Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1983, I fell in love. I resisted it at first, but then I was hopelessly, madly in love. Lest you think the wrong thing, I am not talking about a romance with a person, but with an entire group of people! I was ending my first year as a novice in my religious community and had to go on what was called a summer experience. It had to be somewhere I had never been, and the experience to be engaged in, preferably outside my comfort zone. I chose to volunteer at a social service center in Louisiana. I had never been south of the Mason Dixon line, so it was, indeed, truly new and different. I worked with the economically poor who were mostly of Creole/Cajun/African American descent. As I said, the first week was not at all fun, and I began counting the days until it would be over....and then it happened: I fell in love. I began to love every one of the people I met, but the older people were the ones who really grabbed my heart, especially one couple. Oh yes, I fell in love.
She was Clementine and he was Hardy, of at least I think that was his name. I heard all sorts of variations, and to this day I am not sure what it actually was. That was no problem, though, because I called him Pop, which was what he told me to call him. Clementine (Mum) was about 76 years of age when I met her and Pop was 98, almost 99. She was his second wife, and the story of his proposal, (which I heard from someone else), was absolutely dear. It was obvious that they were very much in love. I could tell by how they looked at each other. But I have to be honest; it was Pop who stole my heart. He was the son of a freed slave and he told me more stories about what that was like than any history book ever could. But what Pop taught me the most about was God. I fell in love with Pop because he was in love with God. And oh, his love showed.
I would make our visits the last of my rounds for the day just so I could stay with them without having to cut it short. I was bringing Communion to the home-bound, which is how I met Pop and Mum in the first place. Mum had a bad knee so she could not get around very well. Pop, on the other hand, was mowing the lawn with a push mower, (the type that runs on manpower, and not gasoline), the first time I stopped there…. in the nearly 100 degree heat. He looked younger than his 98 years, but still it was June, and it was hot and so humid you could wring out a handful of air. Pop came in and listened that first afternoon; he never said a word. The second time I visited, he began a ritual that took place with each subsequent visit for the rest of the summer. He would come inside the house, change his shirt, enter the room where I was sitting with Mum, and sit down with a small glass containing a yellowish liquid (which no doubt was made in the backyard, if you catch my drift). Then he would offer me a glass. I would always say no thank you, to which he would always reply: "Sister, when a gentleman drinks he always offers one to a lady, even if he knows she will say no." This was the ritual day after day, though he usually had a little smile on his face when he said it. Then the stories would begin, and I sat as if at his feet. The stories were the “nectar” which I drank in.
Pop had no anger or rancor about having grown up in a world hostile to people of color. It simply was the way it was. He told me about working for a train company, his love of baseball, (something he and I shared), but mostly he talked about his faith. He could not tell a story without God being part of it. I think that is because God was central to the life Pop lived. We talked about Scripture sometimes. But the best moments were when Pop prayed with me. I could hardly say a word because to hear him pray was like being with the angels. To this day, I have never heard anyone pray the 23rd Psalm such as I experienced when he prayed it.
When the summer ended, the goodbye was tough, but I knew it was not goodbye forever. I knew Pop and I were already linked because he had entered into my heart. The last day I was there, he prayed not just with me, but for me. Pop blessed me, though that is not what he said. But in looking back, it was indeed a blessing of the most sublime kind. First he prayed the 23rd Psalm, and then he prayed in his own words, though what he said I will not share here because he paid me the highest compliment I have ever received in this life and that is between Pop, God, and me.
Pop changed me. That entire summer changed me, really. I truly was in love with all those dear people I met, many of whom have gone ahead of me and are already home with our loving God. I saw Pop only one more time, and that was 5 years later when he was 103. Mum and I wrote to each other in the years after my Louisiana summer and then after our last visit, but then the letters stopped. I know they both eventually departed this life and that they are now in Heaven with the Lord. I know that Pop still prays for me. I would not have made it through all life has thrown at me, good and bad, without his prayer. And I still think of the blessing prayer he prayed that day in July, 1983.
This may seem like a different type of entry than I usually post. I often write about saints, so this really is not all that different. But the lesson I hope to share is that we should fall in love a lot in this life. We should fall in love with many people, (and of course, I am not referring to romantic love.) In order to fall in love with people we meet, we first must fall in love with God. I say this because it is God who is reflected in the faces and in the hearts of others. God is love, so when we are totally taken by the beauty we experience in other people, it is God who is residing in the midst of that. Even when it is totally unarticulated and the situations we are in are not necessarily in a religious context, it is about God because it is about love. We cannot compartmentalize our spiritual lives to a few activities, or a few moments, or even a few hours of a day. Our entire day, our entire life is a religious, spiritual experience because God is in every moment of it.
One thing I will tell you about what Pop said to me that last day: he said that at his age he did not talk with people anymore because he had heard all he needed or wanted to hear in those nearly 100 years. But there was something about me he felt was different. I know what it was. It was not me at all. It was that he and I both saw the presence of the Lord in the midst of our visits, so we could sit in that presence and enjoy His love which became the bond of our friendship. It changed how I view people. Maybe retelling this story will help you to think about how God is present in your relationships and in the strangers you meet along the way who are not really very strange at all. Nor are they strangers. We are all pilgrims on a journey, and oh, how wonderful that pilgrimage when we realize we are not alone. As Scripture says, sometimes we entertain angels unaware. And in doing so, we fall in love.
May you fall in love with the angels you entertain unaware! May we find the Lord in the midst of relationships! May we invite the Lord to be in the center of the relationships that are challenging to us, and which are outside our comfort zone! May we allow the Lord to open our minds and hearts with His healing love which unites and never divides! And may we find the stranger in our midst and make that one feel at home, just as we will all be at home in Heaven some day! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus where all are friends and all are at home! Peace!
(Look for "part 2" of this entry on Wednesday!)
The photos are all mine, taken with 35mm film. (Remember that?) All were taken in the summer of 1983, except the third photo.
The first picture is at the Jesuit Seminary, St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. The second picture is of my beloved Clementine and Hardy, Mum and Pop.
The third picture was taken in the summer of 1988. This was the last time I ever saw either of them.
The last picture is of the St. Charles Parish Cemetery where I am sure they are both resting.
Heart Speaks to Heart