw them as God sees them. It was excruciating.
When Nicholas noted the tears glittering in my eyes, he took my hand and whisked me away to the refuge of our bedroom, where I found myself dissolving into weeping on his shoulder. I cannot remember the last time I cried with such intensity. But my heart was twisting, twisting, for just as I saw their souls as God sees them—in all their childlike beauty—I also saw how I have failed to love them as He loves them.
My poor husband—he held me close, murmuring sweet consolations that did not ease my tears. And then I began to laugh, nearly as deeply as I was crying, for even then, in my poverty, the Lord was gifting me with love. I remembered that He sees my soul just as I saw the souls of my loved ones.
I emerged from the bedroom, puffy-eyed and grinning, ready to play another boardgame with my beautiful, baffled family. I don’t think they understood any more than my husband did, this strange, seemingly random, spiritual experience. But not strange or random to me. Even now, I admit, tears are pricking my eyes, for the gifts that mean the most are truly those that are unexpected but just what you needed.