Let me tell you about Miss Polly. Well, it's Pauline, really, but as a kid I called her Miss Polly, just like the little kids do today. I have no idea how old she is, but she was pretty old about 30 years ago. She's probably in her 110's, at least.
Miss Polly is not pretty. I know that's rude, but it's true. She has straw-colored hair that actually bunches up in strands that look like straw. She's incredibly gaunt and has facial hair. Her hands are almost useless to her because of arthritis, with huge knuckles and fingers gnarled into disturbing shapes. Miss Polly wears heavy brown shoes, the same kind every day, because they help her to walk. She is able to hold a cane to steady herself, and has learned to manipulate doors, books (somewhat) and papers. She can even write, though it is a long, slow process.
Of course you all know that the direction I'm heading is to tell you what a wonderful person this woman is. And it's true: Miss Polly is a wonderful person. She has taught Sunday School to children for longer than I've been alive, and manages to make the lessons pretty interesting, considering the state of most Sunday School curriculum. She's kind and generous and remarkably patient with kids. Most of all, she is happy. Content. Joyful. Not that kind of manic "joy" that we've all seen people put on when faced with the competing effects of traumatic events/conditions and the feeling that we "have to be joyful in everything." This isn't some deranged rictus, a pasted-on smile that hardly conceals the pain and grief behind it, or the recent widow/widower who is busier than ever before, and who talks constantly about "victory" but never about grief or healing. Miss Polly is content.
I bring her up because today is, for many Christian churches, All Saints Sunday. This morning, churches all over the world heard from their pastors and priests about the saints that have come before, both great like Francis, Peter and Bernard, and small, like Miss Polly. It's a good practice, really, to spend some time remembering those who have helped us, who have shown us love and compassion, who have taught us and inspired us. Religious belief is hardly required for this, though it of course figures prominently in my experience.
But today, especially before an election, especially as people are killing each other all over the world, especially as children starve and women are gang-raped for the sins of their brothers, perhaps it is good for those of us who can to stop for a moment and think of all the shining lights that have come our way, all the people who have helped us to see that there is a better way, a higher way, than the one that comes all too naturally.
Madeleine, L'Engle, writing in A Wrinkle in Time
, shows Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace seeing for the first time the Darkness that threatens to overshadow the Earth, and which hold's Meg's and Charles Wallace's father captive. It is a dreadful moment, and their courage is gone. The 3 beings who have come to help the children, disguised as storybook witches, try to help them by mentioning how Earth has produced some of the best fighters the universe has known. Prompted by the good witches, the children gain strength from the examples of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Buddha, even Euclid, Newton and Einstein. Religious figures, philosophers, scientists and artists all help us to fight the Darkness that so threatens all of us, the children learn, and so they gain the courage the need to pass through the Darkness, take it on and rescue Mr. Murray.
To the list of luminaries we can all name, I would add Polly H., Patricia S., Lois Y., Bryan D., Toms B. and C., Dennis B., and so many others who have shown me love and grace far beyond what I deserve. They teach me that I can be better than I am. These, as Madelein L'Engle would say, know the Ancient Music, they sing the Old Songs with the stars and planets, the constellations and galaxies. And when the Darkness is all around, when hope flees and courage melts, these are the people, great and small, who begin to sing the Melodies of the Universe, making Creation itself pulse with the power of their song, and they make the Darkness fall away before them.
Keep singing, and teach me the words and tune that I may join in.