Queen of HeavenThe path to the grotto, half-hidden by tall pines, is covered in gravel, making delightful scrunching sounds under my feet. I consider skipping down the path like a three-year old, until my thirty-year old rational mind takes over, and I scoff at the idea. Then without warning, my heart takes flight and pulls my knees with it. A laugh, uninvited, escapes my throat.

The surrounding pines are closely packed together, and my entire being becomes composed of their woodsy scent. I gulp it in with each breath like some golden retriever lapping water at a river’s edge. I cannot see the sky from this footpath on the forest floor, and I am surprised once I reach the clearing that dark storm clouds have gathered overhead and lightning strikes are visible on an adjacent mountain.

Rain begins to fall in earnest, and I have no time to contemplate the beauty of the clearing. I duck into the cave. Years ago this might have been home to a mother bear and her cubs, snuggled up against each other in the twilight sleep of winter. Maybe trappers, too, sought shelter from the rain beneath this rocky bough. Now this simple cavern is a safe house, where pretenses fall away and our truest identities can be revealed.

There are no artificial lights in the grotto, except for the one I carry. Bennet, the Abbot of this monastery tucked deep in the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, had momentarily broken his vow of silence when he pressed a flashlight into my hand. “Take this. You’ll need it.”

Although it is only four o’clock in the afternoon at the height of summer, storm clouds, like a flock of swirling crows, block the sun. I say a quick and silent “thank you” to Bennet as I turn on the flashlight and adjust its beam.

The cave is small, no more than twelve feet in diameter. A statue of Our Lady stands in the center. Mary appeared to Bennet in a dream many years ago. “Come away from the world,” she said. “Come away and create a place where prayers can be said for peace and the reconciliation of humanity.”

At the time, Bennet taught philosophy at a small liberal arts college in southern California, and lived the comfortable life of a tenured professor. When he broached friends, family and colleagues with the idea of starting a monastery, they all thought he was losing his mind. Bennet also questioned his sanity. But night after night, his sleep was troubled. The Blessed Virgin continued to appear, repeating the request, “come away and pray for peace,” until Bennet felt he had no choice but to obey.

Carved from a single piece of walnut, the statue of Mary is a tangible, material representation of the likeness Bennet saw in his dreams. She is the Queen of Heaven; a halo of stars surrounds her face. Her feet are firmly planted on the moon, though it is not the crescent sliver fancied by the Virgin of Guadeloupe. This moon is full, ripe with promise and expectation.

In the cavern wall, small niches hold votive candles. A thoughtful pilgrim left behind a box of kitchen matches. I pick it up and circle the cavern, lighting candles one by one. Light flares from three or four before flame licks my fingers. When dozens are lit, their flickering shadows dance the Samba on ashen walls.

Now the flashlight is unnecessary. I turn it off to bask in the glow of candlelight. In a warm, yellow haze I study the face of Our Lady. Her eyes are those of a doe–gentle, benevolent, accepting. With arms stretched wide, she seems ready to embrace the world. The folds of her robe fall, waves breaking on a shore, and lap at bare feet. The tight bodice stretches around firm, ripe breasts. Her chin is slightly raised; her mouth closed and set with a determined air that seems to say I am and was and will be forever.

A sharp clap of thunder startles me from my reverie. Outside the cave, rain beats a staccato rhythm upon mossy grass and gravel path. The lightning strikes are close. Each one lights up the sky like the sun at high noon.

With no place to sit inside the cavern, I kneel upon the packed earth floor in front of the Virgin. The ground is surprisingly soft. Being alone is new to me, and a little frightening. Up until a few days ago my children, friends, family, and co-workers surrounded me at almost every hour of every day. Now I am on the third day of a road trip from Oklahoma to California, where I am scheduled to start seminary in about a month. My two children are with my parents. I travel alone; it will be easier to search for an apartment and part-time job unencumbered. My pocket book holds a plane ticket for  Oklahoma City dated September 3rd so I can fetch my children and bring them with me to California. I only hope that when Labor Day comes, I have at least one new friend willing to pick us up from the airport.

Here in this deep silence, prayer seems necessary. I pull a rosary from my purse. The small, purple, glass beads—a going-away gift from my friend and neighbor, Martha—feel warm in my hand. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee….Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…

I’m taking us so far from everything we’ve ever known, but I was dying in Oklahoma, slowly dying, day-by-day. Never much more than a woman-child, I need to believe there is more for me in this world. Yes, Mary, be with me, and be with my children, too. Can you see them? Are they OK? Sweet Mary, am I doing the right thing? Please, guide me, dearest Lady; protect me on this journey. Give me a sign.

A soft breeze enters the cavern doorway. I shiver beneath my damp sweater. The room fills with the scent of rain and wet pine. I glance down at my left wrist for the time, but remember that Bennet discourages watches at the monastery. Here we are to be on God’s time, not our own. I hear my stomach grumble; I haven’t eaten since I left Santa Fe this morning. My body keeps its own timetable. I’m hungry.

I place the rosary beads back in my purse, and lean over to kiss the Virgin’s feet. After extinguishing the candles, I leave the darkness of the Virgin’s sanctuary for the darkness of the clearing. I follow the footpath to the refectory with another silent thank you to Bennet for the flashlight.

I am the only guest at the monastery tonight. We—Bennet, the Abbess and I—eat a hearty meal of creamy potato soup and coarse multi-grain bread in silence. The blueberry cobbler (with ice cream!) served for dessert is exponentially scrumptious, and I pinch myself to keep from making yummy noises. After dinner, Bennet and the Abbess lead the way to a small chapel for compline.

For the first time today, I hear the beauty in my voice as I join the others in song and prayer. The service concludes with this plea: Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this night. Give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, all for your love’s sake. Amen.

I think I’ve always known to seek God’s help and protection when I’m in trouble or hurt or sick. This prayer reminds me that happiness, too, is frail and vulnerable, and equally deserving of our care. To have joy is a great gift and we must guard it with our lives.

My sleeping quarters for the evening is called a cell, but it feels like one only in its limited size. In all other respects, I am no prisoner, but a welcome guest. The room is narrow and barely contains the single bed. A small window adorns one wall, and through it a generous full moon peaks through tall pines. There is no overhead light or a lamp, but a tapered candle on the tiny nightstand next to the bed has been lit awaiting my arrival. I blow it out, undress in the dark, and scurry under the sheets. They are rough against my skin and smell like sunshine.

The day has been so full of thought and prayer and wonder, I am afraid I might lie awake for hours, but my eyelids feel heavy, almost as if I have been sedated. I heave an imperceptible sigh of relief.

But almost as soon as my eyes have closed, the sound of singing fills the small room. Am I dreaming? There must be hundreds, no, thousands of voices chanting in a language I do not understand. Each voice expresses a unique note, and the harmony is thick and brutal. The beauty of the song is almost unbearable. A knife blade pierces my heart, and I bleed out exquisite pain. Here, in this thin place, I eavesdrop on a concert by the choir of heaven. Angel voices rip the veil; I cross the threshold. My Lady sends her sign.


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