Black Pearls: A Parable of Conquering Self

By Edna Lister

Through many weary days and nights had grief and sorrow weighed me down, while free-flowing tears dimmed my eyes. My life, its usefulness, its value and its beauty long since departed, had become a worthless thing. No one wanted me — I might as well give up.

My path of life already traveled seemed countless ages long, the future barren, darkened, friendless. No one ever sought me since my apparent weakness had bound me to bed. It was better so. They had never hidden how bored and tired my company now made them. I had only given up when noticing that even thoughtless throngs, caring naught for my loneliness, heedlessly pushed by me, reminding me of my so empty life.

My family? Oh, yes, my family, so self-satisfied, selfish and preoccupied, condemning every action, criticizing every word. I could not please them. It left me half crazed with grief when they dared to tell me that the fault for all my hurts was mine alone. In agony of heart I cried out at Crucifixion’s nails, deep-pierced in hands and feet, a spear point of their selfishness thrust deep within my side.

Alone, faint from suffering, I could see no reason for lingering as a burden. The end of life must free me soon. Plausible reasons beset me why freeing my family of such a burden might be better now. Imagination exaggerated old emotions. Present hurts confirmed my deep despair. Perhaps passing out of life would enhance my value. Perhaps by leaving them and earth behind, they would wish in sorrow that they might bring me back to love me, to understand me, appreciating my greatness, worth and the sacrifices I had made for them through all my early years. Sadly, giving in to such reasoning brought me no joy. Instead it put me in greater bondage to my grief, allowing me to sink into such a pit of darkness, such an abyss that it engulfed the small comforts I had steadfastly held to through these years of pain.

Instead of giving me some small portion of their sympathy, my family left me more alone. No one understood what my longing heart demanded from their love. With this final hardness from them, my sorrow became unbearable. I could not smile. My only recourse was to retreat farther into a shell. Knowing their dislike for me, all was lost. It pushed me quite over my last line of life. Nothing was left to me but death, while hoping for a place of complete rest, yes, even to oblivion. Perhaps a gracious God — if there was an afterlife — would appreciate my worth. By a judicial estimate of trials I had overcome, of the cross I had borne in silence, He would give me a martyr’s recognition, also a crown to wear.

Turning my face from the light, no longer seeking comfort from it, I lay for many days in the quiet I so craved. My warring self was now satisfied that I would soon find release from a life grown too burdensome to everyone. I thought to rest awhile before the final act. I had one happiness — my family seemed relieved with my silence and did not question me or seek to see my face.

Then, something happened to me! The comfort I had sought with all my heart, seemed to seep into my mind. Unconsciously I found myself in prayer. I realized that meeting Him so soon, I must close my earthly books. I soon found that although I had forgotten my prayers of early years, yet they speedily returned. Suddenly they seemed to spring quite naturally to my lips again.

I heard myself pouring out my many grievances. Realizing the list was long, I knew that God would view them as an ample excuse for my so desolate earth life. Though I fumbled at first, my prayers ascended, but gained in assurance, as I became more bold. I rearranged my lengthy list to carry out my plans for leaving earth more quickly, thinking thus to justify myself before His throne. I do not know how long I spent while pouring out this steady stream.

I slept some, took a bit of broth at times — they did not urge me to eat as in the past. Then I started again to cover the list, finding more faults in family and friends. Each time I felt they had been more deliberate in their desire to hurt me. I did not reason anymore, just let the urge to tell God about my hurts absorb me. I kept to my vow of silence, even when they whispered about my meanness. Hearing one call me a “self-tortured and self-indulged, utterly selfish invalid” caused me no further pain.

I lost count of days; hours meant nothing while this peculiar process held me in its grasp. When I had turned my face toward the wall, I had made them close out the light. I fully expected to loose the bonds of earth entirely, and had not opened my eyes on the world during these passing days. One thing I was conscious of, however. Finally, I had listed all my complaints. I seemed to have no more. As I had prayed, I grew bodiless, all feeling left me — the end seemed overdue.

Then one morning I wakened fully from my semiconscious state to hear the song of many birds. Instantly I thought of being in some heavenly place already, glad to know that I could hear despite my preparation for oblivion. I listened, wondering that I was surprised and so relieved to know that heaven was alive.

I was more surprised than with the birdsong when I felt a surge of life move upward through my deadened limbs, knowing that this must be heaven. So I waited in a breathless silence for what must come next, only to feel another surge of life through my whole body.

I opened my eyes, amazed that my body felt so light, then decided to continue in my prayers. I sought the first complaint upon my list but could not find it. Shock sent me searching wildly through my heart and mind. In vain I sought my weighty sorrow, for my revenge idea to cause my family grief.

My heart suddenly felt free, and old hurts and wounds seemed gone. The only term that I could find anywhere was “self-pity!” Within my heart I stood apart and looked upon the room where I had banked my fire with useless ashes until no warmth remained. As I gazed on these old, cold dead ashes, they seemed to form other words. As they spelled the phrase “old worn-out emotions,” I saw a tiny flame shoot up, flicker for a moment, then spring upward to burn with a steady heat. Its tip formed another word, “hope.” It seemed to beckon as I watched, telling me it was the newborn Phoenix rising from the cold ashes.

I had asked for freedom from my body and earth. Instead God had given me freedom from the self until my mind, my heart, my body felt made over, all renewed. Instead He had removed the blinders of self-pity from my eyes. God had answered all my prayers in reverse, since I could clearly see where the faults had been. I might never understand how this had been done when I was enumerating all my grievances and pouring out my life’s dissatisfactions. Yet I knew that my heart would be grateful now and forever that it was so. The answer I had intended came in a different way, but the life now upsurging through me was enough cause for rejoicing.

Then, waiting in my still darkened room, eyes closed, another miracle, almost too sacred to tell, came to me. My life passed before my eyes in review all soundlessly, an unsought silent pageant. From earliest years, my family passed, then added friends. All paced slowly by in mind’s review. There it was, old scenes acted out from my life’s long path. As they passed, I watched myself reach for invisible substance to grasp in my hands. I molded this quite busily, sometimes scarcely finishing one form completely before I must reach forth to grasp more substance for the next one.

Repeatedly, I saw baskets of the light-substance being brought to me. Every time I lifted some, I fashioned it within my hands in black — some small, some large, some misshapen for lack of time. Yet I placed all these darkened forms on a string I wore around my neck. I fashioned beads of black that should have been pure white. My self-made grief and sorrows had darkened them. No voice spoke, but I knew the answer. I had discolored the God-given radiant life-substance on each outgoing breath. Selfishly, I had allowed hurts and grievances, willfulness and self-pity to occupy my waking hours until they became mountains beyond which I could not see.

I saw that friends, of whom I had found many through the years but lost through my own resentfulness, had never sought to hurt me. I saw that loved features, precious words softly spoken were more frequent than those I had imagined and hugged to my own undoing. My family was right. For a space this seemed a hard lesson to learn. I was grateful that I could work it out alone in this new found golden silence granted unto me by an understanding God.

I made one vow, to see truly at last. As I traveled through the past in mind, I saw self clearly. Justice showing me that in my selfishness and greed, my demands for love had been my martyrdom, imposed by self alone. The string of blackened beads I had made was long and heavy, a sorry load to carry alone for years, bewailing fate. I had been unwilling to discard them, or by prayer to change them again to brightness. Hating, blaming everyone I had ever found to love, I had spent my whole life fashioning a strand of black pearls.

I lay so still they might have thought me gone from my body if any had examined me, quiet this time with a definite purpose. When I sought the world again, I should understand this great discovery of the tiny self and list it for repentance. My prayers would be of a different character than those that had brought me such self-revelations. I knew now that prayer was the key but knew not yet the door it might open. In my hands I held the gatherings and the creations of my lifetime and, as I looked, I liked them not. Such deep blackness was offensive to my gaze.

My heart could no longer find solace in blaming others for my plight. My mind could no longer build high defenses to hide behind while arrogance and consuming pride held sway. I looked unsightly to myself, although the cause was forever wiped away. The choice was mine alone, but what should I do now that I had chosen? Where should I look for help? How should I act now that I felt humble and so deeply in the wrong?

I knew no one who could be my guide in this. I dare not ask help from those whom my self-pity had driven from my life. How does one start to retrieve the misused years, when the hourglass of time shows an almost empty bowl? How can one then atone, even knowing what must be done? As if in answer to my unvoiced cry for aid, a light burst within my room, as if caused by a mighty flash. It penetrated through my closed eyelids to open them. All the gloom seemed gone, though heavy drapes still covered the windows. I did not seem surprised at this — within my heart was no fear.

Almost at once an oft-told story of my youth flashed across my memory. Doubts had nearly washed away its memory. I recalled the tale of the oyster’s plight when a grain of sand enters its opened shell to embed itself within the oyster’s heart, remaining when the doors again are closed. The oyster wastes no time in vain regret, but straightway uses all its power of life to fold around that grain of sand a fine encasement to render it harmless. This work goes on for many years within the shell upon the ocean’s bed. One appointed day, a diver out searching for his living lifts up that unimportant shell and inside its opened portals finds a lustrous pearl created from one tiny grain of sand.

So, through the oyster’s wound and pain, borne in fortitude, a pearl is formed, a treasure sought by the whole world. From this moment I decided — this time following the Light — that I would adopt the oyster’s ways, if I were foolish enough to waste my time again with any hurts or wounds. I would let the story of the pearl become my guide while I refashioned my life anew. I would henceforth live to make a full amends for all my guilt. Someday I could win my loved ones back, for this strength, coming from behind that veil I had so nearly brushed aside, was equal to any task of love.

I know that my family was shocked when I requested light and food. I needed all my new-found peace to carry me until I could turn my lagging feet to life again. My adventure was not easy but my questing mind, my seeking heart, no longer wishing to avoid responsibility and sacrifice, made life’s contacts easier. Doubtful looks and words were distressing lessons in which I sought daily to reach the stature of soul maturity.

My heart sends me now into those paths by which I may find new fields where love may serve. My string of self-made pearls, once binding me to earth, has now become my sweetest treasure, garnered from the sea of life, a symbol dear and just. Well do I know its value because the richest find for the seeker of pearls is not the one of palest beauty found within the oyster’s shell but the one of deepest lustrous black. My hands reach forth, not in selfishness as before, but to grasp in triumph the substance to form pearls of life’s varied experiences. In my joy, I find no cause for hurts or wounds to nest within my heart.

Even as they plant new beds of oysters and wait to gain the reaping, so must I plant my fields of life in selflessness and love, gladly awaiting harvest time. My string of pearls so black grows lighter as I coat it anew with filaments drawn from my own love-substance. A love coating must absorb all darkness of resentment and hate, leaving but itself to shine. Unlike the oyster-made shell, love-filaments need no ages of suffering to form their lustrous coverings, but begin to shine at once. Soon the old beads of pain that I had strung will match the new and glistening pearls formed of sacrifices of self.

I have not needed words to explain to my family and my friends. They call me a Miracle! They all responded to my first weak smile. I have learned since how love forgives, even before I could convince them of my changed heart’s desire to make an amends. The love I coveted and demanded is now freely mine. The hours are not long enough for my belated smiles and laughter, which I had denied myself.

I have reformed the cross I had fashioned from self-pity and the nails I had forged from grief into a ladder that I shall forever use to climb into the Light. Hope’s fires warm my soul's desire to steadfastly walk in the ways of service. Prayer constantly renews my courage to meet each day’s task and the strength I need to hold all gains. I vow to hold my heart inviolate, a shrine to love, to walk in radiant Light. I now entertain no weakness of the self that might again cause me to seek illegal release from earth.

Each day I ask only that I may be ready when the Gates of Life swing wide for me. When the time of harvesting comes, and my starry home invites, I ask only that my earthly work may be well done. This is now my Creed. My Crown? Love, loving much and being loved enough, is the only crowning my soul seeks or needs. Once I have well learned the lessons of the true soul’s path of sacrifice, mine shall be the crown of victory over self, and my new name shall be Joy!

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Edna Miriam Lister
1884 – 1971
The original Christian Pioneering Mystic,
Platonist philosopher, American Idealist, Founder, Society of the Universal Living Christ, minister, teacher, author, wife, and mother.

Edna Lister

Edna Lister created this guide to conquering self-pity in 1954. Second edition 2016.