When I turned five and started school my older sister and best friend, Sheila, guided me through life’s perplexities and new stages of being a student. At home we weren’t taught in mere words but principally by the example of Mama, her three sisters, and our grandparents to put God first in all things, respect everyone and self, to feel shame when we made mistakes, own up to those mistakes and, more important, to learn from them, appreciate blessings, be responsible, and maintain our dignity. Their martinet nurturing was tempered by unmistakable love that inspired us to want more than anything not to disappoint them.
No life is without trials and ours was no different yet our family traditions were steeped in Mass every Sunday and Holy days of obligation, and parish activities. At our parish that meant joining fellow parishioners every Sunday after Mass for coffee and donuts – a means of supporting the parish – selling raffle tickets throughout the year, attending the Halloween dance, various fund-raisers, working at the annual Christmas fair in the church hall and Midnight Mass at the end of the year.
I was an average girl living in a southern city born Catholic, in retrospect poorer than we realized at the time. I clearly remember one morning in religion class when the priest who taught us, Father Mulroney, said: “We all are God’s children.” Hearing that one sentence transformed me. Before the words registered it seemed to me that one day abruptly I woke in a state called life without instruction or explanation; it was perplexing yet an exhilarating condition and I was confused about its purpose. After Fr. Mulroney’s statement caressed my senses I could hardly think of little else. I was engrossed in the concept that all were children of The King! Specifically, “I” was The King’s daughter! It finally made sense why the teaching that had been emphasized: that our true mission in life was to know, love, and serve God, was significant. Although a huge degree of uncertainty remained as to just how one went about doing that I felt eminently more confident that with God’s help I would eventually figure it out.
The message was especially welcomed since we had recently lost a relative to leukemia. It was my first experience with death and it was traumatic. My aunt Georgia was in her early thirties when she died and unaware that I was listening, some friends of the family discussed how tragic it was that we would never see her again. I was devastated. If they were right, it seemed so unfair. Could any king want that for his children – a brief existence and then, nothing? I couldn’t grasp that. Surely no loving Creator could want that either. Consequently, Fr. Mulroney’s instruction that day had the clear ring of truth. Everyone could achieve life without end. That’s what I yearned for and had to know how to tap into the process. With his words I found purpose to my existence. Life wasn’t a permanent condition, and I passionately wanted to reside in the state of “forever” because I knew that God was there and I wanted to be with Him. I suspected that Aunt Georgia would be there too.
It was “life without end” that encouraged me to ride my new bicycle to school early in the morning to attend daily Mass as was required by a novena – a Roman Catholic prayer that is said for nine consecutive days for a specific intention. According to the promise of the completed novena, at the time death was imminent a priest would be on hand to hear my confession. I felt compelled to do all I could, while I could, to escape the loss of heaven, even if it meant a stint in purgatory so this seemed a perfect solution. It was hard enough just to keep Lenten resolutions so I felt that I definitely would need a priest at the end of my life to purge all intentional or unintentional offenses. Privacy too was very important since I didn’t want to explain to anyone what I was doing. It was strictly between God and me.
The few times I attended daily morning Mass I noticed that only four or five elderly ladies faithfully came and they always sat in the first pews of the church. To safeguard my mission I quietly would slip into the last pew during the nine days. My plan was working well until the seventh morning when I overslept! I only had twenty minutes to clean up, dress, get my bike out of the locked garage and pedal the mile plus trek. It was late May and although our city is known for relentless one hundred percent humidity this time of year the presence of any moisture that day was nonexistent. In the early morning light there was no breeze just oppressively static desert-like searing heat that draped itself across my skin as I closed the back door and stepped outside.
The towering white two-story stucco edifice of the church was situated between two prominent oak trees, one to the east with a thick trunk and large sprawling branches rivaling the height of the church, and one to the west slightly smaller. Between the church and the two-story wood frame rectory that Fr. Mulroney occupied was a garden with a path in it for the convenience of the priest and those going from one building to the other. A small cement bench was in front of the oak that was on the west side of the church near the garden. I often sat there on Sunday mornings after Mass waiting for my parents and sister to end their conversations with other parishioners before going to the church hall for donuts and coffee or home for breakfast.
On the morning that I raced to Mass to continue my novena I quickly pushed the front tire of my blue and white Schwinn in the bike rack, ran up the five outside steps of the church, then the steep inside staircase, and placed my books on the seat of the last pew greatly relieved that the priest hadn’t come onto the altar and Mass hadn’t started. There was still time to say my novena for that day. As I pulled out the sheet of paper with the prayer written on it a familiar feeling rose within. Oh, no, I thought. It can’t happen. I asked God not to let it happen, but realized that the uncontrollable was inevitable and changed my petition. This time I asked that no one know what was about to occur. If I could just keep it secret, that would be sufficient. I knew I was going to faint. It happened before so I knew what to expect. Like a slinky slides from a hand, my body folded to the floor. I didn’t know what caused it, how long it would last, and I wasn’t about to let anyone else know, especially Mama.
I regained consciousness when suddenly I felt a cool gentle breeze touch my face; it was strong enough to move the bangs on my forehead. Disoriented and with blurred vision, I realized that I was seated on the small cement bench outside of the church under the oak tree. As my eyes focused I tried to comprehend what had just happened. The stifling heat of the day remained while the breeze that I felt seemed not to be anywhere else except blowing across my face. No leaves moved on the low hanging limbs of the oaks, no motion whatever on the plants throughout the garden and yet, unmistakably, I felt the swirl of cool air. I looked at my bicycle in the bike rack and it confirmed that I wasn’t hallucinating. I really was outside of the church. This was reality, not a dream.
I wanted to ask how I came to be seated on the bench outside although I had collapsed inside the church, but no one else was around. When my legs were steady enough I climbed back up the two flights of stairs. Inside I found my books on the last pew where I remembered placing them, the novena laying on the floor by the kneeler, the priest performing the services of the Mass, and the elderly women in the front pews praying.
The evidence before me was astonishing. At that point there was absolutely no question in my mind that I had experienced a miracle. It was my first.
For months I contemplated every detail of the experience. Slowly I came to understand that it wasn’t just because I asked for help that God sent it, but because I believed that He would.
The reward of His intervention came through my trust in Him, not my request to Him. At that time we were taught then not to read the bible on our own but much later, after Vatican II, the position of the Catholic Church shifted and that teaching was rescinded. When I began to study the bible and read of the apostles in the boat when Jesus suddenly came to them and Peter asked to be allowed to walk on the water to prove that it was really Him it reminded me of this day in my life. As long as Peter believed he did not sink, but when he doubted he began to descend into the sea. I was convinced that my faith allowed God to help me that day. Not a God of magic or sorcery, but one of love. One that had the power to control my safe descent down two flights of stairs, placement and support of my flaccid body on the bench outside, and despite miserably stifling temperatures, command of a cool light wind across my face to restore consciousnesses.
There wasn’t a scratch on me so even if it was somehow possible that I could have come outside of the church of my own accord (in my unconscious state) I surely would have fallen down one of the two flights of stairs or on the concrete outside. And, how does a limp body sit up straight on a bench that has no back support? I have no explanation of how He did it, only that He did it.
My faith in God’s help that day served me well. It was a powerful introduction from a loving Creator to a child whose greatest desire then was to return to Him one day. And, my first experience of just how potent faith can be in this condition that is known as life. I had no idea then of the journey I was set to travel and how He would remind me throughout it that He was there, He cared about me and what I hoped to accomplish for Him and wanted to assist in just how I went about doing it.
It is said that God has prepared a place for each of us if we choose to receive it after this life. I know it goes far beyond that. I am convinced that God’s infinite love, mercy and kindness prepares this life far ahead of our exile here, arranges every person, place, and time we will encounter throughout it according to our free will choices.
For many years I couldn’t share this miraculous episode – not for fear of what others might think – but because it was so personal, so precious, those moments spent in the arms of my guardian angel (?) to a place of safety in a time of distress. These memories inhabited the deepest alcove of my heart and I told no one until it became impossible to withhold them any longer.
He loves each and everyone. We only need to believe. He will do the rest.