[The words of this sonnet about Grace Paley are printed below. It is closely connected to another poem and reflection on this site, “In the Shadow of Absence” that you can see by clicking here. It also relates to a recent sermon, “My Feets Is Tired but My Soul Is Rested” that you can see here.]
All Saints Day approaches. One way to define saint is as a hero who also is a great soul. This poem is about Grace Paley who would have laughed at being called a saint. She was a true hero, though, and more than once she was called a great soul. I think it honors the name “saint” to call her one.
We are at a moment of history that needs heroes and great souls. We have no time to wait for them to appear. We need to be them ourselves.
Some feel we need one great leader to emerge, but the world needs every hero and great soul it can get. We don’t have to worry about being just ordinary people. Most heroes and saints have been so only because the moment required it of them and they rose to meet its need.
What does it take to be a hero with a great soul?
First, it takes paying attention, listening, being open to the needs of the world and the movement of the Spirit in our heart. It takes responding with generous-hearted love to what we hear, laying down our lives for others and for the Spirit’s cause of a more loving, just, compassionate world. It doesn’t matter whether our actions affect one person or the whole world.
Second, it takes a mature humility, meaning acceptance of the truth of both our limits and our gifts. We are not everything, but we are not nothing. We have something to contribute and so we do, aware that we are a small but needed part of a greater movement.
Third, it takes commitment. “80% of success is showing up.” That sounds simple, but the main reason people are not the saints and heroes we need them to be is that they are blocked by inner or outer obstacles. Showing up is not always as easy as it sounds. It requires an act of will, a commitment to find solutions to the obstacles that hold us back and act on them.
It takes a struggle to overcome our ego and listen to a calling and humbly respond. It takes a struggle to overcome obstacles. To be a hero with a great soul takes a commitment to the struggle.
Grace Paley paid attention. She was wide open to the needs of the world and the movement of the Spirit within her. She sacrificed herself to meet those needs, laying down her life for the sake of love and a better world, whether taking care of a grandchild or leading a protest of thousands.
Grace shone with mature humility. She took joy in creating and sharing her gifts. Sometimes they were writing brilliant, poignant and funny stories and other times they were baking pies or offering a kind word to a neighbor at the post office or wiping her muddy footprints from a public bathroom floor. (Watch the first five minutes of the video below to get a sense of this.)
Finally, Grace showed up. She committed herself to the struggle, and she overcame much to do all she did. She had endless “courage for love,” as the poet Wendell Berry puts it in a poem dedicated to his “granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin.”
Berry’s poem ends with these words:
You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be
the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
(from A Timbered Choir p 192).
This is why saints are pictured with haloes. You can see a halo around Grace in the poem below as she lights a candle for peace.
Grace and Greatness at a Vigil at the Village Church
for my friend, Grace, who hated sonnets
Hostage to cancer, gray, hunched,
shrunk with age, the woman
pulls herself up from her pew
and shuffles down the aisle
to reach the stage. The church
is silent, dimly lit. The few people
sit scattered. On the altar table
stand candles, prayers for peace,
a scant half rack.
She takes one from the basket,
leans, unstable, lights it and
places it, nods, shuffles back.
The nod is toward
a rainbow flag of peace—
like those on stages past
where she has spoken, for decades
fighting wars that never cease.
She nods to say her word
has not been broken.
Her cancer has not stopped her,
nor will fear. However feeble,
Grace is greatly here.
copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder
Be sure to watch the entire first five minutes of this documentary about Grace—you will be very glad you did! If you don’t have five minutes, start at 3 minutes and 30 seconds and watch until 4 minutes and fifty-four seconds…