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Starting Point

Beauty shines in darkness


I was in the subway in Boston, anxiously clutching a crumpled white slip of paper on which I had written my instructions: “Take the Red Line from South Station to Park Street. Go downstairs to the Green Line and take the D train to Riverside.” I recited these sentences like a mantra, shuffling along in my bulky coat and winter boots. I had left my snow-buried cabin in Maine that morning, and now I was nearing the end of my journey, if I could only solve the riddle of the Boston mass transit system.

On my way to the D Train stop I passed a performer, but not the usual musician with a begging cup at his feet. This one was draped from head to toe in shiny gold fabric and towered over the onlookers, probably from a perch on stilts of some kind. The face was not quite visible within the enshrouding cape, and there were no clues as to the gender of the performer. Haunting music floated out from a CD player. The tall figure held a golden violin in the left hand, and a bow in the right. On the tip of the bow was a live blue parakeet. As I passed by, the bow was being brought slowly toward the strings, and the bird was riding, calm and still.

Ordinarily I would have stopped in my tracks, transfixed by this scene of surreal beauty. But anxious to be in the right place at the right time, I hurried on and then stood obediently on the platform.

At the Riverside station I was met by a kind Jesuit, and taken to Campion Renewal Center for a five-day retreat.

There are religious sensibilities of all kinds in this world, but for someone like me, there’s nothing better than being locked alone in a box with God. Well, Campion is a big box, and I wasn’t exactly alone. The building includes a nursing home and residence for retired Jesuits, so in the box there were also a lot of elderly men and their caregivers, a few other retreatants and our directors. Because this is a place of prayer, everyone honored the true and terrifying work that a retreat entails. Smiles were gentle and authentic but words were few. I was immensely grateful for the way their silence enveloped my fundamental and essential loneliness.

Daily Masses were simple and elegant feasts of beauty and the Word. Each day’s celebrant offered us his open heart, his wisdom, and the fruit of the years he has spent loving and serving Jesus. A candle burned on the altar; a crucifix hung on the pale yellow wall; and on the first night the soft light of a new moon fell blessedly through the window.

We came together, each of us with our own wounds, our own questions. The pain of the world was never far from our hearts. We prayed and lifted up our sorrow and fears about a war that seemed to be rolling inexorably toward us in time, our concern for the many who would be crushed by it.

The days passed and eventually it was time to wend my way outward from the center of the labyrinth. The same good priest returned me to the Riverside Station. The love of God went home with me, as it does always, everywhere.

I have thought about that golden being in the subway, the one who so enigmatically brought beauty into the damp and grimy darkness. There are so many things we do not understand, so many things we cannot change. As believers in God, lovers of Jesus, vessels of the Spirit, we stand within the mystery, we become the mystery, a sign of contradiction, an image of wonder, an unexpected island of color against a background of gray.

In the main chapel at Campion is the sentence: “The Spirit of Truth will lead you to all truth.” And here is that truth: that we -- and the God within us -- are as frail as a tiny bird, as helpless as a newborn baby, as breakable as a human heart. This is the miracle that we wake up into every day, the light in the darkness, the astonishing fact that God dwells with us, omnipotence enfolded in weakness. That life exists at all is too improbable for words, and that it is sustained by such humble and hidden beneficence is a marvel that should make us pause in wonder. Moments of beauty carry us to that truth and give us grace to offer that truth to the world.

Mary Vineyard is a massage therapist who lives in Lubec, Maine.

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003