Last weekend my mother’s extended family — uncles, aunts, and cousins — gathered in a shed on a farm near Timken, Kansas. If I understand correctly, a barn tends to made of wood, has hay, and reeks of animals. A shed is often larger, metallic, and full of implements, or, on this Sunday afternoon, the Herrmans. The clan had gathered to fete our California cousins, who had flown into Denver to visit family in Kansas before going on to Mount Rushmore and the Dakota Black Hills.
Not unlike what happens at Mass, though in reverse sequence, we ate and told our stories. One happened at that very farm, about forty years earlier, on a Christmas night. Here’s the version my memory can still produce.
My sister and our cousin had both invited high school boyfriends to join us. I no longer have any idea what high school kids would have done at such a gathering, proving that today’s youth are quite correct when they assert that we can’t even remember what it’s like to be young. I do recall that my cousin’s boyfriend played a banjo. Our younger cousins were no doubt enjoying their Christmas presents.
The adults gathered in the living room. In the kitchen, we heard angry voices rise from there, and, not long after, an aunt, who didn’t often come to family gatherings, marched resolutely passed us in the kitchen, out into the cold farmyard. A moment later, she was followed by our irate and inebriated uncle.
More uncles and aunts passed through the kitchen. That produced an even greater din in the farmyard. An adult came back into the house and told us kids, about a dozen, to go upstairs, shut the stair door, and remain there until summoned. The upstairs of the farmhouse wasn’t used or heated. We had never been told to go there, and the angry sounds in the farmyard were frightening. Some of the younger cousins couldn’t keep from crying. From the windows, we could see that our aunt had driven off, and, through a snow covered wheat field, our inebriated uncle was resolutely striding after her. Eventually we were allowed to come down from upstairs, and that’s when the second version of the story, the one told last weekend, first coalesced.
Forty years later, we couldn’t stop laughing at the second rendition. Of course it’s still sad that alcoholism and marital problems had produced such family strife, but last weekend there was no longer any hint of terror. We laughed at being banished to an unheated upstairs, where the youngest cried while they older ones were forced to listen to a decidedly bad banjo player. After our aunt drove off, our uncle had decided that he would follow her home, about fifty miles away. In our collective version, our remaining aunts, who were in high heel shoes, compared themselves to Angie Dickinson, who famously portrayed a seventies "Police Woman," in this case, trying to stop a felon from fleeing across a frozen Kansas wheat field. And my father, a man of my own height and build, played an Anchises-like role. Our uncles couldn’t tackle their angry, and much larger, brother-in-law, but they also couldn’t let him freeze to death. So my father ended up on his back — picture Montgomery Cliff astride John Wayne. He was carried for, now legendary, distances, my inebriated uncle swearing that he could port the little b....... all the way home.
The two versions of the story are equally true. The terrifying one is more immediate and individual; the collective rendition has turned comedic. Forty years later, we laughed harder each time someone retold the story, contributing his or her small detail. With time tragedy gave way to comedy. There’s still the kernel of a marital strife, but the time’s grace has done it work, and family sharing — like nature healing itself — has produced something of a pearl.
When we hear that Abraham entertained strangers, who turned out to be God’s own emissaries, or that Martha and Mary hosted the Lord himself in their home, we want to believe that the Lord still visits his people, though we can’t help but to think that such occurrences are now rather rare.
Has the God of biblical times withdrawn, or is a particular sort of grace needed to discern God’s presence? Bernard Lonergan, the Canadian Jesuit theologian and philosopher, always argued that knowledge is more than simply taking a look. The point of his masterwork Insight is that what we see depends in large measure in how we look, especially in what we’re looking for. With the wrong expectations, you can fail to see what’s right in front of you.
The Christmas night that my cousins and I experienced was terrifying. The one we remember is hilarious. Is it the same night? It is. Alcoholism and marital strife didn’t suddenly become funny, but one might say that they were gradually swaddled in a deeper joy.
Maybe we all need a bit of distance to see God’s visits. God’s love was wrapped as warmly around our family that Christmas night as any other. Time alone would have lessened the terror, but only God could replace it with joy. Saint Paul would call this grace part of the mystery, "hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory" (Col 1: 26-27).
In Lumen Fidei Pope Francis writes that "the light of faith is linked to concrete life-stories, to the grateful remembrance of God’s mighty deeds and the progressive fulfilment of his promises" (§12). Forty years later, we could all laugh — we couldn’t stop laughing — because, in the light of faith, the many years of blessing had helped us to discen another presence that night, a unseen visitor, one who didn’t enter our upstairs room or chase our uncle across the field.
When grace enters, when insight occurs, it’s not that God enters the scene. It would be truer to say that the scene enters God. And time isn’t the only transforming grace given to humanity, the only way to see the unseen visitor. Prayer works as well.
Genesis 18: 1-10a Colossians 1: 24-28 Luke 10: 38-42