G. Scott Sparrow, EdD, LPC, LMFT

Counseling and Mentoring Services

  Grace in a Flower
by G. Scott Sparrow

   It was almost dark as we made our way out of the piney woods and into the fresh-cut corn fields on our way back to my uncle's house. I rode the old Shetland bareback, and my cousins rode the full-size horses on ahead of me.  We were tired, and so were the horses. As usual, we had all gotten up early and ridden until late morning.   Then, we'd gone back out again in the cool of the evening.  And now, we dropped the reins and let the horses' hunger carry us back across the fields toward the stables.
     It was like heaven to be in Alabama with my cousins, and I visited there as often as my parents would let me.  My grandparents and aunts and uncles treated me so kindly, that I looked upon each of them as perfect.  In my childlike bliss, I could not foresee the difficulties that awaited them.

  A popping sound interrupted my half-sleep, and I looked down to see what the horses were stepping on.  But it was too dark to see the small green fruit that grew on the vines that lined the edges of the fields.
     "What's that sound?" I shouted.
     "Maypops," my cousin yelled back. “They’re everywhere.”

     That told me nothing, but a few days later, I walked over the same ground and noticed the bright green vines that ran along the edges of the corn fields.  Small green fruit were everywhere, and to my child's mind, their sheer abundance suggested that they had some value. Then, I discovered something far more intriguing than the fruit.  Lifting the leaves, I exposed a delicate, violet flower with a tiny white cross in the middle.  I was impressed by its beauty, and I took one back with me to my uncle's house.  But the hair-like petals were fragile, and they quickly wilted.
     Later, after returning to Texas, my mother helped me look it up in a plant book.  I discovered that the maypop was another name for the passionflower vine, and that the vine's Latin name was passiflora incarnata. Apparently, the delicately framed cross had reminded the plant’s namer of the passion of Christ. It was a medicinal herb, too, but that part I forgot until later.
     It wasn't long before things went downhill for my uncle's family.  At the height of his social rise, he was a prominent businessman and an officer in the town bank.  But when his corn fields along the Tombigbee River fell prey to an overpopulation of deer, he took the law into his own hands, and began to shoot the deer to protect his crops.  The police came to arrest him one evening as he sat upon his tractor, armed with the stubby .35 Remington with a barrel that always looked like a cannon to me.  For a while, it was not clear that he would surrender to them, but he eventually relented.
    He was defending his livelihood; but his resistance to the law on that fateful day hastened his fall from grace in that
community, and bankruptcy soon followed. Adding to the family's losses, one of my cousins died a few years later while driving his tractor trailer home one night.  He left the highway to protect another motorist, and was fatally injured when his rig flipped over.  They were good people, and I found myself asking -- like countless others before me who have witnessed such undeserved losses -- Why?

     As a youth, I always asked questions -- perhaps too many for the adults who were appointed my teachers along the way. My Sunday School teacher, Mr. Swearingen, would turn red in the face whenever I’d ask why I'd question some dogma that I was supposed to accept on faith alone.  When my principal lectured the student council on the evils of marijuana, I raised my hand and asked him, “How do you know?” Needless to say, I got in hot water over such inquiries, but I would not, or could not accept anything unless it rang true with my own experience.
    The problem of suffering was particularly unsolvable, and thus it insinuated itself into the overall fabric of my life.  I could never convince myself that a person could insulate himself from suffering and loss just by endorsing some religious tenet.  Jesus' tragic end did nothing to reassure me even though I knew it was supposed to: For better or worse, I could never make his suffering a substitute for my own struggles. And Buddha's enlightenment -- arising from an initial revelation that all life was suffering -- underscored the inevitability of losses in this earthly life.
    Even as a young child, I was unable to take refuge in cheery scenarios designed to uplift us at the expense of the facts. I can recall sitting alone at the age of six listening to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. When the cannons roared at the climax of the symphonoy, it was as though they tolled my own fate, and that I would surely die fighting in some future war.  Even earlier, while playing hide and seek with friends, I was overcome with the realization that our play was only an illusion to mask life’s unpleasantries, and I abruptly quit playing and went home.
    Given the vulnerability that I felt as a child, it was perhaps not surprising that my anxieties came to a head one night in my young adulthood while visiting my childhood home in south Texas.  I am not sure why it happened, but I awoke in the middle of the night in sheer, indescribable terror.  It was my first panic attack.  Although I had a Master's degree in psychology at the time, I had no real firsthand experience with such things.  Like most people when they have their first panic attack, my sense of confidence -- or whatever was left of it -- was completely shattered in an instant.  I was convinced in that moment that I was on the verge of madness or death, or both.
     Up to that time, my spiritual life had been unfolding at a pace that was difficult for me or my friends to comprehend.  I experienced frequent lucid dreams and out-of-body experiences, and I communed with the holy light in my dreams on a fairly regular basis. I had met Jesus face to face, and felt that he had plans for me. As I went to sleep at night, a powerful energy would often stir to life and fill my body with a warm fire, which was pleasant but hard to bear.
   These auspicious developments seemed to indicate that I was on the right path, and destined for greater things. But the sublime melody of my spiritual emergence could not withstand the cacophony of my lifelong doubt and fear.  For over two years, panic attacks assaulted me on a regular basis, further convincing me that a semblance of security would forever elude me in this lifetime. I would often awaken in the middle of the night, paralyzed with fear. I would grab my bedside Bible, and read the promises of Jesus in the book of John, clinging desperately to the shred of hope that Jesus' words instilled in me.
     While reading a book about Edgar Cayce’s holistic treatments around that time, I discovered that the passionflower vine -- that intriguing southern flower from my childhood -- had curative properties.  Specifically, Cayce recommended it for epileptic seizures and, sometimes, for anxiety. I discovered that the Native Americans had used it as a sedative, as well. Looking for relief in natural ways, I promptly ordered some from an herbal supplier. Since I had to order it in bulk, I received a three-pound shipment in the mail one day -- an amount that lasted me for years. The bag of pulverized herb went with me wherever I went, and it was my own poor-man's remedy for despair. For the months that followed, I would drink a cup of passionflower tea before going to bed each night. A cup of passionflower tea and the Gospel of John were my unfailing companions on those sleepless nights when the panic overcame me.
     The panic abruptly went away, following a dream that I had one night after reading from my Bible at 2:00 a.m.
     I dreamed that I was a young man in Palestine at the time of Christ.  I was living in a one-room house with my parents.  I went to sleep on the dirt floor of the house, and had a dream. In it, Jesus came to me and asked me to follow him. When I awoke within the dream, I was filled with yearning to find the one who had summoned me to his side. I bade my parents farewell, and went in search of him.
     That dream signified a turning point, and for a season, the nighttime panic subsided. I was beginning to understand that the solution to my lifelong fear was simple: I had to surrender to Spirit’s call.

     In 1998, it became clear that my years in Virginia Beach were coming to a close, and that it was time to return to south Texas and to live closer to my family, and to nature. It was not easy to close up a counseling practice of 16 years, say goodbye to most of my friends, and -- most grievously -- leave my 10-year-old son with my ex-wife.
     Not surprisingly, the old anxiety resurfaced as I was preparing to leave. It was more than a bad feeling this time: It was an absence of breath. I would awaken on the edge of blacking out, anxious and completely out of breath. I would run gasping down the hall -- and often out the door into the night before waking up all the way. When I shared my symptoms with a Canadian sleep researcher, who had researched various forms of sleep apnea, she said it sounded like "central" apnea, in which the brain -- for some reason -- tells the body to stop breathing. But then she quickly ruled that out, saying -- not very reassuringly -- "If you had central apnea, you'd probably be dead by now."
     One evening before we left Virginia Beach, I was leaning against the deck rail behind the house. Looking down into the yard, I spotted a tiny green plant rising above the St. Augustine grass. Nearby I could see another, and another. Five young plants were spread our over a 10-foot-square area, showing the deep green, tri-lobed leaves of passiflora incarnata.  I was stunned. Even though I knew that the plant grew in the south, I had never in 25 years seen a single passionflower vine inside the city limits of Virginia Beach, much less five plants.
     It was, I am convinced, one of those little miracles that are meant to comfort us. In the weeks that followed, I harvested the leaves and fruit from those plants, and drank the tea each night before going to bed. As we packed our belongings in preparation for our journey southward, I packed a single maypop from one of the vines, intending to plant its seeds upon arrival in south Texas.
    Around that time, I also had a dream in which the blossom of the passionflower took on new meaning.
     The first part of the dream concerns my discovery of a great tragedy -- the murder of a native American man by a group of white hunters who considered the Indian as little more than an animal. I am so deeply saddened and outraged, that I know I have to make this crime known to the authorities. As I call to report this tragedy, I look up and see a red plane overhead. A young pilot is saluting my efforts. He swoops down again and again, and does magnificent barrel rolls and loops as he pulls out of his dives. His maneuvers are so amazing that I finally realize that the experience has to be a dream.
     I walk slowly across a grassy area, carefully observing the beauty of everything around me in the dream. A large hibiscus towers over me, and its red blossoms droop down over my head.
     From past lucid dreams, I know that the holy light has to be near. So I raise my eyes to look for it, and see instantly that a white light fills the sky. I know that the light is Christ's light. There is a pattern that radiates outward from it, like white lace, or delicate latticework.  Then I notice an elderly woman approaching me. I feel great love from her, and for her; so I put my arm around her and kiss her on the forehead. I know that she is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
     We turn together to look at the Light, and we see that there is a second light to the left and slightly below the white light of Christ. The second light resembles a passionflower blossom, with bluish and lavender hair-like petals radiating outward from a central light.
     I turn to her and ask, "Is that your light?"
    She nods.
     I look back and see that there is now a third light -- to the right and again, slightly below the light of Christ. It radiates from a window on the top of a tower that has spiral steps leading upward.
     I ask Mary, "Whose light is that?"
     She says, "Mary Magdalene's."
     "Do you want to go there?" I ask her.
     She nods again.
     So we begin climbing the steps of the tower. Then I awaken.

   Such a dream cannot be easily interpreted, but I believe that it signified the beginning of the end of my lifelong anxiety and fear. Pointing me to the need to recover my primitive masculine spirit, it alluded, as well, to the need to surrender to my spiritual calling -- to the flowering of my own passion -- as represented, in different ways, by Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene.

    When I contemplate the delicate beauty of the passionflower in Mary’s light, I am reminded that the word "passion" -- that is often used to describe Christ's suffering -- has nothing to do with what we usually think of that word. It has to do with Christ's submission to the forces that were at work to bring his life to complete fruition, however tragically. The word has more to do with "passive" than with "ardor," and has a disturbingly out-of-control ring to it. Indeed, it suggests that whatever we experience in the course of our surrender to Spirit’s call is a nece
ssary part of the process, and will deepen us to serve God more fully.
    I have been in Texas for over five years now, and I am glad that I mustered the courage to relocate to such a primitive and beautiful setting. But there have been significant losses along the way. Just last year, in fact, I dreamt that I was on my knees weeping, saying over and over again, “I have lost so much.”
    And so, I have. And perhaps, you have, too. But our passion, like the Master’s, is neither avoidable nor irrelevant in the ripening of the soul.
   Only a few months ago, I dreamed that this whole process was finally consummating. In the dream, I knew that a woman and I were terminally ill. That night, we went to sleep in beds that were only a few feet apart. In the night, a great light came, and I found myself infused by its radiance, and overcome with ecstasy. A man’s voice said, with obvious love,“Your mortal life is over.”
   When we awoke, the woman and I had been healed of our illness. I knew that we would remain together for the rest of our lives, and that we would live, from thereafter, free of mortal fear.

    I have come to realize that I cannot escape the human condition, with its concomitant suffering and losses. But I can choose to go all the way into it, and allow my passion to flower. Whether we see ourselves as one who defends the good, as Jesus did, in spite of the consequences; as one who consents, as Mary did, knowing frightfully little about what the future holds; or as one who suffers to love deeply as Mary Magdalene probably did, unrequitedly -- we, too, will surely flower if we can bring ourselves to follow Spirit's call without hesitation.
    When we can embrace life fully without regard to the consequences, our losses -- unavoidable as they are -- will create a larger vessel for love’s outpouring.