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.
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.
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?