He could not have known.
In the joy only a 21-month-old is capable of at successfully worming his way into papa’s inner sanctum, he began to explore its secrets and soon made his way to that low table that had so many wonderful things lying on it. Amid the prayerbooks, candles and even a brass hand censer was a ceramic Celtic standing cross papa had brought back from the holy island of Iona many years before and thousands of miles away. He did not know that his big sister had, a few years before, approached that same table, opened up the little bottles she found there and actually swallowed some of the soil brought back from that same holy place. He laid hold of the ceramic cross and swung it around in happiness.
He did not know that it would break so easily.
The broken cross has been sitting on my desk at home for the past couple of weeks, and when I came home from a short trip to discover it had been broken, my heart sank. Losing it made me quite sad, and I posted briefly about it online, noting that the experience tested my ability to be non-possessive.
It was irreplaceable. I had gotten that standing St. John’s Cross when I went on pilgrimage to the British Isles in 2001.
That pilgrimage was transformative for me. I had just graduated college (finally), still sorrowful and a bit mopey from the break-up a few months before with a girlfriend I’d dated for about a year and a half. My parents bought me the plane ticket, and I spent nearly a month traveling around the British Isles—in England, Scotland and Ireland—visiting holy places and doing a little touristy sight-seeing, as well. Spending nearly a month traveling mostly alone, breathing the air of a country I’d read about all my life, connecting with places that for me had been just legends in my heart—all these renewed my faith in a way that no convincing argument or even reading ever could.
I foolishly bought a few t-shirts as souvenirs, but I also got a few more lasting things, as well. On the little island of Iona, where St. Columba began his holy exile and from where he converted Scotland to Christ, I got that cross, a small replica of a large standing cross that is not far from Iona Abbey.
After I got back that summer, I wondered for a while if I’d reconnect with that young lady, eventually moved on and tried with another I met through church, though that one didn’t work out, either. The following April, I met my wife. I didn’t know it was her, of course, and it turns out we’d met before, though, to this day, neither of us remembers that earlier meeting.
Our first in-person meeting (that we can recall) was at Global Village Organic Coffee (a.k.a. “Tree-hugger Coffee”) in Raleigh, North Carolina. I’d been going there for a couple years by that point (from its opening day, in fact), and I’d been a customer for some years at the coffeehouse that had previously been housed in the same space. I also frequently talked with the proprietor Mike, a devout Catholic. So this was good ground for me to meet a girl—public, comfortable, hospitable. We talked mainly about the Church, and I invited her to come sometime. She did. And I’m glad she did.
Over the years, those souvenirs—souvenir; French for “I remember”—were a reminder of what God had done for a beat-up heart, a child just a few years old in His Church. That pilgrimage steadied (and I hope, deepened) me for what was to come—manhood, marriage, seminary, priesthood, fatherhood, parish ministry. There have been many bumps and bruises along the way. Many. And a lot of them have been self-inflicted. I’ve failed at all those things.
Some of those failures are ongoing, and I’m not sure yet how to overcome a few.
So yesterday, I was at the post office to drop off some letters and packages, and I brought with me one of those “sorry you weren’t there” notes that the mail carrier leaves when he can’t deliver a package. I had no idea what the package was. I just found the note at the church. I must admit to being a little annoyed when I found it, because deliveries to the church are unreliable like that. I always get packages sent to my home. But I gave the slip to the woman behind the counter, and she found the package and handed it to me.
It had a customs notice on the outside, and I could see that it had been shipped from the little town of Oban—of all places. I’d been there. That was the final mainland stop in Scotland for those journeying to Iona. A ferry, a bus ride, and another ferry, and you were there. Oban? Who was shipping me something from Oban?
I brought it home and opened it up. Inside was a St. John’s Cross, almost just like the one my little boy had unknowingly broken, but made of pewter. A packing slip was included, and the billing name and address were those of Mike, the Raleigh coffeehouse owner. I haven’t frequented his shop in nearly ten years, but we’d reconnected on Facebook a couple of years ago. He must have seen my little lament about the cross.
Putting all these various narrative strands together doesn’t quite add up to a particular story, but when I opened the package and saw the cross, I was moved enough that I began to wonder how to make sense of these pieces of the story that are indeed all connected in one way or another. And it occurred to me that what weaves them together is precisely the Cross.
As anyone who attempts to be serious about Christian faith experiences at various points in life, crucifixion is required. The Lord says, after all, that anyone who would come after Him has to take up his cross and follow Him. We can sometimes romanticize what this must be like, that we are going to be suffering for a Cause, perhaps. But the biggest cross that I have to take up and carry to Golgotha really is my vanity, my pride, my desire to be right—and my need to, well, need.
And I also remember that those around me are carrying crosses, too.
It is no accident, I think, that this holy object—just an object, yes, but nonetheless one that is holy—connects between so many different times of transition: coming of age, confirming my faith, getting married, being a husband, being a father, being a priest. For the Christian, the gift of the Cross of Christ is always a crossroads.
And we keep returning to the Cross until that final Day, which is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and live.