July 5, 2014
You are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers;…”
Elizabeth Jane Palmberg was a teacher. I know. I was her student. You might have been too. It was not in a classroom in California, nor at Cornell, nor even in a class here at St. Stephen’s. She taught me—us—something of great importance. She taught us how to die. I hope, Zab, that you are listening in today, forasmuch as you are here among us, as are all the saints and angels and archangels in the heaven where you are, which is closer to us than the air we breathe. I hope you are listening because I think that by now you know what and how you taught us, but you might not yet know that we caught on to your teaching.
She taught us more. One could start with the rather mundane things at which she was extraordinarily gifted: writing, editing, reading, for example. Hers was a world populated by gifted authors, many of them too much underrated women, like Elizabeth Gaskell. She admired and perhaps emulated women of strong intellect and acute imagination like Ursula LeGuin. She more than likely never in her life turned in a piece of shoddy work, so much care for detail did she exercise in every visible part of her life.
We could move on to her determined commitment to social justice. Zab told me one day towards the end of her life that she had heard me say many times that life’s only real challenge was letting go. She said that she had finally come to a place where she agreed with me, but that she had often disagreed when she heard that because her own great learning was that life demanded commitment and identification—the things which had driven her to stand with the poor and the oppressed and the causes of alleviating suffering. I saw her point and she saw mine. She modeled thoughtful reflection, restraint, the careful measurement of words, honesty of expression.
Ah! There is one worthy of more than passing reference. Honesty of expression. Yes. Zab’s teaching often came couched in humor, a wry sense of the poetry of laughing at oneself. She taught me one Lent several years ago that one could actually give up something to which one’s psyche was velcroed, like anxiety. “I’m giving up worrying for Lent,” she said. In a flash I saw and heard truth: the truth she was speaking to and about herself, the truth that she was offering me, the permission she was giving me to glimpse my own shadow, all encased in a self-deprecating humor. She learned her own lessons well, so much so that in her last Lent she vowed to give up “abject terror,” when she was staring death in the face, frozen betimes by the possibility that circumstances would call her to do things she doubted she could do.
Elizabeth Jane Palmberg, teacher. She not only was a friend; she taught friendship by modeling it. She not only was a Christian; she taught Christian faith by living it. She was not only a professor of responsibility; she took seriously that she needed to live what she professed by her faith. It can be said without doubt that no good teacher has ever been a good teacher without first being a good student, a learner. And Zab learned some things along the way, and kept on learning till the very end. She learned that she could not do everything she wanted to do, and that that was perfectly fine. She learned to make peace with the fact that some of her dreams she would not live to see fulfilled. She learned that she could manage physical challenges that seemed daunting in the abstract but were just more obstacles to conquer by grace. She learned to accept help when in other days she might have been enthralled to a persona of self-sufficiency. She learned that many of the things she cared most deeply about were gifts that would outlast her reach and control. And in dying as she died, she learned that most of the things that provoke abject terror in us are things that never happen and thus things we never had to worry about anyway.
Zab’s greatest gift, perhaps we would all agree, was the way she let us share her walk, as troubled and difficult as it sometimes was. She opened her heart in supplication and thanksgiving, teaching us that vulnerability is no badge of weakness, but of strength. She invited us to know and feel her pain, to share her suffering, guided by a deep belief that “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” [Romans 5:3-5] I doubt, frankly, that she would have made that statement at any point along the way, or that she would in fact make it today. But what I do not doubt is that she has now found it to be true.
Nor do I doubt that Elizabeth Palmberg the brilliant teacher now sees herself in a light that from her torturous path on earth shone too dimly for her completely to embrace herself. I refer to the part of her that was in dynamic tension between profound faith and honest doubt. Doubt, by the way, is never the enemy of faith, but an important ingredient in it. The opposite of faith is sin, and the essence of sin is estrangement and alienation, the insubordinate position that the human being is ultimately alone and therefore its own god and savior.
Zab and I shared a love for Ursula LeGuin. One day in the last month or so when I was visiting her, I noted that I could not locate a very short story of LeGuin’s. I described in some detail the tale of this girl who had an obsession with finding words in odd places. She would walk the beach and see the wind-blown foam left on the strand by waves, and find that it formed words that she would read aloud. One day she found herself in a secondhand shop that sold lace, where she saw a handmade collar in which she could make out the words tightly woven into it. Zab and I searched some of her books but couldn’t locate it.
On my next visit she handed me a book with a story dog-eared. “Texts,” it was called. I turned to it, exclaiming, “Zab! You found it!” I read,
It was handmade, handwritten. The script was small and very even. Like the Spencerian hand she had been taught fifty years ago in the first grade, it was ornate but surprisingly easy to read. “My soul must go,” was the border repeated many times, “my soul must go, my soul must go,” and the fragile webs leading inward read, “sister, sister, sister, light the light.” And she did not know what she was to do, or how she was to do it.
Zab looked at me. I looked at her. “You like that esoteric crap, don’t you?” she said.
In my mind, behind my laughter, I saw the teacher, Zab, dart behind her very own words. I imagined that I was holding a story not because it was hers, but because it was mine, lost and now found. I was not there to teach her anything, only to learn. And that day’s lesson was that I did not need to know how to light the light for Zab or anybody else, only to be present. She let me into her world and taught me, wittingly or unwittingly, how to be there. And I think she did that for us all.
Apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of deeds of power, workers of miracles, healers, leaders, speakers in various kinds of tongues: all of them are body-parts of Christ, each one manifesting the Spirit for the common good. Most of the good we do is in spite of ourselves, and certainly in spite of our limitations and shortcomings. Elizabeth Palmberg was an exceptional person, but no exception to that truth. That she gave us much beyond her own understanding of what she was giving and how she was giving it is a sure sign of grace. And for the graceful life of an exquisite teacher of grace beyond all bounds of reason, how could we not be thankful and full of praise? How, indeed, to use the words of one of her favorite songs, could we possibly keep from singing?
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014