THE WINDOW OF ST. MARY’S
By Courtney Seybold (alias Phoenix), December 3, 2016
Word Count: 2135
Summary: A story of divine providence in a small town church.
September shouldn’t be this hot, Harris Sine thought to himself, mopping his brow with a wrinkled and rather poorly treated handkerchief which he pulled out of the left pocket of his coat. That garment now hung over his arm and he was down to his shirtsleeves in an attempt to fight off the warmth of the late afternoon sun. A steady hum of cicadas filled the air, and on either side of the dusty road that he traveled there were vast fields stretching in patterns of gold and green as far as the eye could see. Somewhat ahead of him, he caught sight of a small group of trees, and thought he might stop there to rest in the shade until it was evening, and perhaps a little cooler.
As he walked toward the trees he noticed a little white church in their midst. It was a small country parish of the kind he’d attended when he’d been a boy. The sight of the simple building reminded him of his parents, and of Sundays growing up. A graveyard rambled off to one side of the church, and a bunch of lilac bushes near the church’s plain wooden door gave off a pungently sweet scent.
He thought he might step into the church for a while. He didn’t know quite what he believed anymore about much of anything, but it brought back such memories of childhood that Harris couldn’t help feeling a little bit at home. Approaching the building, he saw the wooden sign standing near the door announcing that the church was called St. Mary’s in neat and yet worn script.
With a gentle pull, and a sort of reverence that he didn’t recall having felt in a long time, he opened the front door just enough to let himself through, and slipped into the church. Immediately his attention was caught by an enormous and beautifully worked stained glass window portraying the Blessed Virgin holding the Christ Child. The polished wood floor of the church was bathed in hues of rose and blue and gold. The nearly setting sun showed off the window to full advantage, and took Harris’ breath away. He remembered his parents telling him long ago that stepping into a church was like getting to enter heaven for a little while, and at the moment he thought that might be true.
It took him a few minutes to draw his gaze away from the incredible window and look around the rest of the church. The whole place was simple, and clean, with its neatly aligned wooden pews going up in two rows, and a nave with the high altar rising to the ceiling at the front. The window he’d first noticed was directly to the right of the altar. A little lectern stood in front of it, and two low stairs guarded by Communion rails separated the pews from all of this. Stations of the Cross went around the pale blue painted walls. A baptismal font was at the back. The sight of it made Harris look for the little holy water fonts usually by the entrance, and he dipped his fingers and crossed himself as soon as he located them.
He couldn’t help looking back at the marvelously wrought window, though. He didn’t know why, but it seemed to speak to him, and he wondered how it had come to rest in such a little country parish as this.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” a voice whispered in the stillness of the church.
The sound made him jump. Somehow, he hadn’t noticed the old man who stood by the votive candles to the left of the altar until that moment. He felt strangely like the man must be some sort of spirit or ghost, having just appeared there. The old man was small and thin, rather like a bird Harris thought, and he too stared at the window of the Blessed Virgin.
“Yes,” Harris said regaining his composure a bit. “Yes, it is.”
The old man replaced an empty candle that had burned out its life with the prayers of some soul on its breath, with a new candle destined to do the same. Harris suddenly felt odd, now that he knew he was not alone in the little church, and had just made up his mind to go when the old man spoke again.
“There’s a bit of a miracle behind that window, you know,” he said, looking at Harris with big, serious yet kind eyes.
“Really?” Harris said politely. He didn’t know that he believed in miracles exactly, but he wasn’t about to start an argument with this almost ethereal seeming old man inside of this simple church.
“Well not the kind of miracle with people being cured of blindness or raised from the dead exactly,” the old man said. “At least not physically.”
Harris wasn’t sure that he understood. He was a bit curious about the spectacular window though, and he had already determined that he’d wait out the afternoon heat, so he thought he might as well stay for a while since the old man wanted to talk.
“What kind of miracle was it, then?” he asked.
“That’s a bit of a story.” The old man looked straight at him again, almost as if taking his measure.
“I have time,” he said, and sat down in one pew to show that he didn’t mind staying.
The old man nodded, and finished replacing another candle before he too made his way to a pew and sat down. Then he took a deep breath.
“It was years ago,” he began, “when I was only a boy, and stained glass windows were in high demand in every church. People hadn’t seemed to care about them much for a long while, but sometime in the last century or so they were interested in them again, and the people of this little parish of St. Mary’s gave donations for months in order to pay for a glass maker to come and build a window for them. Finally they’d saved up enough. The parish priest of the time called in a friend of his who made glass windows and asked him to do the work. The glass maker was a brilliant and devout man, and agreed immediately. He lived a good distance away, and one of the villagers agreed to let him stay with them, so one fine day in June he came in a cart with all of his supplies. He brought his two sons with him as well. There was a little workshop provided for him to work in, and the whole town was so happy to have the glass maker there building a stained glass window for St. Mary’s that he received the most hospitable of treatment.
“He worked long and lovingly on a beautiful window. The children of the village, myself included, would come and watch him when he permitted it, and we all would marvel at the loveliness of his craft. I am sure now that he made a much better window than the town could actually afford, and that he offered his talent at a lower cost than usual. The glass maker seemed to work on his window like a man saying a prayer. Perhaps that is why his windows have the ability to lead other men, men who have forgotten God, to remember something when they look at his work.”
The old man paused thoughtfully for a minute before going on.
“He attended this little parish every Sunday, and took a rest from his glass making to bring his two sons to Mass, and honor God on the Lord’s Day. The people of the town got to know him and his family. His wife had died shortly after they’d had their second son, and so the boys had never really known their mother. The elder son was wild and carefree, and willful at times, and his daring antics and easy manner made him a favorite among the other children. We would all play games together, and it was he who would lead in the brashest of adventures, the most foolish plots, and of course the loudest shouts were always his.
“The younger son was not so easy for us children to get used to. He was quiet and often ill. He spent a good deal of his time in the church, or indoors watching his father work, and sometimes he would sneak off to the fields to be alone. We didn’t understand him, but the mothers of the village always said that he was good and that they wished the rest of us would be more like him, and not always roughhousing all of the time and getting into trouble.
“That whole summer was a time of great fun for us. As each week passed, the elder brother’s escapades grew more and more spectacular, and often he would lead the rest of the village children into doing awful things. He made a game of stealing apples from an old farmer down the road, for instance, and eventually started stealing other things, too. He got away with it through lies that grew ever more complicated. Many of the children stopped playing with him because of his bad habits. A few stuck with him and were his partners in crime.
“His younger brother knew of what the elder was doing, and had once spoken to their father about it, but even when his father talked to him sternly, the elder son continued in his ways and led others to follow him. Meanwhile the younger brother grew more and more ill, and there was nothing the doctors could do for him. His father was saddened and put more effort than ever into his window, begging Our Lady to help heal his son.
“But on the same day that the glass maker finished his wonderful window, his youngest son died. The elder was there when it happened, and right before his brother passed away, he learned that the boy had been offering all of his sufferings up for his wayward brother. He was so moved by this that he promised his dying brother that he would never steal or lie again, and would try to be good from then on.
“And surprisingly there was an abrupt change in the boy, and he tried his best to live up to his younger brother’s goodness.
“The glass maker installed the window, and then made his home in the village since he could not bear to leave it after the death of his son. I think that besides his son’s grave being here, the stained glass window was the man’s closest connection to his child, and that had something to do with it.
“He’s now buried in the cemetery outside of the church, next to his youngest son. The window, his legacy, is here catching the eye of travelers like yourself, and reminding all of heaven,” the old man finished his story.
Harris wasn’t sure what to make of it. But the sun was setting now, and he could feel that the air was cooler. He really ought to get back to the inn where he was staying. With a sigh he stood up. The old man stood up, too. He didn’t seem to expect much of a response to his tale, but there was one thing that came to Harris intuitively and he wondered aloud:
“The elder son in the story, it was you, wasn’t it?”
The old man looked surprised for a second, then said simply, “yes.”
“Do you . . .” He didn’t know how to ask his next question.
“I believe it was a miracle, and that Our Lady and this window, and my younger brother, all helped to lead me a little closer,” the old man said, answering without knowing it, perhaps. “To heal a little of my blindness.”
Harris cleared his throat, definitely having run out of things to say now. He mumbled something about needing to leave, and turned to go.
“Young man,” the old man stopped him with a gentle voice. “You should come to Mass this Sunday.”
“I . . .” Harris said haltingly. “I haven’t been in a long while.”
“That’s no reason not to come now. All the more reason really,” and the old man met his eyes with a look that Harris couldn’t quite describe.
He looked back at the old man, and then at the beautiful window once more, and nodded.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
And he walked out of the church, his head full of the old man and his story and the stained glass window all the way back to town. By the time he reached the inn, he knew that he would come to Mass on Sunday.