John the Baptist

The memories are sketchy. I was maybe seven years old and the teachers had arranged an Easter egg hunt for the class. We filed down the stairs to the yard in the back of the school, lined up against a wall that was bleeding paint chips. The structural integrity of the school left a lot to be desired. It was decades removed from any kind of worthwhile maintenance. The yards however, they were quite lovely from what I remember. We were told it was because the yard was tended to by local parishioners of the church that bordered us, not that we really cared.

All that mattered were the monkey bars, the swings and the see saw which sat in a lonely corner of the yard, away from the plush gardens; almost as if an afterthought in spite of the utility of recess.

The only part of the hunt I remember was finding an Easter egg tucked at the base of a tree. I pretended I didn’t see it, in spite of the bright infusion it threw inside the pale dirt. I was waiting for Patty, who in spite of my best judgment, had become my school girlfriend. Truth be told, outside of the thunder claps of blonde hair that sprouted from her pigtails, we shared no kismet. She thought me a ‘bad boy’ for cursing all the time, and I found it repugnant that she couldn’t do a better job of wiping her nose. Yet somehow, we had forged a strange alliance. We looked out for each other, as if we knew there were struggles we had endured far beyond the walls of a school.

So when I found that Easter egg nestled inside the veins of a big old tree, I waited for her. She hadn’t found an egg to that point, and I felt badly for my gal pal. I remember just standing guard, waiting for her to arrive when a teacher came up to me, bent down and picked up the egg and said something to the effect of,

“Oh for God’s sakes! It’s right here!”

I don’t remember the teacher, but I do remember hating her for killing my moment. And I remember carrying that hate with me for the rest of the day. The world was full of adults who wanted to steal your dreams before they got started.

After school, I was ushered back to the yard with the other kids whose parents schedules conflicted with the end of the school day. For the span of an hour or more, we would entertain ourselves with war games and marbles and school gossip.

Me? I usually just wanted to run, until I got to anywhere else. This entailed scaling a tall, chain link fence that surrounded the yard. After which one of the Baptist kids who volunteered to watch us would have to give chase. My legs were filled with rocket fuel on this particular day, and if memory serves me right, I made it a couple city blocks before being caught.

The kid’s name was John. A tall and lanky, clean cut high school student who never lost his cool. No matter how hard I tried. He must’ve chased me down dozens of times, and never once did he utter a bad word or flash me a disjointed look. He would simply walk me back to the school yard, every single time.

There we were, sitting in exhausted heaps on the cool concrete sidewalk, not saying a word to each other; simply trying to get back to even before returning to the yard. I was a kid who hated adults and Jesus and anything that ever tried to tell me the what’s what, but try as I might? I couldn’t hate John. We walked back to the school in silence as I tried to find a reason to believe in the world.

It was years before I realized I’d already found one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ashes To Ashes

FRANCE-FIRE-NOTRE DAME

Robert Louis Stevenson once said that mankind is never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.

And so it was that in 1163, more than a hundred and fifty years before the world would come into full bloom with the dawn of the Renaissance, hope was risen with the first bricks of a timeless symbol that would come to define a city, a nation and the world it would grow up inside of.

The name possessed a gravitas and evoked reverence the world over. It was a symbol which transcended religion. The underpinnings of this wondrous creation of man was a muse to pilgrims and painters and poets and the dreams they had in common.

Deep within the womb of this timeless place, history was birthed countless times. Henry VI was made King of France here, and later, Napoleon was named Emperor inside its confines. And in the early 20th century, Joan of Arc was beatified inside the cathedral by Pope Pius X.

Our Lady of Paris survived the French Revolution as well as two World Wars. And when its health was failing in the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo’s book “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” helped usher in a revitalization effort. The medieval spire, which had been removed a century earlier, was rebuilt.

The significance of that spire is testimony to the efforts of a group of people who ventured back inside as the fire was laying waste to the roof of the cathedral. A group of public servants and firemen formed a human chain and retrieved several priceless artifacts, including the Crown of Thorns- believed to have been worn by Jesus on the cross- and the Blessed Sacrament. The roof, constructed from 5,000 oak trees by more than a thousand men, could not be saved.

It was sometime around 8 p.m. when the spire was taken from the world in a heap of ash. A symbol of hope and faith, stolen away by the flames forever. And as the sun set on the city, our Lady of Paris said goodbye to the world.

And Jesus wept.

A lesson in the true meaning of Christmas

I parked the car in the rutted grass whose green had bled dry and colorless to the roughly hewn tracks of an Amish plow, leaving dirt and gravel in its place. The cold temperatures made this patch of earth on the side of a tobacco barn appear stillborn to the fates.

The air smelled of burnt pine and it was delivered in hearty bursts of an icy wind full of proverbs, whose lessons proved elusive in its whistling rush to death. I moved from the car with my Christmas gift basket and walked the stone path to Mary’s front door. She had been a neighbor of mine for years before I moved away, and I still paid a visit to her every now and then.

The two story brick farmhouse was dark and empty looking. I guessed the old building to be a century old, give or take. The intrusion of all those years had been mostly kind to it, excepting in this instance when it took on a haunting snow-globe feeling. Maybe it was the years talking back to me, I don’t know.

I knocked on the door but there was no answer. I gave it one more try as I examined the spartan qualities of her front porch. From the looks of it, the floorboards had received a fresh coat of gray paint fairly recently. A porch swing dressed in white crackled paint held court to the right hand side of the porch with a rusted milk can placed beside it. To the left side of the porch sat a couple of old wicker chairs whose age was told by the splintery explosions that were breaking out across them.

Sunday is ‘visiting day’ for the Amish. After church services, they drop in on neighbors and family. I didn’t expect that Mary would be returning any time soon so I lay the Christmas basket at the front door.

I moved back into my car and I thought about the conversation I’d had with Mary many years ago. It had come after the Nickel Mines shooting in which ten Amish girls were shot inside a one room schoolhouse on a fall day in 2006. Five of those girls died-Naomi, Marian, Anna, Lena, Mary. They ranged in age from seven to thirteen years old, and I cry every time I think about those little girls being taken from the world before they ever got a chance to live their lives.

Mary gave me an early Christmas present inside that horrible month, and it came in the form of a lesson on forgiveness. There I was, railing on about the animal who had destroyed the lives of so many when Mary politely intruded on my runaway thoughts.

“We forgive him,” She said simply.

“How do you forgive?” I asked.

“Because it’s what God asks of me,” She replied. The tone in her voice let me know that she was having a hard time talking herself into it. But she was really doing it, she was forgiving this monster in spite of her inner turmoil. I didn’t press her on it, even though I had plenty of questions where that one came from.

“Every person has a soul. Everyone will stand in front of God one day and they will be judged by Him. It isn’t our place to judge another living soul.”

Eleven years later, I am still humbled by that conversation. It still makes me tremble and ponder and it still makes me cry. But more than any of that, it does provide a light to follow, a reason to believe. I derive comfort from her strength. It makes me think that maybe there is something beyond all of this. Maybe the world is like that dark two story brick farm house, seemingly devoid of life but full of the restorative powers of love and faith when you look closer.

They razed the one room schoolhouse where those girls were taken from the world. It’s now a quiet pasture whose sacred whispers have become a lesson. The New Hope School was built close by and it is a living testament to the very best of the human spirit, an answer to the darkest of days.

I don’t think I will ever possess the quiet resolve of Mary and her Amish neighbors. But I’ve come to learn that you can find virtue in the trying, you can find answers in the dark, you can find reason inside the meanest of seasons.

Merry Christmas.