way down tender

I am at the desk in my cell wearing my habit. My feet sit in the cool morning air, a balm after the last month’s heat. The sun shines in off the river, warming my shoulder. Here I am in black and white. Shadow and sunlight, warm brightness and cool air.

I am feeling tender, like I’m bruised deep down at the core of me. Behind my computer hangs a woodcut from “The Ruth Portfolio” by Margaret Adams Parker. And they lifted up their voice and wept still more. Three women huddle together, their faces in their hands, bowed down in their grief. There in black and white, shadow and sunlight. I admired the piece hanging on friend’s wall one day while we were having tea. She took it down and gave it to me. It was too dark for her. Too much sadness to hang there all day.

I haven’t thought much about the woodcut since I brought it home. But lately, along with the books I’ve been reading, it’s been a kind of touchstone. I’m reaching down deep, to that very tender bruise, massaging the frayed muscles to invite in nourishing blood.

Last week I began writing about a series of painful experiences from my teenage years. It’s the first long piece I have worked on in a while, and I guess I wasn’t ready until now. I’m not certain I’m ready now, but it isn’t in my nature to turn away once I’ve begun. I’ve been planning to write about these experiences for a while and kept putting it off. Then I started to talk about the planned writing with friends as a way, I think, of committing more fully to the process of telling the truth.

After writing the first sentence last Sunday I know why I have held off so long. This hurts. It isn’t the writing itself that hurts, of course. It’s the long-ago experiences that don’t feel long ago at all. And it’s the silence around those experiences, the distance I’ve tried so hard to keep from them, the denial of their affects in my life. All week I’ve felt raw and achy and restless. I’ve wanted to be anywhere but my own body. And I can see, too, how deeply patterned that silence became in the years following, how it’s instinctual even today. Not the silence of prayer or of the river or of stary morning sky, but the silence of the abyss.

Feeling that same deep down tenderness this morning, I put on my habit. And I began to wonder, what does it mean to wear this habit over the tenderness? What does it mean to wear the habit over the experiences I’ve been writing about?

There are times the habit feels like a barrier between me and the world, a shroud or a costume. Sometimes it’s a shield, sometimes it’s a banner. This morning, it’s a warm quilt. This morning it fits around my tender body in soft folds, its weight a comfort. The cross sits there, black against the white of the fabric, a promise and a reminder. I do not walk this road alone.

I haven’t been able to focus much during my morning lectio lately. The words and the stories aggravate and antagonize me. All I can draw into myself is the name Jesus. Jesus as anchor and balm, promise and reminder. His is a gentle companionship, and I know that he mourns with me. Like the women in the woodcut, he lifts up his voice with mine to weep still more. And he’ll keep walking with me to that deep down tender place, because it is also his tender place.

I’m reminded of the ancient prayer Anima Christi, which in part goes “O good Jesus hear me. Within your wounds hide me. From the wicked foe defend me. Suffer me never to be separated from you.” I pray these days to be hidden in Jesus’ wounds, because he is hidden in mine. I go there seeking him, as much as myself. And when I get there, I find he’s gone ahead of me once again, always pointing the way home through the darkness.

13 Replies to “way down tender”

  1. Dear Aidan, Such a deeply moving reflection on the woundedness we each carry. I can read your words, your reluctance to sit there, and think “oh, yes – there is this that I can remember” and still cry, over 60 years later from the hurt of those years.
    I think of you wearing your habit – and all that that does for you; I know that there are times when I take out my prayer shawl and wrap myself in it, feeling comforted by the cave like surrounding.
    I am often drawn to the stories and art that helps me sink into the experiences of these women we read about – Hagar, Ruth, Naomi, Mary, Mary, Elizabeth, Rabia. One of my teachers did a most beautiful painting of Mary, standing in a doorway, a very quiet meditative mood. The title was “What if She Had Said ‘No’.
    Jesus as anchor, balm, companion, guide – yes.

    Have just finished reading Susan Cain’s Bittersweet – an interesting and well researched book. Are you familiar with it?


  2. Brother, every morning after receiving the precious body of Christ, I pray, “Jesus, may all that is you, flow into me. May your body and blood be my food and drink. May your passion and death be my strength and life. Jesus, with you by my side enough has been given. May the shelter I seek be the shadow of your cross. Let me not run from the love which you offer, but keep me safe from the forces of evil. On each of my dyings shed your light and your love. Keep calling to me until that day comes, when with your saints, we may praise your name together.”
    This is so similar to your prayer, I’m wondering if they come from the same source. Since Jesus continually flows into us, we are enough. There is no better place to be than in the shadow of his cross, and in that shadow, despite deep wounds, we go with Christ beside us and ahead of us at the same time. You are in Christ’s loving arms, Aidan, and there is no better place to be.


    1. I love that prayer, Carolyn. It seems like it’s an adaptation of the Anima Christi, which I also pray after I receive communion. It goes “Soul of Christ sanctify me. Body of Christ save me. Blood of Christ inebriate me. Water from the side of Christ wash me. Passion of Christ strengthen me. O Good Jesus, hear me. Within your wounds hide me. From the wicked foe defend me. Suffer me never to be separated from you. At the hour of my death call me and bid me come to you, that with your saints I may praise your name forever.”


    2. Yes, this is a contemporary paraphrase of the Anima Christi done by David L. Fleming, S.J. I often use this form myself. St. Igantius of Loyola placed this prayer at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises and suggested that the retreatant (or ‘exercitant’) conclude each prayer period with this.


  3. Whale in Lowell’s Cove

    Ever dream you’re a character
    in someone else’s story?
    Two men sitting in beach chairs.

    Harpooning the breeze.
    Ishmael and Queequeg.
    He says one year a whale breached

    here in Lowell’s Cove.
    Spent two weeks trolling
    for bait fish.

    Seemed to be waiting for him
    to row out in his leaking
    boat. Too young

    to be afraid yet.
    The whale rose like a great
    ship. Stood on its tail

    flukes, so they could see
    eye-to-eye. Before it turned,
    diving back into

    its own story. You imagine
    yourself in.

    Melville’s black pen.
    With Ahab, lashed
    to the white whale.

    What the whaler’s called
    a “Nantucket sleighride”.
    My dream turning into

    a nightmare,
    I didn’t tell him.
    Seeing we were strangers,

    to each other. Watching
    the buoys. Sun shining off
    the sea glass. Any sign

    of a wave not a wave.
    A building with the sea
    on its back.


  4. Aidan: I knew you when you were very young, Thought. Clearly I did not know the depths of which you write now of those years. Yes, yes, yes, allowing those wounds to come forth into the embrace of Jesus seems wise and it also seems to come when you are ready for it to do so. May God’s Light and Dark enfold you with comfort and “healing.” Stephen


  5. Thank you for the warmth & healing you bring to our wounded hearts, wrapped in your soft white robes.
    Thanks for bringing in the light to those dark places. I still cherish the image of the love stitched into the painful holes of the quilt you made.

    If we could but touch his robe…



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