With tender hands: A solstice musing

Steve Babb, “Cradled,” Flickr (cropped & tinted)

This month, recovering from Bell’s palsy, I remembered how to live gently. (Am happy to say my face is good as new again—what a gift!)

Being sick can take a person to that tender place, where comfort foods and soothing sounds are a must. A single bark from my dog pierced with earsplitting pain. I often felt like an infant who needed tons of sleep and quiet.

The two and a half weeks it took to recover were a reminder that living gently is actually a pretty sweet way to go through life. No tolerance for angry words or fearful tones, which ruled out listening to news or reading the paper (except comics, of course). No energy for conversation about inessentials, which cut out small talk. And little energy for any talk at all, which meant I sank into depths of inner quiet that I’d rarely visited in my life. Strong, nourishing quiet. Peaceful quiet.

The gentleness needed for healing reminded me of something I heard a few years ago at a Language of Spirit conference. One speaker leaned across the table, holding his hands reverently, palms up, in front of him, and said,

I recently held my hands open to receive my grandchild. In meditation, as in holding a baby, we hold our hands open. We hold this helpless God, the future, in our hands.

Healing has something to do with holding a baby. It needs the preciousness of the touch we give to a newborn.

I was moved by his words then, and now, after some weeks of treating myself gently like a newborn, I appreciate them even more. His words fit well in this darkest season of the year.

Today, on the Winter Solstice (in the north), we pass the threshold between long nights and the coming days of growing light. Today, by Earth’s calendar, we welcome the infant new year. It is a time of pregnant darkness and newborn wonder. It is a day of opening our hands gently to receive a helpless God, searching the brand-new face of a future we will come to know in time.

The threshold days of winter mark many comings and goings—more babies conceived this month (more births in August and September). More elders and others slipping away (highest death rate in early January). It is the season, in Christian tradition, of welcoming a newborn.

Christianity is not the only religion that adores an infant; Hindus welcome the baby Krishna once a year at a festival (in August–September). Preparing a Krishna figure for the temple, village women gently wash the infant and dress him in new robes. The everyday act of tenderly caring for a baby becomes a sacred ritual.

For Christians since the earliest centuries, the Winter Solstice has meant welcoming the baby Jesus. Apparently early Christians felt his conception took place on the Spring Equinox, March 25 (by their reckoning), and counting forward nine months placed his birth at the dark solstice, December 25. The threshold season.

This December, passing through a threshold of illness, I found a piece of Christmas music that transported me to that gentle place of receiving a newborn. I was on my way to the massage therapist (face and shoulder massages felt soothing, healing) when on the car radio I heard the most sublime piece of music ever. Why had I never sung it in all those long-ago years of choir practice? Because, it turns out, it was composed only twenty years ago, in 1994, shortly after I left off choral singing.

Here is “O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen, complete with sheet music. (It’s way better with a headset so you can hear the bass voices.)

It’s a piece about welcoming a child. It’s about how the new arrives in unexpected places—in this case, a rough animal shed. I love the touching story of a hugely pregnant young woman far away from home, her labor starting, forced to bed down in the straw and the soil. No comforting aunties or midwife to guide her birth; only the animals witness her pain and hear her cries and, when it is all over, watch her newborn placed gently in their food trough.

In Lauridsen’s piece the animals get top billing. Three times the choir sings ut animalia viderent, “the animals watch,” including at the highlight of the piece, the joyous swelling of voices in the last quarter. And at the end, hushed and reverent, we see the sleeping baby surrounded by animals who keep their vigil, watching.

Listening to this piece over the past two weeks became a healing practice. It ushered me straight into that gentle place of making peace with all that is, opening with tender hands to what will come. It helped me treat myself gently, savoring the peace and quiet that work their magic in restoring nerves and muscles. And, oh, my, its soothing alleluia at the end, taking listeners ever so quietly to that sweet place out of time where all struggle makes sense and all pain resolves into a deeper joy. Lauridsen’s music, as one composer said, “leaves the impression that all the questions have been answered.”

At this threshold of the turning Earth, may you feel cradled by the sweetness of the mystery. May you feel supported by the greater love that holds each of us, oh, so tenderly. May you feel the precious touch of others who welcome you with open arms. And may you receive whatever is being newly born in your life with open, tender hands.

I wish us all a season of healing.