Story Recording: “The Miser’s Slippers” by Shoshannah Brombacher
My Mennonite faith community is situated in the heart of a neighborhood rife with homelessness, and our mission is one of radical hospitality. Praying for the community is a rich sacramental experience for me. Intentions are heartfelt. People listen deeply and check up on one another during the fellowship time that follows the service. Last Sunday desperate, choking sobs emitted from the side of the sanctuary, from “Rita’s” usual place. “I pray, I just beg God, to have my children call me today. Please, God, just today, please.” We talked for a long time outside afterwards. “Rita” has been homeless for fifteen years. She suffers from mental illness, and her children have been unresponsive. She’s been clean for many years, and her shaking hand lighting the cigarette tells that story.
This week we remembered the day Lyndon Johnson declared “War on Poverty” fifty years ago. John Goodman notes that taxpayers have spent $1.5 trillion since 1975 “fighting” poverty. Experts suggest that we now spend $1 trillion a year. (Josh Archambault Jan. 8, 2014 at an NRO Symposium). “Rita” would be grateful just to be SEEN.
Shoshannah Brombacher’s story, “The Miser’s Slippers,” prompted me to name my homeless friend after myself, because if I don’t put myself in her place, there is no room for her in my soul. Shoshannah stresses that the man is a miser. That he is rich seems secondary. When we live miserly lives of attachment to material goods, we don’t see the poor. As human beings, our call is to cultivate a practice of spiritual poverty, by holding our possessions and our status like feathers in our hand. This practice, over time, removes the scales over our eyes and allows us to understand and empathize, and ultimately share. I call the world to this spiritual practice of being poor, to honor what President Johnson began and end the need for the “War on Poverty.”
I descend cracked concrete stairs into a tunnel that winds under the streets of NYC. I have some fear. It is very dark and feels hollow. I hear subtle rattling in the distance, the sound pinging off the damp walls, calling to me? With every step comes a commitment to the journey and curiosity about the destination. The longer I walk the louder the rattling. Light ahead. Closer…to what? Silence. I gingerly walk through an aperture and am greeted by several skeletons. Each one has a gold kiss on its cheekbone. Light from a crack in the tunnel’s ceiling wraps them in warmth. I feel embraced, welcomed, as if they have been waiting for me for a long time. I know I am home. There are so many questions: Who are they? Why are they here? Why have they waited for me? Who left the kiss on their cheeks? Before I can ask, one skeleton steps forward and offers me a loaf of bread, saying, “For the journey back up.” I don’t want to leave, but waking life intervenes and I “feel it in my bones” that the tunnel has brought me to the mountain top.
Bare Bones Truth filters into the soul
Between the tendons of our lives,
And like a hungry dog, doesn’t let go
Until it has done its work.
It gnaws down,
Seals us with its golden kiss,
And heaves us back into the thick of life,
Stark but strong.
One year after the unexpected death of my sister I still step gingerly. When we grieve we learn that all we CAN do is step out. If we step in harmony with the pain, we become sure-footed. The pain transforms from foe to friend, and we endure in spite of the loss.
My spiritual practice has been intentionality. I ask for the grace to stay conscious, to recognize each wave of grief and to honor my humanity by feeling it. It has also helped me to be aware of my sister’s continued presence in a new way. I have prayed for her spirit as she transitions into this new and unknown existance. And I have practiced letting her go.
Two gifts have emerged from this experience: reinforcement that the ice holds, and realization that we are not in control. Now I try to live into these truths, and to be in solidarity with others who grieve.
I used to raise consciousness at a navy subase about the violence inherent in possessing and using nuclear weapons. Weekly, a worker drove through into the base as I passed out leaflets. His truck carried a rifle rack and he looked straight ahead, never acknowledging my presence. I was convinced that he was an irreconcilable “redneck” who surely hated this “bleeding heart liberal.” One day he seemed different. His despondence was palatable. I responded to it by blurting out, “How are you?” He shouted back, “How am I? I’m terrible. How else would I be having to go in there every day and do what I have to do?” I had reduced him to my erroneous perception of him. In the spirit of today’s Eckhart quote, I would say I had divided him from his true self by dwelling on what I thought to be his flaws. Not exactly following the call to love God with my whole heart, and my neighbor as myself.
As human beings we seem destined to make judgments about one another. Nothing alarming about it- it’s the human condition; however, when we choose to dwell on the flaws of others until that’s all we see- it divides us from our own best self, from the other, and from God. We are all more than our flaws.
My meditation birthed this prayer. If it speaks to you too, I thank the Spirit:
“…true poverty of spirit consists in keeping oneself so free of God and of all one’s works that if God wants to act in the soul, God himself becomes the place wherein he wants to act- and this God likes to do….Here, in this poverty, people attain the eternal being that they once were, now are, and will eternally remain.” Meister Eckhart Sermon Fifteen
This time Meister Eckhart describes the goal of the spiritual journey as a radical letting go of all ego entrapments so that if God wants to act in the soul, God becomes the place wherein God wants to act. This is the GodPlace where we existed before we were creatured.
The poem I share here emerged after the death of my parents, many years ago. Since then I have experienced enough “ego-deaths” to fuel a massive funeral pyre! Every time we choose Spirit over ego, we die a little and are born a little, becoming more authentically our true selves.
Leaves reign down
Leaving long limbs
Exposed like raw pain.
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord?”
As leaves to earth
We return to the
Genes of our souls
Bare, not barren,
Becoming at last
Who we always were.