A Lovely Young Woman

Green leaf on blue water

'Up the mountain'—the pool at the spring near the Upper Shrine*

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Digesting a Difficult Book

Beautiful redhead with freckles

Fanny at almost-13

Fanny, who will be 13 in August, is about to leave for Daylight, the almost-inaccessible mountaintop home of the Ancients, with her mentor, Sister Alma Rose, and Henry, the man she knows she will someday marry. Fanny has learned only recently that she is a reincarnation from the Ancients. She will live with them until she feels that she is ready to serve among the “Lowlanders,” doing the healing and peacemaking work that will become her mission.

coffeecup wingding

I am packed to go “up the mountain” — indefinitely, although Mama and Daddy will be allowed to visit because they’re “special,” and I can come home as often as I want, maybe via magic carpet, I’m not really sure. Sister Alma Rose and Henry will be taking me. Henry will stay as long as I do; Sister Alma Rose is keeping mum about her plans.

Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

While we are waiting to leave, Sister Alma Rose has assigned me to read The Metaphysics of Mysticism, A Commentary on the Mystical Philosophy of St. John of the Cross, by Geoffrey K. Mondello, a book of which “the goal… is unabashedly epistemological.” Whew! What if it had been gastronomical? Would I have been forced to eat the book? Would it have eaten me? And tidied up afterward?

It is heavy going; the author uses a lot of words such as solipsistic. And only occasionally can I infer the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context, because the context is full of words such as refractory (not to be confused with refectory, which is where St. John and his fellow Carmelites went to eat dinner).

And so I slog along, reading indoors at the computer so that I can easily look up words every three or four sentences, until it is just irresistibly gorgeous outside, when I lug the unabridged dictionary out to the garden or go read on Sister Alma Rose’s porch. Sometimes I think she forgets I’m only 12.

Detail from Riding a Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Detail from Riding a Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Visiting Cousin George

Mama was an only child and so was her cousin George. (Everyone I know just calls him “George,” even my little brothers.) George and his parents— Mama’s mother’s brother and his wife (“Big George” and Jake, I don’t know her real name) farmed outside of Hilltop when Mama and George were kids, so they were like siblings.

Now George lives in Chicago, but he is hardly ever there because he makes huge amounts of money as a freelance photographer who specializes in going with linguistic anthropologists to remote places like Papua New Guinea (where more than 850 indigenous languages are spoken!) and the Amazon rainforest. So when he is in the U.S., which is hardly ever, he comes to see Mama or she goes to Chicago, and since he was at home last week, and I was going to be leaving soon, Mama, Henry, and I all flew to Chicago. Henry bought our tickets, and I still don’t know where he gets all his money, even though his parents are rich, but they don’t know where he is, and I don’t understand that either. I’m sure he’ll tell me when he’s ready to tell me (this is the new, patient, serene Me talking). 

 
 
 

The Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

The Amazon rainforest, Brazil

We didn’t tell George that I am going to Daylight, although if you could tell anyone and not be scoffed at, it would be George. We also didn’t exactly explain about Henry, but George takes everything in stride. His wife, Annette, used to go with him on long assignments, but she and their baby (Annette was five months’ pregnant) died on Borneo, not from some exotic jungle disease or snakebite or anything. She was standing at the edge of a four-foot embankment near a dry streambed when an insect flew into her eye, and she lost her footing and belly-flopped onto the hard ground, and she died of “multiple internal injuries” in a helicopter on the way to the hospital.

Being the observer

This tragedy happened while Mama was carrying me, so the baby, who was a girl, would be about my age. I used to wonder if I might be an unwelcome reminder of George’s unborn child— he always seemed to be scrutinizing me— but Sister Alma Rose has taught me to not be self-conscious but to observe rather than “feeling observed,” and when I started observing George I realized that he scrutinizes everybody, because he is actually interested. George is a person who lives in the moment. As Sister Alma Rose says, George remembers “where he is” (here) and “what time it is” (now). He’s kind and sensitive but not at all sentimental. He probably doesn’t know it, but he practices “mindfulness.”

Sexy blonde with cigarette, leather outfit, and fur stole

Daddy thinks Carla's a spy

George’s girlfriend, Carla, swears like a sailor and is physically the kind of woman who could have been called a “blond bombshell” in an earlier era. Carla might be a little on the flashy side for high society, and you might assume that she was no rocket scientist, but you’d be wrong because that’s exactly what she is, an aerospace engineer who was an associate professor at some university with initials like M.I.T. but not M.I.T., but now she’s a handsomely paid consultant with ultra-ultra security clearance, and she loves to talk but she doesn’t talk about her work. Carla lives in George’s apartment when he’s away and when he’s home. Daddy doesn’t approve, not that anybody asked him.

George is a self-professed Christian who says he has seen God’s grace “up close and personal” too many times to doubt its reality. It was grace, he says, that brought him and Carla together and that keeps their relationship strong though they both travel a lot and sometimes Carla can’t tell even George where she’s going.

Sultry beautiful blond woman

...Dagmar WAS a spy...

Daddy thinks Carla’s a spy. That’s because a long time ago, just before Mama and Daddy got married, there was a woman called Dagmar who was another “blond bombshell,” and she worked at the Diner and chewed gum and had this Bronx accent, and Daddy told Mama, “She’s a spy,” and Mama said, “What would a spy be doing in Hilltop?” and Daddy said, “Keeping a low profile,” and Mama laughed because Dagmar would have stood out anywhere, but it turned out that Daddy was right and Dagmar was a spy for the Russians or the Chinese or something. Daddy said she was less like a waitress than like somebody playing a waitress on television, and the gum-chewing and Bronx accent were “overkill.”

Loving is the main thing

Coffee in a light-blue mug

...a wonderful time drinking coffee...

Our day in Chicago ended too soon. We all had a wonderful time drinking coffee and eating George’s “culinary specialty,” fruit salad made with cream cheese and marshmallow cream and it is just to die for, if everyone had left the room I would have been compelled to eat it all.

As Sister Alma Rose has told me over and over until it finally sunk in, you cannot be loving when you are being an “observee” instead of an observer.  And loving is the main thing. So I got over myself; I relaxed and observed instead of being self-conscious and feeling as if all eyes were on me. It was fabulous, wonderful, liberating… liberating most of all. And when we left, George told Mama he thought I had “grown into a lovely young woman.” I didn’t need George’s approval any more, but it felt good. Validating. “The truth shall make you free.” **

 * Green leaf on blue water, vnwallpapers.com
** John 8:32

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Daylight

Two Girls with Their Shelties - Victorian Images

Victorian art showing two little girls with their best friends

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The Sacrament of Being a Good Friend to Your Friends

So, Henry has been to see me. Henry from the past, Henry from the Ancients, Henry from Richmond, Henry the Hiker, Henry Morgan McKenzie, Jr., who vanished ten years ago. And being with Henry is the biggest and best thing in my life, and I can’t talk about it.

Girl with art project

Marianna in fourth grade

Oh, I can talk to Mama and Daddy, and Sister Alma Rose, but then I have to go to school and act like I’m interested that Kevin Olander has been walking Marianna Dempsey home after cheerleading. Well, that’s actually not a very good example of trivial junior-high gossip, because I AM sort of interested, because Kevin Olander is very cute and very shy, and Marianna is a real sweetheart and we were inseparable in fourth grade, when we had the same teacher, and she is that rare specimen of junior-high girl who is truly kind and neither knows nor cares what people, in general, think of her.

Sister Alma Rose gives me assignments, and the one I’m working on right now is what she calls the Sacrament of Being a Good Friend to Your Friends. “It takes a little bit of effort to keep up y’all’s friendships with youngsters* y’all don’t run into regularly,” she said, “not counting Pablo, who’s always around. But keep a-hold of those who love and don’t compete with y’all, and the other way ’round, by which I mean y’all want them to be happy and don’t begrudge them their successes. Those friendships are rare, and they’re sacred.”

Sometimes it’s just a real treat to listen to Sister Alma Rose talk.

Peter the Creep

Marianna is the friend I cherish most when I’m feeling… I don’t know the right word— not “excluded,” because I’m the one who’s avoiding people— “separate,” maybe, like I’m 12 going on 57, when I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about spiritual stuff, and meditating especially intensely, and none of this is of interest to my other school friends, not even Pablo.

Marianna is a Christian Scientist and totally into spirituality. She sees everyone as a perfect child of a perfect God who does not create imperfection. But she doesn’t take herself too seriously. I mean, she takes Christian Science seriously, because she’s seen and experienced all these amazing healings, but she says, very dryly, “Fanny, you might find this hard to believe, but I don’t always manifest perfect love.”

A typical American fire escape; SoHo, Manhattan

A typical American fire escape; SoHo, Manhattan

Then she giggles. “I really have to work at seeing Peter Gaines as a perfect child of God.” She doesn’t say “Peter the Creep,” which everyone calls him because he’s just creepy. Whenever there’s a fire drill, he makes sure he’s one of the first kids out so he can stand under the iron-bar steps that are the fire escapes and look up girls’ skirts until one of the teachers makes him go stand across the street in the practice field, which is where we’re supposed to go. And he’s been seen a bunch of times standing outside girls’ houses at night, being a peeping Tom with these high-dollar binoculars he has, including Marianna’s house.

The rest of the time he’s just there, not talking to anyone, sort of shuffling to his classes, and, in each of them, effortlessly committing every spoken and written word to memory and always getting straight A’s. Marianna tried to talk to him once, asking him a question about the subjunctive mood or something, which they were studying in their English class, and he just stared at  her with distaste, “like I was a particularly loathsome beetle,” she said.

Something so heinous

Sunny Victorian parlor

She and I talked to Sister Alma Rose about him one day when we went to her house after school seeking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incredible limeade.

“How can someone that intelligent be that clueless?” I asked.

“There has to be a reason for a boy to be so warped at such a young age,” she said, “but this is how sex offenders start out. They don’t just change from healthy into sick human beings when they’re 30.”

Sister Alma Rose made us pray for him — I mean, we wanted to, and we did, silently, for quite a while. It was hard at first, because he was, after all, Peter the Creep, and I couldn’t get past that until I thought of him as a newborn, a gurgling infant, a toddler, taking those first, unsteady steps, all bright eyes and wondering at the big, wide world, and reminded myself that his true self was still that fresh and innocent.

I was sure that Sister Alma Rose would go and talk to his parents, and, of course, she did, and they are just regular nice people— they own the sheet-music and musical-instrument store in Hillside— and they were “concerned” about both Peter and his older sister, Alice, who, it turns out, was bulimic, though her parents didn’t know that until after. I can only imagine what family dinners were like at their house. But Peter and Alice were getting good grades and their parents convinced themselves that the kids were just “going through a phase.”

WAKE UP, MOMS AND DADS! Your 12-year-old son has no friends and has no interests and he is a zombie most of the time. Your teenage daughter is five-foot-five and weighs 87 pounds. IS ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION HERE?

Well, after a lot of gentle but persistent pressure on Sister Alma Rose’s part, a lot of patient conversations with Peter and Alice, and a lot of just plain snooping, Sister Alma Rose uncovered something so heinous I don’t even know how to put it into words… so disturbing that she would tell Marianna and me about it only with our parents’ permission and with our parents actually with us, gathered in our cheerful, sunny living room.

Okay, here goes

Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France. Photo: Massimiliano Mariani

Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France. Photo: Massimiliano Mariani

Peter and Alice have an aunt and uncle — their mom’s brother and his wife — who are called Hector and Carol Mote and who owned the music store in La Mesa. When the music store in Hilltop came available, the Motes urged the Gaineses to buy it and move from Chicago to Hilltop— which, they assured Mr. and Mrs. Gaines, was such a picturesque small town… so wholesome, so much safer than Chicago.

The Motes’ store was much bigger and busier than the Gaineses’ in Hilltop, because of there being a music college in La Mesa, so the Motes “hired” Peter and Alice, and paid them well, to “help in the stock room” on Saturdays, starting when Peter was 9 and Alice was 10.

But they didn’t work in the stock room. They “worked” in the plush master bedroom of the Motes’ house behind the store, where they not only were sexually abused(1) by the Motes but also were forced to do things with each other, which kindly Uncle Hector recorded on video,(2) and he sold the videos to people all over the world, which made it an FBI matter (also a matter for the U.S. Customs Service and possibly Interpol!) when Sister Alma Rose blew the whistle.

Pretty little red-haired girl with freckles

Me, Fanny

“How could they force them?” Marianna asked, and her voice sounded so strange that my eyes, which had been glued to Sister Alma Rose, slid over to Marianna, looking like a wounded bird between her mom and dad, and her mom had her arm around Marianna’s shoulders and was stroking her hair, and her dad looked dangerous, like an angry wolf might look protecting its cub. Or do wolves have pups? Anyway, Marianna was holding tight to her dad’s hand and very quietly sobbing her heart out.

“With threats,” Sister Alma Rose said gently, “to tell the children’s folks all sorts of lies— that they had caught the children together in bed, or that Alice had seduced her uncle— that kind of thing. And y’all need to understand that the abuse had been going on, during family visits, since before Peter and Alice were even in kindergarten.”

I made it to the bathroom just in time to lose the lunch I was wishing I hadn’t eaten. When I was done retching, Mama cleaned my sweaty face with a warm washcloth and got the mouthwash out of the cabinet. She looked a question at me, and I said, “No, I want to hear the rest.” I rinsed the bad taste out of my mouth as well as I could and went into the living room and sat down on the love seat next to Mama. Daddy, on the other side of me in “Only His” Chair, gave my shoulders a squeeze and handed me a peppermint. What a dad!

Then Marianna and I both started laughing. It wasn’t hysteria, it was our mutual realization— through some kind of cosmic connection, I guess, but it was as clear as a fingersnap— that we’d both been expelling toxins, Marianna washing them away with tears and I upchucking them out. Sorry, but that’s what it was.

Why friendships are sacred

Okay, so now, as I write this, the Motes are in prison, “but folks like them ain’t safe in or out of the penitentiary,” Sister Alma Rose said. She rarely says ain’t any more unless she’s “in a state,” and I was pretty sure she wasn’t losing any sleep over whatever peril the Motes might be facing.

Lexington, Kentucky, is "horse country." Photo: Wes Blevins

Lexington, Kentucky, is "horse country." Photo: Wes Blevins

Peter and Alice were long gone, even before our family conclave. Mama told me that the Gaineses’ house had been sold, as had both of the music stores, and Mr. and Mrs. Gaines were moving to Lexington, Kentucky, where Mr. Gaines’s parents and brothers lived with their families.

“But where are the kids?” I asked, wondering what kind of counseling could erase all those years of abuse and shame and secrecy.

“They’re in the best place they could possibly be,” Mama said with a wistful smile, “the most beautiful place in the world, a place where you take in healing and kindness and wholesomeness with every breath. They’re in Daylight.”

I knew where she meant, the place where the Ancients live when they’re not Out in the World, but I’d never heard it given a name (Henry just says, “up the mountain”), and I’d also never heard of anyone going there who wasn’t from the Ancients, and I told Mama that, and she smiled that wistful smile again.

“I was there,” she said simply. “After my father died, and Mama drank herself to death in front of my eyes and I went to pieces, Daddy Pete took me up. You’ll go yourself, of course, probably sooner rather than later, and you’ll never want to leave, but you’ll know you can go up there whenever you need to, and you’ll be full of zeal to come back and help mend the broken world.”

Asparagus: German botanical illustration

Asparagus: German botanical illustration

A week or so after our gathering, Sister Alma Rose gave a little party in honor of Marianna and me. It was just the three of us and Mr. Truman LaFollette, but we devoured baked salmon and tender asparagus spears and Sister Alma Rose’s famous fruit salad that’s like dessert, and warm, dark homemade bread, and then we had dessert, chocolate mousse so rich that the small piece was almost more than I could handle, although I can pretty much always find room for more chocolate.

Then Sister Alma Rose explained how Marianna’s and my friendship had started something that would bless the world for a very long time. I thought that was giving it more than its due, and started to say so, but Sister Alma Rose shushed me.

“The two of y’all was thrown together in fourth grade,” she said, “but you’ve gone out of your way to keep on being friends. Now, if y’all weren’t who you are, y’all would have paid no attention to Peter Gaines. He was easy to ignore, like everybody else did. Marianna, y’all made an effort to see him for what he is, a perfect child of God. Even so, if y’all hadn’t talked about him with each other, and then come to me, Peter Gaines and his sister probably would have fallen through the cracks. The parents are in denial, nobody else notices or cares, and those youngsters grow up and they’re just full of poison.

The Mother Church; the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston

The Mother Church; the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston

“Now, think not only of them and the hell their lives would have been,” she went on, “but think of the people who might have been harmed by them but who won’t be, now, because of y’all. Think of Peter and Alice’s parents, who will recover because their children got help before someone else was hurt. Think of them two in prison, who won’t be brutalizing any more innocents. And think of all the circles of lives around these, like ripples. Poison travels fast and far.”

“But it’s not like we did something hard or made any sacrifices,” Marianna protested.

“Y’all made a choice,” said Sister Alma Rose, taking Marianna’s hand, and, Lord, I hoped she wouldn’t squeeze it and turn those delicate bones into little bitty Chiclets. “Instead of taking the path of least resistance, y’all chose to notice, to pray, and to act. Poison travels fast,” she repeated, “but love travels faster.”

I decided to wait for another time, when we weren’t celebrating, to ask Marianna and Sister Alma Rose if they were able to see the Motes as God’s perfect, innocent children. It’s still hard for me to use the words love and Peter Gaines in the same sentence. But I guess we did what Marianna calls “the loving thing,” and that, it seems, can change more than just our little corner of the world….

*The first time Sister Alma Rose referred to my friends and me as youngsters, I tried to explain that the only adults who use words like youngster are those who have little or no rapport with kids, which is definitely not the case with Sister Alma Rose. She laughed and said we’re lucky she doesn’t call us younglings, which was au courant before the seventeenth century, when youngster came into general use.

(1) Approximately 15% to 25% of women and 5% to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children. Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as ‘friends’ of the family, babysitters, or neighbors…. Wikipedia

(2) Children of all ages, including infants, are abused in the production of pornography internationally. The United States Department of Justice estimates that pornographers have recorded the abuse of more than one million children in the United States alone. —Wikipedia

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Passing Through

Sh-h-h-h: Limeade

Mr. Truman LaFollette's Incomparable Limeade Recipe

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Inhaling God in deep breaths

It was the laziest possible of summer afternoons, and Sister Alma Rose and Father Dooley and I were enjoying Mr. Truman LaFollette’s new recipe, which was new only in the sense that it was limeade instead of lemonade, which Mr. Truman said: weren’t we getting tired of it, meaning his incomparable lemonade, and we emphatically informed him that we were not, and he finally confessed that he was getting a little bored with always making lemonade, and I have to say that his limeade is so crisp and refreshing that I will be a little sorry when he gets tired of limeade and goes back to lemonade, or maybe he will try something exotic, like papaya limeade, which, whatever he concocts will be delicious.

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons when he makes his incomparable lemonade. They are SO fresh that I think he must have a lemon tree hidden somewhere

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons when he makes his incomparable lemonade. They are SO fresh that I think he must have a lemon tree hidden somewhere

I was happy and relaxed, but I had a mild premonition that something extraordinary was about to happen. I was just too whipped to have a strong premonition, or else I surely would have. Sister Alma Rose trusts and actually encourages my premonitions. “Heaven is talking to y’all, Girl,” she’ll say.

That morning, Sister Alma Rose had been up since before dawn “putting up” produce, tomatoes and peas, I think, and Father Dooley and I had ridden our bicycles to Beth Israel, which is the Reform synagogue in Hilltop, where we were taking a class called “The History of Judaism,” which is every weekday morning for three weeks, and I found it absolutely mesmerizing and was spending hours at the library reading everything I could find about Judaism, but on this particular day I had an extra lot of chores to do when I got home, and Father Dooley had an extra lot of confessions to hear, or something, and so we all felt as though we had earned an afternoon of lethargy, except that Sister Alma Rose was sitting at the grass-green wicker table shelling peas, which is her idea of doing nothing, while Father Dooley and I were sprawled bonelessly in the roomy grass-green wicker chairs with green-and-yellow flowered cushions. Or she might have been shelling beans. I remember reading somewhere that peas ARE beans, of a sort.(1)

THE SPANISH INQUISITION. St. Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-Fé, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1495. An Auto-da-Fé (act of faith) refers to the sentencing of a heretic to die by being burned at the stake

THE SPANISH INQUISITION. St. Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-Fé, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1495. An Auto-da-Fé (act of faith) refers to the sentencing of a heretic to die by being burned at the stake

Pablo had come and gone. He is taking French, which he does every summer, and he is in Advanced French now, so he and Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose chatted in French, of which I know only enough to expostulate on la plume de ma tante, a topic that soon loses its charm, but when the conversation changed to Judaism, in English, Pablo got up and cheerfully bid us au revoir and climbed onto his bicyclette and rode off. Not that Pablo is uninterested in Judaism, but we were discussing the medieval Inquisitions, and Pablo is very tender-hearted. He was almost inconsolable when his labrador, Myra, dragged a half-dead gecko into the house. A conversation about the cruelties of the Inquisitions would depress him for a week.

Pablo and I are pretty sympatico, and as he was leaving, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Something’s up.” I nodded soberly.

Pilgrimage

The three of us were lounging in a comfortable, exhausted silence (except for Sister Alma Rose, who is always comfortable but never exhausted), enjoying the light breeze that floated across the shady porch, when we heard the crunch of feet on the gravel driveway, and I sat up and watched as a man approached, waving and smiling, and I knew that he had something to do with my premonition, and I said, “Thank you, Jesus,” in my head, because he was wearing cutoffs over exquisitely muscled legs and a very nice butt, and he had on a short-sleeved lightweight cotton plaid shirt, unbuttoned, that looked like vintage Eddie Bauer, and I could tell from his high-dollar shoes and backpack that he was a hard-core hiker, not to mention that he was neither sweating nor short of breath and he had just walked up a long, steep hill, which I knew because if he had been coming from the other direction we would have seen him on the road.

Peas in pods

Peas in pods. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons, by Gaetan Lee at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaetanlee/

It’s not unusual for strangers to visit Sister Alma Rose as they are passing through Hilltop, although usually they are from La Mesa or one of the other nearby towns, and they have heard of Sister Alma Rose, who has something of a reputation as a healer, a wise woman, an oddball, a guru, a saint, or one of the Ancients, depending on whom you ask, but if the person you ask is Sister Alma Rose, she will say she is a farmer. I had never seen this man before, I was positive, because I would have noticed him inasmuch as he looked almost exactly like Matthew McConaughey, or like Matthew McConaughey might have looked when he was nineteen, and I sort of but not devoutly wished that he would button his shirt because my newly discovered hormones were popping like fireworks in my chest. He was quite a package, with his hip, expensive hiker stuff and his suntanned not-too-hairy chest and sunstreaked, longish, curly hair and slightly cheeky grin, and his very, very blue and surprisingly sagacious eyes, and when he approached us on the porch he smiled directly at me and I smiled back and told myself very firmly to focus on him and not on whether my hair looked okay or did I have a parsley morsel on my teeth or was I drooling.

Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey, not just eye candy

But when he reached the table he stuck his hand out to shake Sister Alma Rose’s hand, and he spoke to her with something like awe, saying, “Y’all must be Sister Alma Rose,” and I waited to see if he would wince, because Sister Alma Rose’s hands are large and strong and her handshake is legendary, and he didn’t wince but he did raise his eyebrows. The soft, gentlemanly Virginia drawl almost finished me off, though I was able to smile and cock a finger at him and say, “Richmond,” and he smiled back and cocked a finger at me and said, “Bingo.” I’m very good at accents.

Mystical encounters

He shook hands with Father Dooley and then with me, and introduced himself as “Henry the Hiker.” I introduced myself as “Fanny the Drooler,” and he gave me a very fetching wink. Sister Alma Rose graciously gestured to the empty chair, and Mr. Truman LaFollette appeared out of nowhere, which is sometimes disconcerting, especially since he is nearly seven feet tall, with a frosty glass of limeade, and then he was gone before Henry could shake hands with him. When you’re not used to Mr. Truman LaFollette and he makes his ephemeral lemonade appearance, or, in this case, his limeade appearance, it’s a bit like being served by a ghost, and I saw Henry shiver, very slightly, but then he smiled, and I noticed that his teeth were perfectly even and almost blindingly white, and parsley-free, and that he had freckles, for Pete’s sake, and I thought, I am done for.

Patrick Henry delivered his 'Liberty or Death' speech at St. John's Church in Richmond

Patrick Henry delivered his 'Liberty or Death' speech at St. John's Church in Richmond

Because there was more to Henry than dazzling good looks. He was eye candy for sure, but he had an odd kind of quiet vitality, and life just rolled off him in waves. I never thought I’d say this, but even Sister Alma Rose seemed almost ordinary next to Henry.

He had just finished his first year as a seminary student (Princeton, Presbyterian), he told us, with a nod to Father Dooley, as if to say he didn’t have anything against clergy who were other than Presbyterian; and he had heard about Sister Alma Rose through our friend Ben, who had been Henry’s best friend since third grade, which indicated that he also didn’t have anything against black people, which was useful information because southerners sometimes have odd ideas about people whom Pablo refers to as “our darker equals,” ironically, because Pablo is very brown, as is Sister Alma Rose, for that matter.

Pable and I take this road to the library, though it adds a half-mile to the trip

He, Henry, was hiking on country roads with no particular route or destination, he said, other than his journey being in part “a pilgrimage” to meet Sister Alma Rose because Ben had told him that if anyone could help him clear his head, Sister Alma Rose could. His head needed clearing, he explained, because he had entered seminary confidently, with a definite calling, but after a year of study he felt that he had gained a lot of information but had lost his sense of closeness with God.

“I was a strange little kid,” he said, throwing us a killer grin, and, I surreptitiosly checked my chin for drool. “I was always praying. Not conspicuously, like falling down on my knees in the middle of a Little League game, but privately, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and feeling like whenever something was wrong I could go to God and be wrapped in love and made strong. 

“It just came naturally. I’d start to pray, at home or in church, and right away I was just lost in love, and I was surprised when I found out that it wasn’t the same for everyone else. But I was never embarrassed about it, and sometimes kids would call me ‘Holy Henry,’ but they weren’t being mean, so I’d just smile and say, ‘Alleluia,’ or, ‘Bless you, my child,’ or something, and everyone knew it was just who I was.”

He looked inquiringly at Father Dooley, who had been gazing at Henry with a kind of reverence. “Unusual,” Father Dooley said. “Yes, I’d say it’s very unusual for anyone, of any age, to have mystical encounters on demand. In my own experience, God has been accessible enough to keep me inspired… to keep me excited about my work and to enable me to genuinely love and feel honest compassion… and I often know that I have truly encountered God in prayer, but just as often I get up from prayer dissatisfied, as if one of us showed up and the other didn’t.”

I had never heard Father Dooley speak so earnestly, not even in class.

“Oh, yes!” Henry said, obviously grateful to be understood. “That’s just how it’s been with me, almost since I started seminary. The second thing you said, I mean. One of us not showing up.”

Like breathing

MOI, Fanny

MOI, Fanny

To my credit, I like to think, I had stopped seeing Henry as a sex object and had become absorbed in his story and sympathetic with his dilemma. I pray a lot, and I feel loved and nurtured when I pray, but my Close Encounters with God, the kind that Henry had routinely, have been like lightning bolts out of the blue, huge and unexpected and infrequent gifts of grace.

“It’s like breathing,” said Sister Alma Rose, breaking the silence. She was still shelling peas, and I was reminded of Pablo’s mother praying the rosary, a rhythmic, repetitive, tactile exercise, with the added benefit of the peas being living things just off the vines and smelling fresh and earthen.

Sister Alma Rose looked appraisingly at Henry, and then she nodded, as if something she’d suspected had been confirmed. I had the feeling that there was a secret between them, like they were both members of the Scottish Rite or something, but then Sister Alma Rose went back to shelling peas.

Saint Jerome Praying, by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

Saint Jerome Praying, by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

God always shows up for gratitude

“Y’all can’t be somewhere God isn’t,” she said to the peas, “because there isn’t any such a place. But y’all aren’t always aware of God, just like y’all aren’t always conscious of breathing. Then y’all go to pray, and it’s like y’all are inhaling God in deep breaths, and he fills y’all up and yet he still surrounds y’all.

“And then Henry, he goes to seminary and he learns about the mechanics of breathing and respiration, and how the air supplies oxygen to the lungs, and the oxygen gets into the bloodstream, and into every cell, where it’s exchanged for carbon dioxide, which the blood carries back to the lungs and then it, the carbon dioxide, gets exhaled. Cells can’t live without oxygen, so breathing and all is pretty important.

“But it happens automatically. It’s not a rule. If y’all tried to push oxygen into your bloodstream and then force it into your cells and exchange it for carbon dioxide, and so forth, thinking that if y’all worked hard at it y’all could make it special, maybe sacred, y’all are gonna most likely hyperventilate. Because it’s already been done for y’all. What y’all can do, in prayer, is wonder at it and accept it gratefully and praise God with every breath. God always shows up for gratitude.”

Vanished

For a while the only sound was the slight crackle of fresh pea (or bean) pods opening and the soft plop of peas (or beans) falling into the bowl. Then Henry asked Father Dooley a question about transubstantiation, and thus began a lively conversation to which Sister Alma Rose contributed now and again, and I closed my eyes and listened to the pleasant hum of their voices, like bees in a patch of clover, and when I opened my eyes, Henry and Father Dooley were gone and the sun was low in the sky.

Then Mr. Truman LaFollette was setting a plate of fresh fruit on a romaine lettuce leaf in front of me, with my favorite snack (if we’re not talking hot fudge), sharp cheddar cheese and Triscuits, just within reach.

“Y’all’s mama says y’all can stay for supper,” Mr. Truman LaFollette said, in a voice so seldom used I thought he must have to scrape the rust off. And then he evaporated before I could ask where Sister Alma Rose was.

She appeared a moment later, looking thoughtful, and before she sat down to her salad she carefully placed a yellowed newspaper clipping on the table to my left.

“Don’t y’all be dripping any strawberry juice on that,” she said, and then she bowed her head, so I did, too, and she said, “God of wonders, we thank y’all for the gifts both substantial and mystical that y’all shower upon us, and we ask that y’all help us use these gifts to grow strong and wise and generous. Amen.”

Strawberries

Mr. Truman LaFollette won't tell me where he gets such FRESH FRUIT

I had to bite my lip to keep from giggling as she prayed, first because it always amused me to hear her address the Almighty as “y’all,” and second because her words invoked an image of strawberries and grapes and pineapple falling out of the sky.

“That’s it?” I said, surprised. Usually Sister Alma Rose prays until the food, if it started out hot, is tepid.

“It’s enough,” she said. “Read that newspaper, Missy.”

Without picking it up, I began reading the clipping, at the top of which was a two-column-wide black-and-white photo of a grinning Henry, flanked by a grinning Ben and a bemused-looking Portia, who is the daughter of Mr. Henry LaFollette and Sister Alma Rose’s cousin Dulcie, who had given birth to Portia back when she was Wanton and Wild, which is exactly what Portia is, though Dulcie has turned into a round, comfortable person who smells like talcum powder and who Does Good Deeds. Portia, I thought, was an odd person for either Ben or Henry to know. Sister Alma Rose once told me that Portia is an Aberration, one of the Ancients reincarnated who remembers nothing of her former life and has no idea that she has been sent to do anything other than seduce men and twirl in circles, looking and singing like a fairy child, in the woods.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci ("the beautiful woman without mercy"), a painting by Walter Crane (1845-1915)

La Belle Dame Sans Merci ("the beautiful woman without mercy"), a painting by Walter Crane (1845-1915) that always makes me think of Portia

The story was dated July 28, 2000, and I was startled to see that Henry looked exactly as he had looked that afternoon, even wearing the same shirt (I couldn’t see his butt; unfortunately it had been cropped out of the photo).

Somewhere in Tennessee

‘Seminary student vanishes,’ read the headline. The story went on to say that Henry Morgan McKenzie, Jr., age 19, son of the newspaper’s executive editor and his, the editor’s, wife of twenty-two years, onetime film star Julianne Morgan, had begun a solo cross-country hike just after his classes had ended the second week in May. The photo had been taken as Henry was setting off. As promised, he telephoned either Ben or his parents at least three times a week, but the last phone call had been made on June 2, from somewhere in Tennessee. Of course, law-enforcement personnel in three states were searching vigilantly, blah, blah, blah, but they had found no trace of the missing boy, who had been in excellent health and spirits, with no history of mental illness, blah, blah, blah.

Jessica Lange lookalike

COVER GIRL: Julianne Morgan, a respected actress and Hollywood favorite, before she gave up her career for marriage and children

Scotch-taped to the story was a brief piece published on the five-year anniversary of Henry’s disappearance. There was a small photo of Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie, with Julianne looking youthful and serene and Henry Senior appearing haunted. Their son had been neither found nor heard from, though his mother said that he visited her in dreams and she was at peace, but apparently nobody paid much attention to Julianne, least of all her husband, who said that she was “in denial and receiving psychotherapy.”

I sighed and looked wide-eyed at Sister Alma Rose.

“Poor Julianne,” I said. “But NOT ‘poor Julianne,'” I added, on second thought, “because she knows that Henry is okay. She’s probably thinking, all right, send me to a shrink if you want, but I know something you don’t, and I’d tell you if you’d listen.”

Sister Alma Rose beamed at me, as if I’d proven the unified field theory.

“Ben never mentioned him,” I mused, “or Portia.”

Sister Alma Rose and I both knew that if Ben had been worried about his friend’s disappearance, he would have come to Sister Alma Rose. Therefore, Ben had somehow been in touch with Henry, or knew where he was.

The Angel Gabriel (by Guido Reni) resembles Henry a little bit

The possibilities eddied furiously in my head. Henry had been run over by a semi and had come back as an angel. Henry had been a collective illusion shared by Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose and me. Henry was one of the Ancients.

“Henry is one of the Ancients,” I almost shouted. That explained Portia’s being with him, sort of. And Sister Alma Rose had known. That explained the long, penetrating look she had given him.

“But why did he come to you? Was it just as he said? About wanting to feel close to God again?”

Sister Alma Rose ignored the latter two questions.

“He didn’t come to me, Fanny,” she said, taking my hand and squeezing it and probably breaking nine or ten small bones. “He came to y’all.”

The thing in me that had always thought I was weird and longed to be normal… it seemed to dissolve in that very moment.

“Oh, my,” I said, trying to take it in without knowing what “it” was, but sharply conscious that my hormones were alive and well and having an emergency convocation in what would someday, with luck, become my left breast. “What a world we live in.” And for the first time in my life, I didn’t have the least idea what to do next.

lemons

(1) Common beans can be used for shell (or shelling) beans, which have the pods removed before they are cooked or dried. The term can be used to refer to other species of beans, such as lima beanssoybeanspeas, or fava beans, that have their shell removed before it is eaten. Nutritionally, shell beans are similar to dry beans, but in the kitchen are treated as a vegetable, often steamed, fried, or made into soups. Wikipedia

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Pure

Hayley Westenra, album cover, Odyssey

Hayley Westenra, album cover, Odyssey

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Hayley Westenra, now 22, was an international star at 16

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

I, Fanny McElroy, turned Sister Alma Rose on to Hayley Westenra, now 22, when she became known as a singing phenomenon at age 16 (Hayley Westenra, not Sister Alma Rose). She (Hayley) just gets better every year, as her voice develops and settles down. Because we love you, and because it will technically be Christmas until Twelfth Night, we are including two Christmas videos of Hayley, the first performed with the Choirboys.

Here is a little bio of Hayley from Wikipedia. I could rewrite it, draw from a few other sources, and make it “original,” but… why would I want to do that when Wikipedia does… well, an adequate job all on its own?

Here is Hayley with the Choirboys in selections from the musical OLIVER

Here is Hayley with the Choirboys in selections from the musical OLIVER

Hayley Dee Westenra is a New Zealand soprano, songwriter and UNICEF Ambassador. Her first internationally released album, Pure, reached #1 on the UK classical charts in 2003 and has sold more than two million copies worldwide. Pure is the fastest-selling international début classical album to date, having made Westenra an international star at age 16. In August 2006, she joined the Irish group Celtic Woman, was featured on their Celtic Woman: A New Journey CD and DVD, toured with them on their 2007 Spring Tour, and also was featured on their latest DVD, The Greatest Journey: Essential Collection, released in 2008. She sings… in a number of languages.

Westenra has performed for dignitaries around the world. She is the youngest UNICEF Ambassador to date and has contributed to charities around the world.

Okay, the next video is Hayley singing “Away in a Manger” with the choir and congregation at Manchester Cathedral. (Get this: “Work on the current building [Manchester Cathedral] began in 1215.” That might make it older than Sister Alma Rose.)

Hayley looks beautiful in her clingy pink dress. I could not wear that dress. One, I don’t have the bazooms to fill it out, and, two, I couldn’t hold my stomach in and sing at the same time. I wonder if the people who “manage” her make her eat celery and plain yogurt and spend two hours a day with a personal trainer. That would be very disillusioning.

Omigosh, my brother is screaming bloody murder, got to go, I’ll be back ASAP….

Sister Alma Rose makes everything okay

I am (obviously) back. Johannes and Daddy were having a game of catch, and Johannes was pretending he was Tim Lincecum and he (Johannes) dislocated his shoulder. Sister Alma Rose got there, to where they were playing catch on the other side of the barn, before I did, which, I don’t know how she does that.

By the time I got there, in fact, she had “relocated” Johannes’s shoulder, which, I certainly do not know how she does that, and she is muttering prayers the whole time, and she says Jesus and Mary a lot, and I’d swear I heard her say Allah, which would be okay, I guess, because, as Sister Alma Rose has taught me practically since infancy, it is “impossible to circumscribe God with a name.” I bet I was the only toddler in Hilltop who regularly used the word circumscribe in conversation.

Judy Garland in TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, 1946

Judy Garland in TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, 1946

In any case, Sister Alma Rose says that she is a healer, that healing is one of the reasons she’s here, alive, on earth, and that it gives her great joy and confers benefits upon others. Some of what I just said are her own words, but I’m not sure which ones… “confers benefits,” for sure.

Hayley Westenra, too, has found a purpose that brings her happiness and that blesses others, Sister Alma Rose says, and we have talked about how easily a person so beautiful and talented can become a commodity, continually manipulated by family members, agents, et cetera, made to perform too much, treated as a money machine, and so forth, such as happened to Judy Garland and ruined her health.

Shed a little light

By the way, Sister Alma Rose does not like it when I say that I “turned her on to” Hayley Westenra,” because, she says, that expression came out of the drug culture, which is one of the few things that makes her really angry, illicit drugs, I mean, and she’s told me gruesome stories about people who shoot up with “jellies,” a liquid form of temazepam, and end up having to have a leg amputated because all the injection sites get inflamed, and one guy, I think in Scotland, died when he tried to inject temazepam into his eyeball. True story.

Well, anyway, I think that the thing that would bring me the most joy and would also benefit others (I’m not sure precisely how, let me get back to you) would be for me to be a backup singer for James Taylor, but by the time I’m old enough, he’ll be, like, 70, and it’s entirely possible that he will not be touring or even giving very many concerts, but I do so much want to be one of those people who harmonize with James on

James Taylor 1999

James Taylor 1999 (photo: Evan Osherow via Flickr). Okay, is it just me, or is there a disembodied hand on James Taylor's shoulder?

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth
Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong
We are bound together
By the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead
We are bound and we are bound…

…and then get to do a little bopping and swaying on the “shed a little light” part. Father Dooley says, with respect to my dancing, that I am a “pretty hip little sister.” Of course, Father Dooley is a priest; what could he possibly know about hip?

* * *

See various Hayley Westenra videos, along with Enya and Loreena McKennitt, at http://www.zgravweb.net/51med_mix.html


‘Conscience Is a Jewish Invention’

V-E Day, painting by Geoff Bennett

V-E Day—Artist, Geoff Bennett

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Loss of Innocence

We are the joyous Hitler youth
We do not need any Christian virtue
Our leader is our savior
The Pope and Rabbi shall be gone
We want to be pagans once again….

Fanny, the narrator

I, Fanny McElroy

Omigosh! There have got to be things that little girls should not have to know about.

I get as much education sitting on the grass-green steps of Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wraparound porch, drinking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incomparable lemonade, than I get at school. More, probably, because at school we get the sanitized versions of things, whereas, usually, nothing but the truth is told on Sister Alma Rose’s porch, and truth is what I heard when Rabbi Feintech and Sister Alma Rose were talking one afternoon, which was May 8, which was the anniversary of V-E Day — Victory in Europe, the end of World War II in Europe. (Final victory in the Pacific would come a few months later.)

An American soldier stands near a wagon piled high with corpses outside the crematorium in the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp

An American soldier stands near a wagon piled high with corpses outside the crematorium in the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp (Wikipedia)

When I was telling Mama and Daddy, at supper, what I learned on Sister Alma Rose’s porch that day from Sister Alma Rose and her friend Rabbi Feintech, they both said that they had studied World War II in high school and in college and had never heard of German dictator Adolph Hitler’s diabolical reasoning for thinking every Jew in the world should be destroyed.

Too bad to be true?

Of course, I had to go to the library the very next day to look up all the things that Rabbi Feintech had told Sister Alma Rose, with me listening on, agape — or do I mean aghast? I was probably aghast AND agape. Anyway, I was hoping that Rabbi Feintech was making it all up, not that I would like to think poorly of Rabbi Feintech, I like him very much, he always remembers my name and treats me like an adult, or at least like a mature young lady, and they knew I was listening and they didn’t make me go away, which I guess is a kind of respect, they obviously thought that I could handle it, and I guess I will have to, just as all adults have learned horrible truths and still manage to brush their teeth and cook oatmeal and make sure their kids are taking their vitamins and argue about what color to paint the bathroom.

Hitler Youth Recruitment Poster

Hitler Youth Recruitment Poster; the text, translated, says, “Youth serves the leader. All ten year-olds into the Hitler Youth”

Hearing what Rabbi Feintech said not only about the incredibly brutal killing of six million European Jews but about Hitler’s reason for wanting to kill every Jew in the world… I felt dizzy and nauseated, the way I would have felt if he would have said, “Your parents are alien body-snatchers and they’re going to eat you alive at midnight.”

I’ve never had much of a sense of danger in the world, other than being careful when I cross the highway and not getting in cars with strange men who want to take me to get hot-fudge sundaes, et cetera. But learning that nobody in eastern Europe was safe who was Jewish, not babies, not old people, not big strong men like Daddy, not anyone, and all that they had been doing was living their lives, going about their daily business, working, celebrating, cooking, going to worship — the stuff we all do, except with not-as-nifty appliances and funny-looking cars. And I wondered if I would ever feel safe again.

Let only the strong survive

Okay, I’ve danced around the topic long enough. Here we go. Really. I think I can talk about it now. Whew!

Moses and the Ten Commandments

Moses and the Ten Commandments (Rembrandt 1659)

Hitler believed (and he was not alone, and it wasn’t even his idea in the first place) that all Jews must be killed because they had introduced monotheism (belief in one God rather than many) and the Ten Commandments and an ethical system, which was picked up later by the Christians, that emphasized love and compassion and taking care of the poor and the sick.

Hitler had no time for the poor and the sick. Below are Hitler’s own words:

The Ten Commandments have lost their validity…. Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish like circumcision.

It is right, Hitler believed, for the strong to survive and the weak to die. People should live as the animals in the jungle do. When lions hunt, the weakest among their prey are always the first victims.

I thought of the old people in the nursing home next to the Hilltop Hospital. Dr. Deirdre Barstow’s own mother, Mrs. Marjorie, lives there, and she seems to feel safe. Sometimes Mrs. Marjorie recognizes her daughter and sometimes she smiles a toothless smile and says to Dr. Deirdre, “Are you new here?” And Dr. Deirdre smiles back and sits down to feed her mother soup and pudding with a spoon and says, “No, Mama, we’ve known each other for a long time.”

The government pays for some of Mrs. Marjorie’s care, and it occurred to me that Adolph Hitler, if, God forbid, he were president of the United States, would not authorize funding to take care of helpless, weak old women in nursing homes.

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda Poster

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda Poster

No, Hitler wanted to set up a pagan “master race,” take over the world, and apply the law of the jungle: Only the strong survive.

‘It is in his soul’

At the library, I read this very sick and scary statement by Hitler:

If only one country, for whatever reason, tolerates a Jewish family in it, that family will become the germ center for fresh sedition. If one little Jewish boy survives without any Jewish education, with no synagogue and no Hebrew school, it [Judaism] is in his soul. Even if there had never been a synagogue or a Jewish school or an Old Testament, the Jewish spirit would still exist and exert its influence. It has been there from the beginning and there is no Jew, not a single one, who does not personify it. Hitler’s Apocalypse: Jews and the Nazi Legacy, by Robert Wistrich

This, I guess, is why Hitler didn’t feel that he had to kill all the Christians. If he killed the pope, he apparently believed that he would “kill” Christianity, and Christians, in his mind, not having “the Jewish spirit,” could be swayed to his nutso world view.

To be continued: The greatest weapon against the armies of hate

Recommended

Hurry Up and Listen

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Sister Alma Rose Insists…

Omigosh. If it’s still December 3 when y’all read this, go immediately to the Morning Prayer at DivineOffice.org and listen to…

Hymn: Amazing Grace by Jane Chifley And Pat McGrath from their album Traditional Catholic Hymns – Lifeboat 14

Sister Alma Rose could dig up only one album by Lifeboat 14 — Who Will Adore Him? (2004) — upon which “Amazing Grace” could not be found.  She looked on several sites and finally discovered this description of the band at Eternity Music:

It’s finally here! Who Will Adore Him? is a CD by Lifeboat 14 containing a mixture of rock, folk, serenade and country. It’s taken a long time and is worth every moment of listening.

Music that will rock you. Music about Mary and the Blessed sacrament. Music that’s Australian. Music that’s Catholic.

You won’t find anything but faith on this CD.

Every Lifeboat 14 album has different artists performing…. The band was founded by Jane Chifley.

Sister Alma Rose sampled several cuts from the album, but none was as clean, elegant, and simply lovely as the unpretentious duet “Amazing Grace.”

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Catholic Things part 2

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Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

‘Pray Without Ceasing’

From ancient times the Church has had the custom of celebrating each day the liturgy of the hours. In this way the Church fulfills the Lord’s precept to pray without ceasing, at once offering its praise to God the Father and interceding for the salvation of the world. —Office of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship

Fanny McElroy

I, Fanny McElroy

When I, Fanny McElroy, first discovered The Brother Cadfael Mysteries, by Ellis Peters, I ripped through them like a scairt rabbit about to be et by a hawk, as Sister Alma Rose says her Daddy Pete says, or maybe it’s “a hawk after a scairt rabbit.” Anyway, I read them fast. And then there weren’t any more, because Ellis Peters died, so for the longest time I put off reading the final book, the twentieth, because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Brother Cadfael, a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey during the 12th century, but I found other books to read because I had become fascinated by all things medieval and all things Roman Catholic.

Compline — Coronation of the Virgin

Compline — Coronation of the Virgin

I loved Brother Cadfael’s irreverent way of being genuinely and truly religious, his painstaking cultivation of herbs for healing, his humor and his kindness. And the way he told the time not by the clock but by the Canonical Hours for Prayer — Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline, and so forth. Sister Alma Rose has specific times for prayer during the day, and if I am at her house when one of those times comes, we go into her chapel and pray together, and sometimes we pray out loud, sometimes we don’t, and she reads a psalm and we sing a hymn — harmonizing rather nicely, if I do say so — but the thing is, she always seems to know what she’s doing, I mean there aren’t any awkward “what should we do now?” moments. And now I know why.

The Liturgy of the Hours

Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1410

Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1410

One lazy summer afternoon I was sitting on the steps of Sister Alma Rose’s great green wraparound porch half-listening to Sister Alma Rose talking with Father Dooley and his sister Bernadette, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and who is a willowy, fair-haired, freckled young woman who has, as she says, “quite enough money,” and her occupation is Doer of Good Deeds, and she would have become a nun, she told us, but she wanted to get married and have children, which she hasn’t, yet, but she’s only something like twenty-two, so she spends her time visiting the sick and does what she calls “healing prayer work,” and sometimes she takes in the homeless, temporarily, like mothers with children running from an abusive man, that sort of thing, not scary people or drug addicts.

Versicle: Poem on a Stick?

So I’m sitting there, drowsy with the sun and the hum of a summer afternoon, and I perk up when I hear Bernadette say “Compline,” so I get up from the step and go over to the green wicker table and sit in the one vacant green wicker chair and listen to Bernadette talking about the Liturgy of the Hours, which is also called the Divine Office, I have no idea why, but Catholics have funny names for everything, like antiphon and breviary and versicle, which is not “a poem on a stick,” as I suggested, and everyone laughed, which was very gratifying because when one thinks that one is being very clever, it’s good to know that others think so too.

The Hours of Jeanne D'Evreaux

The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreaux

I think that everyone was surprised by my fascination with such a dry subject as the Divine Office, which I had thought was something from long ago… well, which it is, but it is still practiced, or “celebrated,” as Father Dooley says, and he as a priest is obligated to “celebrate” the Liturgy of the Hours, but it is a joy to him, he says, and Bernadette also “celebrates” the Liturgy of the Hours, and Sister Alma Rose says that her daily prayer times are “based on” the Liturgy of the Hours. “Fanny McElroy,” she says, “y’all have been celebrating it with me for years,” and then she laughs and pours me a glass of Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incomparable lemonade.

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1410

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1410

Sister Alma Rose is not Catholic (she has referred to herself as “a Christian Jewish Buddhist,” probably offending adherents of all three religions, but she doesn’t mind — like J. Krishnamurti, she doesn’t mind much of anything, she says, and she is certainly the most serene person I have ever known, though in a crisis she becomes very exercised and shouts prayers to Heaven).

I am not a Catholic either, but there are many things I like about Catholicism, and here is one of them: For two thousand years or so, in spite of corruption and scandal and competition from other religions, and popes who had mistresses and children, and bishops who plotted royal assassinations, and so forth, the Catholic Church has inspired, comforted, counseled, educated, and healed. Irish monks preserved the knowledge from Roman and Greek antiquity by copying a huge lot of documents by hand (read How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill).

Sister Alma Rose has told me about the vile perverted priests who prey on young boys, but I don’t think that those sick men’s transgressions erase all the good that the church has done. And I love the idea of Confession, and the Rosary, and having one’s own personal saint, and Mary the Mother of Jesus, with her woman’s wisdom and her tender heart, and, of course, the Liturgy of the Hours. And, basically, that Catholic worship has gone on uninterrupted for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Some facts about the Liturgy of the Hours

So I ask a thousand questions, and here is some of what I find out about the Divine Office:

It sprang from Jewish prayer practices (“Seven times a day I praise you,” it says in the Psalms)

It began rather simply, with reading or chanting psalms; reading from the Old Testament, the  Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and epistles; and canticles, which are basically hymns from the Bible but not usually from the psalms.

By the end of the fifth century, the Canonical Hours were — and this is a lot of praying and involves getting up in the middle of the night

  • Matins (during the night), sometimes referred to as Vigils or Nocturns, or in monastic usage the Night Office; it is now called the Office of Readings
  • Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at Dawn)
  • Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = 6 a.m.)
  • Terce (rhymes with “purse”) or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = 9 a.m.)
  • Sext (rhymes with “next”) or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = 12 noon)
  • None (rhymes with “John”?) or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = 3 p.m.)
  • Vespers or Evening Prayer (“at the lighting of the lamps”)
  • Compline (KOM-plin) or Night Prayer (before retiring)

Wow! Don’t you love it that the time for Vespers is “at the lighting of the lamps”?

The complete Liturgy of the Hours is contained in the Roman Breviary. Most of the pictures on this page are from personal breviaries made for wealthy people in the Middle Ages.

Très Riches Heures calendar page

Très Riches Heures calendar page

All hours begin with Ps. 69-70 v.2, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me,” and then the doxology:  “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”

The Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer may consist of

  • opening versicle (a short verse said or sung by a priest or minister in public worship and followed by a response from the congregation) or (for morning prayer) the invitatory (Psalm 94)
  • a hymn, composed by the Church
  • two psalms, or parts of psalms with a scriptural canticle. At Morning Prayer, this consists of a psalm of praise, a canticle from the Old Testament, followed by another psalm. At Evening Prayer this consists of two psalms, or one psalm divided into two parts, and a scriptural canticle taken from the New Testament.
  • a short passage from scripture
  • a responsory (chant or anthem recited after a reading in a church service) typically a verse of scripture, but sometimes liturgical poetry
  • a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke: the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus [Blessed be]) for morning prayer, and the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat: The “Song of Mary” from the Gospel of Luke, Magnificat anima mea Dominum = My soul doth magnify the Lord) for evening prayer

    Russian Orthodox icon, Zechariah

    Zechariah, Russian Orthodox icon

Nativity from an Antiphon

Nativity from an Antiphon

It looks complicated, doesn’t it? But I have to tell you, it is refreshing and renewing to drop everything at 3 p.m. or whatever because that is the time you have set aside for prayer. And if you’re not Catholic, you can develop your own structure for prayer and praise, as Sister Alma Rose has done, she created a sort of hybrid of the Divine Office, and Father Dooley says that’s fine with him, he encourages everyone to pray in the way that suits them best, as long as there’s no mutilation of poultry and stuff like that.

Well, you can buy the complete Liturgy of the Hours in four volumes for more money than I have in my piggy bank, which last time I counted was $97.13, I am saving for a school trip to walk the Appalachian Trail, but there are less expensive books, such as those that have only the Morning Prayer and the Evening Prayer.

There is much, much more to be told about the subject, but Bernadette had to leave to go back to Grand Rapids and her Good Works, which she does out of love and not to earn points toward Heaven or anything like that. So I will just tell you that I, Fanny, “celebrate” the Hours four times a day using the website DivineOffice.org, which has an audio version with beautiful music, and there are other websites with text versions. Sometimes I pray with Mama, and sometimes with Sister Alma Rose, and sometimes it’s just I, Fanny.

Even if you are not a Christian, you might enjoy this prayer discipline, which is principally made up of psalms anyway, though the references to Jesus Christ Our Savior might make you cringe, I don’t know. What I do know is that I need and enjoy discipline and structure in my prayer life, and for me, Fanny McElroy, the Divine Office is the beginning of that discipline and structure.

Chant; Troparion; hook-and-banner notation

Chant; Troparion; hook-and-banner notation

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Quickie

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The Empire of Alexander the Great, 4th century BCE; Jerusalem is shown just ENE of Gaza, lower right "corner" of the Mediterranean Sea; via Wikipedia

Civilizing the Nations

EVERYONE OF ANY OR NO RELIGION should listen to this free audio — fascinating and compelling, and the single most educational hour of my adult life. Click HERE

INCLUDES THIS, FROM JOHN ADAMS:

WorldPerfect230x150I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations … They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.

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Catholic Things

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Father Dooley's temporary church

Father Dooley's temporary church

Religious Differences

Sister Alma Rose is not a Roman Catholic, but she is telling Father Dooley and me that she used to want to be a nun “in the worst way.” (Ha ha.)

“Oh?” Father Dooley says interestedly, raising one eyebrow, which, I don’t know HOW he does that, but of course I don’t know how to whistle, either, though I can do cartwheels one-handed. “What changed your mind?”

I have made Father Dooley promise to always keep me informed of his whereabouts, if one of us moves out of Hilltop, so that when the Pope allows priests to get married I can get to his city on the next plane. Father Dooley's, not the Pope's

I have made Father Dooley promise to always keep me informed of his whereabouts, if one of us moves out of Hilltop, so that when the Pope allows priests to get married I can jet to his city on the next plane. Father Dooley's, not the Pope's

“The wardrobe,” Sister Alma Rose says, “because, really, can y’all picture what I’d look like in one of them outfits? A giant beetle, is what I’d look like.”

Father Dooley laughs and says that many nuns just wear regular street clothes these days, and Sister Alma Rose says that would take all the fun out of it. Like, why be a doctor if you’re not going to wear a white lab coat and a stethoscope?

Father Dooley is spending a lot of time sitting on Sister Alma Rose’s porch this fall because his church, Saints Peter and Paul, had a bad fire and no one can go into the building.

They are having church, or, whaddayacallit, Mass, and, I guess, Confession and Catechism and the Inquisition and the other stuff that Catholics do, in an empty warehouse that used to be Hilltop Elementary School when Mama and Daddy were kids.

But Father Dooley’s paper files and computer and desk, et cetera, all got burnt to a Frito, and he has this lackey priest-in-waiting who is taking care of that little administrative problem while he, Father Dooley, sits on Sister Alma Rose’s porch and drinks Mr. Truman LaFollette’s indescribable lemonade.

The Catechism Lesson, Jules-Alexis Muenier 1890

The Catechism Lesson, by Jules-Alexis Muenier 1890

But Father Dooley is not slacking off, oh, no, he is here on church business, because we are talking about Catholic things, two in particular: (1) the execution of heretics by means of setting fire to them, and (2) the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), which, unlike Father Dooley’s office, is extant.

Transubstantiation is NOT “a way for commuters to get to work”

Lady Jane Grey (above) and Queen Mary each believed that the other's soul was damned. And they MEANT it! The Reformers had piled up a lot of grievances over the centuries during which the Roman Catholic Church had amassed power, money, and land. It was the rule rather than the exception for popes and cardinals to have mistresses, if not secret wives and children. Priests lined their pockets with "indulgences" — money from their Flocks for the wiping away of sins.

Lady Jane Grey (above, looking a bit peaked) and Queen Mary each believed that the other's soul was damned. And they MEANT it! The Reformers had piled up a lot of grievances over the centuries during which the Roman Catholic Church had amassed power, money, and land. It was the rule rather than the exception for popes and cardinals to have mistresses, if not secret wives and children. Priests lined their pockets with "indulgences" — money from their Flocks for the wiping away of sins.

Father Dooley and I have been debating the following question:

Why did Lady Jane Grey have to die?

And the short answer, we agree, is that Lady Jane, a Protestant, made quite a point of NOT believing in transubstantiation and a few other points of Roman Catholic doctrine at a time when a VERY Catholic queen, Mary I, was on the throne in England. (That’s “Mary the First,” not “Mary Eye.”)

Transubstantiation is the alleged changing of the bread and wine served at holy communion into the actual body and blood of Christ.

NOW: It’s not like Catholics believe that the bread turns into, like, skin and fingers and toes and the wine gets all thick and red and has little platelets swimming around in it. Father Dooley says that the substance of the “host” and the wine changes but not their their appearance or texture.

I, personally, do not care, and neither does Sister Alma Rose, who dislikes discussing doctrinal issues.

She says that we all believe in the same God, who created the universe as an expression of divine love, and that God knows and cares about us each individually, and that God makes his love known to us through grace… and if we can agree on that, why aren’t we having a big ecumenical party and celebrating instead of arguing about minor details?

A medieval Mass being celebrated by a bishop

A medieval Mass being celebrated by a bishop

Father Dooley says several things in response, which I will summarize:

  1. Everybody DOESN’T agree with that, what Sister Alma Rose says, and in fact some of it could be considered “doctrine.” (Sister Alma Rose snorts.)
  2. Our actions have consequences: Like, if you stick your hand in a pot of boiling water, your hand will burn.
  3. We are all screwing up (Father Dooley’s words) all the time, acting in unloving ways. Love is a miracle, a gift of grace, and cannot be deserved. If we always got what we deserved, we would be crackers.
  4. Jesus’ life and teachings, death, and resurrection are proof of a higher law, which is that God’s love is greater than the law of consequences; or, rather, that God, through Jesus, paid the piper so that we wouldn’t have to go around weighed down by guilt and anxiety. This only works if we admit we behaved badly (confession) and want very much not to keep behaving badly (repentance), and if we accept the sacrifice (communion) and are grateful for it. That is the freedom Jesus promised; that is the Good News.
  5. We are likely to take communion more to heart — to be blown away by the liberating acceptance of God’s sacrifice for our sakes — if we believe that the bread is Jesus’ body and the wine is his blood, than if we are just eating stale bread crumbs and drinking grape juice.
  6. This is not all just a matter of collecting chits for the Afterlife. Salvation is here and now, overcoming sickness and all manner of other here-and-now penalties for less-than-perfect behavior.

Well, I say to Father Dooley, this is all fine and good, but I still don’t think it’s worth having your head chopped off over. Transubstantiation is not even in the Bible, after all. Jesus said, at the Last Supper, “This is my body, broken for you,” but he was always speaking metaphorically, saying stuff like, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” et cetera.

The  Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1498

The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci 1498

The Nine Days’ Queen

King Edward VI of England, William Scrots, c. 1550

King Edward VI of England, by William Scrots c. 1550

Lady Jane Grey was the Queen of England for nine days in 1553, after Edward VI and before Mary I, “Bloody Mary,” as she came to be called. (For more information, see “Historical Background,” below.)

Lady Jane did not want to be queen. She was only sixteen, and she was indeed a staunch Protestant, but a group of greedy grownups, including her own parents, made her marry this awful man, Lord Guilford Dudley, and then persuaded the ruling council to name her queen, and so queen she was, for nine days, until Mary Tudor swept down upon London with several thousand of the faithful, and, voila, Mary was queen and Jane was imprisoned in the Tower of London, convicted of high treason, and sentenced to death.

Mary and Jane were cousins, and Mary really did not want to execute Jane, knowing that Jane was made queen over her own objections. Mary told Jane she would let her off the hook if Jane would just convert to the True Faith, Roman Catholicism, and to tell you the truth, if I’d been Jane, I would have said, fine, okay, but I would have had my fingers crossed and then I would have gone back to my cozy life of studying Protestant doctrine and having my servants do my laundry and cook my meals. But Jane, a better woman than I, or a more stubborn one, refused.

A 15th-century representation of the Tower of London. Shown is the White Tower, begun by William the Conquerer in 1078. The White Tower still stands, but it is now part of a large complex of buildings that comprise "The Tower"

A 15th-century representation of the Tower of London. Shown is the White Tower, begun by William the Conquerer in 1078. The White Tower still stands, but it is now part of a large complex of buildings that comprise "The Tower"

Jane was mostly concerned with doctrinal issues. She could not accept the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation — plus, she had an illegal English translation of the Bible, and she was studying Greek and Hebrew so that she could read the original biblical texts rather than translations. The Catholic Church didn’t want lay persons reading the Bible at all, because if they read it than they would begin to interpret it.

Verdict: A sad waste of a young life

My debate with Father Dooley is no debate at all, as it turns out, because we pretty much agree about Lady Jane.

“Two things,” says Father Dooley, holding up two fingers so I won’t forget that he has two points to make.

“First, it’s hard for our modern ecumenical way of thinking to understand how radical it was to depart in any way from Catholic doctrine. For centuries, the Catholic church had been the ONLY Christian church, and it was not used to being disagreed with. In fact, when Henry VIII broke with the church, the Pope excommunicated him, and all of England with him. Heaven, according to the church, was not available to those who had been excommunicated.

Death by burning

Death by burning

“Second, even in the context of her time, and I believe she was beheaded in the 1550s, Lady Jane could have saved herself in good conscience. As brilliant a scholar as she was, she was also very young and very new to the heady freedom of Protestant thinking. Even her Protestant teachers warned her that she was excessively dogmatic. It’s very sad, really, especially since Elizabeth would be queen within a few years, and the policy of her reign was one of tolerance.”

Mary Tudor — Queen Mary I, or “Bloody Mary,” as she has become known — was merciful to her cousin Jane in having her beheaded. Before the end of Mary’s reign, almost three hundred “heretics” would be burned on street corners, in full view of the populace.

Eternal damnation

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science

Mary seems to have sincerely believed that her reign of terror was saving souls from eternal damnation — not the souls of those being burned, it was too late for them — but the souls of those who looked on, who heard the screams and smelled the charred flesh.

Sister Alma Rose has no patience with preachers of hellfire and damnation. She believes that we grow spiritually over a succession of earthly incarnations. Thus she does not believe that ANY souls are consigned eternally to hell. She likes to quote Mary Baker Eddy on the subject:

Does Divine Love commit a fraud on humanity by making man inclined to sin, and then punishing him for it? …In common justice, we must admit that God will not punish man for doing what he created man capable of doing, and knew from the outset that man would do. God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil.”  —Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, 356:25 ff.

To be continued… Praying the Hours (the Divine Office)

The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

Historical Background — The Man Who Would Be Pope

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England, was beheaded May 19, 1536, at the Tower of London

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England, was beheaded May 19, 1536, at the Tower of London

I have been reading a lot of historical fiction about England (c. 1150 – 1600) lately, and I’ve read, like, five books in a row about Anne Boleyn

—because it’s so much fun to find out which authors think that

  • (a) Anne Boleyn was a world-class B-word (Daddy won’t let me say or spell the B-word that rhymes with witch, but then he also didn’t think that I should be reading about Anne Boleyn because if he had his way I’d still be reading Thomas the Tank Engine and playing with Barbies, which, excuse me, are way more obscene than Anne Boleyn), and (b) Henry VIII the longsuffering husband, as opposed to those authors who think that
  • (a) Anne Boleyn was June Cleaver in tights — no, wait, it was Henry who wore tights — and (b) Henry was a cruel tyrant.
Henry VIII, King of England, born 1491, reigned 1509-1547

Henry VIII, King of England, born 1491, reigned 1509-1547

The truth is that Henry was a spoiled baby, and spoiled babies are often tyrants. But because he was the King of England and not an ACTUAL baby, his tyrannical acts had lasting and tragic consequences, inasmuch as there was no one with the authority to send him to bed without his supper.

Henry established the Church of England, as separate from the Roman Catholic Church, with himself as the Supreme Head.

He’d been waiting six years for the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn and make her queen and force her by intimidation and other methods that hardly ever work to have healthy baby boys.

Finally, tired of waiting for the Pope, he said, in effect, “I’ll just make up my OWN church and marry Anne and dissolve the wealthy monasteries and seize all their stuff.”

But he, Henry, did not mean for church doctrine or worship to change at all. He was not in sympathy with reformers such as Martin Luther. The English Reformation, however, got away from him. Once started, it couldn’t be stopped.

* * *

The Succession

Tudor_succession_diagram(2)

Jane Seymour, Queen Consort of England 1536-1537

Jane Seymour, Queen Consort of England 1536-1537

When Henry died, AT LONG LAST, his only legitimate son, Edward Tudor, became Edward VI, King of England.

Edward, whose mother was Jane Seymour (Henry’s third wife; she died a few weeks after giving birth), was only nine years old and he didn’t really run the country… a bunch of greedy grownups made all the political decisions.

But Edward was a committed Protestant and so while he was king the real Reformers in England were more active.

At age fifteen, after he had been king for only six years, Edward died of a lung disease (probably tuberculosis).

Then all hell broke loose.

Henry’s elder daughter Mary Tudor was next in line in the Succession (the list of who gets to be in charge of England when the current ruler dies; see diagram above), but everybody knew that she would restore Catholic rule and persecute Protestants, of whom there were growing numbers.

Mary Tudor, Queen of France, daughter of Henry VII of England, sister of Henry VIII, wife of Louis XII of France and then of Charles Brandon, 1st duke of Suffolk; Mary and Charles were the maternal grandparents of Lady Jane Grey

Mary Tudor, Queen of France, daughter of Henry VII of England, sister of Henry VIII, wife of Louis XII of France and then of Charles Brandon, 1st duke of Suffolk; Mary and Charles were the maternal grandparents of Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey was the granddaughter of Henry’s sister Mary, and she (Jane) had a legitimate claim to the throne if you took the position that Mary Tudor and Elizabeth, who was next on the list after Mary, were bastards (sorry, Daddy), which, technically, they were since Henry’s marriages to their mothers had been annulled.

As explained above, Lady Jane was basically manhandled to the throne by the evil John Dudley, First Duke of Northumberland, the father of Guilford Dudley, whom Jane was forced to marry. When the time of reckoning came, father and son were executed along with Lady Jane, though I doubt whether Queen Mary had many regrets about ridding the kingdom of those two.

Guilford’s brother Robert Dudley, First Earl of Leicester, was cut from different cloth. He was a man of intelligence and character (the rumors that he killed his first wife, Mary, have been judged by history to be false). He and Queen Elizabeth had been childhood friends, and it is generally believed that they had a lifelong love affair that was never consummated.

Eventually he married Lettice Knollys, a granddaughter of Lady Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister.

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

Will Guilt Make You Good? (conclusion)

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Pembrokeshire, Wales, by Skellig2008 via Flickr

Pembrokeshire, Wales, by Skellig2008 via Flickr

Every Tiny Leaf

This, as I have said, is a true story, and, as I hope you will recall from Part 1 of this story, because I am NOT not going to explain THE ENTIRE EPISODE all over again, Sister Alma Rose and her friend Elizabeth Anna Stratton (who is 65 years old) and I went to the 7:30 a.m. service at the Presbyterian church last month because Elizabeth Anna is trying to decide whether she wants to come back to Hilltop and live in the wonderful house in the country that she inherited from her parents, who are deceased…

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

…and the minister giving the sermon, who I hope is just an interim minister whose term of service ended yesterday, because if she is not, the only people left at the Presbyterian church are going to be the hard-of-hearing, no disrespect intended, inasmuch as the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell is the kind of minister who preaches austerity out of the left side of her mouth while the right side is practicing conspicuous consumption at Bergdorf Goodman, otherwise maybe I could buy into the guilt trip she was laying on the…

…“complacent middle class,” which is pretty much all of Hilltop — …[while] families are being driven from their homes and living in filthy camps where children starve, and little boys are being abducted to fight in revolutions they don’t understand, and young men and women are smoking crack cocaine, and mothers are selling their daughters into prostitution in exchange for money to feed their addictions

and maybe I could drop everything and go take care of all that, and still arrive before the bell on Monday morning at Hilltop Elementary School, where I am in seventh grade — IF the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell had, herself, not been wearing six or seven hundred dollars on her back and driving a beautifully restored 1957 Thunderbird convertible (for which my own mama would sell ME [but only to the nicest people]), although I suppose it is possible, theoretically, in the Land of the Seriously Deluded, that the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell’s clothes and the car were borrowed and she actually returned them to the borrowee that very morning in exchange for her hairshirt and pack mule.

Elizabeth Anna's sickroom

Elizabeth Anna's sickroom

Well, we were not questioning the tragedies she spoke of, which are all too real, but after we left the church, Sister Alma Rose was mostly concerned about Elizabeth Anna, who in her youth had suffered what I’m told was called at that time a “nervous breakdown,” brought on by guilt starting when she was a little girl, and prolonged by anxiety that caused her to not speak for six months and to be unable to leave her parents’ house for five years, and for THAT story you can read Part 2, because I am done with the recap that I said I was not going to provide in the first place.

Letters to Vietnam

Elizabeth Anna had invited Sister Alma Rose and me to have lunch at the family home, which I had seen only from the outside, but I had prepared myself to be cool and sophisticated and to not gawk at the seriously fabulous interior, where the first thing we saw was a fountain, the kind you want to throw pennies into, which was covered and surrounded with one-inch ceramic tiles, dark blue and shiny, but I did not gawk, I only gaped, which I was not aware of until drool landed on the toes sticking out of my sandals. I estimate that seventy-five thousand oak trees and three hundred thousand ceramic-tile trees gave their lives for the floors and the wainscoting and the bathrooms, et cetera, in that house that was not so much IMPRESSIVE as it was simply BEAUTIFUL but in a COMFORTABLE way that doesn’t make it feel like a museum but rather like a cozy living space that happened to have cost 78 bazillion dollars to build.

Acacia leaves and thorns; photo by Stan Shebs

Acacia leaves and thorns; photo by Stan Shebs

During lunch, which I will not even begin to describe… well… no, I won’t even start…. During lunch, Elizabeth Anna told me that Sister Alma Rose had visited her many times while she was housebound, and I interrupted and said, “I’ll just BET she did,” and Sister Alma Rose gave me a Look but Elizabeth Anna just laughed, and went on to say that Sister Alma Rose had told her (which you will know if you know anything about Sister Alma Rose) that every tiny leaf in the universe is necessary and has a purpose, and the tiny leaf is not asked to be a rock or a stream but to do its necessary Leaf Job, and that it is the same with people, and that we must try to find where our Talents and Desires and the Needs of the Universe (which, Sister Alma Rose pointed out, is the same thing as the Will of God, though I am not sure what the antecedent of which is) coincide, so that some people are saxophone players and delight themselves and other people that way, and some people are called to serve the Indigenous People in the Amazon rainforest, and if that is their calling you could not pry them away with, um, whatever large things are out there that are used to pry people away from their calling.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

While Elizabeth Anna was recovering at home, she started writing letters to men and women serving in Vietnam, because the war was going on at that time, and she wrote thousands of letters, she lost count at two thousand, but I don’t mean to say that she wrote to thousands of different people, because many of the letters were sent in reply to those she received, and over and over again the writers told her how much her letters meant to them, that her letters were all they had to look forward to, and it was the knowledge that she was meeting a need AND doing something deeply satisfying that, more than anything else, made it possible for her to think that it was all right for her to be taking up space in the world, breathing air, eating paté, and so forth, and I am joking about the paté, but I was going to say, before I became enamored of my own rapierlike wit, that Elizabeth Anna received several proposals of marriage, all of which she regretfully (as she wrote to her correspondents) declined, because she did not plan ever to marry, and she never has.

A G.I. in Vietnam

A G.I. in Vietnam

Her parents worried that Elizabeth Anna might be plunged back into her depression when, as was inevitable, some of her correspondents were killed, but her Trained Psychiatric Nurse, wonderful Eleanor, told them that it was more likely that Elizabeth Anna would be happy that she was able to help them while they were living, which indeed turned out to be the case, and then Elizabeth Anna wrote letters to their families. Elizabeth Anna told us that sometimes she knew that someone had died, because that person had written regularly and then suddenly stopped, but more often the people whom Elizabeth Anna wrote to had asked a buddy to be sure to write to Elizabeth Anna if  “something should happen” because they wanted her to know that they loved her, in the way that you can love someone who has shared her life with you in letters and has let you share your life with her, and more often than not the “buddy” became Elizabeth Anna’s correspondent.

After the war, people continued to write to her, but she told us she was glad when the letters stopped, because it usually meant that the person had resumed “a meaningful life” back at home, though not always, so Elizabeth Anna always sort of checked in on those who stopped writing to make sure that they weren’t suffering from what we now know as PTSD.

Memorial Chapel, Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Memorial Chapel, Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Then, for about three years, Elizabeth Anna and Eleanor traveled, visiting the veterans who had become her pen pals who were having a rough time, making sure they were getting good care, which Elizabeth Anna very often paid for herself, partly as a tribute to Eleanor, who had helped her, Elizabeth Anna, so much during the dark night of her soul; and when Elizabeth Anna showed symptoms of making a veteran’s despair her own, she had Eleanor to remind her of what her “boundaries” were, because, as has been said, Elizabeth Anna would be of no use to anyone if she were once again sitting in her bedroom not speaking and eating nothing but Gerber vanilla baby pudding.

Back into the light

After Elizabeth Anna’s father died, she and her mother and Eleanor went to live in Wales, which was something Elizabeth Anna had always wanted to do, and for a while Elizabeth Anna didn’t do any Good Deeds, at least in a scheduled way, the three of them just traveled, touring castles and having picnics in the wonderfully picturesque Welsh countryside, and hiking, and taking a boat to Ireland, et cetera.

St. David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, Wales

St. David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, Wales

And Eleanor ended up marrying a Welsh gentleman, who was in business with sheep, I mean, of course, that his business had something to do with sheep, and then Elizabeth Anna’s mother died after an illness of just a few weeks, when she was “in hospital,” as they say in the U.K., and for the next five years Elizabeth Anna stayed in that village, just a five-minute walk from Eleanor, and lived in an old cottage and gardened in the summer, and did whatever it is that Welsh people who live in old cottages do to stay warm in the winter, but, summer and winter, Elizabeth Anna volunteered in that hospital, visiting and talking with people of all ages who were going to die. And if they were afraid, Elizabeth Anna told them that there was nothing to fear, because she, herself, had died and had been for a while in a black tunnel where she could not see anything but the dark, and that the Grace of God had pulled her back into the light, which had been there all along, and then she had never known such joy, and it had never left her.

And now I am afraid that Elizabeth Anna will go back to Wales, because she has Eleanor and many other friends there, but I told her while we were eating lunch that, even in Hilltop, home of the complacent middle class, there are people who are suffering the long, dark night of the soul, but that if she decided to go back anyway, could I live in her house?

Elizabeth Anna

Elizabeth Anna

* * *

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I, Fanny

I, Fanny

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