Friday, August 06, 2010
An unexpected blessing
You never know what's going to move you. Like yesterday, for instance:
We were in Vezelay, a medieval French hilltop village, that looks as if it sprung out of the ground one thousand years ago, just pushed itself through the top soil into the form of a beautifully chaotic, stone mess.
On the very top of the hill is a basilica which claims to harbor some of remains of Mary Magdalene, or Maria Madeline as she is called in France. From what I have seen, which is encased in a six-inch long tube and placed in a lighted grotto behind glass down in the crypt, it might be her pinky finger bone.
I may sound irreverent--I’m not traditionally religious-- but, I am not immune to the intrigue of deep religion and ancient churches. It’s hard to go into one of these places, behold the massive stone arches that reach up to the heavens, feel the cool hush, smell the burning wax candles, hear the sound of your feet walking on smooth stones where untold millions have walked before you, and not be taken in by the sheer... immensity of it all.
So I always get a bit God goggled when I’m in this place as it is, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
As we walked along the gravel path that led away from the side entrance of the basilica, Isla sat down on the grass to get a pebble out of her shoe. With a sigh and a groan, I squatted down next to her and undid her buckle, shook the pebble out, shoved her sweaty foot back in and started to do the shoe back up when I noticed Isla waving to someone.
I looked up and saw, walking towards us, a young Franciscan nun in long gray robes.
“Look at her,” Isla said as the nun came closer, smiling.
“Yea,” I said. "Look at her. She looks like some kind of a princess, doesn’t she.”
While I continued to struggle-- trying to find the blasted hole in Isla’s shoe strap- the nun came down some steps and kept walking towards us. I thought she was going to pass us, but then something poetic happened.
She stopped, bent down and put her hand on top of Isla’s head for just a split second. Then she ran her hand down the side of Isla’s face and turned it under her throat and cupped her chin, in an incredibly intimate way a parent or lover might when trying to memorize their loved-one's face. (I can't remember the last time anyone has touched my face like that.)
She looked in Isla’s eyes. Isla beamed up at her. They both smiled. No one spoke. I turned my head towards her, but could not meet her eyes. You can guess why. I was starting to cry.
Before my tears even found the rim of my eyes, she was gone. I kept my head down, as tourists passed by us, pretending to still do up Isla’s shoe, and did my best to collect my pathetic self.
A trillion thoughts flashed through my mind:
Does she do this to all children she sees, or did something about Isla, “invite” her to?
Did she just sense that I wouldn’t mind if she touched my child, or was it more impulsive, less rational, than that?
Does she ever have doubts about devoting her life to God and never becoming a mother?
What is it like to make such a bold commitment-- though parenting may be equally bold?
What is it like to live such a simple, focused, pared- down life?
And, what is it like to not have to choose your clothes, ever, for your entire life? (Sorry. I had to lighten up on the earnestness.)
Would I have found any of this so touching if it had just been any old woman passing by? Or if it had been a monk?
I don't think so.