Learning to love our brokenness

Physician Richard Selzer describes a scene in a hospital room after he had performed surgery on a young woman’s face:
I stand by the bed where the young woman lies, her face, postoperative… her mouth twisted in palsy… clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, one of the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be that way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut this little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to be in a world all their own in the evening lamplight… isolated from me… private.   Who are they? I ask myself… he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously.
The young woman speaks.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.”
She nods and is silent.
But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says, “it’s kind of cute.”
All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with the divine. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to her… to show her that their kiss still works.

There is a part of every one of us that feels broken. Sometimes, literally.
Other times… when we feel stuck or without passion, when we betray our own heart, or when our dreams are derailed by ridicule, or when we live only to “fit in,” and censor our own voice; we are broken.

I sat with a friend this week. His life has turned left. Call it what you will, it feels broken nonetheless. And, I didn’t have words to make it right.
Whether we feel it or not, brokenness takes a toll.

In the movie Scent of a Woman, Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino)–blind and on the edge of despair–finds hope in his new friend Charlie, and makes an appearance at a New England prep school disciplinary hearing to help out, when Charlie is being punished because he will not snitch on his classmates.  Slade tells those gathered, “There was a time I could see. And I have seen, boys like these, younger than these, their arms torn out, their legs ripped off. But there is nothin’ like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is no prosthetic for that.”

I was raised on this stuff.  At least in part.  You know, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  (from The Psalms)  This is, undeniable hope.
And yet, the “translation” (in my church tradition) was crystal clear: God loves the broken, only if it is in the process of being tidied, or cleaned up, or touched up, or renovated.
In our culture, the concept of brokenness wrecks havoc with the picture in our mind of an unspoiled life.  So, we frantically try to fix it, or dismiss it or hide it.  Blemished beauty has no place here.

Which begs the question: What do we do with our brokenness?  Henri Nouwen suggests that we need to “embrace it.” 

But here’s the deal: because we are beloved of God, we can dare to embrace and befriend our own brokenness; and in befriending, to really look at it: “Yes, I am hurting. Yes, I am wounded. Yes, it is painful. And… I no longer need be afraid.”

Conceptually, I get it.
But how do I have to invite my brokenness into my life?
Or, how do I embrace it (as Mary Oliver says, “row toward the embattlement”)?
This is certain:  Embracing the brokenness that affects us all may not carry us toward safety, but most surely toward salvation.

Rembrandt painted the picture of the prodigal son between 1665 and 1667, at the end of his life.  As a young painter, he was popular in Amsterdam and successful with commissions to do portraits of all the important people of his day.  He was known as arrogant and argumentative, but he participated in the circles of the very rich in society.   Gradually, however, his life began to deteriorate:
First he lost a son,
Then he lost his first daughter,
Then he lost his second daughter,
Then he lost his wife
Then the woman he lived with, ended up in a mental hospital,
Then he married a second woman, who died,
Then he lost all his money and fame, and
Just before he himself died, his son Titus died.
As he lived his overwhelming losses and died many personal deaths, Rembrandt could have become a most bitter, angry, resentful person. Instead he became the one who was finally able to paint one of the most intimate paintings of all time. (from Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son)

When Vincent van Gogh saw this painting he said, “You can only paint this painting when you have died many deaths.”

But then, I can tell myself, I’m no Rembrandt.

Well… as they say in the Wizard, “This isn’t Kansas anymore.”  We’re no longer in Sunday School.  And the spirit of God is no nesting dove.  Where God’s spirit is, there is in all probability, chaos.  Yes. Sometimes the chaos is called to order as it was in the beginning… other times our need for complacency erupts into chaotic confusion (just like Pentecost), unraveling everything.

Here’s the reason it is not easy: because I have orchestrated my world–all my ducks so carefully and neatly in a row. And then… life happens.

“Life,” Lucy tells Charlie Brown, “is like a deck chair.”
“Like a what?” asks Charlie Brown.
“Like a deck chair.  Some people put their deck chair at the front of the ship so they can see where they are going.  Some people put their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been.  On the cruise ship of life, Charlie Brown, which way is your deck chair facing?”
“I haven’t figured out how to get mine unfolded yet.” says Charlie Brown.
Ahhhh. Wisdom.

When we acknowledge the broken places (our unfolded deck chairs), there is an open space, a place for gestation and receptivity (what the Japanese call “hollowness to the divine”), where new things are hatching and being born, if only we do not panic.  These are the times and places from which we can truly and wholeheartedly, give of ourselves.

At Saturday Market, here on Vashon Island, “Blues stay away from me. Blues why don’t you let me be…” infuses the early autumn afternoon air, from one of our local bands, River Bend, featuring mandolin and fiddle. The Vashon Island Fruit Club is pressing apples on site, offering cups of cider to taste and slices of fresh apple pie to tempt. The energy–locals and visitors–is high and fun-loving, as we have not yet acquiesced to Seattle’s autumn weather alteration.

It is the end of rose season here in my garden. And petals from spent blooms are scattered over shrubs and plants and lawn.  As if a kind of offering.  It is unnerving almost, this unconditional and unstinting nature of the garden.  Regardless of conditions, “rowing toward embattlement,” the remaining roses continue to flower and reach for the sun (photo below). With rain in the forecast, I still can’t help but smile.

Note: Selzer’s story from his book Mortal Lessons


The essence of being human is that we are in the end prepared to be broken up by life
— which is the inevitable process of fastening our love upon other human beings.   -George Orwell

Not again in this flesh will I see 
the old trees stand here as they did,
weighty creatures made of light, delight
of their making straight in them and well,
whatever blight our blindness was or made,
however thought or act might fail.
The burden of absence grows, and I pay
daily the grief I owe to love
for women and men, days and trees
I will not know again. Pray
for the world’s light thus borne away.
Pray for the little songs that wake and move.
For comfort as these lights depart,
recall again the angels of the thicket,
columbine aerial in the whelming tangle,
song drifting down, light rain, day
returning in song, the lordly Art
piecing out its humble way.
Though blindness may yet detonate in light,
ruining all, after all the years, great right
subsumed finally in paltry wrong,
what do we know? Still
the Presence that we come into with song
is here, shaping the seasons of His wild will.
Wendell Berry -A Timbered Choir, The Sabbath Poems 

Dear God,  
We give thanks for places of simplicity and peace;
let us find such a place within ourselves.
We give thanks for places of refuge and beauty;
let us find such a place within ourselves.
We give thanks for places of nature’s truth and freedom,
of joy, inspiration and renewal,
places where all creatures may find acceptance and belonging.
Let us search for these places;
in the world, in ourselves and in others.
Let us restore them.
Let us strengthen and protect them and let us create them.
May we mend this outer world according to the truth of our inner life
and may our souls be shaped and nourished by nature’s eternal wisdom.
Michael Leunig   



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