It was the first Saturday in March. As usual I rose early; looked out the window and wrote this poem:
I awoke to a world of whiteness
Barren branches lined with titanium white
Cedar trees dipped in sugar
A panorama painted in the hours of night
That I might be greeted and gloriously gifted by day
Winter weather frozen forever in memory
Adorned in white
The phrase frozen sunshine was a tern used by a lover of nature, particularly fond of winter and skiing. I was introduced to her briefly one morning by a dear neighbor Both of these women passed on in their nineties and both were lovers of natural wonders and the outdoors. While we dread winter and complain of shoveling and shivering, these ladies adored the frozen sunshine that fell and painted their world white and full of wonder.
Our friend still stood by our table holding a couple of plates he had cleared away. We asked him to sit with us but he shook his head. He seemed to be staring at some spot across the room and finally said, “Ah yes, we do indeed revere the Mother of God as all Christians should. In my country not only Christians cherish her, but also Muslims and others as well. A few words on our history are necessary first. You may remember in 1967 after only six days of fighting we were defeated by a small country we supposed to be inferior to Egypt in every way; in size, might, and wealth. The Six – Day War with Israel brought us to our knees both militarily and physically. You see our Christian population both Orthodox and Catholic had joined the materialistic ways of the pagan world.”
He sighed before continuing. (Admittedly we did recall the war but not the details of it.) “We were in dire need and began praying for our very survival. One year later in 1968 a Sunni Muslim passed by St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church where I lived in Zeitoun, a suburb of Cairo. He saw a woman on the roof and thought she was about to commit suicide so he reported the sighting to the police. It was believed by observers to be the Blessed Mother. That was the beginning of numerous apparitions seen by millions from April 1968 to 1971. Investigations could not explain the appearances of the luminous figure. The witnesses included Christians, Muslims and even Nassar, the leader of our country and also a Marxist. The head of the Orthodox Coptics sanctioned the apparitions and years later Pope John Paul 11 visited the sight. The outpouring of believers was widely reported in our papers but not in western news as I understand.”
My husband said, “We had no idea of this. Did the Catholic Church also sanction the apparitions.”
“No, Paul VI said it should be left to the Orthodox Coptics because St Mary’s was not a Catholic Church. Catholics are much fewer in number in my country. One time Blessed Mary came bearing an olive branch and we knew she was our path to peace in the Middle East. She gives us hope but my people suffer and Christians are persecuted daily.”
We were enthralled by our host’s revelation and speechless for a moment. I finally asked, “Is there any more to the story?”
“You don’t want to spend the beautiful day here in this dark restaurant. Just one more thing I must tell you. Zeitoun has been known for centuries as the place Joseph, Mary and Jesus stayed when they fled Herod. St Mary’s is known as the actual spot where they resided in Egypt.” Reluctantly we bid our acquaintance good-by and travelled on down the windy river road.
One Sunday afternoon a short time later we decided to have lunch in the same restaurant; however, when we arrived, the parking area was empty and a for sale sign posted. I could not help but hum that theme song from The Twilight Zone: duda, duda… Was the Meeting an apparition only experienced Once Upon a Time?
Note: This post is not fiction. Reflecting on this encounter we realize the natural world and the spiritual realm are entwined and designed by the One…who knows when I sit and when I rise… and when I stop along the way for lunch. Psalm 139:2 NIV
We ordered a pasta dish from the menu and a glass of beer on tap. The mysterious person came with our drink and my curiosity took over as my husband gave me an, Oh no look! It did not deter me from asking him a question, just one.
“Where is your homeland?”
“I’m from Egypt, I am a Coptic Christian.”
“I’ve read about the Coptic church when we got our first computer eons ago. You are Orthodox then.” It surprised me he spoke English so well with only a slight accent. “My dad was Russian Orthodox. Have you been here in the states long?”
“A year or so. I grew up being bi-lingual. That’s why I had no problem with language.”
This was going well. He answered my question before I asked. My husband smiled; he was amused but interested. Our waiter excused himself and went to check on the food.
He returned in a few minutes with the salad and pasta and I asked, “Tell me about the Coptic religion. My husband and I would like to hear more about it.”
“I was raised in the traditional way. Fasting was a major part of our faith. We fasted not only in lent but also during advent and before Our Lady’s Assumption. We hold Her in great esteem as do the Muslims in our country. You must have heard in the news, there is much upheaval in our country. There are factions opposed to one another. But the people just want to live their lives. They love food and festivity and family just as people in this country. It is sad for young people. The cannot marry and have children because unemployment is rampant and though many are highly educated, they find no jobs. It is distressing but there remains our faith and Our Mother.”
Our host talked with us just being interrupted once when we heard a Harley pull in and the fellow came into the bar for a speedy refreshment and left again within minutes of his arrival. (Seemed he came to verify this was a real business.)
The most memorable part of our new found friend’s conversation came when he returned to clear away the dishes and we ordered desert and coffee. With no one else in the place he stayed standing beside our table and asked us a few questions, the usual ones: Where are you from? Where are you going today? And another not often asked: Are you Christian?
After answering those he posed, I felt entitled to one more question for him. “How is it there is such devotion to the Blessed Mother in your country?”
The answer follows in the next and last segment of this story…
This story has been ruminating in my writer’s soul for some time. The exact date and details of the meeting are recorded in one of my numerous journals which I have recently searched unsuccessfully. In the meantime, the memory of this providential meeting of several years ago begs to be written here.
We awoke to a blue sky and bright sunny day much like that on May 29, 1971 our wedding day. We had no plan other than taking a drive and exploring some area which turned out to be Route 611 along the Delaware River by crossing the Portland Bridge into Pennsylvania. It was a day trip we had taken several times before, usually ending in New Hope, Pa. After enjoying an extended breakfast and coffee on the deck while deciding where to travel, as usual, we got a late start around 11 am.
We zipped along the country roads in our silver 2000 Mustang, free as the breeze feeling quite entitled to a weekday off. We came to a small town and a bar restaurant we had never tried and it was lunch time. Once inside we were greeted by a rather short stocky dark haired man who turned out to be the chef, waiter, and dishwasher.
The place did have a certain atmosphere all its own with a trellis hanging about a foot below the ceiling with artificial grapevines and clusters of grapes and greenery with the carpet worn enough to reveal years of foot traffic. The lights were dim in contrast to the bright sunlight outside and our eyes had to adjust to the dimness. We were totally alone except for the interesting man whose nationality we couldn’t quite identify by his appearance or slight accent. He came with our menus, smiled. and left us. Somehow it already reminded me of the Twilight Zone and the theme song from the old TV show kept running through my mind: duda duda, an eerie melody.
To be continued…
Around 10:00 pm everyone finished the final course and were ready to leave. Father came into the kitchen and told us he was surprised the Bishop stayed so late because he had a packed schedule and his day began early. He also told our pastor how great it was he had parishioners who cared enough to be of service to the parish under adverse circumstances (not his exact words but close in meaning). I thought the Bishop was gracious to bear with us through the not so serene evening and stay to the end. In fact all seemed in good spirits even though the dinner was not as perfect as I hoped. The carrots were over cooked and dry and the broccoli mushy, the Cornish hen wasn’t crispy, the steak was well done but the sauce and mushrooms were scant after the second time in the oven. Probably the best dish was the pasta penne and mozzarella with tomatoes and fresh basil.
Father thanked us profusely and sent three hens, a piece of steak, some cake and unopened prosecco home with us. Looking back on the evening I believe great good came to us from the experience of cooking for our Bishop. My husband and I glimpsed the true humility of the man behind the pomp and power. As our pastor had mentioned our Bishop was a simple man who loved growing vegetables in his garden. Through him that same evening a group of young people became members of the body of Christ and received the Holy Spirit. I have always thought the nature of the work, not only of bishops but of all priests as well, is in a way humbling. They represent Christ Himself.
We left the rectory exhausted but enlightened; when you cook for people, it isn’t the food but those you serve that matters most. Some days later we received a letter from the Bishop thanking us, reminding me of those I need to thank: first of all our pastor for trusting me with this project, two women who sincerely offered to help, my friend, the best cook I know, another friend who lent me lovely serving trays and expensive knives, and of course my husband who so willingly pitched in as usual.
And thank you dear Bishop–for thanking us.
Our priest and the Bishop went across the driveway to the church for the Confirmation Mass. We went over our options; either bring everything that required a stove back to our house or over to the church hall and use the kitchen there. Of course we chose the latter. My husband helped carry the hens and steak and vegetables and some of the other things. He was able to light the trusty gas oven and went back to the rectory to bring the rest over: across the driveway, up a flight of stairs, through the front door and up another stairs to the kitchen and then back again. I prepared the vegetables and finally put the hens in to bake. My accomplice kept returning to the rectory as I realized we had forgotten something else while I continued to work.
Everything would work out. I kept thinking: …do not lose your inner peace for anything… The excitement of preparing a perfect meal returned and I had no time to fret. The marinara sauce slowly heated on the stove top, the broccoli rabe ready, the hens basted several times and browning. Then I realized the Mass must have ended; it was after 6:00. Leaving my husband to watch the food cooking and put on a pot of water for the pasta, I rushed back to the rectory to set the first course on the table and cut the bread. When I went through the door the Bishop, another priest and our assistant priest were sitting quietly in the living room. I said a quick hello on my way to the kitchen, grabbed the mozzarella dish, and sliced the bread. Our priest came in the door and he took over from there.
The next course was pasta and it was already boiling so I poured the marinade over the sirloin steak and began sautéing the mushrooms. The hens were not quite done yet. After draining the pasta we carried that and the hot sauce to the rectory. The guest had devoured the first course and we dished out generous portions of the second, set out the salad and dressing, and returned to the church kitchen. I placed the julienne carrots in the oven. The pan fried steak recipe was new to me but sounded great and once finished looked picture perfect. Thank God things were going well. I felt relieved as we arrived at the rectory with the steak. My husband went back to get the hens and again for the vegetables.
Father came over to me and said he was the only one having a Cornish hen; the others wanted the steak however the bishop wanted it well done almost blackened. I grimaced and he added the other two priests were fine with that. So as I commenced halving one hen, my helper brought the steak back to the oven. I would need to reheat the hen a bit in the microwave along with the vegetables. The steak arrived for the second time and I sliced it and finally served the last hot course. Whew! No time to rest before desert. Father offered to add plates to the table for us but we had much more to do with two kitchens to clean and boxes to pack up. I put on the coffee and asked about desert, the procecco with berries and sherbert. No one wanted that but a parishioner brought a delicious almond cake at some point which two priests would have with coffee. My husband and I had a piece of the cake with coffee as we worked. Never tasted anything so good.
Stay tuned for the conclusion!
I began plotting my course for preparing for the dinner. Father was helpful showing me around the new kitchen, offering any way he might help and answering my questions. The appliances were new and a bit larger than the regular size. Everything looked pristine including counters and floor. He had used the stovetop to prepare many plastic containers of food neatly arranged in the freezer. He had not even used the oven yet and I was concerned I might mess up the stove. I made a mental note to bring pots and pans and utensils.
Planning and timing were the key to success and I went over exactly what time each step would occur. I pictured the work in my mind and wrote the whole thing out on paper. After shopping my confidence grew; after all I had made dinners for my son, his wife and nine children often, including a similar number of dishes. I packed up boxes and boxes of everything I would need and prepared what I could ahead of time at home. When we arrived at the rectory, my husband helped unload and bring it all up two flights of stairs. He stowed away the boxes as I unpacked. Our priest greeted us and as he went about the last minute details for the Confirmation Mass at 5:00 pm. The Bishop was downstairs getting ready as well.
The weather was nice and all was moving along smoothly. I had already worried about losing electricity which did happen here in an area with trees everywhere. I began preparing the vegetables, I had added baked carrots and sautéed broccoli rabe to the now extensive menu. No problem! However when I went to start warming the marinara sauce, I panicked (the first time). It was left behind at home. I called my husband. No answer. I left a harried sounding message and talked to myself. I had to keep my head and recited a quote from my patron Saint Francis de Sales …do not lose your inner peace for anything…
I hoped my husband checked the messages. I prepared the first course and the salad. And gasped in relieve when he appeared with the pot of sauce. I hugged him and told him to stay around just in case. The oven reached 425 and ready for the half dozen Cornish hens. Then I turned on the burner for the sauce and continued my prep. Having my mate in the kitchen made me more relaxed. My planning was paying off: hens baking, sauce heating, table set. The steak would come later. That’s when I noticed the sauce wasn’t heating and the hens weren’t baking The stove was off…off. “Go tell Father I have no stove!” (That was the second time I panicked.)
The bishop was downstairs, dressed and ready and heard my husband say the stove was off. No one knew where the breaker box was located but the three of them finally traced the wires to the Chapel. The breaker had blown. It was time for the Mass.
Yes, there is more!