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JAMES BEHRENS: God's mystery is written into all of our life stories

James Behrens

James Behrens

Christianity, before it was known as such, made its way into the world with very modest, slow moving beginnings.

As the gospel tells us, Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs to the neighboring towns, giving them instructions to travel lightly and to rely on the kindness and good will of others.

One can be left to wonder if the disciples were puzzled. They may have had a design of their own for the spread of the good news, a plan that would have included a much larger campaign. As it was, they were sent off with nothing but a reliance on the spirit, a spirit that they would find in the welcome of strangers.

It is worthy of note that the spirit would be found already alive and at work in the places that the wandering disciples would go.

I went off to the seminary in 1968. I was 20 years old. Immaculate Conception Seminary was in Mahwah, N.J. It is no longer there. It was a big and beautiful place.

There were other people at the seminary. They were the workers who cleaned, cooked, did the laundry, cut the grass, cleared the snow.

I will tell you about some of them. I will tell you about the ones from Russia. Gregory was a big man. He worked in the kitchen, washing the big pots and pans. He had a wonderful smile and a deep voice. He loved having his picture taken. I still have one.

John and Julia were a married couple. They were small and squat, wore very simple clothes and were rarely apart. They were well into their 60s. John and Julia had inked numbers on their arms, reminders of the years they spent in concentration camps during World War II. The ink had faded. Perhaps the memories had not.

I used to walk after dinner on a long road that was called the South Path. I would often see John and Julia walking along that road, hand in hand. One evening they passed me and then stopped and laughed.

Julia told me that they had taken a wrong turn and were not sure how to get back to their house. By then night had fallen. I pointed the way. She laughed again, took John’s hand, and off they went.

Olga also worked in the kitchen. She was a big woman, spoke very little English and would blush a rosy red when she was flustered. She would try and say something in English and after stumbling through those strange words would put her hands over her eyes and cry.

They were a small but richly wonderful group. They were poor, and found a home with us, and then disappeared into history. But I remember them. And now you know a little bit about them.

We may also know something about how all this Christianity started — people going, walking in pairs, heading for strange places, being told by the Master to trust in the kindness of others, for that is where they would find the lived truth of the good news. And to be patient through it all, through the inevitable disappointments, the failures, the loss of one’s way, the cruelty of others.

I learned some theology in the classrooms. The mysteries of God can, I suppose, be found in a book.

But I also saw it written in the lives of these few I mentioned. I saw it crying from the shame of not being able to speak a strange language. I saw it smile when I took a picture.

I even heard it laugh on a seminary path one evening, and then head back to where it came from, holding hands, as if teasing me to find it again and again on every road I would ever walk.

Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is james@trappist.net.