Several weeks ago on a cold New England night, I joined an enthralled audience at Boston's Shubert Theatre to witness the 25th anniversary performance of actress Julie Harris as she delivered her one-woman play, "The Belle of Amherst," based on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson.
I hadn't been feeling well all day - cold or flu - but I'd wanted to see this performance for years, and I couldn't bear the thought of missing it. So my husband kindly swathed me in blankets as we drove to town, then delivered me to the door of the theater while he parked the car.
As I made my way up the stairs, I wondered how I would manage to sit through the play. I reached out to God for help, and the gist of what came to me was, You're home. This might seem strange, given that I was in a theater, but I've come to understand to some degree that my "home" is my consciousness, the quality of my thoughts. It comforts me to think that the holy messages that came from God to support Bible characters when they faced a host of adverse conditions - including disease - are still just as pres-ent now to help people like me.
In fewer words than it's taking me to explain, I glimpsed that my heavenly Parent, whom I understand to be eternal Life, divine Love, and perfect, unerring Mind, was supporting and maintaining my life and health right at that moment, no matter where I was. I took my seat in the balcony, and although I had to reassert my prayer one or two more times when nausea hit, in a very short while I was much better.
Then, quite a ways into the play, I noticed that "Emily" had pulled a white handkerchief from her apron pocket and was blowing her nose. "Excuse me," the Belle of Amherst said with dignity to her "visitors." Then she resumed her monologue, which included sparkling snippets from letters, touching details from her life (such as her love for her small nephew), and wonderful lines from her poems. These poignant verses touched me deeply:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Emily's words express the natural human longing to live a life that's meaningful, of service to others.
I hoped my own life had stopped a few hearts from breaking.
It was a while before I realized that Emily's handkerchief and runny nose hadn't been an official part of the play. Apparently, the actress had been battling a cold herself, and rather than letting it get the better of her, she'd incorporated it into the play, going right on with her splendid delivery. Her courage and the naturalness with which she dealt with this problem reminded me of a passage in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy that tells of an actor who nightly overcame pain to perform his part. Mrs. Eddy, who lived about the same time as Emily Dickinson, precedes the description of the actor's performance with this observation: "The effect of mortal mind on health and happiness is seen in this: If one turns away from the body with such absorbed interest as to forget it, the body experiences no pain" (pg. 261).
As I sat there thinking, I realized that performers often have to overcome physical odds to be in their places at curtain time. My prayer had helped me feel better - so it certainly wasn't "in vain." But now I saw that I could offer it up in support of all these talented individuals. I went on to finish the program - and felt perfectly well by its close. In fact, my husband and I stopped on the way home for an ice cream soda - a confection, I thought, the Belle of Amherst herself might have enjoyed.
It is God that
girdeth me with
strength, and maketh
my way perfect.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor