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Starting Point

A final journey in search of beauty


Not far from here, a woman named Dorothy is about to embark on a journey of mystery and beauty. She is dying. Her body is no longer capable of supporting her spirit, a spirit strong and faithful.

I last saw her a few weeks ago. She was weakened by her disease and tired of the treatments. She had moved in with my sister Mary and my brother-in-law Brian, her only son.

She wanted to show me some photographs. She smiled and said, “Just look at these.” They were pictures of her daughters and son and their children. I noticed one picture of her, and said what a pretty dress she was wearing. “Who, dear?” she asked. And I said, “You. There, in the pretty dress.” She smiled. “Oh, yes, that was taken in the restaurant.” I had thrown her off track. She wanted to get back to the other pictures.

As long as I have known her, Dorothy has been taken with the beauty around her. To point out the beauty that she was and is came as something of a jolt to her. She was absorbed in what she found all around her.

When she and Harold, Brian’s dad who died not too long ago, lived in an apartment not far from Mary and Brian, I visited them. Pictures of family graced the walls, the tabletops, the bookcases. As we chatted, my eyes roamed from photo to photo. A golden light from a late afternoon sun played off the bright green of the plants just outside a window. There seemed to be beauty everywhere that day. I now see that the beauty of that small dwelling was a reflection of Harold and Dorothy.

Many years ago, I took a painful leave of absence from active ministry and needed a place to stay before leaving this country to live with Mary and Brian in Switzerland. Harold and Dorothy welcomed me to their home for several weeks. I was deeply unsettled then, and the kindness they showed me was about as close to the meaning of our life here as one can get. They could provide no answers or even a direction. But warmth, kindness and beauty were there.

I went to Switzerland and stayed there for a while with Brian and Mary. Some months into my stay with them in a little town called Versoix, not far from Geneva, Dorothy arrived to help Mary after the birth of my niece Katie.

Dorothy was deeply impressed with the beauty of Switzerland. The flowers, the cleanliness, the orderly routine of Swiss life, the natural beauty captivated her. She was in paradise. I, on the other hand, found things a bit too neat, too orderly and pretty. I kept looking for flaws, for some dirt, some sign of weakness. I suppose I was looking for something of myself.

I found one such blemish.

Every day, I took a walk down to Lake Geneva. To get to the lakeside, I had to go through a short underground tunnel that ran beneath the tracks.

One day, while going through the tunnel, I noticed something new on the painted yellow walls graffiti. It was a slogan of defiance, presumably sprayed onto the wall by a disgruntled youth. The graffiti in so many words and with a crude gesture expressed the wish of the artist as to where Switzerland should go.

I mentioned it to Dorothy later that day, and she was aghast. I told her that perhaps that anonymous defacer was just frustrated and would find better ways to express his or her hope for societal betterment. Dorothy looked at me, her wheels turning, and said, “You know, you may be right.” And then she smiled.

If she sought beauty, she found it. If it was a long time coming, she waited for it. And when it came, she shared it. But the beauty with which she most blessed life shone from her heart and her smile. I wish I had told her that in just those words. I would like to see her smile and believe my words, and tell me once again, “You know, you may be right.”

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000