Snake handler 4 (seeing stars)

Twenty-odd years ago, during the time that we knew my Mom was sick with the cancer that would kill her, an amazing series of events happened.

It started one night when I was preparing to go to bed. I had turned off all the lights except one, a floor lamp by the stairs leading up to my room. When I turned the small knob to switch it off, the bulb made a small popping sound and stopped working. I went in to find another light bulb and replaced it.

I went upstairs and went to bed. That night I had a very intense dream. I dreamed that I was standing, tied up to a post, my arms behind my back, in total darkness. I was being attacked, tormented, assaulted. I knew in my heart that my tormentor was an agent of evil in its most malicious sense. As far as I knew I was alone, defenseless, and in great danger.

In my fear and terror, I remembered to say the Lord’s Prayer.

In that moment there was a flash of orange light, like the light of the sparks from a foundry. The light was like the spray from a waterfall after a spring rainstorm.

Then the lights came on and my bonds had disappeared along with my tormentors. I could see that I was in something like a concrete underground parking garage, with many pillars and no natural light. I was free to go.

I looked to my right and there was another person there, who I realized had also just been freed from the same torment. We talked for a moment. I commented that it was strange that God didn’t send anyone to save me. I was a little upset that I had to do it all myself.

The stranger smiled and said “No, he sent Saint John.”

I was short with him and said “If he’d sent Saint John, there would have been stars.”

The stranger smiled again, patient with me, and said “Look” and pointed at the concrete floor. There, fading away, slowly, were orange stars. They were the light that had spilled out when I’d prayed the Lord’s Prayer and we were released.

I woke up suddenly.

Thoughts raced through my head. What was that? Was that real? What does it mean? Saint John?

Still dazed by the vividness of my dream I went to my bookshelf. I pulled down my saint book that I had gotten just a few weeks before from a friend for Christmas. I’d not had time to read all the entries and I was surprised to find there were so many saints named John.

I read through each one, and came across Saint John of Nepomucen.

John was the confessor to Emperor Wenceslas and his wife in 14th century Prague. The story is that he heard the Empress’ confession and the Emperor wanted to know what she said, suspecting her of adultery. John took his duty of being a confessor seriously and refused to tell. After other clashes between the two men, the Emperor had John tortured, ultimately having him bound up like a wheel, where his heels were tied to his head. He was thrown in the nearby river and legend has it that seven stars appeared in the water over where he was drowned.

He is the patron saint of confessors, and the star is his symbol.

I spent the following day in a haze.

That night I again was preparing to go to bed. I again went to turn off the lamp near the stairs, the lamp with the brand-new light bulb I had put in it the night before.

When I turned the knob, there was a huge popping sound, and an explosion of orange sparks like I had seen in my dream the night before. The room was plunged into darkness.

I stood there, motionless, not daring to breathe.

Finally I recovered and carefully walked away, certain that I would step on a piece of glass from the shattered light bulb. I went to another lamp and turned it on, and brought a flashlight to help me spot the shards.

The bulb was intact. That explosion of orange light was not the sign of damage or destruction. It was a sign to me that my dream was real.

It was a sign to me that God is always with me, protecting me, even when I am helpless, even when I am alone.

It was a sign also to take seriously the role of confessor.

Do something, rather than nothing.

Don’t ever do nothing because you think you can’t do anything.

One time I was making a rosary. I was cutting and twisting each link the hard way, instead of using eye pins. My hand started to cramp up and I put it down. The next day I wasn’t I interested in working on it. A week went by. I picked it up again. And I realized something. The work that I had done hadn’t gone away. I was that much closer to the end.

All progress towards a worthy goal is like this. We aren’t able to just plunge in and get there. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot out of us, but it makes us stronger. The stuff that it takes out is fear of being insignificant, fear of not making a difference, fear that what we have to offer isn’t good enough.

The same is true of any goal. It is easy to put things off because you think you can’t make a difference. It is easy to be jealous of people because they seem to have it all together, so you never even start. Why even try to learn to play the trumpet when Dizzy Gillespie has it down to an art? You can’t ever be that good. So why try?

That kind of thinking is dangerous. That kind of thinking will keep you in a hole forever.

Look at Mozart, or Matisse, or Marie Curie. Each one made it to the top of their field.

They didn’t get it all together all at once. They committed to a goal and worked on it, bit by bit. Nobody loses a significant amount of weight immediately. Nobody gets a college degree overnight. There is often a lot of hidden failure in there.

The trick is, don’t show off the beginner work. Paint over that canvas when you learn a new technique. Don’t think that sloppy painting of a flower is all you can do. You are starting. Every baby has to learn how to walk. Every new skill has to be learned.

Having patience with yourself and the process is helpful. Knowing your limits, and pushing them a little, is helpful too.

When I was in school I’d often get assigned books that weren’t exactly what I wanted to read. I could have waited until the last week and read the book in one fell swoop, remembering only half of it and hating all of the experience. Instead, I decided to use my limited math skills in my favor. I took the number of pages and divided by the amount of time that I had to read. This technique can be applied to anything. Take something you have to do and break it down into little steps.

Slow and steady wins the race.

A Rabbi once said that you can’t burn down a tree with a single match, but if you chop up the tree into small pieces, you can. This is a very useful way to think.

Say you want to do a good deed, a mitzvah. But you don’t think that you can do it all. So you do none of it. The idea here is that it is better to do a little of it than to do nothing at all. And, invariably, you will find that you gain a little more energy and ability towards the completion of your goal from just doing that tiny bit.

Energy leads to more energy. Good creates more good.

It is hard for us to get up enough momentum to do what we know we should do. We take breaks. We stop entirely. We regress. We gain back double the weight we had lost.

I exhort you to get back on and go. I exhort you to keep trying.

I remind you that even just thinking about it, you’ve already taken the first step. That energy can be enough to move on to the next one.