by Jennie Cesario
Every autumn I find myself on a quest for the perfect leaf: one rocked gently to earth on a seamless breeze, loosened from its treetop branch at some unseen touch, light and skillful. Unmarred by weather, insect, or disease, its tone and texture are flawless, its body broad and well-proportioned, its pigment radiantly “at-peak.” Lying on the grass, waiting to be discovered, it seems to me the craftsmanship of an open hand, a picture of some proud banner gloriously unfurled.
I prize it for its unscathed rarity, and may seek somehow to preserve it. Photograph it or wax it, arrange it in a collage. Press it in the pages of a heavy book. Somehow forget about it and find it years later, disintegrating among the words and phrases. The detritus of it dusts my lap, and I remember: flawless things are fleeting, and my art — my life — mustn’t so much seek to preserve the beauty of the perfect as to uncover the beauty of the marred.
I’m thinking of van Gogh and his plain-faced peasants, with their bent backs and weather-beaten lives, and of his haunt-eyed self-portraits. Of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose lifelong depression quickened his eye for “all things counter, original, spare, (and) strange.” And of Christ, who had no desirable earthly beauty, but a body born to be stricken for the redemption of the world: including a bipolar Dutch painter and his workaday subjects, a 19th century priest/poet wrestling with despair, and a middle-aged woman like me — mining the November grass for the solace of autumn gold.
Once, on a walk, a wind-blown leaf came skittering at me across the pavement. Curled tight as a fist, angry and arthritic, it tumbled graceless and brittle over the asphalt with a tic-tap, tic-tap, tic-tap, until it passed by and was gone. Moved by the image, I prayed spontaneously: Lord, don’t let me be like that leaf!
I was asking not to be curved in upon myself, closed up and dried up and contracted. Because depressive disorder does that to a person, I know. And, of course, sin does too. And I was asking for the grace of vulnerability, for the gift of an unselfish and expansive heart. For the openhandedness to love well the less than perfect, and to let my imperfect self be well-loved.
Neither intention comes easy, but that latter one is particularly hard. Because genuine vulnerability — real uncurated exposure — is daunting even for the bravest. We’re all Adam and Eve frantically sewing fig leaves on the private parts of our souls. And though that can be a necessary safety in a fallen world, I do believe there’s a terror of vulnerability that runs counter to Christ’s call on us to walk in courageous love.
Dear God, if I unfurl as a banner, everyone will see how mottled I am, how torn up, how weak, and how scarred. Who would want me in their collage? I must hide in the leaf pile beneath a million other of my disfigured fellows, and somehow not touch them; somehow not let them touch me. Do I really want to drop the cloth from my haunt-eyed self-portrait and show it to the world?
This anguish makes me desperate. Desperate enough to daily touch Christ, and only after that, to find I can touch others. I think of the woman with the issue of blood who reaches covertly in the crowd for the hem of Christ’s garment. Jesus calls her out of the throng. “And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him…” Like van Gogh’s weather-beaten subjects, like Hopkins’s “dappled things,” — and like me — she’s surprised to find herself not overlooked, to discover herself included in the artist’s body of work, tucked tenderly into his collage.
Like this woman, I declare “in the presence of the all the people why I touched him.” This is hard, hard work for an introvert and an anxious depressive. How can I trust God to un-pry my fist without crumbling my dry-crimped heart? And yet he does. And then suddenly I see beauty where before I’d missed it, see astounding hints of glory in things crooked, misshapen, and scarred: in art and in nature, yes, but more importantly, in people and faces and lives — including in my very own.
Gerard Manley Hopkins preached of Christ’s “gentle dealings,” which moved men to open their hearts, to open their hands. Jesus deals so tenderly with us. But we did not, and often do not, deal tenderly with him. I think of his beaten body on the cross, mottled with blood and bruises, garishly marred. He chose to save us — startlingly — through weakness. First of all his own, and second of all, ours. And when I think of him in this way, as a battered body broad-stretched on the wood, he is to me God’s open hand, his artistic masterpiece… his banner of love radiantly unfurled.
Jennie Cesario lives and writes in Long Island, New York, where she shares a home with her husband and their college-age twins. She enjoys exploring connections in life and literature and illumining both in the light of faith. Her work has lately appeared in Fathom Magazine, Redbud Post, and Ginosko Literary Journal. Follow her writing at dappledthoughts.com.