Greg spent 10 years in the US as a foreign student, growing up during turbulent times and falling in love with the people and the country.
Annabelle prepares for mass
The sound of church bells wafted joyfully through her open window, signaling that evening mass was about to begin. Annabelle hurriedly cast aside her makeup and hair brush and looked for a handbag to bring with her. Her new unused clothes lay discarded on the mattress of her bed where she had placed them earlier, planning on being noticed by the young men but not on making a scene. She did not want to be late for mass, not for the mass scheduled in the newly built church.
She remembered that evening masses tended to be chilly so looking through her clothes she quickly chose her favorite white shawl given to her by her mother, the one made from cashmere that would help keep her warm thru the damp night.
It was more than just a gift from her mother, it was practically a family heirloom with a history that had started almost 50 years earlier, when Annabelle's grandmother had passed it on down the family line to her own daughter as a prized remembrance. Her grandfather had once spoken about obtaining it together with other gifts for the family during one of his overseas trips. Annabelle considered exchanging it for another one of her favorites, but the ringing bells reminded her again that mass couldn't wait. Without another thought, Annabelle rushed out of her apartment and joined the growing crowd of villagers heading for their world famous church.
The town and the church
All throughout the town, people talked about the singular success story that had made the rounds of every home and every family celebration: how a rich benefactor had paid for the construction of a church and had placed it on some vacant ground next to the national road that passed through their village. Situated at the edge of a mountain cliff so that it now towered over them and over the old towns of the valley, the novel design of the church had won many awards and continually attracted pilgrims and visitors. The road which went past the church and on through the mountains before descending to the coastal towns below had served to bring even more curious people to view the new church.
The attractiveness of the cool mountain air and the scenic beauty of the church had led to the ever increasing influx of visitors and sightseers. Their desire for new and better inns, vacation homes and shops, created an unprecedented economic boom in the surrounding farmland area. In just a few years, the village had grown into a picturesque tourist town whose antique beauty rivaled the coastal cities and made many of the farmers wealthy and grateful for their blessings.
The church’s award winning design continued to win accolades as its fame spread across the country. Its circular bell tower with large glass windows faced the valley and formed a large cross when illuminated. Worshipers and visitors had remarked that the church’s tower resembled a lighthouse at night, and when blanketed by fog, the illuminated cross shone forth like a beacon of salvation, much like a lighthouse does to ships on a stormy night. In the day, the windows let in daylight which kept every corner of the church brightly lit.
Annabelle's encounter with the poor woman and her child
As Annabelle walked through the town plaza and on to the church, her attention was drawn to the side of the church steps, where something dark lay huddled.
“Beggars,” she said almost loudly as if reassuring herself. The dark figure on the ground resolved itself into that of a poor woman and her child. "The wealth of the village has regrettably attracted the poor folk", she seemed to sigh to herself. “They will make it look like any old city in a few more months.” The sun continued to set in the western mountains, announcing to all the villagers the end of another working day and the start of evening worship.
As Annabelle considered the encounter, the bells stopped ringing, informing the worshipers that mass was about to start. Almost on cue, the fog from the mountains began to descend on the village. A light rain had begun to fall, bringing with it a dull,damp cold that quickly penetrated through everyone’s clothing and chilled the stone walls and floors of the church.
Upon hearing the bells cease, the mass of worshipers around Annabelle hurriedly rushed towards and through the church entrance. The church’s large wooden doors swung open outwards in a welcome, deluge of light, dispelling the fog and blinding the churchgoers with an indoor warm brilliance that shone on everyone at the entrance, even on the poor woman and her child.
In an instant, time seemed to pause as Annabelle’s gaze was captured by the illuminated faces of the beggar and her child. The woman did not appear old and her face radiated peace and calm as she cradled her baby. The lights from the church highlighted her eyes which glistened but did not waver as she continued to look. Just as quickly, their faces disappeared into the darkness of the enveloping fog and the church doors closed in front of her leaving Annabelle standing alone outside.
Without hesitation, Annabelle reached for her purse to give the woman some money for food but something in the woman’s face seemed to speak to her. She felt drawn to the beggar, as if the poor woman’s presence reminded her of some occurrence in her life ages ago.
“Where have we met before?” she almost asked.
Hurriedly because she had to rush inside, she gave the woman the money as she pulled on the door handles. Her last view of the shivering child in the darkness made her hesitate long enough to impulsively reach for her shawl and wrap it over the old woman’s shoulders which the beggar quickly received and gratefully thanked her. Their eyes met, a silent glance of something more than recognition passed between them and then Annabelle’s attention was again drawn to the noise and the bustle of the churchgoers around her.
Just as quickly as it occurred, the moment between Annabelle and the woman ended. The crowd became silent as the mass began, but Annabelle still thought about her encounter with the beggar. She could not easily forget about the woman and her child, and even when the priest began his sermon, she could only imagine watching the mother wrap the child with her shawl, struck by the beauty of her face calmly gazing at her bundled child with peace and joy.
“I have to see them again, maybe after the mass,” she thought. She did not know what she planned on saying or doing, she just knew that she had to see them one more time. She felt confused by the turn of events and especially by her own impulsive actions and thoughts. She made her way to the rear of the pews and found herself a vacant space to sit by herself.
The rest of the evening mass passed in a blur to Annabelle, images of lights and of people’s faces seemingly interspersed with her own confused feelings. She felt guilty for failing to properly honor the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist so she decided to stay and say a short prayer begging forgiveness when the mass ended. As the priest announced the end of the worship, the crowds of churchgoers stood up and began to noisily disperse around her, and Annabelle joined them, looking for a quiet place in the church where she could sit, pray and try to recover her wayward thoughts.
As she headed for the front pews which were now emptying rapidly, her attention was caught by a glimpse of the beggar and her child, not as she remembered them on the steps of the church that evening, but as a Madonna and Child in a framed painting on the right side of the church wall. The Madonna’s eyes looked at her Child with the same radiance and joy which Annabelle remembered, but it was her beautiful face which brought forth so much peace and calm. Almost immediately like a stroke of lightning, her mind opened to the realization that she had just had a revelation. She felt the warmth of the Madonna’s smile wash away the coldness of the evening, and the brilliance of the child’s face filled the whole church hall with a light brighter than any sunrise peering over the mountaintops.
Annabelle immediately knelt in the pew and then, as a jumble of images came rushing out from her memory she vaguely remembered a dream she had experienced as a child of eight years old, visiting a young mother and her newly born infant on a crystal blue, star filled night. The serenity of that night and the peace that filled the evening air kept her in prayer and meditation for quite some time. Her eyes which had been shut opened to reveal that she was alone in the well-lit church.
When she walked to the front entrance of the church to look for the beggar woman and her child, they had disappeared together with the crowds of mass goers. The plaza was once again empty and cold with the occasional tendrils of fog. Annabelle stood there at the church entrance waiting in the darkness for them to appear again as they had done so before earlier in the day. The shadows of the town only got darker and longer as the night progressed, but still Annabelle waited for them, hoping for another chance to say something to the woman and to gaze again at her child.
“Excuse me child, but is there something I can do for you?“ the voice of the priest came from the church entrance.
“No, thank you father, I thought of waiting here for someone,” Annabelle said as she turned around to face him. He smiled at her with a welcoming face.
“Please come in from the cold, it’s getting late and you can sit here by the pews where it’s warm for as long as you wish.”
Annabelle sat in the same pew that offered her the closest view of the Madonna and Child. As she knelt and her eyes closed in prayer, she could almost imagine hearing a faint voice say, “We are always here for you.” Her distant memories came alive again and she began to play with them over in her mind. She sat on the pew thinking of the painting and began dreaming. She did not notice anyone, not even the priest who came back to check on her several times that night and who covered her with a blanket while she slept. It was only when the dawn came, when the rays of the sun peeked into the windows of the church and slowly warmed her up that Annabelle woke from her sleep. Thanking the smiling priest who had emerged from his office for his kindness, Annabelle handed him the folded blanket and walked slowly out of the church and through the plaza, enjoying the sounds and sights of the town waking up as she made her way home.
Once in her apartment, Annabelle knew that for many years hence, this would be a memorable experience for her to relate to her friends and to her family. The sound of ringing church bells came faintly through her windows as if in agreement with her thoughts, announcing the start of morning mass.
"Madonna and Child" a mixed media painting on the church wall
© 2020 Gregory Floro