Tag Archives: Inspiration

If I Spoke at Career Day…

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love [God].” (Romans 8:28a)

Since September of 2008, I have been blessed with the privilege of assisting students, both lay and religious, with their academic work in theology. These remarkable people, who inspire me every day, intend to use the knowledge and formation they acquire in graduate school and/or seminary to bless the world, to help heal and restore.

I understand and encourage their mission for I once walked in their shoes.

——

Admitting I am a sinner is far easier than disclosing the specifics of even one sin. Likewise, claiming I have learned from my failures is far more comfortable than detailing a single instance when I unquestionably failed. Yet, such is my intention here.

In retrospect, I do not regret what I plan to describe. In fact, if this makes sense, I now see its necessity, though I use that word cautiously. Yes, I have learned from my failure(s).

My tale begins in a dark place.

——

Soon, I would need to vacate the newly renovated office in the basement of the rectory. In the scant time I had left on the job, I labored on, trying to resurrect the genuine passion that had brought me to that place ten months earlier. It wasn’t working. How could I compose a lesson plan about God’s faithful love while consumed with worry about my wife and our two small children – and, truth be told, while doubting if God’s faithful love extended to me? I was tired, demoralized, and wrestling with a fearsome goblin named self-doubt.

——

Footsteps on the stairs were the first thing I noticed. Then, several faint voices grew steadily stronger as the visitors approached. I quit typing and sat motionless while shadows of feet became visible beneath the door.

The basement room was windowless. I had always preferred a small desk lamp to the stark fluorescent overhead light; so, from outside, the room must have appeared dark and unoccupied. Someone tried the doorknob but found it locked.

“This is my new office,” a man said. (I later learned it was the parish deacon.) “Unfortunately, I can’t show it to you yet because I don’t have the key.”

A woman’s voice queried, “Is someone else using it now?”

“Some guy who’s been running an evangelization program,” the deacon replied, “but that’s ending, and he’ll be gone soon.”

It wasn’t breaking news. I had learned my fate a couple of days earlier. Still, there was something icily final about his words.

Another topic soon captured the group’s attention, and I was vaguely aware of a shared burst of laughter as the oblivious assassins exited the scene.

“Some guy… and he’ll be gone soon.”

——

At one time in my life, I fashioned myself a writer. As an undergraduate, I took every writing course my school had to offer – advanced writing, creative writing, technical writing, journalism. Then, in the final semester of my senior year, I had a dream opportunity to serve as an intern reporter for the local daily newspaper.

It was a bitter cold winter that year, and my schedule was taxing. I had to report to the newsroom, with the newspaper’s daily mail in tow, by 6:30 every weekday morning. That placed me at the nearby Post Office at least fifteen minutes earlier.

I would remain in the newsroom, working on any assignment(s) given me by the News Editor, until deadline at 10:30 a.m. Then, I would rush to campus for my classes before returning to the newsroom to cover evening assignments. I was sometimes there quite late writing, and it was a grind; but, there was also a palpable energy in the newsroom that fueled my desire. This, it seemed clear, was the life I wanted.

My internship ended with the close of the academic year. On my last day, the News Editor invited me into his office for an exit interview. He thanked me for my efforts and told me that my work showed real promise. Though he had no position to offer at the time, he encouraged me to pursue writing professionally.

Graduation and reality awaited.

——

Landing a writing job just out of college proved a pipe dream. To pay my bills, I tried my hand at selling insurance (a disaster), installing mini-computers (a mini-disaster), and working the ticket counter for a regional airline. I had some interesting experiences, but I kept watching for the right opportunity.

The advertisements appeared in the newspaper only a few days apart – two entry-level reporter positions, one at the very newspaper at which I had served my internship. I had the phone in my hand almost immediately.

In the interim between my graduation and the posting of the jobs (a little more than two years), there had been an important personnel change in the newsroom. The News Editor had moved on, and a reporter I had worked with once or twice had been promoted to fill the vacancy. He took my call, listened patiently while I rambled on about my strong interest in the position, and advised me to send a resume directly to him.

The other posted job was a Junior Staff Writer position at a soon-to-be-publishing computer weekly with strong financial backing out of New York and enormous promise. I applied almost as an afterthought. I imagined the competition would be intense but vaguely hoped I would secure an interview that would help to sharpen my interviewing skills for the job I really wanted. To my genuine surprise, I got a call.

In my experience, that interview was unlike any before or since. With my heart set firmly on the other position (i.e., at the daily newspaper), I felt completely at ease, even when I had to demonstrate my writing skills on the spot under strict deadline pressure. It went well, which gave a much-needed boost to my confidence.

To my great relief, the daily newspaper also called me for an interview; and, though I was nervous throughout, I left that encounter in a very positive frame of mind. The News Editor told me he remembered my work and thought I had done quite well as an intern. He made no promises but said he had confidence in my ability to do the job.

I’ve never prayed with greater fervor for a personal intention. The job seemed like a perfect fit, and I let God know that day and night.

I waited anxiously. When the News Editor finally contacted me, he didn’t deliver the exact message I had ached to hear. He did, however, offer real hope. He told me he had decided I was the right person for the job, but there was a snag. The Editor-in-Chief was having second thoughts about filling the position due to cost considerations. He told me a firm decision should be rendered soon and asked me to call him just after deadline exactly one week later.

There wasn’t time for a novena; but, over those intervening seven days, I visited the parish church of my childhood several times on my way home from work. Perhaps God would hear me more clearly from there, I reasoned, where I had offered so many prayers in the past.

——

“I’m really sorry, Stephen,” he said. “We’ve decided not to fill the position at this time.”

There had been such certainty in my mind. The news violently deflated my spirit.

That evening, while grieving with my wife, our phone rang. It was a representative from the computer publication. He offered his congratulations and asked me when I could start.

——

In everything, God works for good.

——

From day one, the job and I were a mismatch. At first, I thought my discomfort was due to continuing grief from a lost opportunity; however, I soon realized it was the nature of the work that unsettled me. As an intern at the newspaper, I had written about interesting people and circumstances, and I found doing so exhilarating. On this job, my writing assignments were all about machines and software. Try as I might, I couldn’t force compatibility.

——

While wrestling with my fit at the new job, important changes were also happening in my personal life. I was in the midst of what I would call a spiritual reawakening, an experience I wrote about in a previous essay titled “The Red Sweater.” In addition, though I didn’t yet realize the significance, major changes were taking place in a ministry organization run by two dear friends.

The Word of God Ministry was a pioneering venture in Catholic circles. Established by lay evangelist Nina Lauzon, the ministry brought regularly scheduled adult Bible study courses to Catholic parishes on the North Shore of Massachusetts. In addition, Nina and her co-worker, John Clabeaux, ran retreats and parish missions that touched many lives. I count myself, in fact, among those richly blessed by their efforts.

As I was writing, grudgingly, about hard drives and CPUs, John Clabeaux was completing work on his doctorate at Harvard Divinity School. Once finished, he intended to accept a full-time appointment teaching at St. John’s Seminary (SJS), which meant there would soon be an opening at the Word of God Ministry.

——

I first shared my story of “The Red Sweater” at a meeting of our parish prayer community in Salem, MA. After hearing me speak, Nina asked if I would be willing to tell the story again as part of a retreat called “2 by 2 Before Him” that she and John would soon be offering in a couple of Catholic parishes nearby. I was honored to do so and found the experience uniquely stirring. Honestly, it was as though something had been unlocked in my soul.

——

Perhaps a future essay will tell the more complete story. For now, I will simply say that I began a process of discernment about my future. It was then that two important firsts entered my life – spiritual direction and the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Both have since proven indispensable on the journey.

My wise director, Sr. Lucille Cormier, offered to guide me through the Exercises after I spoke with her about my desire for vocational discernment. Again, much is missing here; but, by the end of the process, she and I both sensed that a call to some type of lay ministry could be authentic.

I believe Nina was the first to suggest the possibility that I might join her in the Word of God Ministry after John’s departure. For that to happen though, I would need the appropriate credentials.

——

I see clearly now that the seeds of failure first appeared while I was in graduate school.

A complicated variety of factors were in play, including: general low self-esteem; self-doubt about my ability to do master’s level work; a perceived need to justify the major changes I was imposing on my young family; a drive to prove that the Word of God Ministry had not made a mistake in holding the teaching position for me while I studied; and, a deep interior need to demonstrate to the generous members of our prayer community, who pledged to help us pay our living expenses while I was in school, that they were making a good investment. Whatever the motivation(s), grades became excessively important to me to the detriment of true learning.

Held hostage by perfectionism, I pushed myself to extremes to “get the A.” By the end of my program, I had indeed achieved a 4.0 cumulative average and had passed my comprehensive exams with distinction. I was also very run-down and sick with mononucleosis. Was it worth it?

Interestingly enough, in the 30+ years since my graduation, not a single person has ever asked me about my grades.

Perspective, even when it comes after a considerable passage of time, is a valuable thing.

——

I taught for two years full-time in the Word of God Ministry, and perfectionism dogged me throughout. Every lecture preparation was an ordeal; and, though I thoroughly enjoyed the classroom experience and the wonderful people among whom I ministered, I was growing increasingly weary. When Nina suggested a new model of service, I was intrigued.

While the prior work of the ministry had reached those individuals who chose to come to classes or retreats, there was no intentional corporate outcome. What Nina now proposed was a parish-centered evangelization program wherein a self-selecting group of parishioners would be trained over the course of an academic year to serve as hosts/facilitators for home-church meetings, which would commence after a Lenten parish mission. It was an exciting vision.

Two Catholic pastors embraced the concept and hired us to run the program in their respective parishes. We intended to do the lesson planning over the summer and begin co-teaching on an academic calendar in the fall. Then, an obstacle arose. A personal issue prohibited Nina’s involvement, at least for the foreseeable future. The plan moved forward, but with just me at the helm – and, at the podium.

——

In the captivating novel Watership Down, author Richard Adams employs a fictional language, Lapine, which is spoken only by the rabbit characters in his story. One Lapine word, “tharn,” has remained a part of my vocabulary ever since I read the book decades ago. It refers to a paralyzing level of fear a rabbit might experience, e.g., while looking into the headlights of an oncoming car.

——

I did not hear the visitors’ footsteps as they climbed back up the stairs. Although alone in the room, I felt suddenly exposed, confused, humiliated, vulnerable, scared. If writing had once been my strongest aspiration, ministry now had supplanted that notion entirely. And, the ministry door seemed to be slamming shut.

In that bleak moment, my future was an approaching set of headlights; and, laboring to breathe in the deacon’s new office, his key resting uneasily in my pocket, I was tharn, utterly tharn.

——

Saying good-bye to the parishioners who had participated in the evangelization program was very difficult. For all of my (apparently not so) private struggles, the classroom experience had been consistently uplifting; and, I had formed strong bonds with these remarkable people. I was guarded in what I disclosed, mostly from embarrassment. Still, I was sure word would spread.

I cannot fault the pastors for witnessing the toll lesson prep was taking on me and choosing to adopt a tough-love stance. In retrospect, I see that they did me a favor. I can, however, mention a real injustice that my family was forced to endure.

Working for the Church often involves sacrifice, especially regarding wages. When the job abruptly ended, my wife Marianne and I had virtually no savings. With two small children, imagine our surprise when I applied for unemployment compensation and was told that the Church does not participate in the program. So, I had no salary and no unemployment protection. We were in a genuine state of panic.

I won’t belabor the point here, but the Church must be/do better than this.

——

In everything, God works for the good.

——

In that desperate moment, an unexpected phone call offered us a life-line. The call was from a priest we barely knew at the time, but he had heard of our circumstances.

“No one who has worked for the Church should ever find himself in your position,” he said, “especially someone with small children.”

That very good man of God promised to pay our family’s living expenses until I could find a job. He proved faithful to his word.

After a two-month search, I found a job teaching religion/theology in a Catholic high school. Though it proved to be just a stop-gap position lasting only a few months, something beautiful and quite unexpected happened there.

Until then, the vast majority of my teaching experience had been with an adult audience. High school students were so very different; and, they called forth from me a response I wasn’t initially sure I could make. They had no tolerance for painstakingly planned lectures. Instead, they demanded spontaneity. With their (unknowing) help, I broke free from enslavement to preparation. And that freedom has endured. I have since taught many adult faith-formation classes, and my prep time is nothing at all like it once was.

I left the Catholic high school without completing the academic year because a position was offered to me that promised great benefit to my family. A local public library was looking for an Assistant Director/Reference Librarian. The pay wasn’t great, but it was more than I was earning at the high school. That wasn’t the determining factor, however. The job came with the promise that, should I choose to pursue a master’s degree in Library Science, the library would cover the cost. I accepted, and I found myself once again needing to say good-bye to some very special people.

——

Often we fail to appreciate the impact we have on one another. My students didn’t realize how instrumental they had been in healing a broken part of me. Likewise, I don’t think I fully appreciated the bond we had forged.

Years later, my daughter Rachel attended that same high school at which I’d briefly served. While she was walking down the hallway one day early in her freshman year, a young teacher called out to her.

“Are you Rachel Dalton?” she asked. “And, is your Dad Steve Dalton?”

When my daughter replied in the affirmative, the teacher introduced herself as one of the religion/theology teachers at the school. She then said: “I was one of your Dad’s students. And, he’s the reason I became a religion teacher.”

I honestly had no idea. Wow!

——

A library colleague once shared her impression with me that libraries can sometimes serve as rehab centers for derailed careers. I’m sure she didn’t realize how true that is in my case. I smiled internally.

I served at the public library for almost five years, and during that time I did indeed acquire my master’s degree in Library Science. When the degree was finished, I took a second job working the reference desk in a community college library. There, my love of working with students was rekindled, and I set a long-term goal of ultimately making academic librarianship my primary job.

Before that could happen, I took a marvelous detour by joining the staff of a major paper conservation lab. There, for nearly twelve years, I engaged in many fascinating preservation-related projects and met some truly inspiring people, many of whom remain close friends today.

Finally, I found my way to Boston College (BC), where I have now served for almost thirteen years. My first position at BC was that of Preservation Manager for the BC Libraries. Three years into my tenure in that position, BC was poised to open its newest library, the Theology and Ministry Library (TML), to serve the newly-formed School of Theology and Ministry (STM) and St. John’s Seminary (SJS). One position at TML had yet to be filled before the opening, that of Collection Development/Reference Librarian.

Knowing my background, a colleague took me aside one day and said: “That position is made for you. You should really apply.” I did, and it was the best career decision I have ever made.

——

I was fifty years old when I finally landed my dream job. I have since spent the better part of ten years doing ministry again, and I cannot imagine experiencing a greater degree of job satisfaction.

The door I thought had permanently closed at that profoundly trying moment of failure is now wide open, perhaps (realistically) for the first time.

Only recently, I successfully applied for the Head Librarian position at the TML. I began serving in that position earlier this month, and I’ve yet to appreciate the full dimensions of the job. Knowing my past, however, and my history of benefiting even from hardship, I have a hunch God will be working for good.

It’s sobering to consider that, if my oh-so-urgent prayers had been answered affirmatively, if I had been given the newspaper job I coveted so long ago, my life would be entirely different today.

 

 

The Tale of the Foul-Mouthed Boy

”For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” (Thomas Merton)

I see him at the vigil Mass every Saturday evening. He sits in a pew toward the back of the church. So, by the time he reaches the front of the Communion line, I’m already back in my place – praying, watching, remembering.

Though we both live in the same small town, where secrets are not easily kept, I’ve never known his first name. To me, he’ll always be the “unwitting catechist,” and I’m content with that.

He resembles his late father; and, it was he, rather than the son, who once wagged an accusing finger in my face, thus teaching me something truly important about integrity and authenticity at a tender age.

My first childhood home had a fateful encounter with a demolition crew many years ago. No doubt the house was already well beyond its prime by the time the Daltons took residence there in the 1950s, but I have no recollection of its warts. Instead, I remember it as a magical place, and I suspect I always will.

A formidable maple – “my tree,” also gone now – served as sentry at the front edge of the property. Countless times I traversed the deep grooves of its bark with my small fingers and scaled its rung-like branches as far as I dared. On one side of the trunk, the tree’s sinewy roots poked up through the ground like a child’s bench, a perfect perch on which to savor a Popsicle, swap stories, or simply relish the pure freedom of a young child’s summer day.

The large backyard was a wonderland, overgrown in places, lending a true sense of mystery to the space. It served as a de facto neighborhood playground, and many adventures were concocted and acted out there under its seemingly inexhaustible inspiration.

For the first eight years of my life, that house and its immediate environs were virtually my world; and, it was a charming place indeed. Of course, being a small boy, it never mattered to me that my family and I lived in a rented apartment. It mattered to my parents though, especially my mother, who had long dreamed of owning her own home.

The move comprised no more than half a mile, but distance is an unreliable measure of change.

Yes, the new house was “ours,” but there was no maple tree, no intriguing backyard to attract playmates. In fact, there was really no yard at all, only a narrow driveway and a boring one-car garage.

My initial response to the move was grief.

“There seem to be quite a few children in this neighborhood, Stephen,” my mother observed one day from across the room. “I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends here.”

Embarrassed at having been noticed, I let the curtain slip from my fingers and turned my attention away from the window and the children playing outside.

“Maybe,” I replied in a near-whisper. Shyness can make social transitions so very difficult.

Thankfully, over time, my mother’s words proved prescient. I did make good friends and forged life-long memories in the new neighborhood. In fact, if my first eight years are characterized by memories of things and places, the next few years are filled with names (Paul, Phil, Evans, Justin, Jackie, Jimmy…) and endearing faces. Those were, in fact, the happiest days of my childhood.

My friends and I typically matched our activities to the season. In summer, we seemed to play baseball morning, afternoon, and night. In the fall, our street became a touch-football field with telephone poles marking the end zones. And, in winter, we played street hockey both after school and on weekends, as long as daylight accommodated.

Often, boys from nearby neighborhoods would join us for our games. That made our play more realistic as we’d have more positions covered on the field; however, it also changed the group dynamic a bit and eventually presented me with an early moral dilemma.

I wonder if there’s anything – temporally speaking, of course – that the human heart desires more than fitting in, i.e., being accepted by one’s peers.

I’m not a fan of foul language. Even as a child, I was very careful with my words, never wanting to offend God or others. While my closest friends always respected who I was and how I tried to conduct myself, kids from other neighborhoods were not always so understanding. They would occasionally tease me about my “holiness.” And, though most of their jibes were not mean-spirited, being a sensitive child, I tended to take their words to heart.

I don’t recall how the idea first came to me, but the more I worked it over in my mind the more sense it seemed to make. Convincing myself, however, was only half the battle. When I summoned the courage to raise the issue with her, my mother looked less than pleased.

“Why would you want to do that, Stephen?” she asked.

“The other kids say swears, Ma.”

She carefully studied my face. “You know it’s not right to use bad language.”

“I know. But, if you give me permission, that would make it okay, right?”

She remained silent for some time, and I could feel my face flush under her persistent gaze. When she finally answered, she did so with obvious hesitation. “I don’t like this, Stephen.” She shook her head slightly as she spoke. “But… I do understand.” After another pause, she continued, “I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you choose one word to say. But, that’s all. Does that sound fair?”

“Thank you, Ma!” I said gratefully, feeling a weight had been lifted from my small shoulders.

We then rather delicately discussed my possible choices – an interesting exercise between a mother and her young son. While I don’t clearly recall our rationale, we ultimately agreed upon the word “sh#t.”

Soon thereafter, my friends and I gathered to play touch football. It was a beautiful fall day and, though we didn’t notice it at the time, one of the local residents was sitting on his enclosed front porch observing our play.

As the game progressed, so did our use of salty language. Feeling a newfound freedom and connection with my peers, I made liberal and creative use of my new vocabulary word.

“That was a sh#&&y pass!”

“You really looked like sh#t on that play!”

“This ball is as dirty as sh#t!”

I was playing my role to the hilt until a porch door suddenly swung open, and a large, angry man stepped out.

“Hey!” he bellowed. The game abruptly halted and all of us players gave him our full attention.

“I’ve been listening to you guys and your filthy mouths for half an hour now, and I am sick to death of it!”

He came down from his steps to confront us at closer range. My heart was racing but my feet were anchored in place.

Pointing a thick finger at one of the boys, he screamed, “I’m sick of listening to you!” Then, he pivoted, aimed his finger at another, and yelled, “And you!” He quickly turned again, “And you!” Finally, as I knew in my heart he must, he turned his rage my way. He glared at me and thrust his finger forward once for each pronounced word of my sentence. “And! Especially! You!”

Especially?! Me?!

My first instinct, though I didn’t act upon it, was self-defense. “You don’t understand,” I thought to myself, “I had permission.” Within a split second, however, defensiveness yielded to shame for my actions. I had indeed been responsible for the verbal assault this man experienced, and any protestation, even one pointing to a mother’s consent, would have been an empty excuse. My eyes dropped from the outraged man’s face to my own feet. I felt crushed.

“I’m really sorry, sir,” I said, still not looking up.

“I don’t want to hear any more of it!” he proclaimed loudly to all of us. “Do you understand?”

I and several others answered, “Yes, sir.” Then, our game broke up and the dispirited players scattered.

As I was walking home, the scene played over and over again in my mind. I knew the man was justified in the action that he took, and I felt true contrition for my offense; still, I couldn’t help feeling like a victim of injustice. He had singled me out as the worst offender without really knowing me.

The realization, when it came, was sudden yet gentle, like a soft voice in the soul. Even being a child, I could understand. Indeed, the angry man didn’t know the real me because I hadn’t shown him the real me. Instead, I’d pretended to be someone else in order to feel more like a part of the group.

Sh#t happens! My real sin was falsity and compromise. And, the angry man was my wake-up call – a true friend.

I’ve come to trust that the soft voice in my soul was/is my conscience, helping me interpret my world and inviting me to live more authentically (i.e., closer to God’s plan for my life). I wish I could say that I’ve always been true to that calling. Alas, I’ve needed many wake-up calls.

So, I will be at the vigil Mass again next Saturday evening. When my “unwitting catechist” passes by, I will see again the face of his father. I will remember. And, I will lift up a prayer of thanks.

Hearts and Treasures

In my life, no day has ever been darker than January 27th of 1985.  That day, my big sister, whom I dearly loved, never woke up from her sleep.

Marianne and I were living in Rhode Island with our 10 month-old daughter, Rachel, when the awful news came.  Grief-stricken, we immediately drove to Massachusetts to be with my anguished mother.  Then, later that day – the details are forever fuzzy – my mother and I boarded a plane to Florida to be with my sister’s husband, Jimmy, and their three children.  It was a very long flight!

Christine was five years older than I, and I grew up under her tutelage.  Occasionally, she’d play a funny trick on her gullible little brother, but never with a hint of malice.  In fact, her natural goodness was unmistakable, and I always felt safe in her presence.

My sister taught me a great deal about kindness and selflessness through the example of her life.  And, even in death, she had one more lesson to share.

When we arrived in Florida, and especially when we walked through Christine’s front door, the pain of her absence was suffocating.  Her inscape was everywhere, but she was gone.  We embraced Jimmy and the children and collectively ached and wept!

Only a few weeks prior, Marianne, Rachel, and I had come for a surprise visit over Christmas.  I was an impoverished graduate student at the time, and my brother-in-law had paid for our airfare as a combined Christmas/birthday gift for his bride, who shared a birthday with Jesus.  We had arrived on December 21st, 1984.  (Keep that in mind.)

Jimmy picked us up at the airport and drove us to their home.  We entered quietly through the garage and sneaked up on Christine in her kitchen.  When she turned and saw us, her face lit up and her first words were: “Give me that baby!”  She had not yet met Rachel.  We stayed with Christine and her family until January 2nd, and it was a thoroughly joyous time.  A blessed time!

I believe that much can be known about a person by observing her/his treasures.  A verse from the Sermon on the Mount comes to mind.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Mt 6:21)

While in Florida that terrible second time, I found one of my sister’s treasures and gazed, just once more, into her wonderful heart.

Jimmy, knowing my sentimental side, invited me to go through some of Christine’s things and told me that I could keep anything I found that had special meaning for me.  His was a generous offer!

As I searched, I came upon her wallet.  Tucked inside were her license, some credit cards, family pictures, a few dollar bills, and a small folded piece of paper.  Curious, I pulled out the paper and unfolded it.  It was a simple sales receipt from a local store dated December 21st, 1984.  Christine had written on that receipt:  “This is the day that Steve, Marianne, and the baby came for a surprise visit.”

Treasures!

How I loved – and still love – my sister!

“Sightseeing”

She was a wisp of a woman, greatly advanced in years, wrapped in a plain gray coat, and with a simple scarf covering her head.  She slipped into the building unnoticed, except by me.

I had never traveled internationally before and was spending my first full day in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Since the conference at which I was to speak would not begin until the next day, my host graciously proposed a driving tour of the magnificent city.  Along the way, we came to a Russian Orthodox Church, and our driver was instructed to stop so that I could see the beautiful icons therein.

As we entered, I was immediately captivated by the religious imagery all around me.  I walked from icon to icon drinking in the stories each piece told – familiar stories given new life by an artist’s hand.  In another part of the church, a wedding rehearsal was taking place; and, that too drew my attention as I considered the sacred covenant for which two young people were preparing.

At one point, the main door opened just enough to allow the old woman to enter.  I’m not sure why I felt drawn to watch her, but I did.  She crept along the wall purposefully, approaching a life-size icon of Jesus on the cross.  Once there, this frail woman, who had grown up amidst state-enforced atheism, who had survived Stalin’s murderous reign, who had endured the terrible blockade of her city by the Germans during World War II, and who – no doubt – dealt every day with crushing poverty, knelt and humbly kissed the feet of her Christ.  I was awestruck – and, honestly, a bit ashamed.

Since that day, I have visited many countries and seen many memorable sights.  None has ever moved me more.