The Unexpected Holy

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Sometimes the holy catches us unaware, makes the common sacred, gives us joy in our mourning.

Fresh snow fell during the night, leaving a soft layer of white on the valley floor.

We piled into the car and drove to an old red brick chapel where the sun glinted off newly-shoveled walks and a bluebird sky arced over a pointed steeple.

My dearest friend, Kara, and her husband, Dave, were blessing their baby boy, Caleb.

We filed into the last row, just in time to sing the opening hymn. Minutes later we bowed our heads and listened to Caleb’s father give him a name, call down blessings from a watchful heaven.

Dave spoke thoughtfully, tenderly, about Caleb’s short life – how he has already absorbed an intense amount of emotion. Grief, sorrow, loss, but also joy.

Caleb’s coming into the world was unusual. He came with his twin brother, Isaac, but Isaac lived only two days. No one expected it. Rather, we expected both boys to come into the world crying loudly, healthy and pink – ready to negotiate this grand life together. But our plan was not God’s. His ways were not ours. (I wrote initially about Isaac’s passing here. The following is shared with Kara’s permission.)

Over the last few months, Kara and Dave have come to understand, through personal revelation, that Isaac was never theirs to keep. Everything happened just as it should. And while they occasionally feel the presence of Isaac’s magnanimous spirit, for the most part, he has moved on to a new work.

To give up a child, at any age, and trust he will be okay… that is real loss. A separation so painful, so wrenching, most of us cannot comprehend it. A hole of grief so deep it feels like it will never be filled. Kara is living the life every mother thinks she will not survive. But there she sat, and there stood Dave, bowed in faith and gratitude, aware of God’s many kindnesses.

Caleb’s blessing was full of hope, covenant promises, and the special mention of Isaac. Dave blessed Caleb to feel Isaac throughout his life, prayed that their bond would be strong.

After the meeting we joined Kara and Dave at their home for lunch. Our children played in the basement while family and friends lined the kitchen and living room. We ate good food and visited.

As friends slowly said goodbye, I took Caleb from Dave, anxious for my chance to hold this sweet boy. It was already past feeding time, so I took him into the nursery to hold him off with a binkie until Kara could break away long enough to feed him.

It has been difficult at times for Kara to look at pictures of Isaac. His body was such a tangle of cords and machines, and in some photos her face was so grief-ridden, so pained, it was hard for her to relive those moments. But as I walked into the nursery, I immediately noticed the north wall. It was full of photos. Photos of Isaac with his family. And above the photos was his name tag from the NICU, gently taped into the collage.

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I swayed back and forth, taking in every detail of every photo. Sunlight streamed through the south and west windows. Caleb’s eyes were not on me, but on the room, the wall, the shafts of light. As we stood together, bathed by sun, a most holy feeling surrounded us.

My eyes became moist and I caressed Caleb’s head. I let his fingers wrap tightly around mine. I sat in the rocker and we moved quietly in a peaceful rhythm until Caleb fell asleep, all the while encircled by a transcendent feeling of rest and comfort, so full it made me weep.

Like the unblemished snow that morning, Caleb seemed a piece of heaven lent to earth. The world was not yet with him, and his face told me without words, what God’s presence must be like. I also thought I felt Isaac nearby, and wondered how often he visits this sacred place. This home where his family lives and his twin brother grows and sleeps.

As Caleb and I rocked in silence, I thought, “This room is a holy place.”

Kara came in a few minutes later to get a book for a friend and smiled. She left to finish her conversation, then returned and sat down next to us. She said, “When I walked in and saw you alone with Caleb, I knew you knew. I knew you were feeling it. The holiness of this place. It hasn’t been like this with my other children.”

I nodded, tearful, as she took Caleb from me and began to feed him. She continued, “Maybe it is because Isaac visits here. Maybe it’s because I had to give him away, but God was kind enough to send me Caleb. I think he gave me Caleb so I wouldn’t be so broken. I’ve been thinking what a privilege it was for me to carry and give birth to Isaac. I do not feel unfortunate. I feel blessed and chosen. And Caleb is a gift every moment.”

That is the kind of faith, the kind of heart, Kara has.

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I didn’t want to leave that warm, sunny room. Didn’t want to leave Kara, Caleb, or Isaac.

The holiness of it stayed with me most of the week, made me reflect on the nature of holy places.

Kara and I have climbed the boulders of Mt. Sinai and put off our shoes, like Moses. We’ve picked wildflowers in the fields of Adam-ondi-Ahman. We’ve stood in Carthage Jail, next to the window where Joseph fell. We’ve sat on the Ophel steps – the steps to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that existed at the time of Christ. And we’ve walked into the Salt Lake temple, looked up at those words etched into stone, Holiness to the Lord.

I expected the holy in those places. Expected to feel it, see it in vision, notice it seeping into me. But then there are those moments, when the holy surprises me, finds me unsuspecting, and transports me, if only for a moment, to a sacred space.

While Kara and I have experienced much together – study abroad, missions, marriage, the disappointment of infertility, the elation of children – here, with the loss of her son, we diverge. She is traveling a path I cannot pretend to understand. And yet, this sweet experience allowed us a moment of appreciation, of sharing, of knowing.

The word holy, or “hagios” in the greek, means “different from the world, set apart, sacred, special to the Lord.”

There, in the nursery, I felt the unexpected holy. The lives of two brothers from different spheres interfacing, connecting. God’s love burning brightly in our eyes.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that even the common bush is afire with God. Where have you felt the unexpected holy?

About Catherine A.

(Blog Team) is a mother of five small children including two sets of twins. She and her husband spent nearly eight years in Northern Virginia, but now call Utah home. She reviews books for Meridian Magazine, writes for Power of Moms, dabbles in poetry and works on the prose editorial staff for Segullah. She blogs about her wild and precious life @ www.wildnprecious.com.

28 thoughts on “The Unexpected Holy

  1. Here. Today. Unexpected. On this blog.

    Thank you and your friend for this gift, this witness of God’s goodness. God bless you and yours.

  2. Melody, thank you.

    Amira – I too felt something in the Church of the Holy Sephulchre, despite the crowding press of its priests, tourists, and the chanting. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This was absolutely stunning. Thank you for sharing.

    Mine was camping with my family and some friends at the beach. I wasn’t expecting much holiness amid babies with sand in their eyes and broken tent poles, but I somehow found myself alone for 15 minutes where I could simply stare at the starry sky without distraction, and as my city-dwelling eyes took in its absolute vastness and beauty, I was just overcome with a sense of God’s desire to bless me. I can’t explain it better than that, but I’d slowed down enough that God could make a holy place for me and tell me something I needed to hear.

  4. Today, holding my baby tight after reading this post.

    My husband sometimes accuses me of virtual masochism when he comes in to see me crying while reading someone else’s tragedy. While it kills me to know that my nightmares are some peoples’ reality, knowing others’ heartache, if for only a moment, fills me with gratitude and compassion.

  5. How tender are the mercies of our God in Heaven…those unexpected holy places and moments. Beautifully expressed! He promises to comfort and He does!

  6. Thank you for this lovely piece! My most recent experience with unexpected holy was in a class of sunbeams :)

  7. The NICU. Where I was sobbing to have to leave my baby one more day (7 weeks he was in there), I heard a voice say, “When you are not with him…I AM.”

  8. Absolutely heartbreaking and beautiful.

    I have found holy places in: Arlington National Cemetery, the ruins of Monte Alban and Machu Picchu, Ground Zero, the Pieta at St. Peter’s Cathedral, a hospital room, and even a Taco Time.

  9. Thank you so much for this beautiful piece. It stirred my soul today.

    Unexpected holy has come to me in yoga class, relief society, learning more about my husband’s good soul, after a long run, writing, reading, listening to stories, and in stillness.

  10. My holy place is in the shower. That is where my true communication with God always seems to happen.

    That sounds really weird.

  11. Thank you for these beautiful words.

    In a small room with birthparents who have just done one of the hardest, bravest acts of love and created a family in the process.
    Giggles with our miracle girl who brightens our lives and teaches us love.
    Every year about this time, when I’m longing for spring and the bulbs wake up and break the ground. It is hope.

  12. Oh yes, Becky! Three times I’ve had the privilege of being in that room in those exact circumstanes. Nothing compares.

  13. True friends. This is a precious gift you share with Kara…true friendship in times of sorrow and JOY…a place where I have felt the unexpected holy.

    Love, prayers and continued strength to Kara.

  14. This was beautiful.

    I’m with Jennie. I call my shower my revelation chamber.

    I also am finding holy places can come in the most unexpected ways and places. Tonite, I was panicking about the leak that was dripping again, the leak I thought was dried up. I wondered how I’d missed its drip.

    But then I saw the cup that was part of my clutter, right under the drip. There was only 1/2 inch between the level of the water and the rim of the cup. In the mess and the stress of that room, I knew God was aware of me and my life.

  15. Catherine,

    I can understand my own portion of what you and Kara experience in that room. I have been there, albeit in another room, a place where many spirits gather to ease that passage into the life we call death.

    The ancients believed this and I know it to be true: spirits are present to gather their kindred dying to them. The Bible calls death being “gathered to their people.” Whether we sense these spirits’ holy presence or not has everything to do with our own need, desire, and receptivity.

    At death, as at birth, the edges of reality’s twinned realms overlap, and many spirits attend. Isaac and many select others linger there, caring actively for Kara and Dave and their family. Of that I have zero doubt. It’s my ongoing experience. Yes, the deceased have other responsibilities and they, too, are learning and progressing, but they long to be of service to us left behind in mortality. Prophets have spoken and written of this at length. Think of it: your child as your mentor! It’s incredible.

    I’m struck by the blessing Dave pronounced on Caleb, that he would feel his twin brother Isaac’s presence, that their bond would be strong. Beautiful promise! When my husband blessed our baby daughter Claire 21 years ago, he promised her that she would have an “unusually close bond’ with her older brother, Parker, then two years old and rambunctious, even right in the middle of that naming blessing. :-) Over the years, the two became true soul mates. We saw, we thought, the fulfillment of that blessing.

    Sixteen years after that first blessing, and four days before Claire would have her “sweet” birthday, she lost that best friend and big brother to a tragic death. On the evening of her birthday, three days before her brother’s funeral, she received her patriarchal blessing. (the tow have been scheduled to have them together.) The patriarch pronounced nearly verbatim the same promise of lifelong sibling closeness.

    While her baby blessing had been realized beautifully in life, it has been realized even more remarkably in death: her spirit brother has been palpably and audibly close to her as a minister, tutor and guide. He is her #1 companion on her mission in Rome, Italy right now.

    Covenants, priesthood power and their blessings have an efficacy we mortals probably cannot grasp. At least I didn’t until my heart, like Kara’s, was thrust up to the veil of death. And I’m definitely still learning. . .

    Love this post, Catherine. Do not want to threadjack, and I apologize for going on so long, folks, I really do. There are just few things as important to me.

    Wish I were there in that room with you, Kara.

  16. All – the listing here of your “holy places” – the common turned sacred – is simply beautiful. Thank you. As your comments have trickled in, I’ve thought how almost anywhere can become holy, if God visits you there, and you feel Him (or others across that thin slip of veil) attending to you.

    Kerri – would you be kind enough to link-share that BYU talk on standing in holy places? For me. And our readers.

    Melissa – my insides literally swelled as I read your words. I am still tearful. This: “At death, as at birth, the edges of reality’s twinned realms overlap, and many spirits attend. Isaac and many select others linger there, caring actively for Kara and Dave and their family. Of that I have zero doubt.” This is so helpful. I am anxious for Kara to read your words, be buoyed by your testimony and experience. I have told her much about you and Parker already (btw, they named their first son Parker – he is five.)

    And Claire’s blessing(s) both at birth and in her teens are remarkable. What beautiful foresight the Lord has, to bless us with that which we will need before we fully understand why. No doubt Parker is attending to her as she does the Lord’s most holy work of preaching truth in Italy.

    I love you for sharing. Thank you so much. I am anxious for your book, Grief and Grace, to be available. I’ve been telling Kara about it for some time.

    As I’ve watched Kara, I have thought of you and “the hole” you speak of. So big. Yet your words and vision give others such hope and comfort. You are a blessing. I love you.

  17. Cath,

    Here it is:

    http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=1535

    I apologize, though…I mis-remembered its theme. It is more about personal holiness than about standing in holy places, and much of it is about finding ways to increase our holiness, which doesn’t exactly match your lovely and sacred subject. I guess what must have been impactful to me with first listening to the talk, then reading your post was my feeling that the Lord is calling me to find and recognize holiness both within myself and holiness in my surroundings.

    An acquaintance once shared with me the story of the death of her young daughter while being babysat by her older siblings. In the aftermath of the death, a general authority told her that when she looked back on those terrible times, she would think of them with sweetness and tenderness. As she told me this story, I thought that was a terrible thing for a leader to say to a grieving mother, but she said that it has been true for her. I didn’t understand until our great loss, and now I do. I would change the circumstances in a heartbeat, but I recognize that hallowed and sacred, and yes, holy time as a gift.

    My unexpected holiness: somehow, I felt some kind of resonance this week as I played the first movement of the Brahms E minor cello sonata with my son in his Solo and Ensemble performance in his high school choir room (hardly a holy setting.) I still haven’t been able to parse out exactly why there was a singing of my spirit as we played the first few lines. I need to pray about it to understand better. But there was something there that was more than just playing a lovely piece with my cute boy.

  18. Simply beautiful. Thank you for the post and for the reminder of unexpected holiness.

    Westminster Cathedral. I was strolling among the tombs when I heard a single note from the boys’ choir as they began to warm up. Just a single note of pure holiness in that magnificent cathedral. That tone has beckoned to me all of these years.

  19. I sat in a small plain chapel in Huntsville, Utah and listened to few remaining elderly monks sing the chants of evening song. They created a holy place,

  20. Simply beautiful. Perhaps if we are looking for holiness we will find it in least expected places.

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