On The Feast Day of Jonathan Daniels
A broad tail hummingbird has claimed our back yard for her own. I noticed her flashing green iridescence one morning and watched her hover around the red bird seed feeder. Hoping she would linger, I rushed out and bought her a feeder of her very own.
With the distraction of her torpedoing body catching the corner of my eye every twenty minutes or so, it has been hard to write this week, though. I find myself instead googling for hummingbird facts. Their iridescence comes from light refracted through platelets full of air on their feathers. They consume nectar with their tongues, which are twice as long as their beaks and fringed like buckskin moccasins. The broad tail hummers can live as long as twelve years, though the perils of the world make their average life span much much shorter.
The life we are celebrating today is that of the martyr Jonathan Daniels, the young seminarian who pushed a black teenager out of the way of a shotgun blast during the Civil Rights Movement, dying in her place. The words I reflect upon this week are his, quoted in the article about him you can read here. They are from his journal, written about a march he participated in a few weeks before his death.
After a week-long, rain-soaked vigil, we still stood face to face with the Selma police. I stood, for a change, in the front rank, ankle-deep in an enormous puddle. To my immediate right were high school students, for the most part, and further to the right were a swarm of clergymen. My end of the line surged forward at one point, led by a militant Episcopal priest whose temper (as usual) was at combustion-point. Thus I found myself only inches from a young policeman. The air crackled with tension and open hostility. Emma Jean, a sophomore in the Negro high school, called my name from behind. I reached back for her hand to bring her up to the front rank, but she did not see. Again she asked me to come back. My determination had become infectiously savage, and I insisted that she come forward–I would not retreat! Again I reached for her hand and pulled her forward. The young policeman spoke: “You’re dragging her through the puddle. You ought to be ashamed for treating a girl like that.” Flushing–I had forgotten the puddle–I snarled something at him about whose-fault-it-really-was, that managed to be both defensive and self-righteous. We matched baleful glances and then both looked away. And then came a moment of shattering internal quiet, in which I felt shame, indeed, and a kind of reluctant love for the young policeman. I apologized to Emma Jean. And then it occurred to me to apologize to him and to thank him. Though he looked away in contempt–I was not altogether sure I blamed him–I had received a blessing I would not forget. Before long the kids were singing, “I love —.” One of my friends asked [the young policeman] for his name. His name was Charlie. When we sang for him, he blushed and then smiled in a truly sacramental mixture of embarrassment and pleasure and shyness. Soon the young policeman looked relaxed, we all lit cigarettes (in a couple of instances, from a common match, and small groups of kids and policemen clustered to joke or talk cautiously about the situation.
Ruefully I remember how many times through the years I have been embroiled in some form of self-righteous rage, and how badly each of those events has played out. Not once has my (justifiable) fury created anything but divisiveness and estrangement. And yet, I can’t imagine having acted any differently. The silent luminous moment Daniels describes can only happen where the willingness to see differently opens a heart to pure grace.
Daniels describes other such moments, instances when The Present intruded quietly but forcefully on his posturing egotism, a self-righteousness with which anyone who is honest can fervently identify. He was drawn in by grace like I am drawn in by my incandescent hummingbird, first to quiet and then to love.
Willingness to see differently is the attitude of an open mind that takes itself with a grain of salt. It is capable of jettisoning whatever it believes to be important and true when new information presents itself. Both humility and the ability to tolerate shame play a part – both very difficult mental attitudes to maintain.
Grace, on the other hand, is the hummingbird. It is a bright, fast streak across the field of our awareness, catching the corner of the eye. It is beyond our grasp, luminous and tiny. Yet, when we turn to it it will consume us completely. It will fill our vision, likely lifting us out of our everyday lives. We are bound to be transformed. Everything we planned will take second place to the kind of understanding that reaches out and pushes the teenager out of the way, to absorb in our own bodies the deadly hot ejaculate of rage.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.
Video of Jonathan Daniels’ life here.
Photo courtesy of Lindell Dillon© all rights reserved.