Photography & image editing by H.J. McEnroe​

Author’s note:  This is the first of a three-part series on the intersection of mortality and faith.
When I was fourteen, I went into my father’s woods.  A mystical, ubiquitous presence in my life, every morning I’d gaze eastward through the kitchen window, where the sun would overtake the shadows, rising above the treetops.  It guarded a sacred space that I came to regard as my private cathedral of nature.  On many occasions, I’d slip away at dusk, walking among the birch groves, poplar and silver maples shrouding the entrance that became worn where I trod the stone paths I’d laid.  A small grove of apple trees grew at the southernmost edge, and I’d walk there, sometimes sit for hours, on the cool loam floor, or on ancient stones larger than any team of horses could pull.  Breathing deeply the incense of decay and wild apples, I’d peer skyward toward my cathedral ceiling of ancient Ash, spired eighty feet into the clean evening air…and worship God in this space.

​As a Vatican I altar boy, I’d rote-memorized my Latin, donned the cassock, held the water and wine vessels for the priest, rang the bells, and recited the prayers.  That was my mask; I wore it well.  Out here, however, I could be myself and pray in words I actually understood.  I’d sit for hours, quietly listening to the congregation of blue jays and purple martins, robins and hoot owls, red-winged woodpeckers hammering out their benediction.  I watched squirrels and raccoons play and forage for food.  Whitetail deer would lope in the distance, suddenly slow and sniff the air, detecting my presence and yielding to the edges.  Over time, they’d become used to my visits, and would scour the ground beneath the wild apple trees, always with a watchful eye toward me.  This was my congregation, they embraced me…and I, them.
On this particular afternoon, however, I’d just learned that my grandmother – with whom I’d shared an intensely close relationship – died.  Feeling truly alone, yet sensing her beside me with every step, I retreated to my cathedral, where I railed at the God of Jacob and Moses, for taking her so suddenly from me.  It wasn’t like I was totally surprised by her death – she was eighty-six, and felt much older (she often told me).  What cut the deepest was not being able to say good-bye, to hold her hand once more, to kiss her cheek, and she, mine.  I loved her more than anyone, and she was gone.
In words one doesn’t associate with prayer, I prayed my contempt for a God that would sever her from me, as if he’d casually wielded a sickle and lopped off my arm or leg.  Only, this hurt worse, because this scar – to a fourteen-year-old – would not heal.  Kneeling on the cool moist floor of my cathedral, I dared him to show himself, to step out from the behind the burning bush, and prove to me that he could hear me.  Or, failing that, I demanded never to hurt so again.  Irreverent to obscenity, I pronounced my anger with God in vitriol becoming a drunken sailor, not an altar boy.  It was, in looking back upon it now, my first real face-to-face confrontation with mortality.
And then, I heard it…a whisper so delicate I thought it a Whitetail, sneaking up behind me.  Was it the Spring leaves dancing on the first breeze of summer?  Perhaps the breathless wind pining through the trees?  I knelt deathly still, listening for agonizing minutes…
“Heeere I aaammm.”  I was horrified, frozen in fear that perhaps in my adolescent tirade I’d conjured a demon.  “Heeere I aaaammm.”  In the approaching evening coolness, a sudden warmth – like a blanket of electrum – enveloped me, and I smelled the unmistakable scent of honeysuckle…her fragrance for long as I knew her.  If He was too reticent to face me, she was not…and embraced me until the tears drained. 
Days later, I would be an altar boy for her funeral.  I would stand by her graveside and recite the expected prayers.  Later that afternoon, I would retreat to my cathedral, pray in earnest at the stone altar, imploring God to forgive my petulance and anger.  Why did I do that…?  I’d stood by her coffin before they closed the lid, touched the hands entwined with her rosary, and knew…they were no longer her hands.  She was gone, in spirit and light.  But I remember to this day how she held me for the last time on that day in my cathedral.
From time to time, over the past fifty years, I’ve recalled that moment, knowing that the veil separating the living from the departed is the thinnest of membranes, shielding from our eyes the next life and those there living.  Indeed, my cathedral will long outlive me, and that’s as it should be.  I haven’t returned to my father’s woods in many years, but I shall never forget the first lesson I was taught there regarding mortality:  finding the divine in the common, everyday elements of life on this planet requires a leap of faith…toward a vulnerable, if challenging, God.

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