Conflict is something that I prefer to avoid. There have been times when I have said what I needed to say, and, though I have made people angry at least two times in my adult life (likely many times more, but I will never know), I have felt better for releasing the bottled angst which had stirred within. It is foreboding to express the unspoken, but the unleashing of swirling, resurfacing thoughts must certainly be a necessary step on this journey. And with that premise, I step off.
I miss the saints and angels of my Catholic childhood. The breathtaking beauty of the statues and stained glass captured my attention long after the words to the sermon began to fade on a given Sunday. Try as I did, and still into my adulthood, I find it hard, week after week, to “get the message.” I have gotten messages, plenty of messages. But did I get “the message?” Just as a song has new meaning to each to each discriminating ear, “the message” has been handed down for interpretation. God is, for me, all around.
There is comfort in the familiar. During my semester abroad, somewhere on the outside edge of childhood, just about to make my first footprints as an adult, I found strength and solace in my longstanding Sunday ritual. Whether in Vienna, London, or Aix-en-Provence, I was able to breathe in the beauty before me, and to feel how richly I was blessed.
My family moved to the Chicago area from St. Louis when I was six. The burning question remains a vivid memory: it was our choice, and we were in charge of our destiny. “Do you want to go to the school where you wear uniforms and get out at 2:30pm; or do you want to go where you wear whatever you want but have to go to Sunday school?” I am still not really sure if my mother had been hoping for one response over the other, but we chose, resoundingly, the Catholic school. My first grammar lesson in Mrs. Donahoe’s reading group left me flailing with confusion and uncertainty. In perfect Palmer penmanship, she wrote “o-n” at the top of the chalkboard. “Ahn,” she read. Wait, doesn’t that say “awn?” Do they have some sort of accent here in Illinois, because that is not how we read “on” in St. Louis? I told my mother that I wanted to go back to America where I belonged.
I’ve never been much for history. The memories that I have carried away from my high school class, “America Since 1945” do not involve the Bay of Pigs or the resignation of President Nixon. I do remember Mr. Nagis’ characteristic snip-knit ties, and the film where John F. Kennedy proclaimed, “that’s good chowder, Bobby.” In the same spirit, then, I find it infinitely challenging to read, with any depth of understanding, from the Bible. I do remember, though, when I saw the face of Mary on my bathroom wall.
I must have been giving one of the babies a bath. I was a young mother. Perhaps it was how the sunlight shone through the curtain and reflected onto the wall. But it hadn’t been there before, and I haven’t seen it since, nor do I remember many details from the vision.
There must be something about the bathroom. On a barren winter day more than nine years ago, I was at home alone with my then ten-year-old son, Sam. Just three days earlier, Sam had surgery to remove the culprit that had been wreaking havoc in his body during most of his fourth grade year. My standout pitcher had what was surely a block-long length of hospital gauze wrapped around his precious head. It was up to me, his mom, to clean the wound at the first bath. As the water ran and the bubbles multiplied, I pulled apart the bandage, ever so gingerly, with shaking, unprepared hands. As the last edge fell away, something transcendent was revealed to me. Sam has a seven inch scar framing his head, nearly headband-style, that is these days just evident after a fresh buzz cut. It’s the only lasting evidence of what was a parent’s deepest darkness: the discovery of a little son’s brain tumor. On that cold January day in 2005, I saw God through Sam. There was the crown of thorns perched atop his head, stitches protruding and blood crusted through what was left of his hair. Sam was carrying my burdens, and through that great trial I have been led to forever believe that much abides, and it will be manifest at the most unlikely opportunity.
As a teenager, I was part of the “Sacred Heart Club.” This was a small group of girls that assisted at the convent (yes, Sacred Heart) which was adjacent to the high school. We busied ourselves doing such things as washing the marble steps and wheeling the aging nuns around the chapel. I had a special little nun, Sr. Raphael, who would fret each afternoon as I handed her a chocolate. She let me know that she had everything that she needed, though I am not sure that I understood what she meant at the time. Regardless, though, I saw the work of God in her holy face.
I have been a restless girl. For me, spirituality continues to be a journey. As the hand of God may guide and the spirit may deliver, I know there is something bigger, something extraordinary, and something ever-so-personal, which fills our souls and brings us the gilded moments of fanfare in the simple calm of the garden path, and the moments of stolen solitude amid the chaos of every given day.