Traces of grace in the grit: Holy humus!

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by Kent Ira Groff

Table Talk coverA woman on silent retreat was praying when she and I heard a construction worker say, “Holy shit!” Later she and I queried: Can this pop phrase mask our human yearning for life’s “waste” to morph into wholeness—even holiness?

Maybe some folks are “praying” without knowing it—that life’s lowest places might be consecrated: “Holy humus!” Why not use that in our liturgies? The expression can mean more than venting your spleen. We can pray to see traces of grace in the grit of our own or others’ defeats and discouragements.

Grit Seasoning
While I do this grit
work, season
the irksome pieces
with enough
Ahas! to remind me
of the reason.

The “reason” is your life mission—your “why to live,” your purpose for being on this earth, your passion (Resource Three in Clergy Table Talk). Such Ahas! come unbidden, by surprise—often right when we feel our own brokenness, even shame and unworthiness.

In a hospital Clinical Pastoral Education training program, a new student chaplain was assigned to visit Marie Smith, a patient with terminal cancer; she had called to request a visit. It was this seminarian’s first real encounter with death. As he made his way down the hallway in the oncology unit, he was overwhelmed with the stench of necrotic flesh. Upon knocking and then entering the room, he felt overwhelmed by her ashen color. He thought he would throw up. But from somewhere in the back brain, he remembered that it can help at such times to sit down and put your head in your hands. So he sat that way for four or five minutes, and the sickness did lessen.

But when he looked at the woman, he felt so embarrassed by what had happened that he got up and left. Feeling he had failed, he went to the meditation room to sort things out. He decided he would tell his supervisor the next day that he was resigning from the program, and maybe even quitting seminary. Perhaps this ministry thing was not for him.

But the next morning, before he could find the supervisor, she found him. Marie had just called again: Was he the chaplain who visited her? He thought, Oh no.

“Well, this time she just wanted to say thanks. After she called yesterday, she wished she hadn’t; she was so sick she didn’t feel like talking, and surely didn’t want any minister preaching to her.” “But somehow,” the patient said, “the chaplain who came must have sensed that. Because he just came in, sat down, bowed his head and prayed for me for maybe five minutes. And then he gave me the most loving glance, and then left. Of all my times at this hospital, this is the most meaningful visit I ever received.”

Once when I told this story, someone asked, “But the chaplain wasn’t really praying, was he?” Another said, “Oh yes! He was praying with his gut.” His intense identity with the patient’s pain was his visceral praying, his yearning for her with “bowels and mercies” (splagchna in Greek; see Philippians 2:1, KJV).

Buddhist and Christian metaphors convey the same reality: that beauty rises out of the garbage, that even wasted experiences can morph into new life. A Buddhist scripture says, “A sweet-smelling, lovely lotus may grow upon a heap of rubbish thrown by the highway” (Dhammapada 58-59). And where is Jesus crucified, but on a tree at “Golgotha,” the town garbage heap?