Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On Lightning Rods

While my mother and grandfather nailed shingles on the house, a storm stirred and lightning flashed. Thunder rattled like my grandfather's great bass in my chest. The green skies warned them, "Git down." They shooed us into the crawl space as a tornado tore the neighbors' cornfields. It left a walking path winding along for miles. It shattered a summer kitchen next to one neighbor's house, left the house standing. How strange to think, a little wind, a little rain could be so selective. But my mom warned it wasn't the tornado we had to fear. Don't stand under the trees in the storm. Grandpa thought about the lighting rods on the top of the house, grounding it. My uncle, an electrical lineman, broke out a few whoppers about the lightning that hits the aerials on cars, of men who stood in bare fields inviting the lesser gods to scorch them. The National Weather Service says chances of being struck in your lifetime are 1/12,000. Chances of knowing someone struck: 1/1,200. How common the chances, more common than winning the lottery.

Some people, like Father Matthew and Presvytera Katie Baker, attract lightning.

Folks warned us when we arrived at seminary that Matthew and Katie were smackdab in the midst of a row already. Women warned me to keep my space, for she was one of those women. She'd nursed her infants in the monastery church, a scandal to the monks. --None of the monks ever peeped about these women's issues, about head coverings, nursing babies, and skirts or whatnot.-- The only folks who spoke of the scandals whispered of all manner of scandals.

 I never had occasion to know Katie well, young mothers and old mothers keep different hours, different spaces. She corralled toddlers and nursed babies at church. She made home and church possible for her husband. I worked. In church I could deliver a fierce warning at my older children -- "Behave, or else" and could pray without much interruption in services. Since my income supported our family, I spent little time with the other wives, or the other families, for that matter.

Father Matthew and Katie preceded us at seminary by a few years. He arrived in the same state as my husband: without undergraduate credentials, neither ordained.

Matthew looked like a blond Abe Lincoln, a rail tall man, topped with a swirl of strawberry blond hair. He had Abe's ridged cheekbones. He wore a beard that softened the angles. He came with a reputation of being philosopher-type, a genius, a Kierkegaard kind of smart. Deep, you know?

All of us were scholarship families, our husbands too busy in theology and liturgy to work. Wives with wee ones earned the keep by home-making, by thrift and grit, by keeping hours at the WIC, CHIP, LYHEAP, and other aid offices: every month they put up with degrading waits and invasions of privacy to prove residency, income or lack thereof, legal dependents, and accumulated assets. I never suffered this because I taught. Either way, the unidentified they whispered to the wives, "Remember to kiss the hands that pay your husbands' tuition. Keep the appearance of modesty in finances and appearance." Some of us lived abject and long-suffering. It took all my energy to survive. I never took up a challenge or a fight. I took the time to learn to be quiet.

Katie spoke up for her right to feed her children, and to pray.

Some people are lightning rods, attracting energy good and naught.

Smart men like Matthew cannot abide voices of extremism, of abuse of power. He picked his audiences, picked his fights judiciously, but he spoke up. I know this because of the stories, the insights, the tidbits my husband collected. My husband reported on a sparing word spoken in class, a defeated seminarian resurrected after a talk with Matthew. The voice of reason, of gentleness, of the opposite of the power-mongers. Men like him cannot help but cross the powers-that-be. Some of those powers swore they'd never lay a hand on Matthew. He'd never be ordained on their watch. Others stood up for Matthew's right to study, to graduate, to contribute to the theology of the day. Matthew graduated, with a reputation for brilliance and with the aura of a man with strength and the scars to prove it.

Matthew, Katie, and three children moved to Massachusetts. He filled his quiver with degrees, papers, admiration, friends, and more children. A bishop saw fit to ordain him. Katie went on feeding her babies, being a patient mother.

I've seen her in pictures recently and she looks just as young as ever. Sometimes she comes up on my Facebook feed. "You might know this person." I did, sort of, but never well enough to friend her, especially after all these years. I admired my memories of her. Any woman with the grit to stand up to the nameless they for her babies, who could keep intellectual and spiritual stride with Father Matthew, who could birth child after child, six living, one recently stillborn, is a cult of personality herself. How would I friend her nonchalantly? You don't remember me, I'd write on her wall, but I heard stories about you that left me in awe of you. I don't know how to sort the legend from truth, but if it's half true, I wish you and Father Matthew hadn't been put on the roof, lightning rods for all the cursed negative energy of seminary.

So, I her pass on my Facebook feed. Contentedly, I listened my husband's tales of Father Matthew's deepening presence in discourses of faith in our church.

Some people, like the Bakers, attract more than their share. Last Sunday, while driving home from Vespers for Sunday of Orthodoxy with three of his six kids, Father Matthew's van flipped. He died, reposed. Now Katie will feed her babies without him. I cannot ever tell her in the right context that I find it profoundly, fiercely unfair that some people tried to fry her at seminary, because something far worse has consumed her. How do I now convey that whatever strength she'd always lent Father Matthew, who shared it on with my husband and the entire community, that I admired it?

Everyone's writing about Father Matthew this week, in memoriam. For a minute, I want to mention Presvytera Katie. Her husband lived and died in the service of others. So too, has she. She goes on. Thanks, Katie, from someone you probably never knew you affected.

Also, as a disclaimer. I realize my memory of the details have been obscured by time and the blurry-eyed weariness of those years. I know half of what I must have heard was legend, sixty percent was probably false and, I bet, ninety-percent of the silent credit I give you is credible.

I know that's two hundred percent, but I am a music-maker. I am a dreamer of dreams.

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