It was nearly dusk when the small, single-engine plane landed near a Koyokon Athabaskan Indian village, which clung to the banks of a frozen river in northwestern Alaska. The pilot tossed my old, faded green duffle to me, waved and said, “Good night, Father.” I wished him well and blessed him as the plane disappeared downriver. It was early November and already 20 degrees below zero, but the real cold had yet to settle into my bones. I zipped up my parka, slung my duffle over my shoulder and began the journey.
As I walked the two miles to the village, I was aware of only two things: my breathing, deep and labored, and the whispers of my mukluks, or skin boots, upon the snow. But my heart listened and longed for so much more.
Halfway to the village I paused at a small cemetery to catch my breath. Painted crosses and picket fences half buried in the snow marked the graves, which seemed peaceful as they slept among the spruce. I bowed my head and prayed for the repose of these departed souls and prayed, too, for my own soul. Truth be told, being a priest these days can be a lonely journey.
When I arrived at the small mission church, I unlocked the door and flipped the light switch. Two bare bulbs struggled to overcome the darkness, illuminating the four pews with a feeble and yellowed light. I tossed my bag on the back pew, and the sound it made echoed through the emptiness of the place. I bowed to the crucifix, on which my Lord hung upon a cross framed by a fan made of gray feathers from the willow grouse. I knelt and prayed before the tabernacle, pondering the meaning of the bread and the body, broken and blessed. This mystery rested inside a unique ciborium, made of birch bark and adorned in native patterns of dyed porcupine quills. This mystery rested, too, within my heart and soul.
It was 10 degrees below zero inside the little church. Many years ago I would have warmed myself twice, once as I split the wood and again as I built the fire. But that day, I just pushed a button on the oil-burning stove. Carrying a blue plastic water jug, I walked about 200 yards to the washeteria, the site of the village’s well and water. Struggling back with my 50-plus pounds of water, I thought and prayed about the burdens and blessings of baptism and the cost of discipleship.
The village appeared abandoned as I wandered about in what the mystics might have called a long loneliness. I stood in awe of an evening sky in which the deep clouds of indigo were pierced through with the blood red of a dying sun. The only sounds I heard came from a raven, black as the sky on the night of a new moon. It perched and preached from high atop the steeple’s cross. And it cried like some Old Testament prophet demanding an answer. The only reply, however, was the mournful lament of the sled dogs chained to a tree.
Upon countless cabin doors I knocked, but none opened. I walked into the village post office and immediately was assaulted by the pulsating of florescent lights. The church’s box was crammed full of useless junk, not unlike my soul. I dumped all the unnecessary clutter into the trash.
The fullness of night had fallen by the time I noticed many “snowgoes,” or snowmobiles, parked beside the tribal hall. I walked over, opened the door, paused and took off my fog-covered glasses. The light and warmth of the place filled me. I was welcomed and ushered into the pot-latch, or community meal, without a fuss. I took off my parka, and someone offered me a chair. I took my place at the table. My eyes, as well as my heart, searched out the elders, their faces worn by weather, perfected in patience. I noticed how their eyes looked not to the days long gone but rather across the generations and into the eyes of the children—so full of innocence, so full of promise.
Unseen hands set a bowl of steaming hot soup, some half-dry salmon and a scalding cup of tea in front of me. Even before the spoon touched my lips, the hunger I’d felt all day melted. Ever grateful for my priesthood, I gathered into my heart all who were present, both the living and the dead, and for the third time that night I bowed my head and prayed: Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts—Your gifts to me.…