By John Paul Lichon
Founder, Verso Ministries
I sit, huddled and silent, chin tucked into my chest, eyes staring at the lifeless pavement below my feet. I am hunched over, cold, tired, and wet. I try not to move, and attempt at conserving every precious joule of heat within my body, yet the water still finds its way in. Water seeps down my neck, down my back, and up through my shoes. It really isn’t pouring, but the rain is steady and persistent, falling from the sky with no consideration of what’s below. Despite the raincoat, poncho, and umbrella trifecta of defense, this water was not taking no for an answer. It overtakes my body like some kind of infectious disease. And it’s making me miserable.
For the past hour I have continually asked myself why I showed up this morning. I knew it was going to rain, I got less than four hours of sleep the night before, and maybe an average or five or six for the past few nights, I wasn’t really needed to be at this event, and I’ve already attended this event before. Several times in fact. Why didn’t I just take my own advice from the night before and sleep in? Enjoy the comforts of a warm bed and some hot tea? In agony, I sit silently amidst my own thoughts, kicking myself for not listening to my own good advice.
In front of me, an American man is making small talk with a British couple. All three are standing, the American under a large, purple golf umbrella, and amazingly, the British under nothing but the morning sky, which, as you remember, is mercilessly dumping gallons of water upon us all. This rain seems not to disturb the couple in the slightest, as they are dressed in their Sunday best, with nary a waterproof piece of clothing nearby. They merrily chat, smiling and laughing with their new best friend. Who are these people?
Well, they are, in fact, Phillip and Tracey from Brighton. Probably in their mid-60s, retired. Philip from Brighton, he’s quite a jolly fellow. Making friends with ease, talking with this American man like he’s known him all his life. Not a care in the world, at least if his approach to rain gear is any indication of that. His wife, Tracey, is not nearly as talkative, but she’s engaged in the conversation, and she watches in admiration of her husband, who is quickly winning over the affection of this American gentleman.
We’re all in the middle of Saint Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday morning, and we’re awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis and the beginning of mass. I am seated a few rows in back of Phillip and Tracey from Brighton and this American gentleman, and my companions and I are not nearly having as much fun. We are all sitting, motionless and silent, in a row of chairs along a white barricade, camped under our water defense system.
Pre-rain, when there was still hope for a nice day.
Having not really moved for the past hour, my leg starts to fall asleep, and I’m forced to readjust. Reluctantly, I lift my leg, which jostles my umbrella, which swings my arm, which pulls my poncho, and yep, there it goes. A perfectly directed stream of water flows straight down between the two sides of my derriere. I sigh in dejection and sink lower into myself. This, I think to myself, this is not worth it. I’m chilled to the bone, I’m exhausted, and even now this water is making a fool of me. I don’t want to be here. I don’t need to be here. This is like watching a football game on a brisk, drizzly November evening, expect there’s no football game. There’s nothing to watch or do, just sit in silent distress. Well, that’s not true, there’s Phillip and Tracey from Brighton and their American sidekick.
Now, the American gentleman is on the phone, and he’s giving directions for his wife to find him. The man had been saving seats for his wife and two kids, and amidst the chaos that is the Vatican on Easter morning, the wife is having trouble finding her husband. The directions are repeated, several times, and finally, fifteen minutes later, the wife arrives exacerbated, tired and frustrated. It is clear that she is not a happy camper.
Meanwhile, Philip from Brighton is overjoyed to meet the wife of his newfound friend. He cannot contain his eagerness and he promptly introduces himself and his wife, Tracey, who are both smiling like giddy schoolchildren on the playground. Grinning from ear to ear, sopping from head to toe, they are quite an interesting pair to meet.
The woman gives her best shot at feigning genuine interest in her husband’s new companions, but it’s clear that she’s distracted by the carnal desire to wring her husband’s neck. “Your directions were awful,” she murmurs, while trying to compose herself. The husband stands sheepishly between his wife and his new friends, his earlier cheerfulness a recent memory. The two kids are just along for the ride and are unaware to the drama unfolding. And poor Phillip from Brighton, this jolly man is just clueless. So happy and ignorant, chatting and chatting away, in his own little world of bliss, unable to notice body language from the American couple that maybe they needed a moment to themselves.
I feel like a TV sitcom is unfolding in front of my eyes. You cannot make this scene up.
The young daughter walks over behind her dad and tugs on his pants-leg. “Daddy, daddy, look!” she says excitedly. He turns around reluctantly, “What?”
“Daddy, look, we have the same color umbrella – they’re both purple!”
The joy in this child’s voice is sincere, as any 7 year-old’s joy naturally is. She beams in delight as she awaits her dad’s response.
“God bless,” he mutters quickly, as he pats her dismissively on the head.
God bless, indeed, I repeat to myself. God bless this miserable weather. God bless this whole, ridiculous situation. God bless Phillip from Brighton. God bless my rain-soaked shoes. God bless this tongue-in-cheek father. God bless rain on Easter morning.
I wonder if this is what purgatory might feel like, or the tomb. Wearing an agonizing set of wet clothes while awaiting your day of resurrection. Sure, we can be confident resurrection is coming, but can’t it come a little quicker, maybe a little bit more comfortably?
As this scene continues to fold, I realize I am starting to enjoy watching this whole ordeal. Not for some sadistic, corrupt pleasure, but because of its realness. It’s humanity. It’s rawness. The frustrated wife, the oblivious Phillip and Tracey, the sarcastic father, the innocent daughter, I have been all of those people before. I see myself in each one. Yes despite their flaws, despite their humanity, here they stand, trying to make the best of a chaotic, rain-dampened Easter morning. And here I sit, the ungrateful me. The me filled with self-pity and self-absorption. The vain, broken me who can’t stand a little water.
The power of water is quite remarkable. One drop is hardly noticeable. A small amount of water, a glass let’s say, seems so innocent, so uncomplicated, so harmless. Yet water has the power to destroy and destruct. A large amount of frozen water can literally move mountains and carve valleys. Tidal waves kill, wipe away entire homes and buildings. Water also has the power to sustain life, to satisfy one of humanity’s most basic needs, to support entire ecosystems of aquatic existence.
Water will find the path of least resistance to get where’s its going. A creek will wind and bend as it finds its way through the forest floor. Over time, this creek may become a stream, then a river, expanding its power and influence through its relentless nature.
On this morning, the water has found me. Despite all my attempts to thwart it, my best efforts to keep it out, to show it no welcome whatsoever, the water reaches me. It reaches all of us – Phillip, Tracey, the American family, my friends, and me. The water falls with no preferential treatment. Steadfast and determined to seep into everything it touches.
And so goes the mystery of God’s grace. On this rainy, Easter morning. It drenches me. It engulfs me. Slowly, persistently, it cleanses me.
And for that, I say, God bless.
After the mass, the rain, and the cleansing had concluded.
Ponchos were in style on that fateful morning.
John Paul Lichon is the Founder of Verso Ministries, and this is one of his favorite stories. This story was originally presented at “Stories of Grace” on Thursday, April 27, an initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.