“Psssssst! Wake up miss!”
My eyes snapped open and focused on the jowly, soft face of a priest, his eyes searching mine through thick wire rim glasses. I sat up from the hard pew and quickly looked around. We were alone.
“Mass starts in an hour,” he informed me. “Would you like some hot tea?”
I nodded yes, trying to fully come alive in the dim, sepia sleepiness of the small church. Light fused through the stained-glass windows just enough to splash gold, red and blue upon the dark brown pews and the small altar. Growing up Episcopalian, it felt familiar, but I had never been to this church. The door was open, that’s all. It was a place to lie down.
I followed the shuffling priest down the aisle, his robe billowing around his feet, to the small kitchen downstairs. I remember the tea bag in the Styrofoam cup, that he was kind, and never admonished me to go home or keep out. I was a 13-year-old runaway; perhaps he knew more of me than he let on. I knew to leave in plenty of time to evade the church service, the families like mine had once been, with young girls stuffed in busy dresses and patent leather shoes buffed with Vaseline. My brothers always looked like they were slowly suffocating inside their ties and jackets. The torture was only made worse by a pretty day, a play day, and there we were – penance paid for some vague and discomforting sin dimly illuminated through the colored glass, forgotten by Monday.
Churches were left open back then, before the wave of drugs swept away anything untethered, even things holy. I began running away when I was twelve. By fifteen I was gone more than home until one day my mother said, “Just stay out.” Often, I was not alone. It was the late 60’s and my running merged seamlessly into the hippie revolution, my companions a jumble of stoners, bikers, rebels and loners.
If it rained, I knew the church was open, but I didn’t mind a summer rain, the smell of the wet tar under my feet, and the sound of the leaves deflecting each drop. Homes were lit up with life and meals around a table, families settling into the routine of homework, TV and bedtimes. More than once, I confess I stood in the street, watching, aching.
“You’re so lucky,” my friends would say. “You can do whatever you want.”
Yes, I could. The problem was I didn’t know what I wanted. I was running away, not towards.
Benches, beaches and worst of all, basements. I was young and knew only what I didn’t want, which was to be cold or caught. I remember cutting through a parking lot, distracted, and hearing my name. My father stood about six feet from me. His voice was soft, and he cocked his head slightly, as if I were a stray cat. We both froze.
“How are you?” he asked. He stayed still, so not to frighten me.
“I’m okay.” We looked at each other for just a moment, then I turned and walked away, saddened that he did not call after me.
It took fifteen more years of running and wandering to finally just run out. There were times when I felt I had found true freedom – like holding my first-born child, still wet and squinty, becoming mother and overwhelmed with possibilities and wonder. Sometimes I would put my face next to his as he slept and watch him breathe, inhaling love. Such joy was impossible! And elusive too, like a flying dream. Inside, I was still running. In time I became a good cynic and forgot about hope. And freedom – until I met Jesus. He was just waiting.
You number my wanderings; Put my tears into Your bottle; Are they not in Your book? Psalm 56:8
One day God said, “Enough!” Then I found out who I was running to all along. In my defeat, I found freedom. In my failure, forgiveness and a Love beyond anything I’d ever known.
Sometimes I wonder why the old priest never told me about Jesus. That sounds comical and sad too. Would I have listened? Maybe. It would have been nice to know that the far-away God of the stars and still nights saw me walking in the dark, looking for an empty church. And really nice to know He loved me anyway – that He was there too, not just in a colored window, but over me, singing a song of hope. Or maybe sitting there on the hard pew, watching me breathe, His face close to mine.
These are sweet memories of promise, small fires to warm by while most of life recedes into shadows, lingering like smoke. The priest was a small flame, a shelter in a harsh world and maybe that’s all God wanted him to be. I’ll never know. I do believe that life is meant to be hard. This is not my home, but I’m on my way now. I know what I want. And should the shadows close in, or I grow weary, there is a safe place, open always. My Father never locks the door.
He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High
Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress;
My God, in Him I will trust.” Psalm 91: 1,2
ENJOY this beautiful song!
You Are My Hiding Place by Selah