Rome

In Rome, I get in line at a booth that advertises the Hop On/Hop Off bus, and purchase a ticket after confirming with the attendant that the ticket is for the Hop On/Hop Off bus. I ask for a map and she tells me that I will get one on the bus. I follow the line across the road and we wait in the hot sun as two busses that belong to the tour company pass us. The busses are not the open top, double-deckers to which I have become accustomed, but rather closed coaches. “I thought this ticket was for the open, double-decker busses,” I say to a couple who are snogging next to me. I hear them speak English to one another but they don’t respond to my query. As more coaches arrive and stop this time, the people in line fight to get on board. Two young, well-dressed Japanese women aggressively push others aside as they try to ascend the steps of the bus. One of them has dyed red hair that looks burnt orange. They are told there is room for one person and when they both try to push their way onto the bus they are reprimanded in Italian by the driver.

When the fourth bus comes, I too begin to push my way forward. The orange-haired Japanese woman grabs my purse and holds it to keep me from climbing on the bus. “Do you mind if I take my purse with me?” I ask her and I pull my purse to me with such intensity that it almost hits her in the face. She starts to scream and shout in Japanese. She is shrill as she pushes and shoves her way through the crowd. I’ve never seen anyone so crazed. She manages to get on the bus after me, and she is screeching to her friend, already seated, in Japanese likely about me. I continue to feel disappointed that I am not on an open tour even as the bus pulls away. The bus has oversold tickets and there are not sufficient seats for all passengers. A man stands in the aisle next to the row of seats in front of where I sit. His wife sits in the seat in front of him and they speak together in soft, Irish accents. Their teenage daughter sits in the aisle further back, and they check in with her periodically. As the bus drives on the highway I hear a man with an Australian accent, who is seated next to the Irish wife, speak on the phone to one of his friends, “I’ll be back in Rome by four,” he says.

Back in Rome? Back in Rome? Where are we going now then? I ask the girl next to me if she speaks English and when she says in a Russian accent “a little” I ask her where we are headed.

“To an outlet mall,” she tells me.

An outlet mall? A bloody outlet mall!!!!  This is what all the fuss is about? An outlet mall?  I want to see ROME! I want to see the Eternal City I have often seen depicted in films. I ask my seat companion to please excuse me, climb out of my seat, run down the aisle, and ask the bus driver to let me off the bus, but he refuses. He speaks to me in Italian, which I do not understand. Finally, seeing my lack of comprehension he says, “Forty minutes.” In broken English he explains that I have to go to the outlet mall and wait until twelve-thirty before he can drive me back.

“I have to wait for an hour?” I ask.

“Si.”

I return to my seat and tell the Russian girl, Australian man and Irish couple that I have to go with them to the outlet mall before I can go back to Rome. They offer their sympathies to me. “I didn’t look around Rome first. I just went for the bus tour,” I explain. I look at the standing Irishman. “I’m very sorry,” I tell him. “It seems I’ve taken your seat.”

“No bother,” he says. “You’ve got bigger problems than me.”

“I do,” I agree.  “It could be worse though. It could be a six hour tour somewhere. I will be back in Rome in an hour.”

We arrive at the outlet mall just after eleven. The crowd hustles off the bus and with trepidation I approach the driver again. “Can’t you take me right back?”

“No.”

“Please?” I beg.

“Mange, mange,” he says rubbing his belly. “I need to eat.”

“Can’t you just eat on the bus as we drive back?” I ask.

“No.”

“No?”

“No.”

The concept of eating while on the run is foreign to Italians as though it is one American custom they simply refuse to adopt. “Well….can I come with you? Stay on the bus?”

“No.”

“Where will you pick me up?”

“Right here at twelve-thirty.”

“Right here?”

“Yes. Here. Si.”

The Russian girl asks me to come and shop with her for an hour, but I politely decline. “Thank you, but I’m not leaving this spot,” I tell her and she laughs.

There is a narrow strip of shade to shelter me and I plant myself on the cement sidewalk for sixty minutes until I can return to Rome. I watch people rush in to shop, shop, shop. The outlet mall looks like the ones we have in Canada apart from the surrounding palm trees and tropical flowers.  The shoppers look exactly like the shoppers at home. A group of women in their sixties go in together, laughing with one another. Young families enter struggling with baby strollers and screaming toddlers. Mothers enter with their teenage daughters, each of them the same shade of bottle blonde. I am so disappointed. I want to see Rome, the Eternal City, but instead sit on a cement sidewalk outside a generic outlet mall that could have been in any city. I think about how the people shoved one another while climbing onto the bus. I think of the crazed Japanese women clamoring for a bargain. It is sheer lunacy.

In 2000, while I was teaching at Catholic Central high school, I read about Saint Augustine of Hippo, and he quickly became my favourite saint. He was a philanderer who roamed Italy eating, drinking and screwing to excess. He lived with a concubine for thirteen years with whom he had a son out of wedlock. His mother, Saint Monica, followed her wayward son about Italy and prayed for his salvation.  Aware of his mother’s mission, St. Augustine would pray to God, “Dear God, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” I found it amusing that he recognized his sins, but that he was not yet willing to give up his debauchery. After he converted to Christianity, he wrote Confessions of a Sinner in which he proclaimed that within every man there was a God-shaped void that only God could fill. He determined that men will try to fill that God-shaped hole with liquor, opiates, material possessions and other people (sex), but only God could fill that void that existed within the soul of every man.  I taught my Catholic high school students about Saint Augustine when we studied The Great Gatsby, an American classic about the fallacy of the American dream and the tragedy of materialism. It was then that I had my own awakening with regards to my own behaviour. I was still trying to fill that place in my heart meant for God alone with empty promises.  As I sit waiting for my lift back to the city from that Italian shopaholic haven beyond the eternal city’s ancient boundaries, the city in which St Augustine partied with prostitutes, I think about the many ways in which I no longer used external stimulus to fill my soul, and about the few ways in which I still do.

The driver takes pity on me and returns me early to Rome; he eats his lunch and picks me up ten minutes early at twelve-twenty. It is just he and I on the bus as we drive back and the silence is deafening. I want to break the stillness between us with polite banter but I know no Italian and his English is limited. There are pictures of three young children on his front windshield next to his side view mirror. The two boys and one girl appear to be between the ages of five and ten. I assume they are his grandchildren. “The bambinos est bella,” I say fully aware that my grammar is suspect.  Watching his expression in his rearview mirror, I see him smile and nod.

“Si,” he says.

“Your grandchildren, Senore?” I ask.

“Si.”

That is the extent of our exchange. Silence blankets the space between us once more like a thick fog. I watch a young female on roller blades pump her way into the city on a bike path that runs parallel to the highway. Even in Canada, where roller blading is an art form of sorts, I have never seen anyone move with such speed and precision on the sharp-edged vanes, her long blonde hair glittering in the brilliant sunshine. As the skyline of Rome draws closer on the horizon, I try to chat with the driver again. I explain that I had just want to see bella Roma, not shop. “Stupido Canadian,” I say tapping my forehead with the palm of my left hand. He looks at me in his rearview mirror again and nods as if to agree. As we enter the city, he sees a Hop On bus and says to me, “You want I should let you out here?”

I smile, “Si, Senore.”  He stops the bus next to the Hop On/Hop Off stop.  “Grazia, Senor!” I say. “Mucho, Grazias!” He visibly softens.

Rome is magnificent. I am pleased that I don’t have to pay to use a public toilet and I am in awe of how sexy the older Italian men are. They resemble the erotic, Mediterranean matinee idols of the 1950’s. I go to the Vatican and happen to see the changing of the guard. The Swiss Guard marches with precision in their yellow, red and blue uniforms and I snap pictures along with other spectators. I walk around St. Peter’s Square and speculate about Saint Peter’s impressions of Rome when he walked these streets. What did he think about Rome and its people?

A middle-aged man stares lustfully at a young girl standing nearby as she photographs the square. He looks at her breasts and legs but she remains oblivious to his attention as he edges closer to her. She cannot be more than eighteen, and she seems to be alone.

St. Peter’s Square is packed. Throngs of people bump against one another in the repressive heat. I want to escape both the crowd and the searing sun. A man passes me shouting, “See the Vatican. Jump the queue. No need to wait in line. Last tour of the day. Starts in five minutes. One ticket left.” I want to go with him and see the famous artwork of the Vatican. I want to gaze upon Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel but I hesitate wondering if I can trust this man. No one has ever mentioned that this sort of thing happens at the Vatican and I consider that it might be a hoax. I might pay him and then he could disappear into the multitudes just as I’d seen a woman robbed in a similar fashion in Paris at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. As I decide to chance it and go with him, he disappears. I miss my opportunity to see the inside of the Vatican.

The faithful barter for rosary beads, tacky saint statues and holy medals as they shove one another out of the way. A white canvas bag with a black and white photograph of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn riding a scooter in the film Roman Holiday on its front hangs in a shop window and toy with the idea of buying it for myself. I love that film. I love Gregory Peck. I’ve had a crush on him since I saw him in To Kill A Mockingbird when I was a child. Hepburn’s Princess Anna runs away from the palace and serendipitously meets Peck’s shiftless reporter, Joe Bradley, who once he realizes who she is, plans to take advantage of the situation and exploit her adventures in Rome. But he falls in love with her and cannot bring himself to hurt her in anyway. I hate that they don’t end up together but say good-bye in the end as she returns to her royal duties and he goes back to the press, each of them forever changed by their love for one another. I decide against purchasing the bag with Hepburn and Peck on its canvas front. I don’t need it. I walk back to the bus.

The bus idle for some time waiting for more passengers to board. The heat is stifling and I want nothing more than for the bus to roar forward and manufacture a breeze. Young East Indian men sell water bottles and hand-fans from the side of the bus. I motion for one chap to throw up a bottle of water to me in return for two Euros.

“Three Euros,” he says.

“Two.”

Acquiescing he nods and throws up the water bottle to me. I catch it and toss down the two Euro piece to him. We smile at one another and he gives a little bow before continuing along the avenue to sell his cold commodity to other hot, thirsty pilgrims. I feel the coolness of the water bottle with my fingertips. I roll it along my scorching neck and press it between my perspiring breasts. The bus driver for this particular Hop On tour looks to be in his late forties. He has a medium build and his thick hair is silver, which sets off his perfectly suntanned complexion. He wears mirror aviator sunglasses and chats flirtatiously with the young women working on the bus, who giggle self-consciously at every word that trickles past his full lips. He resembled the Italian actor, Rosanno Brazzi, who starred in the 1955 David Lean film, Summertime, with American icon Katherine Hepburn. Brazzi, a married man, seduces Hepburn’s spinster, middle-aged school teacher character who is in Rome for the first time. As middle-aged female passengers sheepishly climb aboard his bus, shyly smiling at their handsome driver under fluttering eyelashes, I notice that all women over twenty, of which I am one, seem to be invisible to him.

In front of the Coliseum, I snap a photograph of two men costumed as ancient Roman soldiers who pose in front of the ancient ruins. They put out their hands for payment and when I open my wallet they spy the twenty and fifty Euro notes in my wallet, and almost pounce on me in an effort to part me from my money. I  offer them a reasonable two Euros for their pose, but they chase me down the street asking for more money. “Madonna! Madonna! Madonna!” they call after me as I run from them.

The Trevie Fountain is glorious. I picture Gregory Peck running up to Audrey Hepburn as she eats an ice cream cone perched upon the steps in front of the fountain, the very ones I am seated before now eating a pasta dinner. Once finished, I immediately regret my dinner as the mussels and white sauce settle heavily in my stomach. I search for a Catholic church about to celebrate Mass, and find a service starting in San Marco Catholic Church.

Relieved, I enter to find sanctuary from the high temperature and passionate crowds. I notice several Italian women in their late fifties and early sixties who are stuffed like fat sausages into dresses that are too two-sizes too small for their ample flesh and about twenty years too young for them as well. Their breasts are spilling out of their open necklines, and I can see their lacy, coloured bras under their flimsy frocks. A nun sits beside me and another in front of me. I seem to always end up surrounded by sisters. I ask God what He is saying to me in that moment and I ask myself what sort of woman I want to be as I age. I no longer want to try to look sexy at fifty. But nor do I want to take the veil. No. I don’t want to be a nun. I still desire men. I want to be kissed again. I want to have sex again but only sex inside marriage that comes with love and commitment. I want to be with a man who loves me and whom I love in return.

I have difficulty locating my hotel room at the end of my busy, blistering day in Rome. As I search, I walk through the now deserted train station and somehow end up on the derelict back end of it. A young Italian man in his twenties approaches me, looks me in the eye and calls me ‘Bella’. He presses his chest into my front as I step sideways away from him. He rumbles words in the back of his throat and makes a clicking noise. He mutters something more to me that I don’t understand but as he looks at me with half-shut eyelids he places his tongue in the side of his mouth and bites down on it. He seems to be propositioning me. I figure he is high or maybe he is a street kid who prostitutes himself or both. I push past him. After asking several people where my hotel is, I find it. The hotel hasn’t taken my bag to my room, so I fish it out of the back closet and go upstairs. The room has no kettle with which to make a cup of tea so I head back out to the streets of Roma, and looked for a cup of tea, but there is none to be found.  Upon returning to my hotel, I ask the desk clerk if he could provide me with a cup of hot water for tea. When he refuses I complain of the fact that there is no kettle in the room or no one in the hotel to make guests a cup of tea.

“And the room is like an oven!” I raise my voice slightly.

He starts shouting at me in Italian and I bark back at him in English. It is the heat. I’m hot, tired and hungry. I am also worried about being able to get back to Paris in time for my flight to Dublin. I limp away from the hotel lobby and retreat to the privacy of my room.

I have another cold shower, and try to sleep in my stifling chamber but toss and turn. I pray to God to let me sleep and as I look up I see a huge ceiling fan over my bed that I had not noticed before. How could I have missed such a monstrosity? Why had the concierge not told me of the fan? Bastard! I find the switch and turn it on high over my bed. The son-of-a-bitch desk clerk might have said there was a fan in the room! When the noise of its propellers continue to keep me awake I pretend the whirr is the lull of yet another train and soon fall asleep.

When I check out at six the next morning the concierge comes from the back room dressed in a stained, white undershirt and black trousers with white suspenders that he was hastily pulling over his protruding belly, snapping them in place upon his narrow shoulders. His hair sits in tufts atop his head and I smell that stale odour of a man who has just rolled out of sweaty sheets. I feel sorry for waking him but only slightly. In truth, I also feel some satisfaction for disturbing his sleep.  I am still too upset from the previous night to even apologize to him. I just leave accepting the fact that there is not to be peace between he and I in the eternal city.

I can live with that.

 

 

 

Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is located in northwestern Spain. The city has its origin in the shrine of Saint James the Great, now the city’s cathedral, as destination of the Way of St. James, a leading Catholic pilgrimage route originated in the 9th century. In 1985 the city’s Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I plan to walk to Compostela one day, but cannot miss the opportunity of at least seeing the town while I am in Spain, studying in Barcelona.

I go to Santiago de Compostela on July 4th, 2014.  It is raining softly when I arrive at eight-thirty in the morning, and I stop to eat breakfast in a deserted bar. The waitress cannot understand me so I make chicken clucking noises as I flap my arms in an effort to order eggs and toast.

“Si, si,” the woman says. She runs back to the kitchen and returns with a carton of eggs and a loaf of brown bread. She shows them to me.

“Si. Gracias,” I smile. “And téa pour fer vor. Gracias, Senora.”

Two men enter the bar while I eat and once I finish my breakfast I ask if either of them speaks English. One of them does and he is able to direct me to my hotel. As I pay my breakfast tab, I notice a picture of the Virgin Mary pinned next to the cash register and feel comforted by the notion that the bar owner knows Mary in this pilgrimage site. I find my hotel after getting lost in the narrow, winding streets three or four times. I cannot check in until two so I leave my bag with the hotel clerk and walk to the cathedral, which is one block from my hotel. Pilgrims are walking into town, smiling despite their exhaustion. They stride with large walking sticks, their backpacks brandishing seashells, which marks them as pilgrims. I feel humbled that I hadn’t walked into Compostela myself. I feel that I have cheated myself from the experience by not waiting to do it the way I have wanted to do it for many years.

As I enter the cathedral my thoughts immediately turn to my deceased father when I hear people singing How Great Thou Art in English, my father’s favourite hymn. We sang it at his funeral in 2010. I follow their voices to a small, side chapel. I realize that the ten-thirty English Mass is about to commence. I just make it in time. Before the service begins, the pilgrims in attendance introduce themselves.

“My name is Ben. I’m from Australia and I walked from Pamplona.”

“My name is Vincent. I am from Ireland and I walked with my wife from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.”

Some stand on bandaged feet, their sunburned faces belying their weariness. I am embarrassed to introduce myself as a non-walker, but I do. “I will walk it one day but I have not yet,” I tell the pilgrims. One young American boy refuses to shake my hand at peace be with you time, and I wonder if it is because I had not arrived to Compostela by foot.

I am seated next to Vincent who has a strong Northern Irish accent, the accent of my Griffin ancestors, and I wonder what my grandfather’s voice had sounded like. Vincent races ahead of everyone else when he professes the responses during the Mass. My father used to do that. My dad, like Vincent, needed folk to know that he attended Mass regularly and knew all of the parts perhaps better than anyone else. This tendency to out profess co-communicants throws me off my own response time, thus making it appear as though I never attend Mass though I have attended daily Mass for fifteen years. Vincent takes great pains to kneel in the chapel though there is no room to do so nor are there kneelers provided. I say a small prayer that God will help Vincent overcome his pride.

A young, bespeckled Spanish priest named Juan Carlos presides. He announces that after Mass he will hear confessions in English. “My English is not so good so no matter what you confess, I will offer you absolution.” The congregation laughs softly. Pilgrims limp to the altar to receive communion. After Mass we are invited to have coffee by three women who sat on the altar during Mass and whom I presume are nuns. Two of the women have English accents and the third speaks with an Irish inflection. The Irish nun, who looks like the Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan, is striking, and I can see that she had been a beauty as a young woman.

I opt not to go for coffee. I don’t feel that I should since I have not walked in to the pilgrimage site. Instead I remain behind and write on the available slips of paper intentions for people who I know need special prayers, and lay them with the many thousands of supplications already on the altar. One of the English nuns says that the prayers are burned at the end of each month in offering. A man who wears a blue cathedral staff t-shirt, slaps my camera out of my hands when I take a picture where apparently I am not allowed to use a flash. His nippy movement as he swats my hands unnerves me. I later notice the sign that asks that no pictures be taken in that particular area, but it is written in Spanish and I hadn’t seen the sign earlier. Still, there was no need for him to strike me as he had and I wonder if he would have hit a man in the same way. I hear my mother’s voice in my head, “Oh yes. The holier than thous. They’re the bloody worst.”

I go to confession with Father Juan Carlos. He is just opening up for business, and he smiles at me as he sees me waiting for him to unlock the confessional and then he motions for me to come forward. The confessionals are not cloistered, and I am not thrilled with the concept of confessing my sins in such an exposed manner. Nevertheless, I walk toward Father J.C. and kneel before him. He sits in a wooden box with shutters that open so that he can gaze upon the penitent who at that moment happens to be a mortified Canadian.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been four months since my last confession. In that time I have been guilty of using profanity, the sins of pride, anger, jealousy, vanity and even doubt. I doubt myself, I doubt my purpose and at times I even doubt that God is with me or that He cares about my life. I am a harsh critic of others, Father. I judge others as harshly as I criticize myself. I fail to love as I know I am called to love. I am not a devoted and obedient daughter, and carry resentments in my heart toward my family, especially my mother.” I pause and then quickly add, “I have also recently had thoughts of an impure nature.” I look to see if the young priest reacts to that last one but he sits motionless. I quickly conclude, “For these and all of my sins I am heartfully sorry and I ask the Lord’s forgiveness. Amen.”

The young priest thinks for a moment and I feel engulfed by his silence thinking perhaps that I should have held back on that last one. Then he speaks to me in a tone so gentle it sounds like a soft, summer breeze. “I feel God wants me to say to you, ‘I love you. You are my child and I love you just as you are. You do not need to change in order for me to love you.’” To hear him say I deserve love just as I am, and that I don’t need to try to be loved, makes me cry. “I also feel that God wants me to say to you, ‘I kiss your head. Like a father kisses the head of his sweet child, I kiss your head now. I love you as a father loves his precious child.’” More tears are shed by me. “Would you like a tissue?” the priest asks. He extends a package of Kleenex to me, I take one and dry my eyes. “You are so brave to have made an honest confession here today, and your sins are forgiven. Do you usually receive a penance?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Okay. I give you this as your penance: say a prayer for yourself that you will see how lovable you are and how worthy you are of God’s love, grace and mercy. This is your penance, my child. I offer you God’s absolution. Go in His peace.”

“Thank you, Father,” I breathe.

“God bless you, Daughter.”

“God bless you, Father.”

My eyes are overflowing with tears and I find it hard to see on my way back to the pews. I sit and collect myself, dab my moistened cheeks with the tissue the young priest has given me, then I say the prayers I am to say as part of my penance. I pray for myself.

The seats begin to fill up all around me with young pilgrims who appear to be the same age as the Catholic high school students I taught in Ontario. I am reminded how much I miss being a Catholic secondary school teacher. As such, I successfully directed many of my students to a belief in something greater than themselves and thus, a greater belief in themselves as people who are marked for God’s sacred purpose. I was a good Catholic secondary school teacher despite my many personal shortcomings. These Spanish teens in Santiago de Compostela wear bright orange shirts with the word ‘Jesuit’ written on the back. I realize that High Mass is about to begin, and I stay for it though it will be said in Spanish. At the end, they drop the incense ball. The Botafumeiro is a famous thurible. Incense is burned in this swinging metal container, or  “incensory”. The name “Botafumeiro” means “smoke expeller” in Galician. I have seen this wondrous act performed in the film The Way, which was written by Emilio Estevez and stars his father, Martin Sheen. Sheen’s character, Tom, walks the Camino after his son, Daniel (played by Estevez) is killed on the second day of his pilgrimage. I’ve seen the film several times since it was released in 2010.

My room in the pensione in Compostela is small and hot, and I find myself longing for the air conditioning of my Barcelona hotel. There is only Spanish TV so I listen to CBC Radio on my computer when I am in my room. I tune to Writers and Company and Tapestry, my two favourite CBC Radio programs. Canadian actor Colm Feore is featured in a broadcast with Michael Enwright and I delight in listening to him. I had met Mr. Feore in 2006 in the parking lot outside the Maisonville Chapters bookstore. I told him how much I admired his work, and he was very gracious as he thanked me. I had seen him perform in Coriolanus in Stratford later that same year. He was brilliant, articulate and beautiful.

I go to the six-thirty prayer service that evening at the cathedral in Santiago. There is a small, white voltive candle on each seat along with a prayer card. I pick up my candle and place it on the ledge in front of me before I sit in quiet contemplation. Once everyone gathers we are invited to introduce ourselves to the congregation, and once more I feel the need to publicly apologize for having failed to walk into Compostela. There are candles lit all around us, and I feel at peace surrounded by the stillness and quiet beauty of the chapel. The Irish nun, who introduces herself as Sister Kathy, tells us that we have each been given a candle and invites us to light a candle with our prayer intention before the service begins. “If you know what God’s call is for your life, then light the candle and offer it up as an intention,” she directs. “Walking the Camino is all about answering the call God has for our lives. Once you feel sure that you know what that call is, we invite you to light your candle and then place it on the cross.”

I have thought about what the call for my life is for many years, but dwell exclusively upon those thoughts throughout my first day in Compostela. There is loneliness expressed in my writing and that resounds in my head and heart now. I look at the three nuns on the altar and I look at the married couples around me who made the walk together, most in their fifties and sixties but some, like Vincent and his wife, appear to be in their seventies. As pilgrims introduce themselves, I listen to their stories and ask myself, as husbands and wives present speak one for the other, if that is what I want again. My heart now says that it is. Of course, the tragedy of my life is that had Jack and I stayed together, he and I would have walked the Camino together. Jack was a devout Catholic who served Mass every morning at Hamilton’s Blessed Sacrament Church as a boy before he went on to school in the neighbouring building, which was Blessed Sacrament Catholic School. We would have certainly come to a deeper faith in Christ in our marriage over the years and we could have made these pilgrimages together as a married couple that I now make alone. We would have been married for twenty-five years had I stayed with my husband but I left in 1994. “But you didn’t love him,” my heart reminds me. I look again at the nuns and ask if that is where I see myself. Is it? My heart says ‘no’ and I am relieved.

“Listen to your heart. Hear what it is saying to you. Offer that prayer to God and light your candle on the altar and then place it here on the Cross,” Sister Kathy says. She kneels next to a simple, wooden crucifix on the floor and places her lit voltive at the base of it.

People sit in quiet meditation as soft music emanates from the CD player placed on the altar. One by one pilgrims hobble to the front of the chapel to place their lit candles on the cross. I sit for a moment longer as I wonder what I will ask of God. Then I stand and walk to the altar. I bend low at the Cross and light my voltive from one already burning before placing mine at the heart of the crucifix now alight with the prayers of pilgrims. I return to my seat and as the prayer service begins, I whisper to God, “I don’t want to be alone anymore, God. Please help me.”  I begin to cry softly once more and I dig in my purse for a tissue anxious that others in attendance not see my tears.  After the service is concluded, we are once again invited to go for coffee, but once more I decline. Instead I remain in the chapel after the others leave and I rise to write one last prayer intention before I leave that evening. This one is just for me.

I go to Mass again the following morning. The nuns, who noticed my tears the previous evening at the prayer vigil, come and ask if I am alright.

“Fine, sisters. I’m fine,” I smile.

Sister Kathy sits next to me. She inquires about my life in Canada and we chat quietly together though I am conscious that our voices are disturbing pilgrims at prayer. The priest who serves the English Mass that day, Father James, is from India. An American priest who had just arrived after walking the Camino, Father Kevin, co-celebrates with Father James. During the sermon, Father James says that evil comes from five major failings. He names hating our parents as the main one. I have not been praying daily in the same manner as had become my custom for many years, and I had missed Sunday Mass twice in the last few weeks though I had daily attended Mass for the last fifteen years. I know that I must return to my daily spiritual practices if I am to strengthen my resolve and behave in a more worthy manner.

The nuns invite me to go with them for coffee after Mass and I go. I give them ten euros for their coffee kitty and order a tea. The waiters provide us with pound cake and biscuits since, as sister says, they are such good customers. I sit next to Vincent, interested in chatting with him about Northern Ireland, and the old Australian, who is named Ben, sits across from us. Ben is heavy-set with a full grey beard, and wears a floppy Aussie outback hat.

“Look at you, Vincent! Always next to the most beautiful woman in the place! How do you do it, mate?”

I feel embarrassed by his remark. Vincent and the nuns also seem to feel uncomfortable. In any event, no one responds to Ben’s loutish comment. He proceeds to bawl about his pilgrimage, generously using the word ‘bloody’ as an adjective and adverb.

“I bloody-well got jock itch on that bloody pilgrimage, Sister.” He produces two tubes of cream that he has been using on his chaffed genitals and throws them up on the table where our tea and cakes sit. He asks Sister Kathy if she knows which lubricant would best heal his crotch. Sister Kathy looks at the cylinders of ointment without touching either of them.

“Did you walk the Camino, Sister?” I change the subject from that of Ben’s battered balls.

“Yes. I walked five days from Lugo,” she tells me.

Several more pilgrims join us and I listen as they speak of their adventures along the Camino. I wish that I had walked it but know that it hasn’t yet been feasible for me to do so. I will do it after I turn fifty.

“I know you will,” says Sister Kathy when I say again that I will walk the Camino one day soon.

Ben keeps trying to chat with me by making remarks of a personal bordering on suggestive nature and I feel offended that he thinks that he even has a chance with me. Men like Ben don’t lack confidence, and I don’t know why that is. When he learns that I am returning to Barcelona he suggests we get together.

“I’m going to be in Barcelona, love. We should have dinner,” he says.

“I’m very busy with my program. They plan our evenings as well as our days. I simply will not have time.”

“Well, maybe I’ll run into you there,” he ventures. “What college are you studying at?”

“I forget the name of it. It’s off the main pedestrian thoroughfare.”

“Bloody Barcelona. You never know, love. I’m teaching at the University of Barcelona so I may find myself at that other location. I’m to go to a college in the city centre. I bet it’s the same bloody place where you are.”

I shrug and smile hoping that it isn’t the same college and pray that I never see Ben with the contaminated down-undercarriage ever again. I ask if anyone knows where I might find a launderette and Ben offers to let me come back to his hotel to use his laundry facilities.

“Oh, no. That’s fine,” I say. “I couldn’t impose.”

“Sure, love. We’ll just walk in like we bloody-well own the joint and go on up to the back and down the stairs, and there are the bloody washers and dryers. ”

“I couldn’t do that,” I say.

“Angela is a polite, refined and soft-spoken Canadian, Ben,” Sister Kathy says. “She wouldn’t do that.”

“I know that’s the impression that you have of me, Sister, but I am not always polite, refined and soft-spoken.”

“You’re not?” she laughs.

“No, Sister. My fighting Irish spirit rears its ugly head on occasion. More often than I care to admit, in fact.” I make my excuses to leave and thank the nuns and the pilgrims for their hospitality.  “I’ll see you at Mass tomorrow, Sister,” I say to Sister Kathy as she hugs and kisses me good-bye.

I find a lavourette and the little chappie who works there is very helpful. He wants to practice his English with me as we launder my unmentionables. A young Spanish couple enters the lavourette to retrieve their wash and put it in one of the dryers. They kiss, fight, kiss, shout at each other, kiss, argue, kiss, fold their sheets together in silencio and leave. All in the span of the thirty minute dryer cycle.

It begins to rain again but heavier than the day before. Foolishly, I have neglected to bring my rain jacket with me or a pair of trousers. Barcelona has been so hot that I only bring sundresses with me. When it rained the previous day, I managed to find a cheap coat for 10€ and a cheap pair of trousers for 8€ but they don’t fit exactly right so I didn’t buy them. I regret that decision now. I take my clean laundry back to my hotel and set out to find the coat and slacks I hadn’t purchased the day before, but become turned around in the labyrinth of streets and fail to find the shop. I pop into other shops along the way and look at their jackets and denims as the rain continues to tumble down but they are asking 50-120€ just for a jacket so I pass. I drag my long dress in the rain, carrying its soaked hem like a bridal train, as I clutch my thin shrug closed across my bust. I pray to find the shop that houses the practical albeit unflattering outfit, and when finally I do, I see that it has closed at two o’clock. I assume it is closed for siesta, and am afraid if I leave the area that I will never find it again. Rather than leave, I eat at a café down the lane and then I wait outside for it to open. I ask three different people in the street if the shops will reopen that afternoon and they all assure me that they will at four or four-thirty before a woman who is walking with a priest tells me that the shops will not open again until Monday. I cannot reconcile myself to this. How can shops close at two in the afternoon on a Saturday in a tourist area?

I eventually find another shop where there are good prices and though I pay more than 18€ for the jacket and jeans I purchase, I actually like these better and know that I will wear them again. I ask the young girl who serves me if she will cut off the tags so that I can wear the jacket and trousers from the shop.

“Of course,” she says. “But I only have a paper bag to give you for your clothes.”

I tell her that will be fine. I put my wet dress in the paper bag and I walk back into the rain in my new outfit. I am able to move more easily in the pouring rain without trailing a wet dress and holding closed a shrug across my breasts. I look down and see that the bottom of the paper bag is torn from my wet dress. I panic that I have lost my dress, shrug or souvenirs that I had purchased (some of which were in tiny paper bags), but when I check the bag thoroughly upon returning to the pensione, I see that not a thing is missing.

I tip 1€ to the gentleman who serves me breakfast each day, which is tea and a hunk of toasted brown bread with jam, and he provides me with hot water for tea in my room whenever I request it throughout the weekend. After breakfast on Sunday morning, I go to Mass at eleven and ask the three priests to bless my souvenirs. “That the wearers of these shall be protected,” they pray. I go for tea with the pilgrims again. An Australian woman, who proves to be as brash as Ben, joins the group and proceeds to use bloody and bloody-well with equal occurrence. Each time one of them curses I looked at Sister Kathy who neither comments or reacts to their profanity though I feel she disapproves. Each of the pilgrims offers me advice with regards to what I need for my future Camino and I take notes. Maybe coming to Compostela before I was able to walk it wasn’t such a dreadful idea after all. I take Sister Kathy’s email address so that I can make future inquires as to my pilgrimage and say my farewells to the group after thanking them once again for allowing me to join them.

I take the bus back to the airport and try to talk my way onto an earlier flight without any luck. Instead, I finish reading my book and complete course work on my laptop as I wait for the ten o’clock flight. As we board the plane a dark-haired woman speaks to me in line.

“Small world,” she says showing me her Canadian passport.

“Oh! Wow!” I say. “Where are you from?”

“Calgary. What about you?”

“British Columbia.”

“Vancouver?”

“Northern BC. About eighteen hours north of Vancouver.”

“Jesus.”

“I know, right?” I laugh.

“I didn’t think anyone lived up there,” she says.

She tells me that she has ridden a bike from Fatima in Portugal with her friend who is teaching at a university there. “I’m not religious at all. Neither is my friend, but she heard about this thing so we did it.”

I ask about the practice of renting bikes in Fatima and dropping them off in Santiago, and she explains the process to me. In the ephemeral time it takes us to board the plane, she reveals to me that her husband left her for another woman and now she is raising their two young children alone. “I was just blind-sided. He just told me that he wasn’t in love with me anymore,” she moans. “The rug was pulled out from under me.”

“Maybe he will come back,” I offer.

“Nope,” she shakes her head. “He’s moving a beautiful, blonde woman into my house next week.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. All I can tell you is that family is all that matters. You have children together. Focus on them. I do feel that he will regret it one day.”

“When? When will he regret it?”

“I don’t know. When he can’t walk his daughter down the aisle or when he is alone in life, which he likely will be since these rebound relationships rarely last.”

She asks me about my faith and I answer her questions. “Maybe that’s what I need,” she says. “Maybe I need to get to know God.”

“There are no accidents. You’re here for a reason. God has brought you here. If you do make Him your rock no one will ever be able to pull the rug out from underneath you again. That much I do know for sure,” I tell her. “But that kind of relationship with God takes time to build. You have to forgive your husband and bless him. You need to do it for yourself and for your kids so you don’t allow bitterness take root in your heart.” We are both seated in Row six though not next to one another. She is assigned to one window seat and I am seated across the aisle at the other. “It isn’t safe to take the bus alone late at night,” I tell her before we take our seats across the aisle from one another. “Do you want to share a cab when we land in Barcelona?”

“Sure. That’d be great,” she says.

I sit next to a gay couple on the flight. The older man of the pair, who is seated next to me, is very unfriendly after his young partner has been congenial toward me. Both men flip through Spanish issues of Ola! (Hello!) Magazine, and occasionally I glance to my right at the glossy pictures of celebrities living out their seemingly perfect lives and wonder what they suffer in their human journeys. No one’s life is perfect, I tell myself. Everyone struggles.

We land in Barcelona after midnight. I have carry-on baggage but the other Canadian girl has a large bag that we must retrieve from the luggage carousel. As we proceed to hail a cab in front of the airport, she and I chat about her impending divorce and the discussion continues all the way into Barcelona. She asks me about my failed marriage and I try to sum up what happened between Jack and me as best I can. She seems alarmed that I have never married again in all these years, and tells me that she was seeing a man for a short time and then she became hurt when he failed to call her again.

“You really need to think about taking time for yourself before you get into another relationship,” I tell her. “You need to heal. In life, you don’t attract what you want, you attract what you are. Heal first. Focus on your kids. Love will find you when you are whole. Another person cannot fulfil you.” I see that she doesn’t like that idea. Few people do. Most people just want to be with someone, anyone, so they don’t have to be alone.

Once returned to the city, the driver tries to convince me that a location that is well away from my hotel is my drop off point. “This is not my hotel,” I tell him. “I stayed at the hotel last week. I know where it is. This is not it.” The driver continues to insist the building off La Ramblas is my hotel and I refuse to get out of the cab though he is so adamant that he almost convinces me at one point that it is where I am staying. I begin to question if perhaps we have come upon an unfamiliar back entrance of the Hotel Principal. My Canadian companion looks up my hotel address on a Google map app on her phone and tells the driver he needs to go further, which grudgingly he does. Many miles later we find my Barcelona hotel. “Si. Senore. Si. This is my hotel. The Hotel Principal,” I tell him and he laughs. “Is this funny to you? You’d drop off a female tourist on her own in the middle of nowhere in Barcelona at one in the morning? Why do you think we pay to take a cab from the airport late at night? To be safe.”  I had kept mum on the way to the airport when I journeyed to Santiago de Compostela after the cabbie charged me fifty euros though I knew it was only to be a twenty-nine euro fare, but I decide to explain to this driver why it isn’t acceptable that he abandons female tourists on La Ramblas at one in the morning.

My companion sniggers but I can tell that my candor makes her uncomfortable. Chalk it up to being a female alone in the world for twenty-five years. As such, you need to be strong and outspoken. She takes my email address and says she will contact me but she never does. I had hoped that she would have if only to let me know that she got to her hotel safely. I forget the name of her hotel or I would have checked on her. Maybe she is embarrassed that she had told me her life story so quickly. Maybe she is scared to meet a woman who has not remarried in the twenty-five years since she has divorced. Maybe she objects to my candor. Maybe my God talk made her uneasy but it was she who brought God up. I never raise the subject of God first but if asked I always proclaim that I am in close relationship with Christ. I know what it means to call Christ, ‘Saviour’. He is my Redeemer. Whatever the case, I never hear from that Canadian again. I do feel that I was meant to meet her, however, as much for her sake as my own.

I have my second and final tutorial with my mentor the following day. “Are you still on a pilgrimage?” my mentor, who is an atheist, sneers at  me.

“Yes. No. I don’t know,” I answer and am instantly annoyed with myself for waffling. Of course, I am still on a pilgrimage. I will die on this journey.

We discuss the benefits and drawbacks of going to these religious sites. “It is a privilege to be alone with one’s thoughts,” he tells me. I know that with two small daughters he is never alone with his thoughts, which is death to a writer, and it is killing him.  He envies my life of quiet solitude and independence. “You go looking for stillness in these places where throngs of people seek the same thing. So there is noise rather than calm.”

“That is true. I have thought of that. There are so many people that peace is at times evasive in these pilgrimage sites. But I enjoy talking to the other pilgrims in Compostela.”

“Did you talk to other pilgrims?” he asks, as though jealous.

“Of course.”

“What do they say?”

“They offer me some advice for my own Camino. They seem deeply satisfied after they complete their Camino. That is nice to see because little if anything lives up to our expectations in the end.”

“If that is true, that you feel that way, that is very sad,” he says, but I know that he is dissatisfied with his own life. He isn’t fooling anyone least of all me.

I feel that anyone who has ever been married knows that to be true. The reality of marriage is harsher than the fiction we are fed via the media. The same is true of having children. The actuality is much different than the fantasy of being a parent. That does not mean that both marriage and parenting are not immensely rewarding. They are. But each aspect of family life calls for an incredible amount of hard work and sacrifice that sometimes leads to heartache and resentments. These are truths no one understands until he or she is in the thick of family life. I no longer feel that happiness is possible in this world, but only in the next. It is because I feel this way that I stop pursuing pleasure on earth, which I now regard as elusive as the wind.

He asks me about my faith. “Have you always had such a strong faith?”

“Yes.”

“You were raised in a Catholic family?”

“Yes.”

“Did you ever question your faith?”

“Yes. But in questioning my faith I always come to a stronger belief in God.”

He addresses the anger that emerges in my writing again and says that sadness is the other side of anger. We talk about anger, sadness and the benefits of counsel in difficult times. I have had therapy in my past, but it didn’t take my anger away. Only resting in God takes away my anger. I feel bare before my advisor, but in the end those meetings fortify me to write better because what he thinks matters to me. As I leave he gently says, “I will see you tomorrow and enjoy the rest of your day.”

That evening I venture alone into an Italian restaurant that has caught my eye. I sit alone in the restaurant and write furiously with pen and paper. My waiter, a man in his forties, keeps filling my wine glass. I say no, no and he shrugs and fills it again. “You’re a bad influence,” I tell him as I finish my second tumbler of wine, and he smiles and shrugs again.

“First you eat and then you work,” he tells me. I drink half the bottle and in the end cannot make sense of my scribbling though I am certain it is brilliant. “Where are you from?” he asks me.

“Canada.”

“Canada? Me too.”

“Where?” I ask him.

“Montréal. I got sick of the cold winters and my mother is Spanish so I moved here. My brother and sister live here too.”

I finish my meal and I thank him for the chat before I wobble home but I am not too tipsy to stop for a chocolate gelato. The ice cream vendor is saying something to me in Spanish that I cannot comprehend. He sucks his breath through his teeth in exasperation, leaves his counter, comes out front to La Ramblas, zips shut my purse and sets the strap securely upon my shoulder.

The following night I take some of the American girls from my MFA program back to the Italian restaurant for dinner and then we go out for a few drinks. They speak of picking up men and I say I am not interested in that.

“Why?’

“I don’t want to use another in that way,” I say. “I also think I’m worth more than that.”

They pause momentarily, look at one another and then declare, “You’re not! You’re really not!” I laugh at this.

They make fun of our mentor’s accent though we all greatly admire him and feel a genuine affection for him. “He’s Sprocket! You know, from SNL? And then we dance.” They do little dance moves on their bar stools. One girl makes fun of a girl in our MFA group who has a lovely speaking voice despite the fact that she originated from New York. “Excewse me. What the fawck is with the fawcking speaking voices of some people in this fawcking cawrse? They’re from fawcking New Yawrk, like me.”

“Now don’t be jealous just because they have cultured voices and you say cwaffee,” I say.

“I’m not!” she laughs. “Well, maybe I am a bit,” she concedes and we laugh.

I return to my hotel (no hot Spanish guy in tow) and crawl into my bed to sleep alone.

Medjugorje

I finally manage to get to Medjugorje during the first weekend of July in 2015. I am in Vienna for two weeks and I fly to Medjugorje for the weekend because Medjugorje is a mere two-and-a-half hour plane journey from Vienna. I have prayed for the privilege of going to Medjugorje for twenty years – since 1995 – and finally Mother Mary brings me there.

I land at Dubrovnik airport after ten o’clock on Friday night. I am finally one of those people who is greeted at the airport with a sign bearing my name: Angela Mary Griffin. The young Serbian driver chauffeurs me two and half hours from Dubrovnik airport to my hotel in Medjugorje. We cross three checkpoints along the way making it necessary for me and my driver, Filipe, to produce our passports at each one. Filipe is twenty, he tells me, and already married with a child. Apart from answering a series of closed questions with yes or no responses, he says very little to me.

“Do you live in Medjugorje?”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe in the apparitions?”

“Yes.”

“Do Serbs and Bosnians get along together now?”

“No.”

I decide that I am annoying him and opt to remain mute in the backseat.

“My English…so sorry…not good,” he explains.

“It’s fine,” I tell him.

I don’t want to chat anyway except perhaps to help to keep him awake on the curvaceous drive if he is feeling at all sleepy during our late night sojourn into the mountainous region of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am relieved to sit in the silence of the vehicle as I take in the beauty of the picturesque towns Slano and Neum, lit up next to the Adriatic Sea, and as we make our way into Medjugorje.

I arrive after midnight to find that the front desk of the Grace Hotel is vacant and in darkness. A young man who closes the restaurant next door notices that I am unable to check into the hotel and comes to my rescue. He calls the desk clerk in her room and sleepily she comes to greet me and checks me in.

“I hold onto your passport until checkout on Sunday morning,” she informs me.

My room, located on the third floor, is pleasant. It is painted a sand colour and has a black mini-fridge next to the television. A white crucifix hangs on the wall that separates the bedroom from the toilet, which is cream in colour and accented with chocolate and black accessories. I immediately unpack my night things, have a shower and crawl into bed. Though the flight distance from Vienna is seemingly short, the actual journey to Medjugorje is long and not exactly straightforward. I had to take three trains from Vienna to get to the Vienna airport. I flew from Vienna to Zagreb where I changed planes before flying on to Dubrovnik. Then I had settled in for the two-and-a-half hour drive from the Dubrovnik airport to the village of Medjugorje.

I have only one day to explore Medjugorje though I am not sure that I would ever need any more time than that to explore a pilgrim shrine. I rise early on Saturday morning and go to breakfast in the hotel. The dining-room is swarming with Italians who all seem to be together. They talk in loud voices, shouting at one another across the dining-room. I see that things have not changed where Italian religious are concerned. They still have no consideration for others.

The day outside is bright and hot. The temperature is to climb into the high 30s in a few hours. I plan to do four things while I am in Medjugorje: 1. Climb Apparition Hill; 2. Attend Mass in English; 3. Go to confession; and 4. Attend the evening, candlelight prayer service. I hope to climb Apparition Hill in the cool of the morning but that will depend upon the times of the other events. If English Mass is early then I will go to that first and Apparition Hill will have to wait.

I cannot find a listing of events in the hotel so I stroll outside to see what I can discover about where and when things are held. As I stroll about the town, I notice the usual suspects present. There are the Italians (of course), and the Irish and Polish pilgrims souvenir shopping with a few Filipinos and Koreans mixed in.  I decide that perhaps St. James’ church will have an English pamphlet regarding the events of the day. I walk immediately to the church, which is only two buildings up from my hotel. It is a sand, yellow and cream stucco building with clean lines and an impressive clock tower façade. I enter the church to discover that Mass is in session but it is not being said in English. I turn to exit the church looking briefly for some sort of schedule for English Mass and prayer services, but find none.

After I leave the church, I walk around the back of St. James’ church, past the line of multilingual presently vacant confessionals. A few pilgrims mull about the grounds and some sellers set up their kiosks down some stone steps to the side of the church. There is a huge outdoor palladium further behind the church. Some volunteers wearing bright blue canvas vests clean between the rows of benches set out for pilgrims before the outdoor altar. I stop a nun who is crossing the grounds and ask her if she speaks English.

“A little,” she totters her right hand to indicate a small amount.

“Would you tell me, please, when English Mass is being said, and where it will be held? Also, is there an evening prayer service and confession in English?”

“Yes. English mass is at ten o’clock this morning in the church.”

It is nine-thirty already. I’d be climbing Apparition Hill in the heat of the day.

“Confession is at six o’clock,” she continues. “In the confessionals behind us here.” She points to the confessionals. “There is an outdoor Mass at seven this evening here,” she gestures with her hands to where we are standing. “It is in Croatian but you can buy a radio and listen to it in English if you prefer. And there are candlelight prayers at ten o’clock here tonight as well.”

“Are the prayers in English?”

“No. All languages,” she says.

I thank her and continue to walk across the grounds where I discover a rosary walk. I snap some photos. An older, stout Italian woman dressed in a black dress stands rubbing small squares of white onion-skin papers on the bronze statue of Christ leaving His cross. She must have fifty of the small, white squares of trace paper in her hand and one-by-one she rubs each paper onto the bronze statue. I wait for her to finish, but when that proves fruitless, I shoot a picture of the top of the statue trying to exclude her from the frame. Italian statue maulers don’t seem to notice that a person is waiting to take a photo, or they don’t care. They continue to rub Jesus, kiss his plaster toes or stroke his wooden face oblivious to others wishing to view the statue or take a photograph of it. I never understand that sort of idol worship. I don’t object to religious images per se, but I don’t caress and cling to religious icons as though they house the spirit of Christ, or whatever saint the statue’s likeness is meant to represent. They are just representations for people who, without such three-dimensional visual artwork, might not be able to visualize the saint.

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The priest who presides over the English Mass at ten o’clock is Irish. Likewise, the readers and singers all hail from Ireland, part of some tour group from the Emerald Isle. A young family consisting of a wife, husband and baby sit in the front pew and seem to belong to the Irish tour group as well. The attractive, young mother, dressed in a blue dress with a fringe, plays more with the blonde curls atop her baby’s head than she listens to the Mass. Her husband seems more pious than she. I wonder if she is a convert. If she is Irish, as I assume she is, she would have almost certainly been born a Catholic.

The English Mass is welcome but it is not a magical or particularly moving experience for me. I’m not certain what I expected to feel there, but whatever it was I don’t feel it. Medjugorje doesn’t possess the same spirit that Lourdes did for me. Something is missing.

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After Mass I eat lunch at a local pizzeria. As soon as I select a table on the veranda, three other groups border me and each table lights up cigarettes and proceed to smoke. Fed up with the pervasive cigarette smoke in Europe, I think of moving to a table inside the empty restaurant. Two young women and a young man speak in very loud American voices about female genital mutilation, AIDS, white slavery and the Ebola virus. That seals it. I pick up my Coca-Cola and move to a table indoors. I feel nauseated at the cigarette smoke and the graphic Catholic chat peppered with a missionary zeal only someone age twenty who is just awakening to the vast injustices of the globe can muster. The pizza comes and it is huge. I decide that it will do for both lunch and dinner. I eat half of it and take the remaining half back to my hotel fridge for later. The food in Medjugorje is much cheaper than the food in Vienna. The meal costs just six euros.

I wander in and out of souvenir shops on my way to Apparition Hill. I quickly deduce that each shop contains the same souvenirs. They carry bracelets with religious icons on them. It is impossible to find anything small like that which does not have the face of Mary or Jesus on it. I speak unapologetic English in the shops and every shop clerk is capable of understanding me and responding to me in English. I see a Burberry bag that I really want to buy.

“How much?” I ask the girl.

“Fifty-five euros,” she says.

I am tempted to buy it but picture myself walking around Medjugorje, a place of spiritual retreat, with a Burberry bag that screams insecure, materialistic Catholic among you.  Pray for her. I don’t buy the bag.

As I feared, it is the hottest time of the day as I leave the main strip and carry on to Apparition Hill. I carry my umbrella to provide me with some semblance of shade in the unrelenting sun. I stop a few times to ask locals if I am headed in the correct direction to climb Apparition Hill and am assured by three different locals that indeed I am. I ask once more as the road of the village diverges and the sign that reads Apparition Hill is not pointing clearly in one direction or the other. It might be either way. I stop a couple and ask the woman if I am headed in the correct direction if I kept on the way I am traveling and she says that I am.

The hill is a steep assent. The terrain is rocky and there is little shade as I climb the hill. I stop each time I come to a huge rock nestled beneath a shady spot on the hill to sip some water. I notice that my water is getting low and rebuke myself for not buying a fresh, big bottle before I began my ascent. I hope that there is a fountain or a water seller at the top of the hill.

I finally reach the top of Podbrdo Hill to see pilgrims gathered around the statue of the Virgin Mary marking the spot where the apparitions take place. I try to take a photograph of the statue but it is impossible to get a clear shot with the pilgrims gathered around. I walk to the left and sit in some shade a good long while. I sip some water. I want to down the rest of the bottle but there is no fountain or water seller there. If there were a water seller at the site of the apparitions, he’d make a small fortune. A poorly dressed man who sports a long, unkempt beard is walking about the area picking up the discarded trash of pilgrims. Periodically, he leans against the cross with Christ on it, and prays before continuing on and picking up more garbage. I look down next to the rock upon which I sit and notice that there are poems, pictures and letters to the Blessed Virgin. The photos are of young lovers. People leave these romantic remembrances stuffed between the rocks on Apparition Hill as a plea to Mary, their Mother. Are these young lovers asking Mary to bless their unions? I suppose it is so, and wonder if I’ll ever find love again myself.

The descent is even more treacherous than the uphill climb. I am disappointed because I had relished the climb down during the ascent only to discover that I can barely walk between the rocks. As I feel sorry for myself within the privacy of my own head, I see a Down’s syndrome boy climb the hill with his parents and chastise myself for feeling that the climb is too rigorous for me.  I imagine that the hills Jesus walked in Israel looked just like this hill and wonder how he managed in His ancient sandals when I can barely manage in my more modern open footwear. I stumble at one point and catch my right foot between two sizable rocks. I yelp a little as I fear that I am in danger of twisting or breaking my ankle, but my foot falls free before there is any damage.

“I’m okay,” I say to a worried-looking man next to me.

“I hope so,” he smiles. His accent is Polish.

He introduces himself to me and to his daughter who looks to be about fourteen. He says they are Polish and I say that I had thought as much when I heard them speaking.

“Where are you from?”

“Canada,” I say, keeping my eyes on the footpath.

“Oh. I have many friends who immigrated there,” he says jubilantly. “I like Canada.”

We chat about various places we have been in our lives. He tells me that he is a tour director for religious pilgrimages in Europe. “I have been to Lourdes many times,” he says.

“I have been only once,” I tell him.

When I reach the bottom of the hill, I wander into more of the shops seeking water. A shop keeper cannot break a twenty Euro bill, and gives me the one-litre bottle of water for free. The souvenirs there are more reasonably priced and not as gaudy as the other souvenirs in town. I see a simple braided bracelet with a small religious icon on it.

“Do you have any bracelets without a religious image on them?” I ask the proprietress. “I want to bring something back for people who are not Catholic.”

“I make you some. How many you needed?” she asks me.

“Thirty?”

“Thirty?”

“Well it depends what you will charge me for each one,” I say.

“I will charge you fifty cents for each bracelet.”

We broker the deal and she offers to bring them to my hotel after she is finished work at nine o’clock.

“That will be perfect. I want to go to the prayer service at ten,” I tell her. I offer to pay her up front but she refuses.

“I do the work and then you pay me,” she says.

Her name is Svetlana, she tells me, and I give Svetlana directions to my hotel, the name of the hotel, and my name before leaving her shop.

The walk back to my hotel is not as long or arduous as the walk to the hill had been. It is always that way for me. The walk back from a place is always faster than the walk to a place. I suppose it is because one knows how long the walk back will be. I stay under my umbrella seeking refuge from the relentless sun, stopping periodically to snap pictures of the various Mary statues about the village. Mary is everywhere. She is nestled in gardens, in front of pubs and restaurants, and before fountains.

I attempt to go to confession before Mass but the line for English-speaking pilgrims is simply too long. I go to the outdoor altar for Mass at seven o’clock and find a bench beneath a shady tree at the back of the outdoor altar. I sit there. People are saying the rosary in Croatian. I don’t have my rosary with me but I bought a rosary bracelet in Medjugorje and I let my fingers run the length of the bracelet’s ten beads and say my prayers in English as those around me say their prayers in their own native languages. Two pregnant teenage girls dressed in cut-off denim shorts and revealing t-shirts try to sit on a bench four rows ahead of where I am seated but a security guard who seems to know them as vagrants chases them away. I don’t feel this is right. Mary was technically an unwed, teenage mother and we are there worshipping the life that she brought into the world for all mankind.

Several elderly pilgrims sit next to me and they spend the entire time talking in a language that I do not recognize, as they try to locate the correct translation channel on their rented radios. Three decades into the rosary, I come to feel annoyed at their chatter and move away to occupy another single bench two aisles over. I pray that no one will come and sit with me there. As Mass begins, a family sits in front of me consisting of a mother, father and three daughters. The girls, each dressed in a similar red and blue sundress, are all beautiful. Each has long hair in various shades of blonde and brunette. The youngest is the loveliest. She has blonde hair that hangs to her waist and green, catlike eyes. The middle child sits next to her father and climbs all over him. I note that she has two prominent moles on her bare shoulders that when she grows to be a young woman will be considered seductive and drive her admirers wild. Of the three, this middle daughter needs attention from her father in a way the other two do not seem to. She acts out from time to time and her father has to remind her of appropriate behavior in Mass. She is about age eleven. Her older sister appears to be thirteen and the youngest appears to be eight or nine. The oldest daughter tucks into her mother’s side and clings to her. She looks about her on occasion, and I see that she has a sloped eyelid compared to her wide-eyed sisters. She isn’t as lovely. Still, each is beautiful and likely will marry and have families of their own in the future.

After Mass I try again to go to confession. A woman stands in line at the English confessional and I scoot in behind her. Her husband, a man in his late thirties or early forties, is in a wheelchair next to her in line. As she and I begin to chat, I realize that she is Irish.

“This is my third time trying to get to confession here,” she tells me. “We leave early tomorrow morning.”

“I do too,” I say. “What time do you leave?”

“Six,” she says.

“I leave at three.”

“Dear God,” she says.

“I have to leave Medjugorje at three in the morning to make it in time to Dubrovnik airport for my seven o’clock morning flight. I have to be at the airport by five-thirty at the latest.”

Time ticks on. We have been waiting for over thirty minutes. I am checking my watch to make sure that I am back at my hotel before Svetlana comes with the bracelets. I don’t want her coming to not find me there. I want to pay her for her work. The people here are materially poor if spiritually rich.

“Are you certain that someone is actually in the confessional?” I ask the Irish girl.

“I saw him go in,” she tells me. “And the light is on.”

“Good God,” I say. “What could anyone possibly have to confess for this length of time?” I ask her.

She laughs and shakes her head that she doesn’t know.

“I’ll be in an out. Not that I am perfect or a saint or anything, but honestly, I’ll be in and out,” I tell her.

A man finally emerges from the confessional and the priest exits with him. The reverend informs us that he is closing down for the day. He tells us to try again in one hour when a replacement will be open for the hearing of sins business.

“That’s me then,” the Irish girl says. “I’ll not get to confession here.” She walks away to rejoin her husband who sits by a pillar across the grounds.

I walk away disappointed and as I do so, I notice that a priest is sitting alone in another confessional marked English. I chap the door.

“Father?” He puts down a book that he has been reading. He looks annoyed that I have disturbed him. “I am sorry to disturb you but are you hearing confessions?” He rolls his eyes and says he is. “May I just run and get this girl who has been trying to come to confession all day? She leaves at six tomorrow morning.”

“Just come in,” he says.

I try shouting to the girl but she is far from me and I don’t know her name.

“I will have to run and get her, Father. I see her leaving.”

“Do what you must,” he sighs waving me out. “I will wait for you.”

I run to the Irish girl and tell her that I have found a priest who is hearing confessions in English.

“You go in,” I tell her. “I’ll go in after you.” I want to add as a bit of a jest, “Only don’t be too long, will you?” but decide not to.

She is a beautiful, young wife who stays with her husband though he is in a wheelchair. Life cannot be easy for her. She deserves to take all the time that is needed for her to unburden her Catholic conscience. Such a good person won’t have much to confess, I reason. If she does happen to take a long time, I will leave to meet Svetlana, and I won’t get to confession there. For me it isn’t the end of the world if I don’t get to confession in Medjugorje. I believe God forgives me of my sins when I confess them directly to Him. I don’t feel that there is a need for a mediator when it comes to confessing sins. The priest is there to offer comfort to the confessor, but God hears and absolves our sins outside the confines of that box. If I cannot go to confession in Medjugorje then that would be wonderful but if not, I know that my sins are already forgiven.

The Irish girl goes to confession and is a reasonable amount of time. When I follow her in she thanks me profusely for coming for her and we wish one another a good journey home. I kneel in front of the priest and make the sign of the cross.

“You are angel. You were sent here today to help that lady and you very unselfishly let her go to confession in front of you. You are God’s messenger. You are his instrument,” the priest tells me. I smile at him and offer up my confession. Afterwards he tells me again how wonderful he thinks I am. “I want to give you a special blessing today,” he says. He stands, walks towards me, and puts his hands over my head. “God. Let your light shine upon your daughter, this woman of great faith. Give her your peace, your serenity and your love. Let her know that you love her as your beloved daughter. You brought her here today to use her. She is your instrument. Holy Spirit come and fill your daughter with peace, peace, peace and joy.”

“Thank you Father,” I say. I feel a little choked up but also embarrassed at his accolades.

Before I depart from the confessional, I turn to him and say, “You know Father, my name is Angela Mary. You said that I am an angel and I want you to know that my name is Angela Mary.” I feel silly the moment that I say the words. I sound full of myself.

“How wonderful!” he smiles at me. “God bless you, Angela Mary!”

“God bless you, Father.”

I leave to return to my hotel. Svetlana shows up about twenty minutes later and I pay her for the bracelets. Though I had asked that plain beads be put on them, they are just twisted braids of rope. I cannot refuse to pay her for them. I pretend to be delighted with them and pay her more than we had agreed upon to thank her for her time and for coming to the hotel. It doesn’t matter. She needs that money more than I. Of that much, I am certain. I want to take delight in her work and I do.

Svetlana and I walk out together and she tells me that I have to come back to Medjugorje one day.

“It took me twenty years to get here this time,” I say.

“Why so long?”

“Expense,” I say. “I could never afford to come.”

“Well, you must come back,” she says.

I nod my head, but I don’t think that I will come back. I have been. That is enough.

I attend the evening prayer service. It is the highlight for me just as evening prayer had been one of the highlights for me in Lourdes. People sit on the thousands of benches set before the outdoor altar. The balmy night is made more comfortable by a soft, welcome breeze. It feels so good to be cooled by the night air after a day of punishing sun. Prayers are offered in every language. An attractive couple sits in front of me. The husband dotes on his lovely wife. She has a youthful look despite a few wrinkles about her eyes and mouth. Her chestnut hair is pulled softly back from her freshly scrubbed, freckled face into a bouncy ponytail. She leaves her husband from time to time to gently walk toward the front and take a picture of the priests on the altar. She wears a full, denim skirt that comes to her knees. She is not skinny but nor is she fat. She carries herself well and dresses in a modest, flattering fashion. She looks like a lovely, humble, Catholic woman, at peace and content with her life choices. It is a thing that I have never felt within my own heart though I long to feel that sort of contentment in life. Her husband looks upon her lovingly as she returns to her seat. He delights in her.

A blonde woman dressed in white capris kneels on one of the rubber mats one can purchase in Medjugorje. She rests her forehead on the tarmac for the duration of the prayer service. Her husband sits behind her with another attractive couple. Each couple appears to be in their fifties. Both women are blonde, tanned, slim and dripping with gold. The men wear neat golf shirts and crisply pressed casual trousers. They look like wealthy Americans but because of the pious way in which they pray, I deduce that they are wealthy Italians instead.

I barely sleep that night. I am not certain that Felipe will show. There was a mix-up about payment and the owner had emailed me earlier to tell me that he expected me to give Felipe cash for my ride. It would be two-hundred-fifty Euros and I don’t have that cash with me. I had assumed that the charge for my airport transport would go onto my credit card, which I had already given the owner via an online order for the airport transport. The owner continues to insist upon cash, and I wonder what will happen if I cannot get the cash. Will I be left without a lift to the airport at three in the morning? I pray to Mary and ask that she get me back to the airport. I walk downstairs at about two in the morning with the intention of asking a taxi driver how much he would charge to take me to the airport and if he would accept a credit card, but there aren’t taxis to be seen in front of the hotel at that time. I feel a moment of panic but trust that all will work out. I know Mary brought me here and she will get me back to Vienna. Everything worked out to get me here and all would will out to get me home.

Felipe shows up at three as planned, and he drives me to an ATM where I have to withdraw 500 KMS. It feels shady, and I hope that I will not be robbed and left for dead.

Felipe is chattier this time though not overly so. We talk about his young family and his future prospects at home. His two sisters have moved to England already, he tells me. He is the only child of his parents to remain in Mostar, where he was born and where he and his family, including his parents, live.

“You should come to Canada,” I tell him.

“It take a long time,” he says.

“Start working on it,” I tell him. “You’re only twenty. Start the process now.”

He smiles.

I know that he loves his country. Whenever I tell him how beautiful it is there he says simply, ‘yes’ in his deep, amatory Eastern European accent. It is hard to leave one’s country.

“Do you believe in the apparitions, Felipe?”

He hesitates for a moment and then says, “Yes. I do. I am Catholic. I believe. Yes.”

I sit in the backseat of the car and ask myself the same question. Do I believe in the visitations? Yes. I believe that six visionaries saw Mary. Do I believe that she continues to come on the 25th of each month? No. I don’t think so but then again, I don’t know. In the end, does it matter? When I attend Mass at these shrines, I feel a sense of belonging that I never feel anywhere else. I feel hope and am able to surrender to something greater than myself. I also feel that though I love Mary and pray often for her to intercede on my behalf as she takes my prayers before her Son, I also feel that my adoration for and adulation of her must not overshadow my love for and devotion to Christ her Son, and my Lord and Saviour.

 

 

 

 

Lourdes

In the final hour of a seven hour travel stop gap in Bourdeaux aux St. Jean, I compulsively look at my train ticket for the Lourdes train number and arrival time. As the departure time approaches, I ask an attendant which platform I should stand on for the train to Lourdes.

“Right here,” he says.

I sit on the platform and watch the Arrival/Departure sign. There is no listing for Lourdes and the train is to depart in less than ten minutes. I ask two attendants where the train for Lourdes is.

“What might it be listed as?” I inquire.

They send me to the Information booth. There is no line-up and I am able to speak to the girl there quickly. She informs me that it is the train that will be arriving to Platform Six.

“What platform?” I feel panic rise into my throat.

“Six,” she shouts as I run for the platform. “You must go down, then up!” She gestures with her hands.

I speed down the first flight of stairs I see and then find the sign for Platform Six and race up those steps.  I ask two women on the platform if this train goes to Lourdes exposing my travel compulsivity once again.

“Lourdes?” one asks me.

“Oui. Lourdes?”

“Lourdes? Lourdes? Ah…oui! Lou-ar-Des!” she pronounces it in an exaggerated manner but not much differently than I had. “Oui. Le train pour Lou-ar-Des est ici,” she says.

“Ah! Merci, Madame. Merci beaucoup!” I smile.

I am so relieved to climb onto that train when it pulls into the station. My heart is pounding. I’m sweating. As time and the train chugs on, I fall asleep. I awake only when the train stops moving.

“Ce qui se passe?” I ask a young woman. “What’s happening?”

“We were told to disembark and busses would take us into Lourdes,” she tells me. “The train broke down.”

I thank her, grab my little carry-on bag and walk outside. It is a cool evening. The balmy, breezy night is such a welcome relief to the relentless, oppressive Paris heat. It is almost ten o’clock at night so I immediately begin to fret that I will be locked out of my hotel room. I walk into the parking lot and search the bus signs for one that read ‘Lourdes’.

“Lourdes?” a small Latino looking woman with red hair asks me.

“Oui, Madame,” I say. She points me toward the bus she is standing in front of and later will be driving.

I am the first one to board. That is one of the perks of carry-on luggage. The other passengers eventually load onto the bus and within minutes we are on our way. The night is so beautiful. Palm trees sway in the cool breeze. We pass mountains and rolling hills thick with lush forests. The twilight settles softly upon a blue black sky pregnant with the promise of rain. I immediately feel a deep sense of peace and calm. We pass through two petite villages that are quaint but visibly poor. We pull into Lourdes at about ten-thirty and again, I walk off the bus with my one small bag and approach a taxi.

“Etes-vous libre?” I ask the handsome, silver-haired cab driver if he is free.

His face is quizzical. “Quoi?”

“Etes-vous disponible?” The woman to whom he is chatting through his window explains what I had meant. “Are you available?”

“Oui,” he says. He thought I had meant would he drive me at no cost.

I immediately trust that cab driver. He has an honest face. He charges me only eight Euros for the journey. He drives me to my hotel and leaves me with his card in case I need a taxi again during my stay.  I ring the front doorbell and the hotel proprietress opens her door to me.  Her name is Elisabeth. Her gray hair is neatly tied back from her luminous face. I apologize profusely for my delay. I explain that our train broke down.

She waves her hand and says, “Someone did not want you to come here.”

She sits with me and using a brochure she explains the things I will want to experience while in Lourdes: Confession, Mass, The Stations of the Cross, and the night Procession. She emphasizes several times that I must to go to Confession before I do anything else.

“You might want to go to the baths but you have to wait for hours to get in. You might not want to do that. Just go to the taps and use that water,” she advises. “It’s the same water in the baths that is in the taps.”

I did want to be dunked in Lourdes holy water, but I didn’t know that it would be possible. Now it seems as though I wouldn’t have time to do so since I am only here for one day.

The hotel in Lourdes has its own chapel. Elisabeth tells me that they celebrate Mass in there every day and invites me to join them whenever I wish. The house is decorated with holy pictures and quotes from saints. I am in the room named after Saint Rita. She is the patron saint of hopeless causes along with Saint Jude. My parents married on the Feast Day of Saint Jude – October 28th – and I often tease them about that, making my mother laugh. My proprietress has the same name as the mother of John the Baptist. She was the woman who long waited to get pregnant and did so in her old age when it seemed beyond all possibility.

As I drift off to sleep, I think about what Elisabeth said to me, “Someone didn’t want you to come here.”

She is right, of course. It wasn’t just the maintenance issues with the train. While in Paris, I learned that there was some confusion regarding my Lourdes hotel reservation. I also suffered through a long layover in Bourdeaux aux St. Jean. I almost missed my train connection from Bordeaux, then the train broke down and I had to change to a bus. Prior to my arrival there were torrential rains in Lourdes for several days. Those rains washed out the roads and caused damage to buildings and bridges in Lourdes, even within the sanctuary.

“But I’m here. Christ and His Mother brought me safely here. I am here and I am His!” I say to the darkness. Exhausted, I sleep soundly.

I leave my hotel early the next morning and walk the sanctuary grounds. As I approach the gates I am amazed again by the deep feeling of peace I experience. This is a sacred place. I can feel it. The cathedral is beautiful but it is the mountains beyond the cathedral that take my breath away. I imagine Mary appearing over those mountains. It is incredible. I walk the grounds and pass the baths. It is seven-thirty in the morning and some women are already sitting there waiting for the nine o’clock entry. They pray the rosary together. I feel my heart telling me to join the line, but I don’t. Instead I begin my day with Mass in English.

After Mass I go to Reconciliation. Though Elisabeth has been insistent that I not go to Mass before Reconciliation, I have only one day in Lourdes and have to do things as I can fit them in. I have the most unenthused priest imaginable for Reconciliation. He is a very handsome, older man who walks with a noticeable limp. After my confession he quickly offers absolution and that is that. It is very anti-climactic. From there I go to the High Stations of the Cross. A young seminarian from Boston leads us, and a Scottish woman takes older pilgrims to do the Lower Stations. She tells me that she comes to Lourdes every year to volunteer for six weeks and while there she lives at the Lourdes hostel. She and I chat about Scotland. I tell her I was born in Dalmuir and she says that she is from Dundee. I tell her I am down to one teabag and ask if she knows where I might buy some tea.

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“I haven’t seen teabags in a shop since I left Dublin,” I tell her.

“I have some in my room. I’ll go get them for you,” she says.

“Oh no,” I am embarrassed. “Don’t bother.”

I do not mean to hint that she should provide me with teabags, but she insists and runs off. She returns with about fifty teabags and a box of chocolate chip shortbread biscuits. I am touched by this act of kindness and generosity from a fellow Scot.

I see people filling bottle after bottle with holy water. Then they stand under the taps and splash their bodies with Lourdes water. This is the water to which Elisabeth referred when she told me not to bother with the baths. I think the pilgrims look silly washing themselves beneath the taps, but then I find myself sloshing about in the water from the Lourdes taps each time I pass by them and there is never a line. I throw some on my torn right rotator cuff, and the raised bump on my left shin, which I am convinced is the beginning of skin cancer. I throw the healing water over my head and heart too. I have to try, right? I also bring tiny bottles to fill so that I can bring some healing water home with me for loved ones.

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After I have a quick lunch that day, I decide to try my luck at the baths. It is just after twelve noon when I arrive to the bathhouses. There are only fifteen women waiting. I sit down to join them and we pray the rosary together in Italian as more and more women join the line. Italian is spoken in Lourdes with greater frequency than is French. I wait for about ninety minutes before they open the baths.

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During that time two Asian women enter through the front gate rather than the back port of entry that we had entered through, sweep past the line and stand at the front next to the baths’ entry. They have a little girl with them who is about age three. A man working security approaches the two women and tells them to go to the back of the line, but the women start to sign at him and make sounds in their throats that a wounded animal might make. They are signing to one another and in his face with a fury. Fleshy palms smack hard against themselves to emphasize point and meaning. I have seen a mute/deaf couple argue once before while I was newly married. Jack and I were in an elevator with the couple when a similar exchange occurred. This is what it looked like. I sit mute myself in the face of it all and watch them as they continue to communicate with passion and agitation. The little girl wears pink leggings and a pink floral t-shirt that comes down to her tiny bottom. Someone tells the women to remove the little girl’s leggings and when they do the child is bare-bottomed. One of the women, presumably her mother, sweeps the little girl into her arms and clutches her to her breast inadvertently exposing the baby’s genitals to the crowd. The child looks so vulnerable. They sit for a time and then they rush along the side of the wall behind which are encased the stone baths. Then they reappear. All of their movements are frenetic.

As the baths open, I am ushered in with the first group. We move from where we are sitting to the seats positioned along the stone wall that encloses the pools. People in wheelchairs and on stretchers are taken in ahead of the others. Two young American teenagers who are sisters, act as volunteers with their Catholic Youth Organization, and direct the women. One of the girls gestures to the two Asian mutes, who have reappeared again, that they should go in next. Now they stand holding the toddler, waiting to go in. I see an Asian man run through the same front gates whereby these women have entered. He flies past security and runs to face the two women.

He too is mute. He is making the same noises as I’d heard emanating from the women as he stands defiantly before them. The women have immediately flown into a panic at the sight of him and then he is suddenly upon them. He rips the baby from her mother’s arms as the mother pulls the child back into her. The man, presumably the child’s father, is wild with anger. Clearly, he does not want his child to be dipped in the healing waters of Lourdes.  He starts to run with the baby in his arms but his wife pursues him and he is stopped by two men at the gate who take his child from him and return her to her mother. Her mother then runs with her daughter and her friend behind the curtain where the man can no longer reach them.

It seems clear to me that the child is also mute and her mother wants Our Lady of Lourdes to heal her of this affliction. Her mute father seemingly feels differently. Perhaps he wants to accept her as she is and not look for a miraculous cure for his daughter. This is his way of saying, “There is nothing wrong with her. There is nothing wrong with us. She is not sick just as we are not ill. She doesn’t need to be cured just as we do not need to be healed.” Her mother, having suffered in her own life as a deaf mute, wants something more for her child, something better than she’s had. She wants her daughter to have an easier life somehow as a hearing and speaking person.  I can see both sides of the argument yet still I am glad the men intervened and returned the child to her mother.

Once behind the curtain I am asked to remove all of my clothes.

“Everything?” I ask.

“Oui. Tout.”

I am surrounded by women. Some sit naked beneath their dark blue cotton wraps with an elastic that sits across their bare shoulders atop their breasts. Others are standing next to me ready to strip me of my clothes before they wrap me in my own dark blue cotton, elasticated robe. Reluctantly I allow myself to be stripped. The women could not be kinder. God shines from their faces. They are gentle and giving. They lovingly undress and dress again the older, lame women waiting to be dipped in the healing waters, and though I am moved by their attendance to the other women I could not be more mortified that I am about to receive the same undressing and dressing by alien hands myself.

“You hold onto your bra,” this one very kind woman says. “You take it in with you.” She presses my bra into my hand. It is an old, worn out sports bra, which is precisely what I love about it. “Hold it like this,” she says.

She looks like a sweet grandmother. She is plump and has short grey hair and smiling eyes. She gives my bra to me and I hold onto it. I keep readjusting my dark blue sheet and wrap it tighter around my naked body. When it is my turn to go in, I hold tight to my blue cotton wrap and release my bra from my hand as one woman insists that I give it to her. The woman speaks to me in rapid French and when I indicate that I do not understand her she asks me, “Quelle langue?”

“Anglaise,” I say.

They tell me to let go of the blue sheet and they will wrap me in the already wet white sheets and lift me into the bath and then out again. I understand now what I am to do but I can’t let go of my blue wrap. The French woman who has taken my bra from me slaps my hands away so she can pull my covering from my body. She sighs, indicating that she is frustrated with me, and yanks the blue robe from me like a magician who quickly snatches a table cloth in a nifty magic trick.

With the help of the other women, she wraps me in the white sheets. I felt terribly vulnerable in that moment. I am aware of my nakedness and every physical imperfection, but I shift my mind to think only of the sanctity of that place. I think that Christ must have felt as vulnerable when they stripped our Lord of His garments to crucify Him. When I let my thoughts rest in Him I am able to let go. I let all thoughts of my painful past, my inadequate clothing, and imperfect body fall by the wayside, and step into the bath guided by the loving hands of the six gentle women around me.

“Make an intention before you go in, oui? And then when you are ready we will walk you in.”

Just one intention? I have a boatful of them. I need more than one moment to lay them at the foot of the Cross before immersion. Nonetheless, I stand for a moment and think of my greatest intentions, which I wrote on a small sheet of paper as I waited in line. It now sits in my purse, which hangs on a hook in the disrobing room through the curtain.

I close my eyes and within the silence of my heart I say, “I praise You, God, for healing me of my past. I praise You for healing my heart of resentment and my mind from self-doubt. Thank You, God, for leading me here. Thank You for all that I am and all that I have. All that I am and all that I have is from You. Amen.”

I step into the bath, my hands held by two women, one on either side of me, as they gingerly guide me down the marble steps into the water. Two other women hold the wet white sheets tight against my body, securing me in the middle like a caterpillar in its cocoon. As I step fully into the bath I gasp slightly.  The water is cold.

“I know it is cold,” the lovely, plump one says.

I hear another behind me, the one who slapped my hands away from my blue wrap, suck her breath through her teeth. I seem to infuriate her.

“Lie back in the water,” the sweet one says.

I lie back in the water and think of Mary and Bernadette. I want to totally immerse myself but I am called from the water by the women who then lead me from the bath in the same manner they have led me into it. The one who slapped my hands away asks for my bra and the sweet one gives it to her.

“This is not a bra,” she says in French handing my bra back to the grandmother.

“Oui,” the grandmother assures her. “Oui. It’s her bra!” she responds in French placing my black bra back into the other’s hands.

“Non!” she argues giving the bra away again.

“Oui,” the sweet one insists, still smiling, giving my bra back to the hand-slapper.

“Oui Madame! It is a sports bra,” I intervene. “Oui. C’est un soutien-gorge de sport. Il est tres confortable. Tres, tres, tres!”

They hold the sheet in front of me while I roll my tatty old sports bra over my wet skin. I walk back into the other room covered by the dark blue wrap again. A nun tries to help me dress.

“It’s okay, Sister,” I say. “It’s okay.” I turn my back to her and, still wet from the healing waters of Lourdes, quickly slide into my clothes.

When I leave the baths, I am determined to meet the English-speaking pilgrims at the Bernadette museum. That means that I don’t have time to get back in line at the Grotto where I want to place my petitions in the intention box that sits in front of the Grotto. I ask a man who is standing inside the ropes of the Grotto if he might put my prayers inside the intention box.

“Parlez-vous anglais?” I ask him.

He is Italian and he says, “Francais s’il vous plais. Un peu de Francais.”

I have to think for a moment. I look off to my right as I translate my request first in my head.

“Allez-vous mettre mes intentions de priere dans l’intention case, s’il vous plait?” I motion toward the intention box with my paper as if I am inserting it into its slot.

“Ah oui, oui!” he takes my prayer list from my hand and waves it at me as he heads toward the box where his group is lined up to touch the wall of the Grotto. “Oui. Dans l’intention case!”

“Si! Grazie, Senore!” I smile and wave to him. I watch him put my intentions in the box.

I run toward Bernadette’s museum, but I have missed the English pilgrims so I go to see Bernadette’s house and then her museum on my own.

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I then go to the afternoon healing mass. It rains during the Mass but standing beneath a tree I don’t get wet. I look at the thousands of people who have come for physical healing.  Many sit in wheelchairs. Some are afflicted with Cerebral Palsy or MS. My own cousin once brought her son to Lourdes. He has Cerebral Palsy. I pray for the healing of all present and all not present also in need of healing.

After the Mass, I walk the Low Stations of the Cross in the rain. Again, I am alone. I enjoy the peace of this sacred place as I walk its holy ground without another living soul around.

When I return to my hotel I chat briefly with the other Canadian who is there. Elisabeth had told me about her but I hadn’t met her yet. “She is from Calgary,” Elisabeth had told me. We speak together of Canada for a few brief moments, and then I retreat to my room to lie down for an hour before I go back to the sanctuary for the evening procession.

The procession starts at eight-thirty. There is no line-up yet to touch the Grotto so I move past the Grotto walls quickly then sit in the front seat before the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I watch people process. A beautiful African woman, dressed like a queen in robes of red, orange and gold, swishes past holding her head high. A tall, blonde, middle-aged woman who looks Dutch touches the walls and feels the water running down its sides. She nods knowingly at the water oozing from the crevices of the rocks as if the water is a miracle from Mary, but it has rained earlier that day during the healing Mass. It is merely accumulated rain water easing its way down the rocks of the Grotto. A man comes with a ladder and proceeds to carve away the wax from each white, pillar candle beneath the Virgin Mary’s statue. This goes on from dusk until dark. Finally, he has prepared all of the thick pillars to be lit and he lights them one at a time. It is beautiful.

When I leave the Grotto, I climb the steps to the cathedral. A group of youths run with a Jesuit brother toward their hostel located behind the cathedral. The priest picks up the skirt of his brown robe and races the children to their lodgings. I walk down the steps of the cathedral and head along the path that leads to the main gate. I return to my room and try to keep the balcony doors open to admit nighttime air to cool my room, but at the Italian gelato place beneath my room there is non-stop frolicking fun. Gelato enthusiasts below my window speak to one another in loud Italian and laugh noisily. I lie in my bed trying to sleep despite the gelato party that rages beneath me, and I wonder what it is about Italians. They are social in ways I cannot comprehend. They are not in any way considerate of others. They are not considerate at the breakfast table or at the holy sights of pilgrimage or even at night when people want to sleep.

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My mind then congratulates my efforts in Lourdes. In one day, I fit in everything that I had wanted to do. I even got to dip in Lourdes’ holy waters. I decide that when I leave Lourdes early the next morning, I will try to take this sacred peace and healing with me to Italy. And while there I will try to figure out once and for all what it is about Italians, but in that moment I just want them to shut up and go to bed.

 

 

 

Knock

I’m not perfect enough to be loved by my mother. Throughout my life, she knocked me constantly – with fists and words – and, as a result, I have never felt loved by her. In adulthood, I am incapable of accepting love from anyone. When a man professes love for me, I cannot believe that he truly feels those things for me because I’ve been told that I am unlovable by my mother and older sister. It is for that reason that I cannot accept my husband’s love and adoration, and I leave him after six short years of marriage.

After my divorce, I start to deepen my bond with Mary, my Lord’s mother.  It is to that mother – my divine mother – that I turn in my brokenness seeking maternal compassion since my own mother and elder sister has no time or heart to deal with me in my weak and broken places.

In 2002, I am not to be included at my oldest sister’s family Christmas dinner table yet again. Cissy always hosts the family Christmas dinner since she is the only one of us who has been blessed with children. My parents go to Cissy’s to a Christmas Eve open house and for Christmas morning breakfast and family gift exchange, and then again for Christmas dinner, leaving me entirely alone. I decide rather than be at home alone for another Christmas, I will travel to Scotland and spend it visiting family in Glasgow.

I land in Scotland on Christmas Eve. My mother’s youngest brother picks me up at the airport and together he and I go to Christmas Eve Mass at his parish church. My uncle has studied to be a priest from age twelve to eighteen. He leaves the seminary to marry and together they have three daughters. They later divorce and in time he marries a wonderful woman who, tragically, dies of breast cancer. Since the death of his beloved, my uncle’s faith has become central to his life as it has been in his youth. He and I spend Christmas Day with his beautiful step-daughter – so like her lovely mother – and her family. It feels wonderful to be a guest at a family Christmas dinner table again.

On Boxing Day, we go to see Glasgow Celtic play. My uncle drives us to Park Head, Glasgow Celtic’s stadium, and we buy two tickets for the nosebleeds. We find our seats and as we wait for the game to begin, we are entertained by the patter in the stands. One drunken man seated behind us sings the rebel songs of Celtic, one after the other. A man seated two men down from me says, “See him. If he gets wan word right like, I’ll be bloody surprised.” I exchange a look with my uncle and together we share a laugh.

There trails onto the field four Santas. They are an acapella group brought to the stadium to entertain the crowd before the match begins. As soon as the Singing Santas start to sing, the power goes out. It is a night game and if they are not able to restore the power then the match will have to be cancelled.

“Oh no. Do you think they’ll cancel the match?” I ask my uncle, bracing for disappointment.

“If they do, there’ll be a riot. See all these folk with their Celtic gear on? They better get that power back on,” he laughs. They do manage to return the power and the match is played, and Celtic wins 4-2.

My uncle tells me of a time that my father brought him to see Celtic play. “I was just twelve and home from the seminary for a holiday. Your daddy told me that if I got lost in the crowd as we exited the stadium, I was to just pick up my feet and let the crowd carry me, which is exactly what I did and your daddy got me at the other side. During the match someone behind us was swearing and your daddy told the lad to cool it. When he didn’t your dad thumped him,” my uncle tells me.

I picture my dad there, at Park Head. He has always said that he wants his ashes scattered over that park. That day I am thrilled to be there, not just to see Celtic play, though that is exciting, but because it is hallowed ground upon which my father had weekly walked. I worship at the altar of my father.

The day after the match, my uncle drives me to Edinburgh in his Jaguar. We have a meal together and then we part company. I am staying in a lovely Bed and Breakfast in the heart of the city. I am glad to get on my own again. At my uncle’s I sleep in his room as he takes the couch, and I feel like an intrusion. The bed in the B & B is plump and plush. I have tea and biscuits in my room as I watch the BBC from my puffy mattress clothed in a courtesy white bathrobe. That is my idea of heaven: a nice hotel room, tea, chocolate biscuits, and a downy bathrobe. What more does a girl need?

I love to walk the cobbled lanes of Princes Street, and pop in and out of the charming shops and tea houses along the Royal Mile. I love Scotland. I am proud to have been born there. I eat alone in pubs off the Royal Mile where I can see tourists rush past Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. One evening, a man asks me to join him at his table, but I politely decline and continue to people-watch in my own world.

I fly to Dublin, Ireland on December 30th in time to ring in the New Year. I go on a New Year’s Eve pub crawl through Dublin. A band of Irish musicians takes tourists about the fair city and talk about the history of Celtic music. I walk to the pub where the tour is to meet, and introduce myself to the group. The man who leads the Celtic music tour is very attractive. He is tall and thin with dark hair and dark blue eyes, and wears a black knit cap and a black jumper. He carries an Irish drum called a Bodhrán with cipín or a tipper. His drum, made with an animal skin, reminds me of the drums of First Nations’ peoples in Canada. He says the Bodhrán is the drum of the Celts and is called a poor man’s tambourine. This striking drummer looks like U2’s The Edge, and sparks fly between him and me as the night progresses. As usual, I am the only single person present, and he and I invariably end up chatting alone together, laughing as we sip a pint here and there. Of course, when I notice that he wears a wedding ring, I keep meself to meself, as the Irish say.

Bodhran

The pubs that we frequent are always empty, allowing us to listen to the band members as they speak to us about the history of Irish music. At the last pub we are each asked to sing a song from our home country and I sing Bad Timing by Blue Rodeo for no reason other than it is the only Canadian song – besides the national anthem – to which I can recall the lyrics. I walk home from the final stop on the crawl amongst the Hogmanay revelers in Temple Bar. A dozen Scotsmen, like twelve apostles dressed in kilts, appear to my left. Their apparent leader is Gerard Butler’s doppelganger. He winks at me and says, “How’s about it, lass?” Had I more confidence in that moment, I might have said ‘hello’ back to him.  Instead, I return to my B&B with a chicken curry and pass out before the bells.

The next morning I eat early in the dining lounge. “Did you see those devils out last night? I was coming over the Ha’penny Bridge just across the Liffey, and they were still drunk as monkeys walking home, so they were. Shocking!” says the little woman who serves me breakfast. She is in her fifties with neat, short blonde hair. She wears a crucifix about her slender neck. I laugh at her mock exasperation of Ireland’s young making their way home in the early hours of New Year’s Day after welcoming in 2003.

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I am to catch a flight to Sligo at nine in the morning so check out of my hotel and head for the Eirebus stand. At the stop, I meet a young couple who are Canadian teachers. They are teaching in England for the year and have come to Dublin to ring in the New Year as have I. They are headed back to England, they say. I think about my year at teacher’s college in Glasgow when I was newly married. I had asked my Canadian teacher-husband to come with me and teach in Scotland for the year to allow us to have an adventure together as newlyweds, but he hadn’t the courage to come. He remained in Canada, within his comfort zone, and I went alone to Scotland for the year to study at teacher’s college in the country of my birth. It was not the best way to begin a marriage.

The flight to Sligo is little more than an hour. I stay at the Sligo Hotel, which is very posh though its floors are visibly slopped and it smells damp and musty. The television in my room has two Gaelic channels, and not much else. I have come to Sligo to see Yeats’ country before I go back to Scotland, but everything is shut down in Sligo on January 1st. It is a bank holiday.  Two taxi drivers chat and smoke together outside the bus station, which is directly in front of the hotel. I walk down the hill from the Sligo Hotel and approach the drivers.

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“Would one of you drive me to all of the Yeats’ sights?” I ask them.

The tall, good-looking one takes a long drag of his cigarette and looks at me from head to foot.  He is yet another alluring, tall, lanky, dark-haired Irishman with startling blue eyes.

“Yeats’, is it?” he says with a deep, Sligo accent. My heart somersaults in my chest. Good Lord, how I love the Irish accent.

“Yes,” I smile. “I’ll pay you whatever you think is fair.”

“It’ll cost you,” he smiles.

“How much?”

“A drink maybe. Or dinner,” he smiles.

I check his ring finger. No ring.

“Maybe dinner and a drink but I still insist upon paying you for your time. Would twenty-five Euros be fair?” I am always converting currency in my head, and figure that twenty-five euros is about fifty Canadian dollars. That seems fair.

“Where ya from, g’ill?” the other driver asks. He is older, short, squarely-built and balding. He puts out his cigarette under the heel of his boot.

“Canada,” I grin.

“Oh, Canada, is it?” he says. “I always meant to go there. Big place, Canada.”

“Yes, and beautiful. Like Ireland,” I say.

“Right, g’ill,” the man who is my driver speaks. “In you go.” He opens the front passenger door for me.

I sit next to him and he tells me his name was Fionn. I introduce myself to him but feel he will continue to call me g’ill.

He drives me to all of the Yeats’ hot spots. He takes me to the Drumcliff grave of Yeats, and I place a stone on the headstone alongside the other pebbles already decorating his headstone. I cannot conceive of the fact that W.B. Yeats is under my feet in that moment.

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“Why do you think he wanted to be laid to rest here?” I ask my driver.

“No idea, love. He’s feet first to the sea here though. It was where the family’s summer house was. Yer man had many a happy childhood memory here. Maybe that’s why. I’ll take you there, to the Yeats’ summer house in Sandymount. It’s not far from here, just a little out of town. ”

We pile back into the taxi and he drives twenty minutes up the highway. I take in the beauty of the landscape as we pass green mountains that roll toward the sea, dotted with sheep and horses.

“There it is,” Fionn pulls off the motorway and we get out of the car to look at the house and its surroundings. It is white with dark blue shutters, at least two stories high. It looks like Georgian architecture.

“As a child, he spent his summers here,” Fionn says. I love how the Irish say ‘child’. They say ‘chile’.

“It’s very regal,” I say and Fionn nods in agreement.

“I’ll take you to the water’s edge,” Fionn says.

He drives me to Lough Gill. There is a sign that says: Lake Isle of Innisfree.

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“He wrote that poem about his childhoods spent here,” Fionn says. “It was this lough that he wrote about.”

“It must have been wonderful,” I say. “Summers here at that time.”

“The family had money, g’ill. They had a grand life,” Fionn agrees. “Better than most, that’s for certain,” he says and I know that I could listen to the sound of his voice all day. “I’ll take you to Yeats’ Tower. It’s a couple of hours from here.”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“Nonsense, g’ill. It’s going to quieter than a funeral Mass today, it being a bank holiday. I’ll not be doing much business today. You’re here just for the day. We’ll go out there and you can have a look at Thoor Ballylee. It is an old Norman tower near the town of Gort in County Galway. It’s only noon now. Sure now, you’ve all day.”

“If you’re sure,” I say.

“I am. That settles it. We’ll be pottering again,” Fionn says.

As we drive, Fionn and I chat about our lives. He grew up in Sligo. He went to Australia for a few years but then his parents grew ill and he returned to Sligo to care for them.

“I missed the place anyway, Fionn says. “Australia was too hot for my tastes. I missed this miserable rain, if you can believe that,” he laughs.

“I don’t like the heat either. And I love the rain too,” I tell him. “So, yes, I can believe that.”

“Must be that Celtic blood we both have, raging through our veins,” Fionn winks at me.

On the drive to Thoor Ballylee, he tells me of its history. It had been built in the 15th or 16th century by the de Burgo family.  It passed to the Gregory family and in 1857 it was worth £5. In the early 1900s, the tower was still owned by the Gregory family and became part of nearby Coole Estate, the home of Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats’ lifelong friend and patron. Coole House was the centre for meetings of the Irish literary group to which Yeats belonged. It was a group composed of a great number of preeminent literary figures of the day. Near the tower, in Coole Park, began the Irish Literary Revival.

Thoor Ballylee is known as Yeats’ Tower because in 1916 or 1917 Yeats purchased the property for the nominal sum of £35. He was enchanted with it and it was located in a rural area. From 1921 to 1929, Yeats and his family lived there. The tower retained its original windows in the upper part, but Yeats and his architect, Professor William A. Scott, restored the tower for the next two years and installed larger windows in the lower floors. Yeats dropped the term ‘castle’ in naming the property and replaced it with “Thoor” (Túr), the Irish word for “tower”, and the place had been known as Thoor Ballylee. For twelve years, Thoor Ballylee was Yeats’ summer home and country retreat. He was inspired to create poems like The Tower and Coole Park and Ballylee here. In 1929, Ballylee was abandoned as the Yeats’ family moved out and it fell to disuse and ruin.

“In 1951, a scene in John Ford’s The Quiet Man in which John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara cross a river was shot next to Thoor Ballylee,” Fionn tells me.

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“I love that film,” I gush.

“Me too,” Fionn smiles.

When we arrive at Thoor Ballylee, we get out to explore the grounds. The rain has stopped and we walk about without umbrellas. It is a mystical experience to be where Yeats has stood and lived and worked.

“We’ll head back to town,” Fionn says. “Maybe we can stop for a bit to eat along the way. I’m famished, so I am.”

“I’d like that. I’m hungry too. My treat,” I say.

“Wha’?” Fionn is puzzled.

“I’ll buy,” I clarify

“Nonsense, g’ill. You’re not in Canada now with all of its liberal ways. You’re in Ireland, and in Ireland the man pays.”

We stop at a pub and have a late lunch/early dinner. Fionn is very charming and chats easily with me. We laugh a lot together. I tell him funny stories about my students and he tells me stories from the life of a taxi driver.

“Neither profession is for the faint of heart,” he laughs.  “I also work construction,” Fionn tells me. But that industry is slow around these parts at the moment.”

“Do you ever think of leaving again?” I ask.

“My place is here with me mam and me da,” he says. “At least for the time being.”

On the way back to the hotel, Fionn drives me to where a statue of Yeats usually stands in Sligo, in front of the Ulster Bank building, but it has been flattened by a drunk driver on New Year’s night.

“That’s yer man there,” he says. “Flat as a pancake, he is.” I laugh.

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Before I leave the taxi, I fold together two twenty Euro notes, one inside the other, and slide it to Fionn.

“No, now. It was my pleasure. A more pleasant day I don’t remember if ever there was one.”

“I enjoyed it too, Fionn, but you need to make a living.  Take it. I insist. Please.” I push the money into his hand as I leave the car. “Thank you for taking me around,” I say again. “It would have been a wasted trip to Sligo had you not ferried me about today.”

“T’was my absolute joy now, g’ll,” he winks.

I decide to leave Sligo the next morning and go to Knock. I’ve never visited a Marion Shrine before but have long felt the call to do so. My Aunt Christine travelled to Lourdes and Fatima before she became a nun. She brought us holy medals from those Marion shrines when we were young. My father’s sister, Sadie, cleaned her local parish church in Glasgow and with her fellow parishioners she had often travelled to Knock on a holy pilgrimage. I had researched the story of Knock in the 1990s after my divorce when I had moved home to London. I learned that in Knock on August 21st, 1879, Mary, Joseph and John the Evangelist appeared at an altar before many witnesses. On the altar was a lamb and a cross, and a host of angels appeared over the altar. Fifteen residents of Knock claimed to have seen the vision. I want to experience Knock for myself.

I take the bus from Sligo but have to change over busses, which are running on a Sunday schedule though it is January 2nd and the bank holiday is over. I stand in the rain for more than an hour awaiting the connection, and chat with two young people from a tropical country who think they have arrived in hell as they shiver in Ireland’s icy rain awaiting the bus to Knock. We are so grateful to see the bus arrive, and to warm up as we are driven to the shrine.

When we finally arrive in Knock, I am shocked by it diminutive size. Knock is a tiny village. I don’t feel an overpowering sense of anything holy while I am there. I pray my rosary in the cemetery by the marked graves of the many visionaries, and I go to Mass in the new church, which has a beautiful white carving on its front that depicts the vision of Mary, Joseph and John standing next to the altar upon which stands the Lamb of God and a crucifix.

As I walk the rain-soaked grounds of Knock, I ask Mary to bring me a Catholic husband. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I do feel that my prayers are heard and feel hopeful that they will be answered.

I go to confession in the old cathedral, then celebrate Mass. It is lovely to be there and to be surrounded by Catholics from all over the world. I shop for Knock souvenirs before heading back to Sligo where I will stay one more night. I must fly back to Dublin and then take a flight to Glasgow from there in preparation for my journey home to Canada where I have a good job that offers security and a good pension, but where little else awaits me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Embrace

I

The night I turned 31 years of age I broke in my mother’s arms. It was January 31st, 1996.

I had been a Catholic high school teacher for six years. It was two years since my divorce after which I picked myself up and carried on as though nothing were different. There were a couple of people in the small-town in which I taught who took exception to my divorce. Catholic teachers do not divorce, particularly young, attractive, female Catholic teachers in a small-town.

I struggled along, and shut-out the controversy. I thought I was strong enough to survive it all. In my life I had always managed to triumph. This would be no different. I focused all of my energies on the task of teaching, as well as helping students through the vales of adolescent tragedies. Then without warning, one of my students took his own life. He hung himself in the basement of his mother’s home with a computer chord. His suicide shattered me. The immediate crisis was handled by myself and the other members of staff, and always in my mind, I would be strong as always. Yet I was not strong, not anymore.

I cried to God each evening, and asked that He carry me.

“If it is true that You never give anyone any more than they can handle, then carry me now. I’m too weak to stand on my own any longer.”

For months I prayed in this manner. One evening as I lay in bed, a figure appeared in my doorway.  I could not move my arms and legs, yet I did not feel fear, only peace. I said to him when I saw him, “You’re here now.” 

He had dew-kissed, translucent, white skin and sea blue eyes, and resembled a man with whom I taught and had dated briefly. He moved fluidly into my room and sat at the end of my bed, his back to me. He was dressed in a blue shirt and tan slacks. He didn’t have wings or a halo but I felt that the figure before me was an angel. He didn’t smile but merely turned his head to the side so that I could see his beautiful profile and said simply, “You must go home.”

 

II

The following morning, as I was making my bed before leaving for school, my clock radio burst forth in song. It was odd that this occurred for two reasons. The first reason was that my alarm was set for five to accommodate my morning run and not the hour of seven. Secondly, I never set my clock on music. I always set it on buzzer, for only that piercing shrill would make me stir. The song that was playing was a high school favourite:  London Calling by The Clash. As the song played, I remembered all of which had occurred the night before, and fell to my knees in prayer. Heaven had heard my desperate whispers, and had sent to me an answer clearly and directly. I was to go home. Home. To London. That was His answer?

I resisted it at first; however, over the next three months it came again and again with increasing clarity. Home. The writing was on the proverbial wall, and God’s finger had etched it there for me to see. In truth, I had always wanted to leave Brantford. I had stayed for the sake of a teaching position that ended every year in a lay-off notice anyway. I felt I could teach elsewhere and struggle through the lean years of academic cut-backs in a place where at least I wanted to put down roots. I had accepted the position with Brantford because it was within commuting distance to Hamilton, where I lived with my husband. Jack was established as a teacher in Hamilton where he had lived all his life surrounded by his family and his friends. It was never my city. I had always wanted us to leave Hamilton and Brantford behind. I had thought of teaching out in British Columbia, or in Britain or even in London where my family resided.

Jack always said, “I don’t want to live and die in Hamilton, babe.”

“The only thing that will prevent that is if you physically leave here,” I told him.

He would never leave Hamilton and I could never make it my home.

I believed so strongly in what I had experienced that night in October that I knew God would look after me and grant me another post when the time was ripe. For the moment, I could only focus on re-establishing myself in the right place, where my life could begin once more. I knew my visitor hadn’t been a dream. I knew I had received a celestial caller. I understood too that the messenger had not come because I was living a virtuous life. In fact, the opposite was true. Suddenly single, I found myself coming to know an immoral group of people, and my choices were placing my soul in jeopardy. That visitor intervened that night to save me from myself, and promptly pointed me home.

I requested a leave for second semester, and packed up my apartment. I gave to charity much of what I owned and sold the rest to Al, the Used Furniture Guy before I bundled a few precious belongings into my car in preparation for my return to my parents’ home. Two days before I left, a childhood friend from London telephoned to tell me that her husband had left her after three years of marriage. Marina was beside herself with grief. Her Hungarian husband had bullied her for many years. She was never thin enough, smart enough or beautiful enough for his taste although he was an insignificant man in every way. He told Marina that he deserved to be with her more beautiful, younger sister who was also married and had a child. Marina had started to lose her hair from all the stress he caused her.

“It’s coming out in handfuls in the shower,” she told me weeping uncontrollably into the phone. I tried to console her but it was impossible especially long-distance. “I am moving in with my folks,” she sobbed.

“I am too,” I said and we both laughed. “Thirty is going to be great!” I told her. “Just you wait! It will be our banner year!” Marina’s birthday was two weeks before mine. We would both be turning thirty in the upcoming month of January. Marina continued to sob openly into the phone. “I’ll be home soon,” I promised her. “Hold tight.”

 

III

I drove home to London on a snowy, icy December 23rd. As I navigated the 403 and the 401, I remembered how often Jack and I had made that drive together and I missed him.

After I left him, Jack tried to get me to come home once. He called my apartment but I yelled at him to leave me alone and never bother me again. He never did bother me again until one year after we separated when he called to tell me that we needed to sign some papers. We agreed to meet at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop located on the highway between our places of residence on a cold, rainy November night. I saw Jack’s car and ran from my old vehicle to sit next to him in his new car. We were pleasant to one another and I quickly signed all of the papers with which he presented me. We inquired into the well-being of one another and our respective families before a pall of silence shrouded the car. His vehicle shook in the robust winds like a ship rocking on the water determined to break free of its mooring.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband to you, Angela,” Jack finally spoke. “I want you to know that because of you, despite how much it hurt when you left me, I will be a better husband to my next wife. I will be stronger.”

As he wept next to me in the car, I thought though his words were sweet, and likely words that he needed to say to me, they were strange. It was odd to hear him speak of his next wife. I looked at his big, beautiful, green eyes shining with tears in the night, and wept too. He reached for my hand and I leaned into his shoulder.

“I wish I had been a better wife to you too, Jack,” I said softly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t capable of being a good wife to you.  You deserve to be adored. I want that for you more than I want it for myself.”

“Just promise me one thing, babe,” Jack said. “Promise me that you won’t go back to London, to your family.” I nodded and asked him if he were seeing someone new and he said that he was. I told him that I was glad he was with someone and he seemed to be stung by the realization that I wanted him to move on and be happy. He furrowed his brow. “And you know what, babe? She has sisters too, but I like her sisters. They’re good people.”

St. Jack, blessed be the peacemaker, liked everyone on earth but despised my two sisters and my parents because he felt that they treated me like garbage. He wasn’t wrong.

We gently kissed and hugged before releasing one another to an uncertain future. I jumped from his car and ran back into the lashing rain that washed the salt from my tear-stained face. I knew then that I had loved Jack as much as I was able, but just not well enough. I had rejected the only human love that had ever been offered me in short, because I didn’t feel that I deserved to be loved. I was incapable of loving myself. As I drove to London that December night, I felt a great sense of despair and was disappointed in myself for all of the poor choices I’d made in my life, particularly in that past few years. I hated who I had become.

I stopped at a 7-11 convenience store in Woodstock and gave the clerk twenty-five dollars for a small, fully decorated Christmas tree that he had on the counter next to the till. I sat the tree next to me in the passenger seat and continued the drive home. I thought of how I had vowed to never return to London when I ran from the city eight years before. That was the same year that I later met and married Jack. Yet, here I was making my way home through a year-end blizzard. London couldn’t be where I was supposed to end up, however.

“Surely not, God,” I prayed. “Surely not.”

 

IV

Once in London, I stopped at Marina’s childhood home before I continued on to my parents’ place. I took the little Christmas tree from my car, and ran through the falling snow to the front door. I could see Marina sitting at the dining-room table with her family, enjoying dinner together. Her family, close and loving, was the opposite of mine. I felt embarrassed that I was intruding, and thought of leaving the tree on her doorstep without saying hello. I rang the bell instead. Marina was the one to answer the door, and when I thrust the tree at her, she burst into tears and flew into my open arms. I held my broken friend close to me.

“Merry Christmas, Marina,” I said and I kissed the top of her head.

“Merry Christmas, Ange!” she bubbled through her tears.

“It’s going to be okay,” I said. “It’s better not to be with a man who brutalizes your spirit.” She nodded her head and took the tree from my grasp, laughing at it with joy despite her flowing tears. “Put it in your room, next to your bed,” I said. “It’s just for you. I’ll call you in a few days. Tell your folks ‘Merry Christmas’ from me,” I told her. I dashed back to my car.

“I will. Same to your mom and dad,” she shouted after me. When I turned to wave, I saw her wipe away her tears, and go back inside carrying her little tree.

My parents lived less than five minutes from Marina’s parents, and all-too-quickly I arrived to Cant Crescent. I knew that my family didn’t want me back home, and I was desolate when I drove onto the street where I had grown up. I stopped a few houses back from my parents’ home and shut off my headlights. I let my engine idle to provide me with warmth against the December snowstorm that swirled all around. I sat in my car and wept, and then I prayed for Christ’s strength to get me through the door.

I did make it through the door and as the days passed, I found myself more alone than I had been in Brantford as my family shunned me over Christmas. I was not invited to my sister’s home for the family dinner, and my father didn’t speak to me. I was left alone. I felt that I shouldn’t have come home seeking solace. They didn’t want me.

After the October angel, I began to trust in God’s plan for my life, and it gave me the wings I’d long lacked. For the first time in my life, I believed in the real-world presence of Christ in a way I simply had not prior to that celestial messenger. I trusted that God was invested in the outcome of my life, and began to feel confident that God would look after me if I let go of what I had always known to venture into the unknown. That is why, though I did move back to my childhood home in December 1995, within five days of living there, I bought a ticket to fly to London, England on New Year’s Eve 1995. I felt increasingly rootless in Canada and, in the end, I told myself that the London that was calling me was that of England and not of Canada.

Of course, I was running away. It was my modes operandi. Perhaps I sensed that I had nothing left within me with which to stay and fight for a place at my family’s table so I decided to flee. As I prepared for that New Year’s Eve flight to London, England, I cried as I packed, unpacked and then repacked my suitcases several times. My devastated heart underwent a tug-of-war. I felt that though I had to leave, something within me told me that I needed to stay. My dad came into my room. Undoubtedly, my mother had sent him in. He held me in his sturdy arms.

“You don’t need to go, Ange,” he said to me. Those were the only words he had spoken to me since I’d arrived home.

“Yes, I do, Dad. I need to go.” It was then that I packed my cases one last time and left for my New Year’s Eve flight. On December 31st, 1995, I flew to London, England toasting the New Year in two different time zones with champagne and tears. I didn’t know why I was so weepy. New Year’s Eve was my wedding anniversary. That could have been why I was crying, but I wasn’t sure.

 

V

In England, I stayed with one of my cousins and her husband. Cousin Christiane was the daughter of my father’s oldest sister, Murrin Griffin. Murrin had had Christiane out-of-wedlock after the Second World War. She had had an affair with a married man from the Isle of Barra and once she became pregnant with her daughter, the man returned to his wife and family on Barra, leaving Murrin to deal with the pregnancy alone in 1955 Glasgow, Scotland. When her own family learned that she was expecting, Murrin was shunned by the Griffins. I personally knew what it felt like to be exiled by my own blood. I didn’t know my cousin, Christiane. She had grown up not knowing any family, excommunicated by my father’s mother, our grandmother, Cecelia Griffin, just as my own sisters had always shunned me. I reached out to Christiane, my cousin overseas, because I had no sense of family at home.

I landed on January 1st, 1996. Christiane’s husband picked me up at the airport and drove me to their charming, little cottage in Croydon, where my cousin awaited my arrival. She wasn’t very welcoming as I walked through her front door and I felt that perhaps she didn’t want me there. As time passed we did come to know one another, and Christiane proved to be that comforting older sister I’d never had in my own big sister. She and I went out together in London. She took me to Harrods and her favourite haunts about town. On one occasion, we hopped on a red double-decker and one of my bags blocked the aisle. A man struggled to get over it as he disembarked and he muttered something under his breath, which I didn’t hear but my big cousin did.

“She’s only just arrived from Canada!” Christiane shouted across the bus in her classy, Scottish BBC voice. Then she added, “Bastard!”

The man quickly exited and I giggled. It was after that incident that she and I became better acquainted. No one had ever fought for me like that before.  My own big sister had always enjoyed seeing others hurt or insult me. It gave her immense pleasure. My big sister certainly had never protected me or defended me as my big cousin did.

My cousin and I stayed at the exclusive apartment of her husband’s old auntie in the wealthiest area of London around the corner from Harrods. The old woman had all of her groceries sent round from Harrods. As I looked in her cupboards, all I saw was Harrods’ fare in tins and packages. The bathroom, like the rest of the flat, was luxurious. There was a white, oval whirlpool bathtub in the washroom, and my cousin insisted that I treat myself to a soak in it. From the tub I could see Jaguars and BMWs lining the cobble walkway beyond the windows. I thought how I could get used to such a lifestyle. Living in London in such a place would be a dream. More than that, however, I was swathed in the love of my big cousin. Christiane was willing to give me the love and support I needed to start over there because like me she was hungry for family.

 

VI

Within a week of arriving in England, a small voice whispered to my heart that I needed to go home. I stood on Platform Seven in London, England’s Victoria Station on January 6th, 1996 equipped with a map of the city and a tube guide as I set off on as series of job interviews. I was certified to teach in Britain, and as I was born in Scotland I was legally allowed to work in the United Kingdom. It was Friday morning rush hour and I studied the people who were taking the tube, focused on reaching their destinations. Everyone seemed to have a mobile to chat on as if it was part of the corporate uniform, and I could see myself chatting on my mobile to friends as I rode the tube to work or home.  As I stood there observing the commuters and deciding for myself where I would fit in there, I felt what I can only refer to as a presence. I looked up Platform Seven and I felt something roll towards me. There was a winded sound like fire as it seeks to engulf a bystander with its flames. It rushed over me with an electrifying whoosh. There was no voice nor was there anything that I saw, but as its energy rolled across where I was standing, I heard in my heart the message, “You must go home.”  The internal voice that would become clearer in time was beginning to whisper to me then.

I still struggled to believe that I had truly seen the visitor who I was only just beginning to characterize as an angel. I didn’t believe folk could see such things, but in childhood I had been told that I had a guardian angel, everyone had. After the October angel’s visit, I started to view life differently, and felt assured that we were not alone in our struggles. Christ was alive and invested in the well-being of people on earth, and He would intervene to draw us close to Him in love.

I buttoned my jacket collar against the January chill, walked to the train station’s bookshop and bought a postcard with a red double-decker bus on it. I wrote: England is the wrong place for you. I mailed it to myself, sending it to my parents’ Canadian address, as a reminder to me when I returned home in case I second-guessed the decision to return to London, Ontario at a later date. I knew then that I would resurrect my life in Canada, but first I yearned to see my Uncle Pádraic in Ireland where he had retired to the Griffin land in Donegal. I could talk to my Uncle Pádraic in ways my father and I never could. Like my father, my uncle was a devout Catholic, and I worried what he would say about my divorce. My Uncle Pádraic had been a seminarian before marrying a Clydebank lass named Bridie. I called my uncle to ask if I might come and see him, though I dreaded having to tell him of my divorce.

“Is Jack with you?” he asked.

“I’m on my own,” I answered.

“We’re roughing it here, Angela. We’re building a house. I’d feel ashamed to bring you here now,” he said.

“I just want to see you,” I said. There was a long pause during which I braced myself for his refusal.

“Céad míle fáilte,” he said at last.

“What does that mean?” I asked him.

“A hundred thousand welcomes.”

 

VII

I had to travel from London to Holyhead in Wales where I could get a ferry across the sea to Ireland. My cousin’s husband drove me to the station early in the morning. When I climbed aboard the five-forty-five morning train in London, I looked forward to napping throughout the journey, but that proved to be impossible. Within minutes the train began to fill with boisterous, Welsh rugby players who appeared to be intoxicated.

An elderly couple, both of whom were blind, clamoured onto the carriage tapping their way with white canes. They sat in the seat in front of me with their middle-aged daughter who also seemed to be somewhat visually impaired. The three of them immediately began to bellow to one another in the Irish for the entire time they inhabited that carriage. Even the rowdy rugby players vacated our carriage in due course. I wanted to ask the Gaelic-shouting couple and their daughter to please shut up, but didn’t because they were blind. I had read of West coast folk speaking loud in the Irish in this manner as a way of forcefully displaying Gaelic in English-controlled Éire. I wondered if my own northern, west coast Irish ancestors had done this. I wondered if perhaps my Grandfather Griffin spoke Gaelic. He was illiterate, at least in the English language. My father was the last of six children born in 1937, and my Grandfather Griffin had signed my father’s birth certificate with an ‘X’. Though he couldn’t write his name in English (or wouldn’t), I wondered if perhaps he had known his letters in Gaelic. He lived in Donegal during the Easter Rising of 1916, and I always wondered if he left Ireland as a consequence for having been involved in rebel activities.  I turned up the volume on my Walkman and blasted the Stones, Jackson Brown and Fleetwood Mac from a mixed tape I’d made, trying to drown out the Gaelic conversation ricocheting through the train carriage.

I wondered where my home was in this world. I never seemed to feel entirely at home in either Canada or Scotland though I loved both countries. I always longed for Scotland, the country of my birth. The same romantic nostalgia that surrounded Scotland for many also affected me. My heart ached for it as though it were my home.  My family referred to Scotland as ‘back home’, as in: “We’re gain’ back hame fer Christmas.” When we said ‘back home’ or ‘back hame’ we meant Scotland. But Scotland wasn’t home for me. I was a stranger there who, to the Scots, spoke with an American accent. Maybe Ireland would prove to be the place where I felt a sense of home, family and belonging.

The train stopped in Holyhead in late afternoon. The three blind Gaelic bellowers navigated their way off of the train, and onto the boat that would ferry us across the Irish Sea. I watched where they went and walked in the opposite direction. A dense mist was settled atop the water, and the sound of foghorns rolled in from the sea. Seated next to a window, I was surrounded by Irish teens returning from some sort of school excursion. The girls were dressed in kilts and blazers, and their male counterparts wore the same emerald green, gold crested blazer with camel-coloured, flannel trousers. They were noisy, as teens will tend to be, and I knew that once again my attempt to find a quiet place had been thwarted.

“There will be a travel delay,” the ship’s captain announced over the tanoid in a pleasant Dublin accent. Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I walked to a confectionary on the ship and I purchased a postcard with a Celtic cross on it, a sandwich and a cup of tea. I tucked the postcard inside my purse, and returned to my seat to eat my spot of lunch. The delay turned into a wait of several hours and my lunch became my dinner. It was dusk by the time we got underway.

The Irish Sea unmercifully tossed our small vessel as if it were a bath tub tugboat in the hand of an elated toddler. An hour into the journey, things became very quiet aboard the ferry as people battled seasickness. I sat still with my eyes closed in order to stave off waves of nausea. When I felt that I was going to lose my battle against my churning stomach, I went to the toilet so I could vomit privately, but the lavatory was bursting with the female kilted secondary students hurling in tandem into porcelain pots. The sound of their retching and gagging as well as the smell of their vomit, made me feel worse, and I quickly exited. Holding myself upright with the vessel’s walls as the boat dipped and ascended on the crashing waves of the cresting sea. I lurched back into my seat. I sat completely still, afraid if I raised my head a second time I would be physically ill where I sat. Silently, I recited the words of Christ, “Peace, be still. Peace, be still. Peace, be still.” With those words, I redirected my thoughts from my desire to vomit to the peace only Christ can give.

Within two hours, the Spirit of Éire deposited us at Dublin’s dock already shrouded in winter’s cloak of night though it was only half-past-five. I’d been travelling for ten hours, and awake for longer than that. Exhausted, I boarded a bus marked for the city centre. A lovely, slender woman dressed in a tan raincoat with a silk tartan scarf tied neatly around her neck, sat next to me on the bus. She looked to be in her early fifties and her name was Mary. Upon learning I was from Canada, Mary offered me some advice.

“It’s not safe to be walking these streets alone at night, love. Never go out alone at night. Dublin is not the city it once was.”

She asked me if I knew where to stay in Dublin, and when I said that I did not, she told me that she would walk me to a place she knew to be clean, safe and reasonably priced. I thanked her for her kindness. We disembarked together and Mary walked me to a lovely but inexpensive B&B. A streetlight burned through the fog that wrapped itself around Dublin, allowing me to see little of the city. She walked with me to the door of the B&B, and left me there only after I promised her that I would indeed not venture out on my own at night.

“You’ll be safe here,” Mary patted my hand farewell.

I managed to thank her for guiding me to a safe place before she vanished into the vapor as though she had never been there.

 

VIII

The next morning, I awoke to discover that the bus I needed to take from Dublin to Glenvar was not running that day.

“That bus only runs every second day, love,” the B&B proprietress informed me at breakfast.

“I will need to telephone my uncle,” I told her. “Will I be able to stay here another night?”

“Of course, dear. Of course. January is the slow season here. We’ve loads of rooms available. You can ring your uncle from the house phone after breakfast.”

I telephoned my Uncle Pádraic after I finished eating.

“Go to the National Gallery while you’re there. Go and see some of Dublin. Ring me when you’re coming tomorrow.”

I walked to St. Stephen’s Green and stopped on a wooden bridge overlooking a small pond in the common. Two white swans swam close together so that a black swan, which appeared considerably smaller, couldn’t separate them. The black swan was rejected and eventually swam away on its own. I was the black swan that had always tried to fit in between my two sisters, one older and one younger, but was never accepted by them. They’d been jealous of me, claiming that I was the favourite. If I was, I never felt it.

I did as my Uncle Pádraic suggested and visited Dublin’s National Gallery. A dozen schoolchildren marched ahead of me along the corridor as I entered the portico. How magnificent to be exposed to these paintings so young, I marveled. There was no such exposure to great art in London, Ontario where I’d spent my own youth. There was one tiny gallery in London, Ontario, which housed a few paintings by Ontario artists and perhaps a clay pot fired and glazed in reds and blues. The children chatted excitedly as they gathered before various masterpieces in a nearby room, and I stepped away to enjoy a solitary moment of contemplation. I found myself before a number of paintings illustrating the life of Christ. I stared at the Taking of Christ, 1602 by Michelangelo. I pondered the look of pain in the eyes of the Savior as He is taken to his death. Then another portrait of Christ, painted by Gerard David of the Netherlands in the fourteenth century, drew my eye: Christ Bidding Farewell to the Virgin. Christ appears to be exhausted as He raises a solemn hand in benediction. His auburn hair is thin and his dark eyes appear weary. His creased brow keenly depicts his cavernous sense of fatigue.

Two teenage girls ran past me, giggling. The blonde one was dressed in a navy-blue and black plaid kilt and navy stockings that rolled over her slender knees to rest upon milky, trim thighs. Her outfit was very like the school uniform I donned as a Catholic Central student though her skirt was markedly shorter than mine had been permitted to be, and my navy socks had stopped at my knees. I stood before another masterpiece highlighted with brilliant blues. It was touted as Ireland’s favourite painting. Hellelil and Hildebrand: The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, by Irish artist F.W. Burton, depicts the final embrace between the ill-fated lovers meeting on the stone, turret steps of a medieval tower. The princess and her bodyguard fell in love, but the king disapproved of the match and ordered his sons to slay the amorous sentry. The portrait shows the couple’s final embrace as the doomed sentinel bids farewell to the king’s virgin.

I saw myself in that portrait, which poignantly illustrates the reluctance of two lovers to release one another and their obvious distress at being forced to do so. It reminded me not only of my dissolved marriage but also of the night my father beat me in front of my high school sweetheart, Sé Keen, because I was one hour late for my twelve o’clock curfew. He then forbid him to ever see me again. I’d never heard the words, ‘I love you’ or ‘You’re beautiful’ until Sé said them to me. When he was chased from my life by my father, I was devastated. All loved stopped for me the night that Sé and I broke up. Sé was gone and I was so angry with my father for chasing Sé from my life, that I withdrew my love from him, the only person in my house that I did love. In that tumultuous time, I was raped at a high school party by a boy from another school. My life ended then, at age eighteen, in ways that I was incapable of comprehending or communicating to another. I stared at this final embrace between these two painted thwarted lovers. I certainly was not fully the princess in the portrait. Rather, I was both the condemned lover and the grieving virgin in the painting. I had mourned the death of my own innocence and the loss of my own love as much as she. Yet, I had as much in common with the condemned lover as with the distraught princess.

I left the National Gallery and breathed in the brisk evening air. The painting of the star-crossed lovers continued to tug at my heart as I strolled back to my B&B and I knew instinctively that I needed peace. It was peace for which I had long searched in my life. I felt in my purse for a peppermint, and my fingertips caressed the postcard I had purchased on the ferry crossing to Ireland. I’d forgotten all about it.

I stopped, fished a pen from my purse and wrote: Peace, be still on the back of it. I bought a stamp at the GPO on O’Connell Street made famous by the Easter Rising of 1916. Tucked into the window of the GPO was the statue of Cuchullain, the greatest warrior in Irish mythology and King of Ulster. It was a shame he was hidden away in a corner, inaccessible to the public who may wish to admire him. I affixed the stamp to my postcard and exited the GPO. There were pockmarks on the exterior of the GPO and I removed a red leather glove so that I could insert my fingertips into their chipped indents left there by British bullets fired on the Irish home-rule rebels holed up in the GPO on Easter Monday in 1916. I possessed the same fighting spirit as those home-rule rebels. I just needed to find it again. The GPO was listed as an iconic symbol of the failed 1916 Easter Rising where the short-lived Irish Republic was proclaimed by Pádraic Pearse only to result in the smouldering ruins not only of the building but also of that republic. The GPO had undergone several renovations to restore it to its former glory, and I was rebuilding myself in a similar fashion.

I popped the postcard into a green mailbox just round the corner of the GPO off O’Connell Street. It would await my arrival when I did return home to Canada, which I would in due course. I knew that I had to go home to face all the things from which I had been running all these years.

 

IX

Before I left Dublin the following morning, I telephoned my uncle and told him that I was coming ahead.

“You’ll never find us unless I come and get you,” he told me. “I’ll meet you in Letterkenny and bring you the rest of the way myself.”

I got the six o’clock bus leaving Dublin destined for Donegal after asking the driver if his bus went to Donegal.

“You’re grand,” he said. “On you come.”

As I settled in with my music, some snacks and a boring book for the journey, a young mother jostled onto the bus with an infant. Mother and child sat across the aisle from me, and I prayed the child was a happy traveler, and even that she would sleep for the duration of our journey north. The baby gurgled and giggled as her mother made big eyes and smiled widely at her daughter. As I watched mother and child, I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother had ever been that playful with me or my sisters. It wasn’t in her nature to be warm or silly. I am not sure why my mother ever had children except that it was expected that young women in the 1960s would become virgin brides and mothers immediately after the wedding. Women, especially young, Catholic women who were not going to become nuns, would marry and have a family.

When the bus reached Ballyshannon, Letterkenny, the driver announced that it was the final stop and ordered all passengers to disembark. I clamoured off the bus, and looked for my uncle, but I suspected that I was not at the correct stop. I felt that I had further north to travel. When I failed to find my uncle at the depot, I walked up and down the main street of the small town looking for him. This reinforced my certainty that I had disembarked at the wrong place. I was in Ballyshannon, Letterkenny and not in Letterkenny itself. When I walked back to the bus depot I saw that it was closed. It became apparent that I would not be going any further north that day.

I looked on the exterior bus schedule and map for the place called Glenvar – the area in Donegal where Pádraic actually lived – but there was no such place listed. I thought I would need to get a room in a local B&B and make my way north the following day, but I remained unsure as to what bus to get from Ballyshannon. I asked a few locals what bus I needed to take to get to Glenvar.

“Where, love?”

“Glenvar.”

“Never heard of it, darlin’.”

No one I asked knew where Glenvar was located. I wandered the streets of Ballyshannon, looking for a phone box to use. I found one inside a local pub, and called my Uncle Pádraic.

“I got off at the wrong stop,” I told him, choked with tears.

“Wait there. I’ll come to you,” he told me.

“There are no other buses running from here tonight,” I told him.

“Yes. There is. The one I will take to get in to you will bring us right back home again. Get something to eat and I’ll meet you at the depot in two hours.”

“Okay,” I told him.

I entered the pub and asked for broiled or steamed vegetables.

“No meat?” the waitress asked me.

“Just vegetables,” I requested again.

She brought me a plate of soggy carrots and watery, bland potatoes. I ate what I could and ventured outside. I wandered the streets taking photographs of Ballyshannon. I rambled into Ballyshannon’s St. Patrick’s Church and took some photographs before lighting a candle and saying a prayer for my family’s peace. I left the chapel and wandered further along the lane. I found myself in front of a convent. I wondered why it was that I always ended up in front of nunneries. Did God want me to be nun? I didn’t want to be nun. Surely, that feeling telling me that I didn’t want to become a nun would not be there if God was calling me to take the veil. Right?

I took pictures of the monastery and sat in the garden for a time before pushing on. Down cobblestone laneways stood beautiful, white cottages with flower boxes on the windowsills still vibrant with green and crimson blooms though January. There were some old ruins overgrown with deep green, climbing vines alive with violet blooms. I snapped a picture of a fly fisherman who, though far from the bank, stood knee deep in the Ballyshannon River casting his rod. He smiled and tipped his hat to me. I smiled and discreetly waved to him.

I came across a historical plaque in Ballyshannon that commemorated the river as a famine departure point in the 1840s and I wondered how many of my ancestors starved to death or left Donegal in that terrible time. In Montréal there was a place called Griffintown established by a woman, Mary Griffin, in the 1820s, and populated by Irish immigrants and their descendants. Was I related to that Mary Griffin? How many Griffin relatives left Ireland and made it to Canada before my family crossed the sea in 1966? All had come from Ireland hopeful for a better life. My parents had certainly found a better life in Canada in terms of material wealth, but we missed out on any sense of familial love. My mother valued money above family and our family was fractured in the ways that it was, not because of me, as I had always been told, but rather because of my mother’s obsessive pursuit of wealth and financial security. Like my father, my mother was born in 1937, just after the Great Depression and just before WWII. She’d grown up in lack and during a time of global uncertainty. In adulthood, she needed money to make her feel safe. Money was my mother’s god, and the emotional, spiritual and mental needs of her three children were sacrificed on the altar of her pursuit of financial security. We didn’t matter to my mother, only money mattered to her. Consequently, as siblings, we were unimportant to one another.

I walked out into the countryside and petted some horses who playfully hung their heads over a mesh fence. Their large eyes looked into mine with such trust and defenselessness that I felt my heart break open with love for their vulnerability. I returned to the town and thought I would seek out a cup of tea, but when I looked at my watch I noticed that it was time to meet my uncle. I made my way back to the Ballyshannon bus depot, and saw my uncle standing beneath a station light. He had a newspaper tucked under his arm, and his navy, knit cap rested above his beautiful, bright blue Griffin eyes. We smiled at one another and I kissed his grizzly cheek ‘hello’.

“A hundred thousand welcomes,” he said in English this time.

He and I departed together on the ten o’clock bus and traveled to his home. It was midnight by the time my uncle and I silently trailed the cobble walkway to his cottage, puffing frozen exhales into the aubergine sky. My fatigue was replaced by a sense of marvel at the blackness of the Irish night blanketing us. I looked up as I walked. The stars shone like diamonds in a black velvet sky. I’d never seen stars that bright before and they seemed closer to earth than ever I had seen them before. My uncle unlatched the front door and mutely led me into his cottage. His dog ran to greet my uncle, and growled at me.

“Come here, Binbo,” my uncle called to his dog. “He may growl at you, but he can’t bite you, Angela. He’s no teeth.”

There was a simple mattress for me to sleep upon placed in front of a white stone fireplace. After a snack of warm biscuits and hot Irish breakfast tea, I crawled into my bed without changing out of my clothes; I was too tired to even open my small suitcase to find pajamas. Rather, I collapsed on top of the simple mattress still clad in my green Aran knit jumper, blue jeans and thick, white woolen socks, and I slept feeling closer to God than I had in sometime.

I had always been true to my faith in terms of belief, but I had not always been true to myself or to my relationship with God. I’d offended God with my behavior often. I was ashamed of that, and had often felt that God did not love me because I was imperfect. The angel’s visit demonstrated to me that God was there walking beside me despite my human shortcomings or maybe because of them. He saw all that I did – good and bad – and He knew all that I’d suffered. He saw how deeply I had been wounded in my life, and He witnessed all the ways that I continued to be hurt by my family’s indifference towards me. He wanted me to heal. He was directing my life in ways that I was unable to fully comprehend in order to restore peace to my heart.

 

X

When I woke, I opened the thick, gold brocade drapes that hung over the front window. The brilliant morning sun lit up a postcard view beyond the huge windowpane that had been hidden by darkness the night before. White cottages dotted emerald hills, silvery clouds broke an azure sky and bleached sailboats danced upon the cobalt water of Mulroy Bay. I spotted my uncle walking to town with his toothless, hound dog, Binbo. Pulling on my boots, I chased after them. We walked together without speaking and when we reached the town chapel, he and I took turns entering the church and standing outside with Binbo. Like all the buildings of Glenvar, the Catholic Church was white and small in its splendor. My uncle never passed a Catholic church without blessing himself with the cross of our faith. It was an unobtrusive, reverent gesture I noticed when he and I spent time together in Edinburgh in 1991.

“Your faith is your most precious gift, Angela,” he said as we left the chapel.

Hesitantly I responded, “I’m afraid you’ll disown me, Uncle Pádraic.”

“It’s divorce then?” he looked to me for confirmation. He waved his hand. “Give it to God. He gives beauty for ashes.”

Beauty for ashes. I thought it a lovely sentiment and held tight to it.

Over the next few days, my uncle introduced me to many Griffin relatives. “Your cousins want to meet you,” he told me simply.

I met who my uncle told me was my dad’s cousin, Sheena, and her husband, Tam. Sheena was a great-granddaughter of my great-grandfather, Dainéal Griffin. Dainéal had been married twice. He had my grandfather, Ever Griffin (my dad’s father), with his wife Roísìn, then a daughter also named Roísìn, but when Dainéal’s wife died in childbirth with their third child, Iain, Dainéal Griffin remarried. The woman with whom he married as a widower was Sheena’s great-grandmother. Sheena’s father, James Griffin, was Ever Griffin’s half-brother. My dad and Sheena then were half-cousins. Pádraic and my father never told me that my great-grandfather, Dainéal Griffin, had married a second time. It was as if they felt ashamed that their grandfather had married twice, and kept it a family secret.

Pádraic took me to where he constructed the new home he was building for himself and my Auntie Bridie. It would be ready by Easter and named in the Gaelic, Teach Bridie, which means Bridie’s House. The gate to the property needed to be unlatched before we could enter the grounds. Uncle Pádraic wasn’t able to close the gate properly, and was impressed that I was able to push the post back into place to secure the opening once we were through the entryway.

I met three bachelor brothers, who were my dad’s uncles and my great-uncles. They were three men in their sixties, who lived together on the family farm adjacent to Uncle Pádraic’s property.

“I must warn you,” Pádraic told me. “Their house is not clean. I wouldn’t use the lavatory if I were you.”

The bachelor cousins were hulking men with hands the size of shovels, toothless smiles and little to say. They presented me with old family photographs, some of which showed my father as a small boy. My dad looked the same as he did in adulthood just miniature size.  His pale blue eyes were so large they occupied his entire face when he was a small child. They looked ghostly white as they peered out of the black and white snaps. My eyes showed up in my black and white baby pictures in the same way. The bachelor cousins, delighted to have company, offered me tea in a chipped, stained cup and pound cake sliced with a knife that one brother wiped on his filthy coveralls. The bathroom was so soiled that I gagged when I went to use it. Feeling I should have heeded my uncle’s warning, I merely washed my hands and kept my jeans on. I wondered if my great-grandfather and grandfather had lived in such filth.

My uncle coached a men’s football club in Glenvar. His players were required to take Gaelic lessons from my learned uncle if they wished to remain on the team.

“I’m afraid the language of Ireland will die if we don’t protect it,” he told me. “You never hear it anymore. We have one Gaelic television station and one Gaelic radio channel. It’s a sin.”

“What happens if your players miss a class?” I asked.

“They’re benched! They don’t play unless they come to Gaelic classes! I don’t care who it is. That’s the way it is!” my uncle shouted, pounding the air before him with closed fists.

I nodded and smiled as I thought my father, football mad as he was, would never bench a player for lack of attendance in Gaelic classes especially if the player were a great competitor.

Waves of grief washed over me at unexpected moments while I was in Glenvar, and I was confounded at the sorrow that I felt over a marriage I’d ended. I told God then that I wasn’t ready to go it alone yet.

“I need you, God, every day. Please just hold me close. Just hold me, hold me, hold me,” I prayed.

In truth, I couldn’t see the day coming when I could go it alone. I came to see that I needed God in my life every day from that day forward.

I worked with my cousins and helped to erect my uncle’s home over the next two weeks, and in time, physical exertion and the sweet sensation of belonging helped to quell my grief. I attended daily Mass with my uncle, and that too led to light filling the cracks of my broken heart. In Glenvar, I bought a postcard showing the quaint village chapel my uncle and I frequented. On it I wrote: I’m in God’s country. Standing where your father stood.  Walking where he walked.  I mailed it to my father in Canada with the PS: Don’t tell mom I’m in Ireland. She’ll go daft.

The white cottage that was my grandfather’s birthplace, still in pristine condition, was the first place I went on my morning run each day. It stood at the foot of Knockalla Mountain. I would achingly touch the damp stones of the ancestral home, closing my eyes. The earnest sea breeze blowing in from the Irish Sea always enveloped me. My tears readily fell and the same prayer always settled on my lips.

“Walk with me on my journey. Please help me reclaim my fighting, Irish spirit.”

My heart was in pieces and alone I didn’t possess the necessary strength to begin again. I could never walk alone again. I needed Christ to go before me, to walk beside me, to lie beneath me, to hover above me, and to rest within me. He was to be my bejeweled breastplate of protection for the rest of my life.

 

XI

I had a lot of time to walk and think while I stayed with my Uncle Pádraic. As I strode upon the country roads, countless people stopped to ask if I needed a lift. I told my uncle about the countless rides I was daily offered and he laughed and said that folk there didn’t believe in walking the length of themselves.

I walked into town to do my laundry and stumbled through the process with the help of the young girl who managed the launderette. Despite her limited English and my non-existent Polish, we managed to communicate with one another. She took my clothes from my hands and loaded up the washers for me, demonstrating the workings of the facilities as I keenly observed. Despite the young girl’s assistance in the Letterkenny launderette, I realized that though my clothes were clean, the ultra-hot dryer had shrunk every article of clothing that I had with me. I walked back to my uncle’s place feeling slightly miffed, and left my wash folded in my bag before I set off to meet with a cousin at her home.  I stopped to ask directions several times before finding the little coach house where Dearbhail lived with her new baby and husband. When I chapped the door Dearbhail answered and welcomed me into her home.

“Come through, Angela. We’re in the front room.”

An electric fire warmed the sitting-room and I looked at Dearbhail’s wedding pictures standing along the fireplace mantel. She and her husband had been married at an Irish castle. Both were dark-haired and blue-eyed from large, Irish, Catholic families. I watched Dearbhail play with her infant son, Aaron, who thought his mother’s comic expressions were completely delightful, and who became equally distressed by his grandfather’s funny faces.

“What’s it like being a mother?” I asked Dearbhail who was so obviously a loving, gentle mother to her son.

“Ah now. It’s lovely, isn’t it?” she said.

Dearbhail certainly made it seem so.

I went to Mass each Sunday in Glenvar at St. Mary, Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church. During my final week with my uncle, I was at early morning Sunday Mass when I saw three little girls adorned in white dresses and elaborate veils. They looked like miniature brides. Two young boys dressed in dark suits and tiny neckties sat at either end of the little girls. The little children were very solemn as they participated in the Mass, which was clearly their First Holy Communion. Youngsters at home and seemingly in Ireland, no longer made their First Communion with their Grade two classes in May, which is how it was when I made mine. They made their First Holy Communion intermittently throughout the year.

I thought of my First Holy Communion and the red mark left by my mother’s hand on my small right thigh revealed as my white dress slid up my leg while I sat in the pew next to my best friend, Lina Caro. I tugged at my hemline to cover the mark, but Lina had noticed it.

“What happened?” she stroked my leg with her white gloved hand.

I shrugged. “Don’t know.”

I fibbed to Lina in church on the day that I was to receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time. I had lied because I was ashamed of my mother’s raging temper. My mother’s black moods always tainted what was sacred in my life.  The day after I married Jack, we pulled off the road at a pay phone so that I could telephone my parents to thank them for all they had done for me. My mother answered the phone. When I thanked her for everything she said, “I always thought you’d marry someone more rugged. Jack’s no very strong.”

I didn’t respond. It was the first morning of my marriage and she had to rip apart my husband just as she had torn into me and my sisters throughout our lives. She cursed us with her wicked tongue. I didn’t know why I kept seeking her approval. I’d never get it. It would take me decades more of wasted effort, leaving my husband, leaving jobs and placing myself in difficult situations just to prove I was strong and capable before I stopped trying to win my mother’s endorsement.

I watched the Irish children go to the altar rails of the village chapel and kneel as they received the Eucharist for the first time. The gold plate gleamed beneath their tiny chins as the altar servers held it there, and the sacred host was deposited on eager, young tongues. Though they did not yet understand the Catholic religion, I knew that their faith may prove one day to be a sustaining force in their lives as it had in my own. Religion, with all its tenets, was man-made and therefore fallible. Faith was something different entirely. Faith was a God-given gift always there to draw upon. I objected to some aspects of the Catholic Church but I chose to celebrate my faith through the Catholic religion because it kept me steadfast. The practice of the Catholic religion reminded me of God’s presence, God’s word, and what was truly important in life: to love God, love others and love myself. My faith was more personal. It was about a more intimate relationship with God that had nothing to do with the rules of any religion.

After Mass, I walked along roads that had become familiar by then. It still was not home for me though, and I knew that the time had come for me to go home to Canada. It was time for me to do as the angel had directed me, and I felt ready to tackle my life head on. I knew with God holding me, I would be invincible in my flight to my new sun.

Rain christened Ranny Hill on my last day with my Uncle Pádraic in Glenvar. I plucked two rocks from the north wall of my Grandfather Griffin’s cottage and pocketed them: one for me and one for my father. I would carry Griffin strength with me even after I left this place that had proven to be my sanctuary in early days of 1996. My uncle took me to St. Mary’s, Star of the Sea seaside chapel, and we visited the cemetery. He showed me where my Great Uncle Patrick lay, a Catholic bishop of Ireland, and together Uncle Pádraic and I washed clean family headstones.

“God loves you, Angela,” my uncle said suddenly as he wiped raindrops from his face. “There are always arms for you to fall into,” he told me. “His arms are the only arms you ever need. Trust.”

I strolled to the shore contemplating ocean waves rhythmically washing clean the silver sand, reclaiming in the water’s visiting grasp life stuck but wishing to return to the sea. The rain, fragrant with Glenvar bell heather, fell softly. Something sacred surrounded me and the internal voice I’d become accustomed to heeding whispered its message to my heart above the roar of the sea: “I am with you always.”

Returning with my uncle to his home, I wrote on an ocean-view postcard: You’re never alone, and I mailed it to myself.                                

XII

When I travelled back to my cousin’s in England, I waited for Christiane outside her office building. We had arranged to meet so that she could give me the key for her place. A bride and groom walking hand-in-hand suddenly appeared to my left. A wedding photographer traipsed after them. The bride’s shining, green eyes met mine and I wished her good luck as she smiled widely and gave me a nod of gratitude. They crossed over the road to pose in front of a cathedral for photographs. The morning sun shone on the beautiful bride – a tall, fair, blonde woman who appeared to be in her early thirties – and provided a gentle warmth for the newlyweds. The bride radiated joy as she looked upon her groom, a man of similar age, who was ebony-skinned. I thought they looked beautiful standing next to one another, her stark whiteness in skin and gown magnificent next to his dark, morning suit and black skin. Both looked so happy. I hadn’t shone with joy on my wedding day, and I was beginning to forgive myself for that as I came to understand why.  The people who need love most are the first to run from it when it arrives.

My cousin greeted me outside her workplace. “I’ve loads to tell you,” she said breathlessly and kneaded her hands together.

“What is it?”

“My husband and I are chucking it. He’s had an affair. I found out the night before you arrived. We’d been to a New Year’s party. She confronted me at that party. He’s moved out,” she told me.

“Oh God,” I said. “That’s horrible. I’m so sorry.”

“Och. It’s fine! It’s fine!” she said. “I’m relieved.” Her obvious agitation belied her professed jubilation. “That’s why I was so funny the morning you arrived. I’m very sorry for my mood that day.”

“Och. You were fine,” I lied. “I thought you were just hung over.”

“Well. That’s all finished now. He’s moved out so we can have a proper chat when I get home tonight.”

“Okay,” I said. “See you at home later then.” She handed me her house keys.

We hugged goodbye and she ran back inside her office building. I walked towards the shelter where I would catch the bus back to her wee cottage. The newlyweds had vanished.

I knew that it wasn’t my fault that my big cousin had thrown out her husband, still part of me felt that she made the decision to leave her marriage so quickly because her wee, divorced cousin from Canada was staying with her. Maybe I’d made freedom look appealing. If I had, it was an illusion and it was unintentional.

Christiane and I did have a chat that night. She drank a lot of wine and we listened to an Oasis cd she’d just purchased.

“I think they’re idiots,” I said referring to the feuding Gallagher brothers.

“I think they’re lovely,” my cousin swooned.

“Och, yer aff yer face, hen,” I said and we chuckled together.

 

XIII

I returned home to Canada shortly after that. I left my cousin to end her marriage and I returned to London, Ontario to wrestle with my own past. It was a struggle to live in London again. It was at the end of that month, on the night of January 31st 1996, that I broke in my mother’s arms. I told her I felt broken inside, and did not know how to put myself back together again. She just held me and rocked me. She stroked my hair as she had done when I was a small child crying with the pain of an earache. When I was ill was the only time my mother would be tender with me in childhood. When she held me in my adulthood, I did not have the strength to return my mother’s embrace. I just asked her repeatedly to not let me go.

Many times I turned to my father and asked that he hold me in his arms always so solid and strong. He told me anytime I needed his arms, they were there for me to fall into.  My father and I had been close when I was small. I had been a true Daddy’s girl. My mother liberally doled out daily corporal punishment in my childhood. She lost her tempter at the least acts of childish curiosity, and I grew up cowering in corners covering my small face with my tiny hands to protect myself from her landing thumps and thuds. When I was fourteen, I was taller than my mother and when she struck me I hit her back. She became afraid of me and put my father on me. “See to that lassie, Joseph!” my mother would scream. The anger I felt at having been battered constantly by my mother emerged in my adolescence and it resulted in many beatings from my father. Still, during those days in 1996 it was my father to whom I turned. I needed his strength again and again. I would ask my mother periodically to again hold me, just for the moment, but it made my mother uncomfortable to touch in tenderness; my father never refused my request to be held. He liked that I needed him again as a daughter needs her father. His strength that had often brutalized my young body soothed my battered spirit.

Though I benefitted from the physical presence of my parents, it was really my faith that sustained me then. Of course, it was my parents who first gave me over to Christ’s divine embrace on the morning of my Christening on February 14th, 1965 in Scotland’s St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church. The gift of my faith was the greatest gift they ever gave me. It was always there for me to draw upon. It was always to the living well of Christ that I went to quench my thirst.

I continued to find peace in London’s St. Peter’s Basilica during that tumultuous period, as I had in my youth. I went to the cathedral to bask in its solitude just as I had when I was a high school and university student in that city. I usually had the cathedral to myself, and I would sit still in the surrounding silence, my heart whispering my troubles to God. Daily I asked that He help me make it through another day. I could no longer stuff down the pains of my childhood, and it was then that I started to confront my past once and for all, and miraculously, I began to heal.

I learned that God does not just hold me when I ask Him to. I thought I had His embrace for a short time, and that He would tire of holding me eventually, and my time to be carried would be exhausted. Others needed Him more than I, did they not? I was being selfish, hoarding His affections, manipulating His attention. He would have to leave me to toddle on my own again soon. I feared that time coming. Thus, I decided to tell Him I could not see the day coming that I could let Him release me from His embrace. I needed Him every day, forevermore, to illuminate my path and protect me from becoming lost along the way.

By July of 1996, I felt strong again. I moved into my own apartment and things were more settled for me in London, Ontario by then. I was working full-time though not in teaching. I had also made friends, and I walked downtown to join some of those friends on an outdoor patio for coffee. The summer sun had been cooled by the night air, so sweet and thickly fragrant with the perfumes of the July black spurs. Something sacred was next to me in that summer night air, leading me, whispering to my heart above the soft chirpings of the nocturnal crickets. I strolled past St. Peter’s Basilica, admiring the way its spires were illuminated by three soft spotlights pointing up at the Cathedral from its plush green lawn. I walked on from St. Peter’s and found myself in front of Catholic Central, my old high school. As I stood in front of the Kennedy football field I saw a navy-blue sweatshirt peeking out from the dried earth.

The school had erected a twelve foot fence around the track’s trajectory so that it was inaccessible to the public. I scaled the fence, noticing a police cruiser drive by as I straddled the top bar of the paling. Fortunately, the police did not return to question me as I trespassed on my old stomping grounds, and I clamoured down the other side of the fence, my feet landing on the red clay track as I let go of the chain link. I walked to the blue sweatshirt and pulled it from the mound of desiccated muck in which it found itself entombed. I brushed dust from its logo. It was not a Catholic Central sweatshirt as I had thought, but rather a ROOTS CANADA sweatshirt. As I held the jumper in front of me, the internal voice that had become my companion by then whispered once again to my heart. “You will teach here one day.”

Later that evening, I told my mother what I’d heard.

“That’d be wonderful, but how?” she asked me. “They’re no teaching jobs in London.”

“I don’t know, but I feel like I will teach there one day. I’ll leave it up to God as to when and how.”

I researched the experience of seeing an angel during that time. I took out many books on the topic of angels, God and the Gnostic Gospels from the London Public Library. On a day when I took out thirteen at one time, the young, male librarian asked me if I was becoming a nun.

“No,” I answered with a smile.

“I figured with all of these books,” he motioned toward the stack of texts with his laser. “They’re all about God, angels, saints.”

“Just interested in the subject manner,” I smiled at him a second time. People were funny, I thought as I gathered the books in my arms and walked toward the exit still smiling.

The accounts in the books were identical to my own experience of an angelic visitor. People reported seeing and experiencing what I had. All of the figures had translucent skin. Each angel looked like someone known to the person to whom the messenger was sent. That made the otherworldly visit less frightening to the individual who was graced by the angel’s visit. The celestial visitors were dressed in clothing of the current era. They sported no wings, nor a halo. In each case, the angel did not smile. Those visited felt a sense of peace come over them as had I. The descriptions of all of the experiences were exactly as my own had been. Upon reading through all of the accounts recorded in the books, I became convinced that an angel had visited me, though I still could not believe that I mattered enough to God to warrant such attention from Him, my heavenly Father.

During that time, when I slept at night, I would feel the weight of someone sitting at the foot of my bed. The first time it happened, I froze beneath my blankets. Once I felt courageous enough, I peeked out from under my covers expecting to see some madman seated at the foot of my bed, but saw no one. I could still feel the weight of someone by my feet. It was my angel returned and I came to welcome his nightly presence. I would even call for him if he had not yet shown up for the night. I would always ask him to wrap his arms around me and I always felt arms enfold me. I decided that it was my guardian angel watching over me during those years of personal restoration. At times I wondered if it was just my imagination but one night Marina stayed with me in my room after we had been out late that night. She crashed next to me in my bed, and the next morning she mentioned to me that she had felt the weight of someone at the bottom of my bed. She said that she had felt frightened because she had thought that someone had entered my bedroom and was sitting at the end of my bed during the night.

“I know. It happens every night,” I told her.

Her eyes grew wide. “What do you mean?”

“I feel him there every night. I believe it’s my guardian angel watching over me.”

She accepted what I said. She too was Catholic and a very spiritual person. The fact that she felt his presence validated what I had been experiencing nightly for some months.

By 1999, I was teaching at Catholic Central High School through no initiative of my own. It just was. It was simply God’s intent for my life. The school was undergoing a two-million dollar renovation, and its guts spilled onto the surrounding sidewalks, which was a living metaphor for my next task. The London Police Department was located directly across the road from CCH and I found the courage to walk into it and file a report of the rape that had occurred to me seventeen years before. There is no statute of limitation in Canada with regards to rape, the constable told me. I talked and he typed as he locked his steely gaze on min. He took my statement and spent the next two years interviewing the list of witnesses with which I had provided him.

Only one person would corroborate my story. The girl who found me naked and unconscious in the forest, my bra twisted around my neck, told the police officer that she would testify in a court of law that I had been raped. The rest refused to corroborate my story. The younger brother of Fannie Lurh (a boy I refused to date in high school) telephoned my rapist and warned Uva of the ongoing investigation. Uva lawyered up and the investigation, having become tainted by Denny Lurh’s interference, came to an unfruitful conclusion. Nonetheless, filing the report was an important component of my healing and the reclamation of my life. After he gave me the bad news, I asked the investigating officer if he believed me, and he quickly replied, “Yes, I do.” That was something anyway.

My faith sustained me then just as it has proven to be the one sustaining force in my life. I’ve learned to be still and know God. I’ve been a witness to the real-world presence of Christ in such a way that I can never doubt again that I’m loved by God and that I matter. I’ve learned that my life will unfold in God’s time and in God’s way. I need only be present to His gentle, guiding grace. Definitively, I came to know what it meant to be saved by Christ. He was my Savior. He lifted me out of the pit of my despair and breathed life into me once more. I found the love and recognition that had been withheld from me by my earthly father and mother through their human shortcomings, in the relationship I engendered with my heavenly Father. It was the realization that I could turn to God for the love and approval for which I had longed craved that allowed me to walk on. With God firmly by my side, I worked toward a healing and hoped for better days ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Communion

In the ivory, enamel-covered prayer book I receive as a First Communion gift when I am seven-years-old, there is a picture of a beautiful, female, blonde angel guiding two frightened children across a broken bridge as torrents of raging water swell beneath the swinging, treacherous arch. She has wings, a halo and is dressed in a pink gown with a long, cream-coloured sash. The children, a boy wearing a cap and a taller, fair-haired girl, are barefoot. The girl carries a basket as she clutches tightly to the smaller boy as if to quell his fears. The angel that hovers above them remains calm as if to say, “Fear not children. No trouble will befall you on my watch.” That page becomes tattered with the constant caressing of my small hands as I study every facet of that floating angel.

My angelic visitor in 1995 looks nothing like the one depicted in that premier Catholic prayer book of my youth. The angel who descends upon me in 1995 is thin, tanned and never smiles. The fact that he remains stoic in my presence makes me more uneasy because I am not living the sort of life that would make God and His holy angels smile after my divorce. His visit makes me believe in hell because after he graces my tiny apartment with his presence, I think his stopover is meant as an intervention to prevent me from ending up at hell’s gates. Whether he came to redirect me from a path that would lead me to hell, or whether he came to show me that the spiritual realm existed, I don’t know. What I do come to see after that experience is that there is such a thing as the real-world presence of Christ. Rather than just believe in God, which I always have, I see that Christ is alive and invested in the well-being of people on earth, and He will intervene to draw us close to Him in love.

At that time, I run in any weather, and with each step I pound into the pavement bits of my past. I run as though I am out for revenge or something. My weight plummets. I throw up some mornings before school, afraid of another day of being bullied and harassed by my principal or parents who despise having a young, attractive, female divorcee in their midst. That’s when I turn to God. I cry and I pray for direction daily on my morning run. My prayer is simple and emphatic. It is just three words: “Help me, God!”

With those three words I invite God to change my reality because there is no one else to whom to turn. I don’t have a supportive family that will offer me understanding and compassion. Those are never on the Griffin menu. There is only recrimination, judgement and reproach to be found within my family unit. Friends I’d had as a married woman drop me as though divorce is a contagious disease they fear will infect their own marriages. Like my Catholic school board, married women no longer want an attractive, single woman in their lives the way they welcomed me as a married woman. My own sisters cut me out of their lives as soon as I leave my former husband. If I have someone special, I can be around their men and families, but if I am single, I am not welcome.

I am cast adrift.

That night, after months of sleeplessness, a deadening sleep slowly begins to creep upon me. My eyelids are heavy with slumber in a way that has become foreign to me. I hear the creaking of my apartment door opening and call out to whoever is entering my apartment. As I lie listening to the sound of my apartment door opening, I realize that I am unable to move my arms and legs, and fear clutches my heart in its tight fist. Then I see a male figure in my doorframe. He is dressed in a short-sleeve, pale blue shirt and tan slacks. He has iridescent, translucent skin, closely cropped blonde hair and large, aqua eyes. He looks like someone I know but instinctively I know that it is not him. Then the figure moves with fluidity into my bedroom, and I feel his imprint weigh upon the foot of my bed as he sits with his back to me.

“You’re here now,” I mutter with a lazy tongue in a drowsy mouth. It is as though I have been expecting him. A warm smile lights upon my lips and my initial anxiety is replaced with an immense sense of stillness.

He sits with his back to me, turns his head so that I can see his beautiful profile and says, “You must go home.

Then I sleep.

When I wake early the next morning, I remember nothing of the night before. I run at five as is my custom. I shower at six-fifteen, eat at six-forty-five, and make my bed at seven as I always do. It is when I am making my bed that my alarm clock suddenly bursts into song. My alarm has already sounded at five. It is always set on buzzer because music never makes me stir the way the buzzer does. Now a song plays at seven. It is London Calling by the Clash. As that old high school favourite sounds that October morning, I suddenly remember my visitor from the night before and fall to my knees. I believe that heaven has heard my desperate prayers and has sent an answer. I think at first his stopover has been a dream, but I remember the details too vividly for it to be a dream. It wasn’t a dream. God sent me a messenger and that messenger told me to go home. I am to go home to London, Ontario.