Seeing the Angel

“As David Bowie said, ageing is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been…It’s a little like Michaelangelo looking at a slab of marble and seeing the angel inside it.”

Carl Honore, interview at The Age Buster, April, 2021

Disappointed, I headed out on Route 14 west last Friday on a day when the sun would not be shining on my southern Minnesota world. Light intermittent showers would be the rule this day instead. Everything looks a bit muddy on April days here when spring would rather shine. I had been looking forward to Minnesota Shining on this auspicious occasion: my breakout from a year marked by so much isolation.

I was out on the long road at last, for the first time in more than a year. Mask in my purse beside me, suitably dressed in dressy black, I was focused on a journey I had taken dozens of times until two years ago. I had a sense of holding my breath, even as I had to breathe anyway.

I was on my way to the funeral of a dearly beloved former parishioner in St. James, Minnesota. My husband and I had served his United Methodist church for five years until 2012. Pete Christensen, age 98, had finally gotten the rest he had been longing for, and I had been asked to say “a few words” at his service as one of his former pastors. I had done Betty’s seven years ago; how could I say no now?

It was my first real outing since the pandemic had closed the world down and me with it. I had received both Pfizer vaccines long since, so I was going with some confidence, yet also some trepidation. Fear dies hard. I could feel a quiver or two as I launched out into the Big World.

Despite the lack of sunshine and the occasional swoop of my windshield wiper, I found myself ramped up for the journey. I had traveled this road so many, many times and for so many reasons. In every season.

Yet this time felt different from all the others.

My senses were alive and curious. Part of the two-hour, 125-mile trip includes a 21-mile, dangerous two lane highway clogged with semi-trucks that demand full attention. But most of the rest is 65 mph and four-lane concrete, so I had ample opportunity to “see” with eyes and heart. I was so hungry to see.

This is flat farmland. Rich farmland. Corn and soybean country. Ethanol country: I passed 3 Ethanol plants on the way. Most fields were nearly ready for planting when the soil finally warms up. A few were already smoothly dressed for their summer’s work. Only a couple had not been touched since last fall.

This was nature’s palette on which noble farmers’ work and nature’s insistent unfolding would change the landscape for three seasons and bless a nation. Again. So grand, all of it.

The biggest, gnarliest old trees still looked empty of spring color, but shyer, smaller trees were whispering greens of many shades, their emerging buds waiting to burst out in celebration. The willows were dancing in their bright yellow-green dresses before growing up into their true summer green. There was plenty of wind out on the prairie to whish their slim branches about, as if a waltz were playing just for them.

The countryside colors were still mostly brown and beige and flax. Earth was waiting. Getting ready underneath the soil, planted seeds would soon be feverishly preparing to show up above ground in their deep greens. The wildflowers, in their white and blue, purple and yellow and red, would be along on the edges and ditches in due time.

I reached St. James in exactly two hours and parked in the lot before the Lutheran Church that had so graciously offered to do Pete’s service. The United Methodist church had closed last year and the building had been sold. Their pastor led the service, and the good women of the church had prepared a lunch for when we would return from the cemetery. It was all familiar, yet it was all new and strange to be in this modern place instead of in the grand old Gothic sanctuary of our past life as a church.

Yet, for two hours, I was Pete’s “pastor” again. Only three people from the old church were there. I was shocked, until I realized that many had died; many were in the nursing home or too frail to come out. Jerry and Char were there…two dear joyful, laughing people of my past…and we did our best to be “ourselves,” changed though we have all been over seven years. A bit more frail, perhaps, but sturdy of spirit yet.

This was a day of standing in the cemetery where my husband is buried. Remembering. Remembering my fragile self on the freezing December day in 2013 when he became part of the assembled in that place. And my heart was shattered. I stood there this day with the chilly spring wind swirling around us, knowing how that broken heart has been knit back together as a new thing since then.

This day became a day of chipping away at the “slab” of my own marble. Of seeing some of the angel inside that I had not seen before.

It was a day of gathering together the intervening years and knowing exactly how grace has wrapped surprise and awe and hope and healing and beauty all around and deep within me. And doing all of it before I even knew its intentions. Uncovering the angel.

On the drive back home to Rochester, Pavarotti/Domingo/Carreras, “The Three Tenors,” opera’s finest singing together, filled my heart with music that I’ve played on that very trip so many times. I was of a mood to sing along, as I always had, but at almost-80, the vocal cords are not up to the task any more. So I remembered as I listened and savored it as if I were still singing along, full voice.

Sunshine didn’t matter any more. I was returning home. Yet I was also already home again – home to myself. I had come closer to seeing the angel still being unearthed so gently on this tender day.

For the first time, on that day of my break-out, I glimpsed how my Creator has always seen me: as already complete. Fully carved and standing on a pedestal for all to see. For me to claim. And claim again.

And so it is with each of us.

And I’m very okay with that.