Thursday, April 12, 2007

Losing Life, Finding Faith

Her life was over. Widowed by war, left childless by war, she had lost all desire to live in such a world. Her life, as she knew it, had ended. There was nothing more to say to anyone, for there was nothing more to want. Except the Great Silence, and permission to enter it.

This is what brought her to the priest. She had given up—or had been robbed of—everything, except one last knowing. She knew this one option for herself, and it required his authority for her to leave the world and enter the convent, where she would live as a hermit. She would let Jesus Christ teach her how to be alone. Not because she could accept all that had happened to her as being the will of God, but because it was all she could choose, all she still knew after she knew her life no longer. She still knew that there must be a place for her in the deepest chamber of the nautilus of her ancient faith. A shell is all she asked for, a place to hide.

“Very well,” answered the priest, “But first I will ask you to do something. Last night, she arrived. Sixteen, seventeen. Silent. Has no one. Take her home, give her bread, give her a blanket. One week, two weeks.”

Lacking the strength to refuse, the woman took the girl’s arm and guided her home. A week passed without speech between them, between these two women of war, for there was nothing either of them could say.

After mass, she sought the priest again. “He’s seven, eight,” he said to her. “The light is gone from his eyes. We found him on our steps this morning, on his way nowhere. I need you to take him.”

And so it went. They were as young as two or three, as old as twenty. Orphaned by war, expelled from their torched villages, set on an exodus without a promised land, carried by instinct, by hope that life would somehow open up to them and swallow them in safety.

She took them home. Was it the littlest one who caused her to speak again? Did that toddler roll away the stone all by himself, I wonder?

Her once-empty shack became filled with children. As it filled, so did her heart. They found her, these wanderers. Through them, Jesus Christ showed her how to use her solitude.

As many as two hundred children have lived with her. She houses them and teaches them in great steel containers, the kind you see stacked on trains. To get them, she had to find her voice. And to get holes cut in the walls for air and light.

That’s all I know of her story. I lost the signal as I was driving. I don’t know her name. I don’t recall her country, though I believe her church was one of the ancient traditions, perhaps Coptic or Orthodox. I’ve googled, I’ve searched NPR’s archives, and so far have come up empty-handed on the details.

But it’s the story that counts, isn’t it?

What this story isn’t, I suspect, is a story of how we want resurrection to appear in our lives. Becoming responsible for two hundred children? We’d prefer a more congenial model of salvation.

But place yourself among the two hundred in this story. That is what the Gospel story of these holy days requires of us: that we stand honest in our need for a truer life, a bolder love, and a finer hope offered to us by Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

This woman’s story may show us how faith is found, or found again. How it requires our acting on what we already know, trusting who we believe we can trust, and daring to be surprised. Even into doing what we may never have expected to do, and be met there by grace that teaches us newly to be free, to serve, to love—and then to believe and to understand.