For all its idyllic vistas and community spirit, rural Maine can be harsh, isolating and lonely, most especially in the winter. Maine winters hold a stark beauty that shines an unforgiving light on the soul. We soon found ourselves unable to escape our own frailty and foibles. At the end of our third winter, a singularly snowy and cold one, Rita and I were succumbing to a confluence of secularism, bad advice and the detritus of the Cultural Revolution by which we all are still afflicted. Our young, bright love was threadbare; ten years into our marriage, we were ready to move on. Virtually all of our friends were counseling a fresh start. “Time to hang it up,” we were told. “Why hold on to a dead thing?” “There are plenty of other opportunities,” and indeed there were for us both.
I fought a separation for the whole long winter, but by spring had hardened myself to leave behind nine lovely years and one difficult, complicated one. Not much anger, not even a lot of bitterness: after a few brief, generally desultory skirmishes about who got the Bob Dylan albums and other prosaic living arrangement matters, we settled on a Saturday in early May for move out day. Two separate incidents led us to the other fork in the road.
The first was a coffee Rita shared with our friend, Pam, during the week prior to moving day. Pam, a gifted artist and painter, lived a rough life; her ne’er do well husband had deserted her a dozen years before with six children. An earth mother type, Pam soldiered on, tolerating occasional visits from her husband – no divorce and rare support. She was much liked and admired in town, especially by Rita. Pam took a chance and defied the common “wisdom” amongst our circle of friends; Pam told Rita that we were a good match wading through some confusion and pain, but that separating was a mistake – a big mistake.
When I came home from work on Friday, Rita asked if we could give it one more effort. My resolve was hard earned, and my initial internal reaction was “hell, no!” With my game face on, I looked at our two young children, the vulnerable hope on Rita’s beautiful face and could not, would not smash our one last attempt. Although I held meager expectations, I thought perhaps, just perhaps, we could raise our children together and restore a semblance of the friendship that had always come so easily and that would allow us to do the right thing. This was my best hope, but far short of what we would become. I agreed to try again – all in. I quit my job with all its traveling and worked part time pruning and taking down trees to spend more time on our marriage. We lived frugally and got by. But there was no miracle cure.
The next few weeks in retrospect we likened to living in a bombed out, post apocalyptic city among sterile ruins. There was no healing, no fighting, no feeling, no animus, no forgiveness, not much of anything. I remember vividly one striking mid spring day of bright sun and burgeoning green, we drove up to the Orono campus of the University of Maine about an hour and a half north. I had been invited to join the board of a state wide non-profit and thought it would be good to be together for the day. On the silent ride home, the juxtaposition of vernal splendor, new life and our hollowed out spirits almost brought me to tears.
The second incident that permanently altered our lives for the good occurred a week or so later. Rita found an old set of rosary beads given to her by her late aunt, Rose, and awkwardly prayed with no confidence Anyone was listening, a desperation move if ever there was one. On Saturday, she asked me if we could go to Mass. Cradle Catholics, we hadn’t set foot in a church for a decade; I wouldn’t have been more surprised if she suggested we move to Zambia.
Rita has always acted as the emotional and spiritual catalyst in our marriage; I tend to be the implementer, who thinks through the how and the why. It is our defining character and the personality of our relationship. I didn’t fight the suggestion, but told her that if God existed, if we found any truth in our attendance at Mass, our lives would change profoundly: our activities, our friendships, how we spent our time. She cautioned me not to get all “cosmic” on her, that she merely sought the solace of a childhood faith for a Sunday morning. “We’ll see,” I said.
We looked up Catholic Churches in the Yellow Pages (an anachronism now). Mount Vernon was at the center of a fifty mile circle roughly encompassing Augusta, Waterville and Farmington. Rita worked part time as an RN in Augusta, but Farmington for some reason attracted us. I called St. Joseph’s Church in Farmington; a friendly voice picked up with a lively, “St. Joe’s!” Father Joe McKenna answered his own phone calls and was nearly perfect for hurting children of the sixties — an admixture of intellectual, poet, faith filled priest and wonderfully warm and funny human being with holes in the elbows of his sweaters. We entered the little, wood framed church on a side street, far smaller than the Baptist, Episcopalian and Congregationalist stone and brick edifices on Main Street. It was Pentecost Sunday, no happenstance, and Father Joe was alive with the Spirit.
We began an utterly surprising and unexpected faith journey that fills our lives and has never disappointed. The human mind is immured by limitations of intellect, knowledge and imagination; the soul is unencumbered. We asked and continue to deepen our understanding of three questions, perhaps the three questions, trinitarian in nature, an inexhaustible wellspring. To me, no person addresses our existential human loneliness without asking them.
Saint Bede on his deathbed in 735 is known to have said, “If it so please my Maker, it is time for me to return to Him Who created me and formed me out of nothing when I did not exist.” From whence do we come? Why?
Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian and commentator, said, “Christian faith stands or falls on the proposition that a character named Jesus, in a particular place at a particular time in history, is more than a man in history, but is a revelation of the mystery of self and of the ultimate mystery of existence.” Is there a bridge to the eternal, a gateway? If so, Who?
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects… It does not come down now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature… In the same way the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always the same, simple and indivisible, apportions grace to each.. Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit.” If the gap is so bridged, where do we go from here? How?
Nearly two millennia ago on Pentecost, the Church was born with a visitation of the Holy Spirit; thirty five years ago on Pentecost this weekend, our marriage, our faith, our lives and our souls were reborn. Happy Anniversary, sweetheart.
“Only the Christian thinker is compelled to examine all his premises, and try to start from the fundamental terms and propositions.” T.S. Eliot