This Artist Forged Ahead to Find Forgiveness

Catherine Partain Shamblin felt like trash, until a mysterious voice helped transform trash into treasure.

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Posted in , Mar 31, 2016

Artist: Catherine Partain Shamblin

A version of this story appeared in the April/May 2016 edition of Mysterious Ways.

A presence woke Catherine Partain Shamblin in the middle of the night and delivered a cryptic command: I want you to make me a cross. Use whatever you can find. Before she could ask why or how or who or what, the presence vanished. “I was in my mid-forties and my life was a mess,” Catherine says. “How was making a cross going to help?”

Catherine was recently divorced and barely making rent on a small townhouse in Birmingham, Alabama. She and her three teenagers had lived in five different places in the previous two years. She’d once had a good job as a commercial artist and sold funky jewelry she’d made, but she’d given up anything her ex-husband had called a waste of time. Now the only work she could find was as a waitress at a diner.

Catherine’s marriage had been failing for years by the time she met a musician named Mark. To him, she was able to open up about the neglect and negativity that had undermined her marriage. They went from e-mailing a few times a week to talking every day.

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“Things never got physical. But if I’m being honest, I’d fallen in love with him,” Catherine says.

Evidence of Catherine’s emotional affair was all the ammunition her husband needed in the divorce. Catherine got the children and some furniture, he took everything else. Catherine cut off contact with Mark. She had to make penance for her mistakes. “I had to try to make a good life for my kids,” she says. “I had no idea what kind of life to make for myself.”

The strange presence in the night quickly took over Catherine’s thoughts. Why a cross? She’d only recently returned to church, encouraged by one of her regulars at the diner. “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for you,” he’d said, and given her a devotional book. She’d read it cover to cover and prayed every day for God’s forgiveness.

Use whatever you find. It was her day off. She looked in her garage. There in the corner was an old coffee table of her great-great-grandfather’s, hopelessly water damaged. Damaged like her. She had no tools except for a hammer, so she used a serrated kitchen knife to saw off each leg, then nailed them together in the shape of a cross. She broke apart a rusted metal tray and glued pieces to the wood for decoration. She stood back and gazed at the four-and-a-half-foot cross she’d fashioned. It was jagged. Rough. “To my eyes it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever made,” she says.

The next few weeks, Catherine saw crosses everywhere. Her kids noticed her odd new habit of crossing her fork and knife the moment she finished dinner. What was going on?

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One person might understand. Catherine got back in touch with Mark. “I had no intention of pursuing a romantic relationship,” she says. “But I did sense a strong call to make things right in my life. That included things with Mark.”

He’d been having health problems. He didn’t want to talk about that; he wanted to know about her art. She described the crosses. He wanted to make one with her. “We were both broken,” she says. “We both needed God. Maybe we could help heal each other.”

Mark and Catherine went for a walk through a rundown neighborhood and stumbled upon the charred remains of a house. Catherine couldn’t take her eyes off the ruin, the blackened timbers and twisted rebar. “I thought, That’s me,” Catherine says. “Scrap. Trash. That was how I felt.”

A voice sounded in her head. The same voice she’d heard before. You are not trash, it said. Yes, you are scrap. But you are redeemed. Trust me and I will show you.

Catherine picked through the ashes. Mark joined her. Laden with scrap, they made their way back to Catherine’s garage. On his next visit Mark brought a portable welding machine. That day they forged 20 crosses out of metal shards and old railway spikes. Each cross was different, transformed into something blessed and beautiful despite its flaws. Maybe because of its flaws.

A few weeks later, Mark died of a heart attack. “I continued making crosses. I didn’t know what else to do,” Catherine says.

Each cross lifted her from sadness, and renewed a piece of her soul. Eight years later, Catherine has built a career—and a new life—creating crosses, many for customers who come to her with their own struggles. The crosses help both maker and recipient to heal.

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Recently, Catherine stood in a two-centuries-old church in North Carolina to tell her story, every last detail. She told of her divorce, her relationship with Mark. She told of the voice that spoke to her heart at her lowest moment, commanding her to make a cross.

Behind her, hanging over the altar, was one of those crosses. The church had commissioned it. The cross was massive, fashioned out of a part from an old seed-conveyor belt so large that scrap-yard workers had needed a forklift to move it. “The church had asked me for a cross symbolizing renewal, God’s grace sprouting from a tiny seed,” Catherine says. “I knew exactly what they meant.”

Enter to win one of Catherine’s crosses—and see her dazzling portfolio—at guideposts.org/crosses

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