TODAY'S BREATHING SPACE
The child ran up the aisle, launched herself at the burly man in front of her, knocking him off-balance, and hugging him joyfully. I watched quietly from just a few yards away.
At another place at some other time and with different people, such a demonstration of affection would be charming, but not unusual. This time, however, the man was a Catholic priest, the place was Sunday morning mass at St. Thomas More Church in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, and the time was the first depressing tidal wave of child-abuse revelations that rocked the United States Catholic Church in the early years of the twenty-first century. All this made the event both extraordinary and profound, at least for me.
My mind rushed back to another morning, several decades earlier, when I was a child visiting a different church. I was at the chapel of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, a small and isolated Cistercian or “Trappist” monastery in rural Huntsville, Utah. The surrounding Ogden Valley (and indeed, my home state) was populated mostly by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, formerly called the Mormons and now commonly called the Saints, many of whom were good friends with the monks. This valley of monks and saints was a beautiful place, but one with very few Catholics.
The monks celebrated Mass each morning at 6:20 a.m., a daunting time of day for a night owl like me, but a spiritual appointment my IrishCatholic mother had strongly recommended I keep during a troubled time in our family life. My parents had just divorced, my mother was worried about the impact on me, and she had started visiting the monastery, hoping I might develop a friendship with the good monks. So, although it still was dark outside, I forced myself out of bed early on that day when Mom beckoned. I fell back asleep during the 45-minute drive to the abbey. I woke up again as our car stopped in the small parking lot near the monastery building, surrounded by the monks’ farm, both nestled in the middle of rolling hills and imposing mountains.
We attended Mass together, sitting in the back of the church. As a young male, I was allowed to gather with the monks around the altar at the front of their chapel for part of the liturgical service. It was an honor, but an intimidating one. I was the only non-monk there, and I also stood out for my lack of height—two rather unappealing circumstances for a self-conscious preteen. Because I thought that monking was a rather serious business, I also did not know if the Trappists really wanted a little kid on the altar with them. My worst fears seemed confirmed on the day in question. An old monk I barely knew by name glanced down and scowled as I stepped up to stand around the altar beside him. Time seemed frozen. I agonized about whether to slip away quietly and return to the back of the church where children like me belonged. Just a few moments later, and before I could retreat, the presiding priest announced the moment of the Mass called the sign of peace. The old monk turned and shuffled over, his scowl replaced by a broad smile. He gave me a gentle hug. Looking directly into my eyes, he said, “Peace be with you!”
As he did, the sun rose over his shoulder, and bright red, blue, gold, and green streams burst forth from the chapel’s large stained glass window. The light mesmerized me. The colors seemed to dance around and embrace us. It was the dawn of my monastery mornings.