Of Light and Salt

When I think that He meant me when He said, “Ye are the light of the world,” I feel very unworthy. I know that one must go on joyfully and with an urge to be a “light” and also “salt” to salt this old earth.

These words were written 75 years ago by a Pennsylvania farm woman in a letter to her daughter. Her name was Annis, and she was my grandmother. I’ve inherited letters written by both my grandmothers. I wrote about Grandmother Fianna in Fianna’s Story and this is the story of Grandmother Annis.

Annis’ life was hard. Longing to learn, she was forced to drop out of school at 14. Her parents also opposed church involvement, and she hungered for it. When her mother died tragically in a fire, she took over care of four younger siblings. Her life spanned two World Wars, and included church divisions, family brokenness, and Depression-era scrimping and saving.

Hers was an unnoticed life. Annis joined no movements, marched in no rallies, and made no headlines. She preached no sermons and wrote no books. Her world was limited to the local community and her mild voice easy to overlook. She was, as poet Thomas Gray wrote, like a flower “born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness. . .”

The poet was wrong this time; her sweetness was not wasted. Remembering my grandmother, I recall lovingkindness and patient sweetness in a woman who loved flowers and walking barefoot in the grass. I remember peach pie and the dress she made for me when I was six. I remember the stories she told and the warmth of her arms. Naturally, I took her for granted!

Only now, reading Annis’ letters, am I aware of the whole person. Now I see a woman of deep and unquestioning faith with a steadfast strength born through adversity, a soft-spoken country woman committed to Christ’s teachings. I see an unassuming woman who quietly saw the best hidden within others and loved it into opening. Annis’ daily living was grounded in the spiritual practice of tikkun olam.

The Hebrew phrase tikkun olam means repairing or restoring the world. What an enormous endeavor–and how many ways one can participate in the work! Annis’daily faithfulness, her small gestures of patient loving and forgiving, her reaching out to mend broken relationships was her way of practicing tikkun olam. Through following Christ’s teaching to be salt and light for “this old earth,” she spread the loving energy that allows others to discover their own flavor and their own light. One small encounter at a time, the world is repaired.

Annis knew that even small steps were not easy. She knew that she could not be salt and light for the world unless her heart was open. Reconciling with another with whom she disagreed or reaching out to a person who had hurt her was more than simply an act or a few words. She needed to want to welcome the other into a changed relationship. She wrote I’ve experienced in my life that when I can not do the [hard] thing pleasantly, which seems almost going the third mile, there is no power at all and one is terribly miserable.

What is it to “go the third mile”–when Jesus’ teaching was only for a second mile? (Matt. 5:41) After all, choosing to carry the burden a second mile, when a Roman soldier ordered a Jew to carry it one mile, should be sufficient. I believe the third mile is the heart mile. For us today, it means seeing the ‘Roman soldiers,’ whoever they may be, as fellow human beings, and then loving them. It also means loving people who are not truly enemies but still irritate us dreadfully.

Annis knew this heart-deep work would change her, too. I’ve experienced that if one keeps on and does what is at our hand to do, graciously, why our faith grows. . when we look back it was not so big a burden as it seemed.

May we, too, find that reaching out in love and going the third mile changes us and makes our burdens lighter. I echo Annis’ words: My prayer and hope is that we shall all be faithful.

Annis and her granddaughter Nancy

When I think

12 thoughts on “Of Light and Salt”

  1. Restoring the world (tikkun olam) one sincere encounter at a time is remindful for me of living my life in the spirit that takes away the occasion for war. Walking barefoot–touching the earth–is a savory grounding in humility.

    1. Thank you, Anne. Living in the spirit that takes away the occasion for war is truly the same spirit as living to restore the world, to be the presence of love as we touching others’ lives.

  2. Nancy,

    This is a remarkably beautiful, true and timely post. Thank you.

    I am reminded of The Little Way of St. Therese Lisieux. Your grandmother found this little way in Jesus, and she entered into the hard, life-changing, lifelong way because of Love.

    With love, by love, and for Love,
    Doreen

    1. Dear Doreen, Thank you for writing and reminding all of us of St. Therese. I think it’s true—they were sisters on similar paths although their lives looked so very different. Nancy

  3. Beautiful, Nancy! I wish I could have known your grandmother, and I’m sure you treasure your memories of her. Her sweetness certainly was NOT wasted! Love, Maria

    1. Thank you for writing, Maria! I would like to spread the sweetness and love that she lived! I’m glad you received some of it through the reflection I wrote here! Nancy

  4. I really appreciate you writing,

    “It also means loving people who are not truly enemies but still irritate us dreadfully.”

    I am so quick to toss people into the “enemy column” simply because they get on my nerves. I’ll try to be more thoughtful and think of what you wrote before doing that.

    1. Thank you, Christopher. Yes, I agree that those that irritate us are, especially if they are near to us, often get tossed into the enemy category. May we remember the ‘third mile’!
      Nancy

    1. Thank you, Laurie. I’m glad that Annis and her life has spoken to you. May she continue to inspire the ways of love. (I know she’d be amazed at the thought that others are finding her life an inspiration–so many years after she lived!) Nancy

  5. Dear Nancy, thank you for this precious, thoughtful, soul-stirring post about your grandmother. A favorite quote immediately came to mind: Dorothea . . . had no dreams of being praised above other women, feeling that there was always something better that she might have done if she had only been better and known better. Her full nature spent itself in deeds which left no great name on the earth but the effect of her being on those around her was incalculable. For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts and on all those Dorothea’s who live faithfully their hidden lives and rest in unvisited tombs. – From Middlemarch by George Eliot

    1. Dear Naomi,
      Thank you so much for thinking of Dorothea in Middlemarch. Middlemarch is a favorite book, and, yes, I think Dorothea and Annis would have found themselves sisters–in spite of difference in nationality, social class and century! ‘Unhistoric acts’ and ‘faithfully living hidden lives’ are very powerful.
      Nancy

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