October 22, 2007

A Halo Among The Branches

There was a story I heard when I was a young boy about the statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard of our church. Our Lady of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church had a long, concrete pathway leading up to a raised, brick and mortar platform where one could walk up and kneel before the statue of the Blessed Mother. Her arms were outstretched towards those her beseeched her in prayer.

I remember her image distinctly, as well as the story which became a soft-spoken legend among the parishioners of the parish. Behind the raised area which the figure sat upon is a row of large pine trees. There was no fence there at the time, and their limbs were allowed to grow much closer to the sculpture than the the fence now permits. So it was said by the faithful, when kneeling before the sculpture of The Virgin Mary, if they looked up, the boughs of the trees would form a halo around her head.

There is another local fable which pertained to the same statue. It had to do with a crown on Mary's head, again caused by the trees behind her. This time, it was said that when the figure was first erected (I believe it was in the 1930's and when I am not too lazy, I'll look it up) a young boy looked over his shoulder while walking away from the altar with his family one Sunday morning and said "Look Mommy, look Daddy! Mary has a crown! From a child's vantage point, looking up the walkway, one could envision the tops of the pine trees forming the points of a crown above her head, floating ever so high above towards the heavens.

Why am I writing about this? In recent years, the weather-worn statue of the Virgin Mary has been replaced with a statue of Jesus Christ. The trees have been pruned back, and there is a wrought iron fence between the pines, the altar, and the new statue keeping the sturdy tree limbs at bay. The myths of the crown and the halo offered me comfort during some difficult years of my childhood. Many a Sunday, I'd peek over my shoulder at the Blessed Mother as I walked with my family towards our station wagon in the parking lot, and squint in the sunlight at the crown on her head as I was too far away to kneel before her and marvel at her aura. Now, this story has all but disappeared from neighborhood folklore.

I'm two generations removed from the current congregation. The parish in the town where I currently live is only a few years old; and, there are no such folk stories relating to its sparkling, glass windows, and the statue paused at the entrance to our tiny, church building. So, I remain rooted, spiritually, to the concrete and brick altar on the lawn of the house of worship where I spent my formative years learning about God.

Back in August of 2006, I went to Our Lady of the Assumption to rescue my brother and his fiancé because his car wouldn't start after mass. In a torrential downpour, I went to jump start his car in my giant, extended, Chevy Trailblazer. I glanced toward the yard with the outdoor altar in hopes of catching something marvelous out of the corner of my eye. There was merely the recently erected, yet still beautiful statue of Jesus on the spot where my faith was formed, decades earlier.

Once his car was started, I wanted to go inside the church to say a prayer and light a candle for our mother who was home, dying of cancer. Our family had been assembled there for a week or so, keeping vigil at her bedside as she was nearing the end. My brother asked where I was going and I told him. He said, "No, we need a priest." And so he marched toward the Rectory in search of the pastor to come offer our mother absolution. No sooner than when my brother asked, a young priest, Father Paul who hailed from Poland, said he would come with us to see our mother. There was no hesitation except he needed to enter the church to bring communion wafers for those in our family who would want to recive Holy Communion.

The scene at my parents house was solemn, dignified, and ultimately the saddest event in my life. I drove Father Paul back to the church afterward and he tried hard to cheer me up.

"I like your car." he said.
"Thanks." I didn't feel like talking, but I'm not one to be rude, especially to a priest.
"A lot of people get a new car and they want me to bless it." he said. I just looked at him and smiled in acknowledgement, thinking that it was a dumb idea to get one's car blessed as God should have better things to do than to make sure your brand new Corvette doesn't get dinged by a shopping cart at Stop-N-Shop.
"I tell them that I'll bless the car, but it only works if you don't break traffic laws."

He made me laugh, and he genuinely cared and wanted to make sure that I was okay. I asked him if he'd heard the story of the statue of Mary in the courtyard with the trees forming a halo around her head, or the crown of tree tops one saw from down the walkway looking up. He said no, and that he'd ask some of the "older" parishioners if they had heard of the story. He agreed it was a wonderful tale, but with the statue of Mary replaced, it would be difficult to relate to. I dropped off the good Father Paul, and sat in my car and watched him jog through the rain to the door of the rectory. Once he was inside, I decided to take a slow drive back to my parent's house.

I drove around the corner on the street behind the courtyard and looked through the pine trees at the likeness of Jesus from the rear. As a boy, whenever we were ready to leave after Sunday morning service, I’d wander through the arm-like branches, drooping as they were, long and un-cropped. The mystery of the space between the monument and the trees made the story of the halo even more intriguing, causing me to pause long enough for my Dad to call out my name one more time.

I sat in my car, gazing through my rain streaked window, and between the wavering pines at a somewhat different churchyard from those long ago days when God, Jesus, and Mary had me enthralled. This was no longer my town, or my church. The folks who prayed at that tiny, outdoor altar weren’t my friends or neighbors, and they didn’t live there when my parents moved in. There was a new statue, and a fence which kept me away as I searched in vain for a halo among the branches.

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Andrew said...

A sad and beautiful piece.

I remember this one house I lived in -- a small and ugly house, but an important one for me none-the-less. The house itself wasn't necessarily what I remember, it was the miles of open land around it that was so important and all the time spent as a child exploring it.

Years later, after living in house after house swallowed in suburbia, I made a road trip to that one house. When I arrived, I discovered the miles of beauty had been paved over and replaced with suburbia. Then to make it worse, I discovered my home had been used as a drug house.

In the end, I was left wondering why things couldn't remain as they had and fit to that ideal I had in my head. How dare they take that from me, you know? And how am I supposed to feel about that now?

Anyway, a long comment : ) but a great post! The best are the ones that get the reader to reflect. Good job.

footiam said...

Nice nostalgic tale! Reminds me of people over my part of the world. People are often drawn to miracles. Have heard of idols shedding tears of blood and so on. Hope I am not trespassing but you are religious, I suppose.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Footiam,
I too am facinated by folks who claim to see "miracles" in ordinary items. The point I tried to stress here was the the landscaping created an opitical illusiion, and it wasn't actually a miracle. In fact, there was confusion as to whether or not it was a halo the branches formed over Mary's head, or if it was the points of the trees symbolizing a crown. Either way, I've always been fixated on the notion that something special was aheppening there. Yet, I never believed it was amiracle. Whjat knid of miracle would that be if some tree pruning and a fence could remove it from existence? Thanks for the kind comments, and thanks for reading my post.

Mike (Mr. Grudge)

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Andrew,
I think your comments found the theme I was searching for in this piece. As we get older, things often change, and we sometimes find out that they actually weren't what we thought they were in the first place. As for your former home turning into a drug den, I'm sorry about that. As it was with the statue of Mary in the courtyard of my childhood church, much of what we imagine as children stay with us until we are adults. Using a word which you used, we "idealize" these memories, and then we are often disappointed when we return and find out that these memories have vaporized into some sort of progress-fueled vortex where and are now forced to grow up. You're a terrific writer, Andrew, and your comments are deeply appreciated. Thanks.
~Mike~ (Mr. Grudge)

footiam said...

Miracle or not, life goes on and people die. For this, I wouldn't be surprised if I start having grudges!