The 200 year-old, hand-hewn limestone church sat isolated on the corner of First Street and Main in Blackberry, Wisconsin. Ruby and gold leaves lay dewy quiet on its expanse of yellowing lawn. Morning mist, reddened by an awakening autumn sun, shrouded it with a shawl of serene solitude. A bell tower gently chimed five times, scattering a covey of doves into startled flight.
Parallel to the street and beneath the thinning skeletal canopy of ancient maples, a broken and gray sidewalk gave itself to its duty of reflective quiet walks around the hallowed building and grounds.
On this particular morning, Victoria Allison, wrapped in a brown tweed jacket to temper the chilled air, walked in meditative thoughts along this broken pathway. She stopped at the apex of the walkway leading up to the church. Her eyes searched the closed oaken door, the steeple, bathed in rose colored light from the sun; and, the doves - now fluttering back in graceful cooing sweeps to roost once more.
A gust of wind scudded the front page of a discarded newspaper down the sidewalk, its single page a wavering banshee rustling forward to skim her legs. She glanced the bold headlines: ALLISON HOME INVASION MURDER TRIAL STARTS TODAY! Her heart quickened. The paper released its skirmishing hold and clattered on in a stiff, taunting, ghost-like tilt-o-whirl.
Victoria took a deep breath and moved forward and up the three concrete steps to the door. Her scared hand turned its brass handle. It gave; and with a gentle push, the door came open in an oddly intolerant but welcoming squeak. The narthex was empty and likewise the chapel. Closing the door, she blinked to adjust to the dimness. Several tiny pin-points of light from flickering votives at the altar welcomed her while the scents of Holy Water from a nearby sliver fount, candle wax and flowering mums pulled her forward.
The chapel, chilled with morning air, achingly came alive with musky aromatic creaks and groans as an old furnace in the basement. The sun inched upwards sending tendrils of faceted light from the stained glass window above the altar. This light and the warmth of the scented air gave the church a wondrous and solitary beauty.
Fingers moist from the fount’s Holy Water, Victoria touched her forehead, lips and heart and walked down the nave to the altar where she genuflected and knelt before the flickering votives. Making the sign of the cross, she lit three of the votives. Each flame piercing an abyss of grief, darkened by loss. A gulf shadowed by shadows of what might have been. Husband and two sons: three lives never to know their future - lives stopped in full flow by the madness of another.
But for a welted scar that ran across her brow, her faced was unlined and never wavered in its attitude of bowed reverence. Her lips moved in silent whispers, edging upwards at times to an enigmatic smile of sublime beauty. A hurt soul bowed at the altar, bathed in the piercing, healing light of faith, belief and truth.
It had not always been that way. A year ago, Victoria would have labeled herself a skeptic; critical of religious beliefs whose only substance seemed rooted in enigmas and sentimental emotions. At one point, she’d confessed to a priest her doubts that God even existed. “I’m not an atheist,” she explained, “just agnostic. If there is a God, he is simply too distant to defend all that faith claims him to be.”
But then, two men broke into her home. Her husband, a surgeon, was thought to keep drugs there. Untrue as it was, it did not stop the men from killing her family and severely wounding her.
Lying in the hospital, fighting for her life, her enigmatic God suddenly became real. Born in the crucible of indescribable pain, her agnostic beliefs transcended to a tenable faith in a supreme, invisible God.
“It’s odd,” she told the same priest she’d once confessed her doubts, “I was mad at a God I couldn’t believe in, yet I blamed Him. Even stranger though, He didn't rebuke me my anger or doubts; He only said to give it all to Him, my loss, my pain - everything. And suddenly an immeasurable peace came over me.”
Now, at the altar in prayer, she knew God’s grace would infinitely sustain her in the following months. So odd, she reflected, and scarce could take it in, how a simple act of surrender could do so much.
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