Howard Thurman writes, “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.”
But in the quiet of our early morning meditation, far too often I listen to other voices, other sounds. For the past 27 years, my husband and I have stumbled from bed in predawn darkness to light a candle, then sit for twenty minutes in silent prayer. Despite the years, I remain easily distracted. I try to still my body, center and still my mind, offer a prayer or a psalm, then enter the silence. Downstairs, the refrigerator hums. Outside, a few songbirds waken. Breathe. Be still.
Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. ScratchscratchscratchscratchscratchscratchSCRATCH!
Suddenly a tune runs through my head, the refrain from “Summer Breeze,” a 1972 song by Seals & Croft. Except the words aren’t,
Instead of that final line, I find myself substituting, “Scratching in the cat box of my mind…”
I don’t remember when the cat started timing his visits to the litterbox during our meditation, and to be honest he doesn’t do it every day, but “Scratching in the catbox of my mind” continues to invade the silence, overshadowing the “whisper of the heart.”
Or so I thought for several months.
Recently I’ve begun thinking of how Zen masters will rap the shoulders of a slumping meditator to straighten them up, to bring them back to the present moment. Perhaps the scratching, only slightly less grating than fingernails on a blackboard, is meant to be my wake-up call, its own peculiar whisper of my heart.
After all, we live in unsettled times, and my mind is, I have to admit, a little like a litter box. I certainly spend a lot of time scratching around in it, leaving undigested detritus behind.
So, when I scratch and scatter the litter, what’s actually there in my restless mind, besides music from my past? Howard Thurman nailed it. “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.”
Weakness. The coronavirus is wreaking havoc by closing the schools my grandchildren attend and making it unwise for grandparents to help out because we are over 70 and vulnerable to the virus. This means lost work for my sons and millions of others who are now suddenly homeschooling their young children. Church services are canceled; libraries are closed. And grandparents are relegated to the sidelines as we practice social distancing for the sake of the overwhelmed medical community that doesn’t need more elderly patients. My sister named her deep sense of loss as she isolates from her grandson, and she named her fear of dying. My spiritual directors’ peer group spent our meeting last week focused on mortality, our own and our directees’. I’m suddenly aware of age, of my inability to be useful.
Fear. I’m afraid for this country with its mismanaged response to the coronavirus. I’m afraid for the health and life of friends and colleagues, yes, but also for the homeless, for the lost and lonely children separated from their families, for all those with insufficient resources. And I’m afraid of violence as people stock up not just on toilet paper, but on ammunition. For what? They can’t kill the virus with a gun.
Despair. I despair that politicians will continue to play politics instead of policy, that nothing will change, that those in power will hang onto it and willingly hang the rest of us out to dry (and die).
Forgive an old woman’s lament. I need Howard Thurman’s gentle reminder to listen to my heart’s scratchy whisper of potential strength, and courage, and hope. At its deepest level, my heart does know that God is with us, that God will never forsake us, that even in isolation – even in death — no one is ever alone. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us….” (Think what characters we grandparents might become if we endure!) And Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s gospel offer the promise, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The cat will continue to scratch, and my mind will continue to hum with an old tune and new worries, but if I can face them and name them, perhaps I can then turn to God, asking God to empty the catbox of my mind so I can settle once again into silence, into prayer instead of panic.