Seeing through windows of the heart
By JAMES STEPHEN BEHRENS
Her name was Elvira. Basil and I were washing dishes together, and I watched his hands lift the large dishes in and out of the soapy water as he spoke. The loveliness of her name lingered within me as Basil said that she was failing. I could feel the sadness in his heart.
He would call her, but she made little sense on the phone. He had recently arranged for a caretaker to come and live with her. She lived far away, in California.
The sudsy water nearly covered Basils arms as he reached in and felt along the bottom for another platter. I sensed that he was also reaching for words from the bottom of his heart.
Basil and I washed dishes three nights a week, and as the weeks passed he would tell me about Elvira and how she was doing. He knew that her condition was irreversible. He had flown out to the coast to see her several months earlier, and the visit had been good, but he said that he knew that it would be his last.
Over the weeks, an image of his mother began to take shape. I knew some things about her, where she was born, how difficult her life was, how she valued friendship, how she was afraid as her health began to fail.
Something about Basil was growing in me, as well. He spoke of his mom with such tenderness, and when he shared with me the details of her life, I felt as if those details were very much alive in him, that they were not of the past but very present to him. I had the impression that by his retelling me, he was somehow trying to make them better. He was trying to soften the pain that his mother knew in life.
Elvira passed away, and Basil left the monastery to go to the wake and funeral. I did not see him before he left, since his departure was quick. He was gone for several weeks and drove his moms car back here to the monastery. Basil has no brothers or sisters and has not said much if anything about other relatives. His dad died some years ago.
When he returned, I was glad to see him. He had been on my mind every day, and we prayed for him, and for Elvira, all the while that he was away. We always pray for any brother who is away.
Soon after he returned, Basil shared his heart with the community and spoke so beautifully about his mom. So many details of her life came alive again as he spoke: how she worked in a dress shop and had a good friend who was a Jewish woman, and how his mom knew several languages, and how hard it was for her to raise a son with so little money in hard times.
His voice cracked when he said he loved her. We all felt the depth of his pain and his love.
Her apartment was near the Pacific Ocean, and Basil said that she so loved a particular window that looked out onto the sea. It seemed that she at last found some peace in her life and had reconciled herself to making the passage from this life to the next. I wonder what she thought of or dreamed about as she gazed out to the vastness of the ocean.
Dorothy Day once said that fleeting moments of the sacred serve as windows to the rest of our ordinary, seemingly mundane patterns of daily experience. Such moments, she said, help us to sustain and embrace the seemingly less sacred times in life. Glimpses of the sacred are like seeing the holiness of all as if illumined by light shining from Paradise. Ordinary things can serve as windows for such light.
A light shone through Basil as he spoke. He spoke with a love and reverence that was given to him by Elvira. All the details he spoke of became personalized through his loving them because they were of her life, her labor, her love. Basils heart and tears were, yes, like a window through which I sensed and knew a lovely woman I had never really met.
I pictured Elvira, her image made accessible to me through the window of Basils soul. I imagined her hearing him and wanting to touch him and wipe away his tears with her hand that trembled with joy. But that caress was not yet to be in its fullness. Yet its beginnings were and are there, in Basils heart. She gave him life, and he gave her all he could. He provided a window by the sea.
There are windows here and there that allow us a glimpse to eternal life. Such windows are made not of glass but of flesh and spirit, and of words born from love that tell of the beauty of the ordinary. Basil was so generous with his words that day. He spoke words that allowed us a glimpse of eternal life as he told the enchanting tale of a woman who found her window by the sea. She left behind a son who, like each of us, seeks a lasting place of peace.
He already knows that place. His words gave him away. They gave us a fleeting glimpse through the window of his heart, to eternity, where Elvira waits and gazes with love.
Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga. He is the author of Grace is Everywhere: Reflections of an Aspiring Monk (ACTA, 1998).
National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999