Samuel and Time Travel

by Katrina Ross
"His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice." (1 Samuel 2:19 NRSV)

We can all remember a time that hurt, when we were little. For many of us, these memories remain painful because they still feel unresolved, and unheard. But what would it have been like if someone else showed up in that moment? Someone who knew the whole story and saw everything. What if they defended you or protected you or just gave you the hug you were wishing for? What if they held you and said: I won't let them hurt you anymore, you're safe. And you will not be abandoned. How would this have changed your life?

According to the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Samuel got his call when he was a little kid. He was living in the temple with the priest Eli because his mother, Hannah, had given him to God. Samuel was performing priestly duties there, but because he was so much smaller, the regular robes didn't fit him. Every year, his mother made him a robe that was just his size, and she brought it to the temple when their family came to make offerings. [1]

It can be hard for us to understand the meaning of Bible stories from a modern perspective. But at its core, the Bible is concerned with the same basic things that have always concerned humanity. From my own context, I admit I have a hard time understanding how Hannah could give her child to the temple. The text is very clear to tell us that she had been wanting him for years, maybe even forever. And yet she brings Samuel into the world only to leave him with someone else. 

This blog post is a commissioned piece for a faith in art organization called Spark and Echo. They asked me to read 1Samuel, notice which verse stood out, and then illuminate that verse with my artwork. I chose this line because it evoked strong and conflicting feelings in me. I was touched by the idea of a mother making a "little robe" for her child, thinking of the wonderful mothers I know, who make things for their children. I was filled with hope in the concept of a child prophet, remembering all the child prophets I know. But I also felt anger as I considered what it must have been like for Samuel to be separated from his family, and treated as a sacrifice.
I asked a friend the other day what he thought of Hannah as I considered the significance of this passage. Because I was struggling to find her goodness, I was hoping we'd discuss how Hannah could do what she did to Samuel. But instead of talking about that, we went in a completely different direction. 

And he told me something I didn't know. 

He said that he saw Hannah as a prototypical Hasid, from the Hebrew Chesed meaning “loving-kindness”. Hasids radically rejected the idea that one’s connection with the divine needed to be mediated through a priest or a rabbi. They believed that Kavanah (translated as one’s intention, sincere feeling or direction of the heart) was the most important aspect of personal prayer. In the story, Hannah had a direct connection with God in her personal devotion, which didn't require a priest. In fact, it happened in spite of the priest Eli who accused her of being drunk, as she prayed fervently for God to hear her desire for a son. 

Being a student of theology, I know there is a whole lot I don't know. It would probably take years to understand what is means to be a Hasid. But after our conversation, I went to the internet to find out more. It told me that a Hasid is someone who is devoted to God in a way that motivates them to act with a piety that goes beyond everyday limits. And it made me realize how much my ideology and unresolved conflicts were influencing my view of the text. My judgement of Hannah was coming from a very specific perspective based on my position in history. 

Today we are more aware of how Hannah's actions would have negatively impacted Samuel's development, but that reality is not included in this story. At the time it was written, part of the ethos was that the quality of one's sacrifice was a reflection of the quality of one's faith. To give up something as essential to her being as her only son, meant that Hannah trusted God in a way that was truly extraordinary. And when I started to think of Hannah as a prototypical Hasid, I saw that the details of this story were not written to make us worry for the child, but to emphasize the significance of Hannah's gift. 

When my son was little, he used to say the most profound things at bedtime. He blew me away with his insight sometimes. Other times it seemed like he was experiencing a kind of nostalgia for the present moment. Lying there one night, he sat up to look at me and said seriously, "I'm going to miss you so much when I grow up. You... just like you are right now." He's always been kind of precocious, but these moments felt other-worldly. And they often brought him to tears. His tears didn't seem like the tears of a three year old though. It was like he became an old man who just wanted to spend one more moment with his mother. Or someone who had lost something precious, and then got it back. As if there was a kind of portal created by his gratitude, allowing him to enter the present moment, from somewhere far in the future. But strangely, it also felt like he was an ancestor of mine, rather than a descendant. And as he reached out in the dark, it made me wonder if time travel is possible.
Buddhist meditation practice can reveal, for some people, an ability to heal oneself by paying attention to the body, the way a mother would hold their child. On realizing the unity of body and mind, Thich Nhat Hahn says, “Mindful breathing helps us to relearn the art of resting. Mindful breathing is like a loving mother holding her sick baby in her arms saying, 'Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of you, just rest.'” [2]  We all know what it feels like to be held by a loving parent, even if we haven't experienced it ourselves. I read somewhere that children who have not felt loved still know what love is. Somehow they know what they're missing. Thich Nhat Hahn describes the healing potential of Samatha meditation practice using the imagery of holding the child within. Building an awareness of all that our body does for us brings gratitude, which showers the organs with loving attention, and helps them to function better. When we let the inner child know they are protected and cared for, restoration floods in.

While I do believe this kind of healing is possible, it's important to note that no amount of effort can actually change the past. In order to move on, we have to let go of the idea that things could have been different. Life occurs linearly, and time machines don't exist. At the same time, I think there's a way for our younger selves to be heard. That child is still in a room in your mind, wishing that someone would come to them. You are the person they're waiting for, and with God's help it's really only you who can bring them what they need. 

In Hebrew, one translation of the name Samuel is "heard by God". Together, you can sit on the edge of the bed in that tiny room and pull the child into your arms. Tell them you see what happened and how much it hurt. Tell them they deserved better, and it was wrong. As fallible human beings, we can try to hold each other, but I think only God can hold us adequately. The truth is no matter how we are hurt or abandoned by people, God will always come for us. Like a child who enters the world as a gift. Like a mother who would wait forever, or travel any distance- maybe even across generations- to bring the child what they need. With a message that transcends all space and time: 
"Here I am."

[1] The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Edited by Michael D. Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2007.
[2] Nhat Hanh, Thich. Breathe, You Are Alive: The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2008.

Popular Posts