Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Hide and Seek

Catholic schools are special places. And if you’re lucky, you also get to find the special places in the adjacent church and rectory. I was one of the lucky ones.

If I remember correctly, it happened while I was in third grade. I had already learned some of the shortcuts in the school, how to take extra-long bathroom breaks without getting caught and so on. But this year, there was something new to explore, and it was one of the greatest adventures I had while at St. Genevieve.

It was Thanksgiving time and we’d had a huge food drive to help the needy. I was one of the lucky volunteers who got to help load the food into the big truck. There was food in the school, as well as in the rectory. All of the student volunteers were assigned to “teams” and I got to be on the team that was going to get the food from the rectory. We finished really quickly and we didn’t want to go back to class yet, so the priests let us play hide-and-seek in the rectory. Now, there’s all this insanity about abuse in the Catholic Church, but these priests weren’t like that. They were just nice, which these days, seems to be a completely foreign concept.

Anyway, I swear that rectory grew to astronomical proportions once we were inside. From the outside, it was just a brick building, but on the inside—whoa. It was a myriad of rooms and hallways, a seemingly endless maze of red carpet and dark-paneled walls. There were so many places to hide—too many places to hide. I actually got lost at one point! I remember walking into the dining room (which contained the longest table I’d ever seen in my life) and thinking that it must have been made for giants.

I wandered aimlessly for I don’t even know how long, completely forgetting that I was supposed to be finding my classmates. At some point, I must have taken a wrong turn, because I suddenly found myself stepping into the church. I was in there, completely alone in the cavernous space. It was a cloudy day, so there wasn’t much light coming in through the stained-glass windows and all the lights in the church were off. Other than the subtle glow of candlelight, there was nothing. The silence was deafening. Never before and not since, have I ever heard such a loud quiet.

And there was something else.

I remember that I didn’t feel afraid. I could just tell that I wasn’t alone anymore. I remember sitting near the altar, admiring it and its surroundings. I’d never seen it that close up before. The tabernacle sat in a lone spot behind the altar, gleaming gold in the candlelight, shadows playing on the delicate scrollwork that covered the front. There was a special feeling growing and spreading in my chest—it was warm, comforting and strangely familiar. As I got up, I was aware that there was a slight movement, a small quick shadow. How could something be moving, when I was the only one there? There was no breeze, no stirring of the air.

When I looked up, I knew that the feeling I had of not being alone was accurate. There was someone there with me. A single candle was blazing next to the altar. It was a small candle compared to the many others in the church, but it was contained in a red, glass cup and was hanging there, the flame flickering, as though someone was gently blowing on it, not quite hard enough to extinguish it, but hard enough that the orange-yellow flame kept going sideways.

I stood there, mesmerized, curious, wanting to look closer, but knowing I didn’t have to. Father Len had shared the story of the candle in the red cup—as long as the flame is burning and you can see that glow of red, it means that God is in that place. And I was sure—I knew down to the very core of my soul—God was in that church with me. Considering that I was doing something I shouldn’t have been, sneaking away and prowling around the church, I was still strangely unafraid. A small smile tugged at the corners of my mouth as I whirled my head around, looking behind me, eyes darting up and down, scanning the ceiling, straining to see up into the choir loft. I wanted to see God in that moment. He was there. And then I realized I was looking in the wrong places. He wasn’t a person. He was that little flutter of a breeze that made the candle flicker. I had already seen Him.

I turned then, skipping out the side door—not to go back into the rectory, but to head outside. The truck was still in the alley, the last bit of food being loaded by students. My friends were there and they looked at me quizzically. “Where have you been? We were waiting for you.” I shrugged, not wanting to share. I remember locking eyes with Father Len and smiling. And I remember him smiling back at me, a knowing smile, a smile that went far beyond his mouth and extended up into his twinkling eyes. From behind his glasses, he raised his eyebrows just a little, and I remember the corners of his eyes crinkling as the smile on his face grew wider. It was a smile that said he absolutely knew where I had been and he knew that I had just experienced something special. We never spoke of it and word never got back to the teachers that we’d been allowed to goof off in the rectory for a little while.

But I knew then, and I know now, there are special places no matter where we go. And God is everywhere. He may not be hiding, but in the briefest of moments, we get to "seek" Him just the same. I know that I just have to pay attention to see Him.

1 comment:

Catherine said...

I still dream about getting lost in St. Gen's, and the feeling is always just as you described. A maze, frozen by my child's mind, and it's full of strange things (strange only because we do not see them every day).

Love you.