Grains of Incense by Sister Mary Thomas Eulberg, O.S.F.
A response essay by Shannon Lucas
If someone would have asked me weeks ago to discuss what I knew about haiku the conversation would have lasted a mere two seconds. Until recently, the extent of my haiku knowledge was limited to two things: Japan and 5-7-5. I pictured Japanese men, introspectively sipping tea, and creating something I thought was beyond my realm. If that same person would have told me about a nun from the Midwest, who was a school teacher and a published haiku author, I would have never believed it. Nuns and haiku? Not only was I being ignorantly closed-minded but I was way off the mark.
Sister Mary Thomas Eulberg OSF was born in November 1911 near Alton, Iowa (Ziemann, 2005). According to her obituary, she entered the Sisters St. Francis in Dubuque, IA in 1922 where she committed her life to serving God through serving the community and those less fortunate. She was an obvious choice for me because of the deep reverence for God as expressed in her haiku. As a teacher, Sister Mary Thomas helped to mold the minds and hearts of children, and reach out to the community around her with respect for all persons. While reading Grains of Incense, I felt her approach to haiku was born out of personal time spent in God's presence through prayer or meditating upon His Word. Perhaps some were birthed from lessons taught to children, conversations with fellow sisters, or periods of reflection.
On the dedication page of Grains of Incense, Sister Mary cites Psalm 141: "Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting of my hands, like the evening sacrifice." (Sister Mary Thomas Eulberg, 1990) I think by her choosing this Psalm, she illustrates the desire for her life to be an offering of continuous prayer and praise before God. On page one of the same book, Sister Mary captures the a unique perspective about prayer with the following:
the closet clamors
when I enter to shut out
all but silent prayer
Eulberg, GOI, pg. 1
I liken the clamorous closet to the world around us. It clangs like a loud cymbal to distract and keep us from entering into His presence with prayers, thanksgiving, and intimate time. Sister Mary valued prayer as an essential part of her life. Prayer changes, it motivates, it's renewing and ushers one into the very throne room of God. Under the teaching and guidance of Father Raymond Roseliep, Thomas crafted Grains of Incense into a work of celebration. Celebrating Christ as declared:
Eulberg, GOI, pg. 4
All her works in the collection point to Christ either directly or indirectly. The following are some favorites by Sister Mary that struck my heart and spirit. Upon reading them, I recalled stories from the Bible and was able to go back and revisit them.
the home-town boy
cries out " I am the One"
Eulberg, GOI, pg. 11
Sister Mary beautifully encapsulates the story found in Luke 2; 41-51. At the conclusion of the annual Passover Festival in Jerusalem, Jesus' parents began their journey back to Nazareth, but were unaware that Jesus had stayed behind. The greatest rabbis in all of Israel were at the Temple in Jerusalem, discussing and teaching about the deep questions of the day. Undoubtedly, one of the most popular topics would have been the coming Messiah. The Bible speaks of Jesus, although only twelve years old at the time, having uncommon wisdom and understanding. The rabbis were perplexed by the depth of Jesus' questions. They were just as amazed with his insight and ability to converse increasingly above any astute teacher of the Law.
The walk from Jerusalem to Nazareth was about 80 miles, and as a protective measure, it was common for women and children to travel ahead of the men. Jesus' parents were well into the excursion when they learned that Jesus was not among the caravan. As a parent, I can imagine how worried Mary and Joseph must have been. As a parent, I can also imagine the level of frustration of having to backtrack, delaying their return home. Whatever their thoughts, nothing could have prepared them for the astonishment as they discovered Jesus in the Temple communicating with the greatest religious teachers of the time.
In an odd mixture of relief and anxiousness, Mary asked Jesus, "Son, why have you done this? We have been frantically searching for you!" To which Jesus responds, "But why did you need to search? Didn't you realize that I would here at the Temple, in my Father's House?" Although his parents knew Jesus was the Son of God, they didn't fully understand his answer. What a pivotal point in scripture as Jesus makes a clear acknowledgment to his earthly parents that he has a heavenly Father.
on the tree
perfect fruit scarred
Eulberg, GOI, pg. 22
"But he was bruised for our iniquities." Isaiah 53:5. Though scripture emphasizes over and over again that there was no sin found in Jesus, he willingly bore our sins and took them as his own. If that isn't miraculous enough he did so with humility, with a heart of a servant and obedience to the Father. The real strength is found in that truth. Despised. Rejected. Mocked. Jesus endured the most horrific death to bring everlasting life to all. Yet, he did not try to defend himself physically or verbally against his accusers, during his trial, or while he hung on the cross. In fact, under the excruciating pain of crucifixion, Jesus still looked upon man with compassion and the greatest of love as evidenced by his words, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)
I thought it was interesting that Sister Mary chose to use the word fruit in describing Christ at his crucifixion. Fruit is perishable. Easily bruised, quickly turns from its vibrant color and rots away. Yet, this was not the heart of Christ but is the heart of man. It's our incurable condition apart from what Christ did on the cross. Yet many continue to throw away, push to the side or reject their only lifeline. No one in history has or ever will do what Jesus did.
What do we do with fruit that is bruised, off color, or rotting? We typically throw it away. That was my heart and life before I gave it to Christ. Because of what Christ did on that tree, bruises have turned into healing, the lack luster color of my heart has been given a new vibrant hue, and I'm decayed by my sin. The eternal consequences of sin have been voided by his perfect sacrifice for those who would accept.
Eulberg, GOI, pg. 22
Rejection could possibly be one the most hurtful and disabling actions to the human condition. We were born with a need to belong, to be loved, and require authentic security and assurance. What do we do when relationships crumble, promises are broken, and betrayal entraps us? From a human perspective, we aren't always fully prepared for everything life throws at us. Many times, we're blindsided by trials, hardships, and injustice. This haiku combines three different stories into one message.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea (Luke 23) and more concerned about the stability of his political career than with an innocent man's life. At Jesus' trial, King Herod Antipas of Galilee, responded to Jesus' silence with mocking and insults. When Jesus was arrested and on trial, the heat was turned up on his disciples. Being connected with Jesus was asking for a death sentence. Peter, in particular, as prophesied by Jesus, denied him three times. This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. All of us, at some point, will find ourselves alone and with a choice to make.
I think Sister Mary would agree that an underlying beauty to this haiku is what is doesn't say. Outwardly, the story these verses tell are heartbreaking and unnerving. But below the surface is an enduring truth. In spite of all the betrayal, rejection, and forces of darkness, Jesus still triumphed on the cross by becoming our sacrifice and rendering death powerless. Hebrews 2:14 "…for only as a human being could he die and in dying break the power of the devil who had the power of death."
Eulberg, GOI, pg. 22
9 a.m: Jesus is crucified. Bloodied, beaten, and barely recognizable, he hung on a cross as an innocent man. Scoffers jeered as they challenged Jesus to save himself and come down from the cross. Their sin, my sin, our sin and his unending love for us was the reason Christ chose to go to the cross. If the physical pain and taunting wasn't bad enough, the worst was about to happen. Total solar eclipses last only a few minutes. But, at noon on that day darkness fell upon the entire earth and remained for three hours. The bible doesn't explain how the darkness happened but it certainly creates an image of utter anguish. As if creation collectively cried out in ultimate despair.
3 p.m: Jesus shouted, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" translated "My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). Spiritual separation is what Jesus prayed about in the Garden of Gethsame the previous night as he sweat drops of blood. Jesus knew by taking on the sin of mankind, he would be temporarily disjointed from the Father. The death was two-fold: physically and spiritually. Jesus tasted death on our behalf so we wouldn't have to be eternally separated from God.
Notice Sister Mary doesn't say the sun was extinguished only eclipsed. Which means that even though the world was in darkness, the light was still there and was never in danger of extinction. John 1:4-5 says "Eternal life is in him, and this life gives light to all mankind. His life is the light that shines through the darkness –and the darkness can never extinguish it." As Christ declared, "It is finished" he dismissed his spirit and died.
for Him who came
the inn of every homeless heart
Eulberg, GOI, pg. 7
Jesus crossed the human barrier and came not to condemn the world but to save it; so that he might reside in the heart of very person. Regardless of social status, political position, gender, or amount/lack of wealth each of us has a God shaped void that can never be satisfied by anything else in this life apart from God himself. Sister Mary Thomas wonderfully captures the essence of that statement with three words: every homeless heart.
Every man, woman, child – no one is excluded. To everyone that has ever lived or will live in the future, Jesus is our only hope. Hebrews 13:8 "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." Homeless. What makes a house a home? A dwelling becomes a home when it's built on a foundation of love. The scriptures declare that God is love and without love we're homeless. Revelation 3:20 shouts, "Look! I have been standing at the door and I am constantly knocking. If anyone hears me calling him and opens the door, I will come in and fellowship with him and he with me."
Lastly the word heart is our inner-most being. Without the Lord Jesus Christ, our hearts grow dark, hardened, and deadened by the cancer of sin. Sister Mary drives that point home when she exclaims, "No room!" God knows the heart of every person and nothing is hidden from him. Jesus says in John 15:16 "You didn't chose me! I chose you!" He provides the means and loves us enough to either accept or reject his offer.
I will not shame her
but divorce her quietly.
Eulberg, GOI, pg. 6
After outlining the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the New Testament tells of the birth of Jesus through the story of Mary and Joseph. As it was during those times, the custom of Jewish marriage was a three part process. First, the families of the "couple-to-be" had to mutually agree to the union. The next step would be to publicly announce the engagement whereby the couple became 'betrothed'. This was a binding act that could only be broken through death or divorce. Which I find interesting because any act that would constitute a divorce would result in death. Sexual relations were strictly forbidden until after the marriage covenant ceremony. Sister Mary's haiku in inserted between steps two and three of the marriage process.
When it became apparent that Mary was with child natural reasoning would conclude that she had been unfaithful. Under Jewish mandates, Joseph had every right to a divorce and would have probably equaled a death sentence for Mary by stoning. Matthew 1:19 says that Joseph was a man of "stern principle" but also loves Mary, and is not willing that she should be disgraced publicly. I like how Sister Mary chose to use the word "sees". Joseph was reacting to what is physical eyes saw. Could you imagine the conversation between Mary and Joseph?
Joseph was deeply troubled as he grappled with his decision: divorce Mary or have her stoned? But God already had a plan. Scripture says that Joseph fell into a deep sleep and saw an angel that opened his spiritual eyes. Now, he could clearly see that there was a third option, the right option: marry her! Following God's guidance always leads to the right path, even in seemingly impossible situations.
Sister Mary dedicated her life to the great commission: loving God and loving people. Committed to helping all people, especially the poor, she showed the love of Jesus. That was her incense offering. "Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting of my hands, like the evening sacrifice." What does God need that he doesn't already possess? Is he lacking of anything? Of course, not. Through studying Sister Mary's haiku I have a deeper sense of what she already knew and what God's word so clearly articulates. It's not that God is in need of anything that we can give, but rather, what happens to us and for us when we offer up our grains of incense to him. A repentant heart, a heart the seeks him first, a heart the loves in the face of hate and is thankful towards in the midst of the worst suffering. It blesses God and transforms us. Sister Mary Thomas achieved that in this collection.
Sister Mary Thomas Eulberg, O. (1990). Grains of Incense. Dubuque: Sister Mary Thomas Eulberg, O.S.F.
Ziemann, L. (2005, August 12/04/14). Sioux Obituaries. Retrieved from Sioux County Capital: http://ns2.iagenweb.org/boards/sioux/obituaries/index.cgi