A STORY OF SPIRIT: Sister Perpetual Hope (Part 1 of 3)
Note: I’m on Retreat at home and have just completed the below which I’m moved to post here. It’s about 3000 short words in length, so I’ll post it here in three parts to make the task more surmountable for those like me, who like to indulge their reading in short bursts! 🙂
In truth, there is no story and no teller of it. Ah, but it seems there’s lots of story – telling!
Perhaps that’s because we do all sorts of things to distract us from simply living without one. Anyway, according to my 1987 journal notes, that was not the kind of thinking I was picking up from my serious mystical reading of Confessions of Saint Francis of Assisi at the time. Probably that was because I was desperately looking for something or somebody I could believe in.
When I wasn’t reading intently, I was looking intently, at each person I passed, wondering if they were happier than me; listening intently to the bookstore Saints, Sages and Mystics and wondering how much more these Seated Ones knew than me. And all the while hanging out reading by daylight and lamplight and moonlight I remember being haunted in my head by Pink Floyd’s “I have become comfortably numb.” That looped tune sort of summarizes the overall theme of my first 30 years, after which life deprived me of most of my comfort. I was dragged through the garden’s thorny patches for another 30 years or so. Of course, there were some sunny patches, and this new adventure held great promise. On the one hand, after serial failures, I was tired. But on the other, heh, the numbness was fading; my life-blood was beginning to flow. Still, I’ve always felt there’s truth in what Jesus said: “The son of man has no place to rest his head.” Amen.
Oh, and there was the shock of being on my first trip overseas to Europe. Arriving in the Old World was such a jolt for a forty year old guy who had for his entire life heretofore, lived within sight of the Canadian hospital he was born in! I felt for the first time like a man newly born, a stranger thrice removed. “I’ve done a lota things –once!” is what I told my friends about my history, and I almost believed it.
So there I was, captivated and rocked by the nearly constant drama playing out before me as the train – loaded with kids and teens going home from a school trip to Florence I think, who collectively kept darting frantically from compartment to compartment, from friends to friend to friends in an emotional fugue that startled and delighted me even as it overwhelmed. I remember that fast, swaying hallway dash desperately searching for a kid-free compartment, and the quiet ease that came upon me when I found the last one and slid the glass door definitely shut. Ah, that peace would prevail until we rolled into Mestre where thankfully I would get off. That’s what I was thinking as we haltingly stopped in Verona a few minutes later I think it was, anyway, another excited bunch of ragazzo boarded like they’d just bought tickets to the circus and they tumbled enmasse into my sunny little sanctified compartment. They accompanied me all the way home, the little devils.
TAKING THE LONG WAY HOME
I was wondering about all that as I gazed longingly out the train’s streaked car window, fingers mildly drumming on the polished wood window sill as the little train lurched slowly and heavily along treed Tuscan river beds and over narrow bridges offering vistas of vast plantings of olive trees as old as the ancient north Italian countryside. As I recall, I was either going to, or coming back from, Venice, after teaching English in Padua which I did four evenings a week for about half of my nearly two year “Sabbatical” in Italy. Well, that was the Plan, but it ended up we stayed in Europe for 8 years.
So, it was on one of those occasions on a Europass train that I first met Sister Perpetual Hope. Or rather, she came to me. Right in the middle of my reading Saint Francis, as I think I already said. Funny how all those names and places and faces and what happened and all have merged and mellowed in my mind after all these years. The feeling of being an extraterrestrial is mostly what remains from my sojourn there, and there’s more and more of that now, after three decades have washed away a lot of my beliefs. When those damaging waters recede, they leave a revealed trust in facts. And one of those facts I was beginning to learn on this trip was that I don’t have a clue about what’s going on. And I definitely wasn’t happy about that. So when Sister Perpetual Hope appeared, I was thinking this might be something to write about.
Anyway, I recall her to mind so well even after all these years because of all her long, long sighs; we spent many, many intimate hours and days together and she was always anxiously yearning for something she didn’t have, the vagueness of which caused her and me a lot of pain for very little joy. She explained to me in fluent English with a slight Canadian smile that she was a living paradox; she was pretty sure she was eternal and yet she was pretty sure she was going to die. Someday. Later. She could wait. For now, she was anxious about now, and about everything happening now. That pretty much weighed on her mind and mine in our time together. Her asthma didn’t help either, especially when she climbed stairs, like the hundred stairs of Saint Paul’s in Rome which I’ll get to hopefully soon, so this story can mercifully end.
So I must have walked hundreds of miles with her on the hot and cold and slippery cobblestones of Venice; she was one of the most confused – sometimes delightfully so! – characters you might ever hope to meet. She told me many times as we sat in cafes, how she was yearning to love, or rather, how she was always running toward it, toward its fulfillment. She said she was always lonely even when she was with me. She was always casting about, looking for another silvery fish to filet that might be lurking in the shadows, just like me.
I remember once in Venice Piazza San Marco we climbed onto a marble bench and stood with high rubber boots on during that winter’s aqua alta; the waters were rising over the top, we must have stood up there for over an hour until the water went down and we could pick our way home to my place near the Basilica de Friari, which was right beside the Scuola Grande di San Rocco with all its huge Tintoretto’s. She told me then that that was one of her best times, she was safe then and there because she knew I could swim! She was serious too. Something like that didn’t make sense at the time, the thought of her not drowning unless I did.
“She’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction”
There was, and still is, between her and I, that blurring of the lines between what is and what isn’t. Still, I’ve got to add, Sister Perpetual Hope was really, really sincere. Serious just like me, to the point of being anxious just like me. Heretofore, she was a set of impulses, vague urges and murmers; she was freighted by doubt heavy as a creeping train of black coal cars, and yet..and yet she almost always seemed to remain somehow afloat, hopeful – despite the overwhelming events in her 27 years of living on the “fifth rock from the sun” as someone said about our strange blue planet Earth. But like I’m saying, she was every bit as serious as me. Sure she could get confused and almost dizzy about things, but I had to admit she really, really needed to know what’s actually, factually, going on here. Just like me! So we were close – more one than two.
So we walked and talked, sat and talked, ate and talked, mostly about her. Later I got to see she was all about me. But let’s not get the story telling done before it’s time. (At which time I’ll have a confession!)
(END OF PART 1 OF 3)