I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Elizabeth Brady’s reflection “The Slow Unfurling of a Fiddlehead.”
When I reflect on the question of how I live as a monk in the world I think of a fiddlehead. It is a delightful word to say and invites the inevitable question: what is a fiddlehead?
A fiddlehead is the furled frond of a young fern. It is largely ornamental and can be eaten as a side dish, but if it were left on the plant to fully grow it would unroll into a new frond. We have all delighted in the outrageous and unsubtle ways in which our spiritual lives are reflected in nature and the fiddlehead is no different.
It is untested; unfurled and therefore in the neat and tidy shape of a scroll and thus appreciated for those reasons. But when we begin to unfurl it allows for new growth and our very survival. And this tug between our inner striving and life’s outer demands helps us to fully grow.
On New Year’s Eve 2012 our son Mack, who was two weeks shy of his ninth birthday, died suddenly of a severe blood infection on a Lifelink helicopter on route to Hershey Children’s Hospital. My husband and I drove as fast as we could to keep up with the helicopter, fireworks dotting the night sky in between the rolling mountains of Pennsylvania.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “Dying is a wild night and a new road,” apparently musing upon her own death, but it holds true for the complete upheaval of life after such a storm. There are few things that have not changed for me and my husband and our daughter since Mack’s death six and a half years ago, but others have come into sharp relief.
One of them is the practice that I began as a young short-term missionary in West Africa almost thirty years ago. I was required to keep a journal and so the practice of morning prayer and reflection became a part of me that I have carried throughout my life. In the early days after Mack’s death I returned to my desk in the early morning out of habit and would stare numbly out the window and watch the sunrise. I came because it is my sacred space. And, somehow, I knew that in that space where I meet the Lord that I would find Mack, too. And I have.
But what has most changed for me in the slow and painful unfurling beyond the death of our son is that I no longer come to prayer with the thought that I am becoming more spiritual. I come to prayer because it helps me appreciate my humanness.
By humanness I mean that I recognize that I am only here for a finite time. Mack’s early death is a constant reminder that our human experience is fleeting so I am more mindful of the present.
By humanness I recognize that I am imperfect. And, part of the unfurling of a fiddlehead is finding peace in the midst of the messy but necessary and never-ending process of growth.
I have also learned from Mack’s death that although I am finite, my relationships are infinite. One of the most astonishing aspects of the death of someone you love is that love does not die. This slow, hidden process is cultivated in the interior journey and yet it has also transformed the way I see the people I am honored to share life with and who are willing to share life with me.
I am grateful for my slow unfurling.
Elizabeth and her family honored Mack by establishing the Mack Brady Soccer Fund that helps recruit and train the best keepers for Penn State men’s soccer. She teaches at Penn State and her essays can be found at OpenToHope.com, ModernLoss.com, and “Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine.”