My little altar in my home is an exercise in diversity. It mirrors a spiritual journey marked by unanticipated twists and turns along the way.
One of my favorite Robert Lentz icons, “Christ of the Desert” graces the center. A white slender statue of Mary stands to one side of the icon. Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion, occupies the other. Filling the rest of the space are a white candle with Monarch butterflies embossing its surface, a photo of Fr. Thomas Berry and snapshots of cherished friends who have become my anam caras, soul companions, through the years.
Each altar resident has its own history but I want to tell you about one in particular: The Gecko.
Gecko is a sparkling silver pin with tiny ruby eyes and he rests at the foot of my Jesus icon.
I keep him there to remind me of the Holy One’s penchant for sending us messages through her creatures. Barely two inches long, Gecko arrived in a carefully wrapped gift box from a good friend for my going-away party. It was January, 1992, a few days before my departure from Columbus, Ohio to study at a creation spirituality master’s degree program at Holy Name University in Oakland, California.
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That night, as I gazed down at the little creature nesting in its cotton batting, I had to cope with a sudden onslaught of tears.
Memory whisked me back to my Pawpaw’s backyard in Louisville, Ky. I was four years old. It was a gorgeous Saturday morning, probably in May or June, because I was still thrilled at being allowed to dance barefoot in the grass, after a wintertime of wearing shoes.
Sweet peas flourished in all their pink glory at the foot of the white wooden pagoda, crafted by my daddy. Pawpaw had just finished cutting the grass and was sweeping the sidewalk. Suddenly in front of us, stood a little luminescent green gecko. It was quite adorable. Also tame and trusting. It gazed up at us, blinking trustingly, not moving.
“Nasty,” Pawpaw had said, lifting the boom over his head. It wacked down. I was paralyzed. ‘No Pawpaw, he’s so cute. Please, no.”
“He’ll hurt you. We have to kill him,” Pawpaw said. “Wack,” went the broom again. It was all over, but what could I do? I was only four years old. Grown-ups know best. Especially favorite grownups like my Pawpaw, a kindly, laid-back retiree who picked me up every Saturday morning in his old Ford to take me to his and my Gramma Suze’s house for noon dinner. Afterwards he would settle down for a nap in his black Morris chair after lunch, with a swig of chewing tobacco in his jaw.
But something was very wrong here. I began to cry. Pawpaw assured me I shouldn’t be sad because he had done the right thing. Somehow, though, I felt as if it was my fault, too. Unresolved guilt at any age is a terrible thing, but when you are four years old it can be an especially heavy burden to carry around.
At mealtime, Gramma Suze’s homemade noodle soup did not taste good. Even her fresh biscuit-crust strawberry short cake with real whipped cream did not tempt me.
Fifty years later at the farewell party I remembered how this scenario had surfaced many times throughout my life. And every time it did, grief would well up like a volcano shedding her hot molten tears.
I stared down into the cotton batting , remembering…then wondering, is there a message here? A message, perhaps, about revisiting and redeeming small cruelties?
Five days later, I am carpooling through New Mexico on the way to California. The clouds are playing in the sky, doing their shape shifting in sync with the force of the wind. Suddenly a gecko appears in front of my eyes. It is a good thing that I am not driving. My little green creature is back, only this time, he has returned as a white angel gecko in the sky.
No broom comes sweeping across this time. Of course not. Pawpaw is no longer is charge. But Grandfather Wind, one of the Holy One’s eldest children, is.
His breath is gentle, giving the clouds some dream time to enjoy this, their latest delightful sky frolic. I am in awe, because my little sidewalk friend is telling me he did not forget the tears of a four-year old. He basks in the sun, stretched across the sky in view of our windshield for a good 15 minutes. Time enough to let the truth of it all sink into my heart. A tiny creature remembered a child’s tears of compassion and wanted to let her know he understood. God said, ‘Go right ahead.’
Surely this is not a one-time incident. How many of us have had animals speak to us, in similar ways?
And why should it be a surprise? Nature is one of the two ways we have for knowing the divine. Scripture is the other. So the odds are 50-50 that a creature can become an angel messenger from the Holy One, to awaken us to forgiveness and a ‘thank you.’