When people asked me about my religious views a while ago, I usually played games. Sometimes I said I was a complete heathen. Never been baptized. Had original sin on my soul. Sometimes I joked about how relatives tried but failed to bring me into the fold. At a recent book group, a couple friends told me they thought I must be a lapsed Catholic because of my French mill town home. I got the impression that some thought it would be better for me to be a lapsed “something” than to never have been anything. Religion had always puzzled me. I used to wonder why after sixty something years God had not spoken to me like so many people talk about. It wasn’t that I never tried to hear him. Was it that I was not understanding how this communications works?
A string of negative experiences involving churches had made me bitter about organized religion. For example in grade school, I loved going a Baptist Church in Waterville, Maine. I had friends at Sunday school. I still remember gathering the small communion cups after a service and being affectionately scolded by the minister about the germs involved with sipping the remains in some of the cups before putting them in the trays. He never ratted me out to my mother who would have thrown a fit about it. When I was about ten-years-old, the church committee found out that this dear minister’s wife had experienced a nervous breakdown before being at this church. They proceeded to ask the minister to leave. My mother was furious. She liked the minister’s wife, and she made a fuss at the next church council meeting. We left the church as a result.
A couple years later during my parents’ first separation, my mother’s friend picked me up and took me with her family to a different Baptist Church. I felt like someone’s charity project and begged my mother to stop this. Even later on, my mother and I attended a Nazarene Church for a short while. The church people seemed nice at first. Not wearing makeup was okay with my mother who never put anything on her face except for a touch of lipstick, but when she was told that curling her hair was sinful, she decided that religion was not for us. I still remember riding home with my mom in her VW bug and laughing about walking around looking like an old wash woman for the sake of being pious.
Things bumbled along for me and my attitude toward religion until January of 2000. My brother Steve lay in Cardiac ICU in Mobile after a quadruple bypass. Unfortunately, his brain had been without oxygen for a few minutes too long, and he didn’t regain consciousness. As I sat in the cafeteria of the hospital with my nephew Rhett, I glanced out the window and noticed a beautiful wading bird in the manmade pond in the hospital garden. This egret stood and watched me as I tried to console my nephew. Every time I went get a snack after that first sighting, the bird was there. I walked to the other side of the garden to a small chapel with Rhett. Rhett railed at God about taking his father at such a young age. I looked out the chapel window at the pond and saw the egret standing near the edge looking into the chapel. A couple weeks later, we went to bury my brother in a section of the cemetery in Mobile that my brother’s wife had picked because it overlooked a lovely pond. As the coffin rested on the mechanism that would drop it into the grave, I looked away toward the pond. An egret was at the edge of the pond watching us.
Later that year, I was working with a cousin on a scholarship in my brother’s name. I told her over dinner about the egret. She flashed a knowing smile and asked me to send this story of the egret to her in an email, so she could share it. I didn’t ask why. My epiphany about spiritual communications crashed on me like a high, fly baseball I caught awkwardly. Since then, I have been visited by a cardinal bird couple when writing about my parents. The beautiful, olive green female glances at me tentatively and looks away. She doesn’t stay long. The brilliant red male seems to watch me for long lengths of time. He stays in view of my kitchen window long after his mate leaves. My brother Wayne has not visited me yet. His death was premature and accompanied by many unresolved relationships. Maybe he’s not ready to look for people yet.
A couple years ago, I was walking with my elderly neighbors Ron and Jan. Ron is a retired Congregational minister. Jan is a gregarious minister’s wife. She was entertaining me that day with a story about how she thought she was probably going to hell as she had left the Catholic Church to marry a Protestant. She and I were exchanging sarcastic stories about being doomed when Ron interrupted us. He announced that what church one belongs to doesn’t matter. There is a place in heaven for anyone with a good heart. He looked at me and said he’d seen my heart, and Jan and he would see me in heaven. That was that. We continued to walk, and Jan started fussing about neighbors who didn’t mow their lawn enough. I think I may have been baptized that day by a true Christian soul. Bless you, Reverend Ron.