My new stepbrothers, in spite of being goons, were wonderful for expanding my creativity, especially when it came to seeking out havens for myself.
In our summer wanderings in about seventh grade, we happened upon a fallen willow. From the looks of it, lightning had struck it right down the middle. Rather than just falling and rotting, the six-foot base of the fallen tree listed to the side and kept on growing.
It made a huge bridge, with nooks and crannies on the ground. In the course of reading a fantasy novel about druids and tree folk, I imagined I was one of them.
The tree house was hidden from view because of the overgrown path and brush. We managed to clear a path, although it took at least a week of solid clearing. We used the branches from the brush we cleared away to mask the booby-traps we built into the path…to keep people away, of course, and to lure our unsuspecting friends.
When my dad discovered the path, thinking it was a shortcut to get behind the pole barn, he got the tractor stuck in one of the holes we had dug and we spent a weekend filling it in and hearing lectures.
There was a kidney-U-shaped pond beside the tree. The tree was at the closed end of the U, and though the pond often dried up in the summer (another great place to explore, with deep cracks and critters), it made for a much-need escape for me and my inevitable book.
I used to go there with books, with homework, with problems, and sit in the muted green. When I visit it in my dreams, I always think of praying, though in my adolescence that never occurred to me. I was pretty sure, back then, that God couldn’t hear me, or that if He could, that He was busier with more important stuff.
After a time, my stepbrothers tired of the tree, and so did I. Before long, family situations changed, we moved, and the tree was forgotten in all but my infrequent dream visits. I found other refuges as I got older: school activities, educational pursuits, romance.
Sometimes my refuges were hiding places—from the weight of my problems, from the stress of my life, from the things I didn’t understand. Sometimes my refuges were places of comfort, places I went to let my hair down and be me, though I was often trying to figure out just who, exactly, “me” was. And sometimes, in the flurry and bustle, my refuges were times of peace, sanctuaries of silence, places of rest.
I moved away and grew up, only to find that, in the loneliness of my soul, something was missing. I didn’t know what it was, but it seemed to be linked to a young man and his Sunday morning habit.
As I sat with him in Mass, holding his hand and fighting back the overwhelming desire to cry (and losing most of the time), I sensed that same feeling I felt back in our fallen tree. It was peace, and silence, and safety. I could hide from the things that disturbed me and settle in to be myself.
Once upon a time, there was a refuge in the Garden of Eden. It was Paradise, and it was perfect. Before the loss of innocence, there was peace. Now, living in the midst of our fallen world and my fallen self, I find my refuge is a glimpse of heaven.
I go to her, my refuge, and I snuggle in her lap. Her cool hands brush my hair off my forehead, and she holds me. She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t distract me. She lets me be. And when I’m ready, she points me to her Son, whose arms have always been open, waiting.
She understands that settling in, being myself, is not comfortable. I don’t like what I see. I have sinned and fallen short; I have fallen, just as Adam and Eve did, again and again.
I think of my early days of attending Mass and my childhood tree house when I hear Mary called Refuge of Sinners. I think of how my children run to me first when they’re hurt, and I imagine Jesus running to Mary, to feel the solace of her strong embrace and the comfort of her soothing words.
Did Joseph go to Mary in his doubt too, to find refuge in her unwavering faith, her ongoing assent to the divine plan? The disciples found her a refuge, from the three years of Jesus’ ministry to Pentecost to the present day.
Jesus took on our sin—my sin—and died. What higher purpose could His mother have than to act as a refuge to the very ones he offered his life to save? Jesus wants us to have His mom for comfort, just as He did throughout His life.
In my sin, I always expect a place like prison, dark and cold, gray and unwelcoming: a punishment. Sinning makes me think of Hell, instead of repentance. But through my repentance in Confession, I come closer to God.
When I cooperate with the great graces God has waiting for me—and which His mother so gently and often points me toward—I can grow past my sin, past my imperfection, past my faults. Coming back to God, the ongoing conversion story of my life, makes me a better Christian.
And in being a better Christian, I am more like Mary, my refuge and the refuge of all sinners. She stands there, offering comfort, encouragement, and peace. She reminds me that it’s not about punishment or suffering; it’s about God’s will.
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* This appeared as part of my monthly “Finding Faith in Everyday Life” column in The Catholic Times, the newspaper of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.