There are things about childhood that you relive in your dreams. Maybe it’s therapeutic for the mental issues we all have.
For me, the long walks of my youth around the dikes of the camp where I grew up are a composite of long, friendly dreams. When I am so lucky to have one of these dreams, I invariably awake in a sort of time-daze, not sure if I am still between 3 and 16, or if the sad truth is that I am “grown up” and here in “normal” central Ohio.
When the bird banders came in the spring, I helped them set up their nets. Sometimes I even got to help them band the warblers that come through in a swarm of yellow, hurrying to their nesting grounds in northern Canada. My dad took me duck hunting a few times, and like any good daughter, I watched him skin at least a few hundred muskrats.
One of the best adventures of my childhood happened in junior high, at that gray hormonal point in every person’s life when nothing is right with the world. No one understands you, strange things happen to your body, and in my case, my dad got remarried. My new stepbrothers, in spite of being goons, were wonderful for expanding my creativity, especially when it came to seeking out havens for myself.
In our summer wanderings after sixth or seventh grade, we happened upon a fallen willow. From the looks of it, lightning had struck it right down the middle. Rather than just falling and rotting, the six-foot base of the fallen tree listed to the side and kept on growing. It made a huge bridge, with nooks and crannies on the ground.
The tree house was hidden from view because of the overgrown path and brush. We managed to clear a path, although it took at least a week of solid clearing. We used the branches from the brush we cleared away to mask the booby-traps we built into the path…to keep people away, of course, and to lure our unsuspecting friends.
There was a kidney-U-shaped pond beside the tree. The tree was at the closed end of the U, and though the pond often dried up in the summer (another great place to explore, with deep cracks and critters), it made for a much-need escape for me and my inevitable book.
I used to go there with books, with homework, with problems, and sit in the muted green. When I visit it in my dreams, I always think of praying, though in my adolescence that never occurred to me. I was pretty sure, back then, that God couldn’t hear me, or that if He could, that He was busier with more important stuff.
After a time, my stepbrothers tired of the tree, and so did I. Before long, family situations changed, we moved, and the tree was forgotten in all but my infrequent dream visits. I found other refuges as I got older: school activities, educational pursuits, romance.
Sometimes my refuges were hiding places — from the weight of my problems, from the stress of my life, from the things I didn’t understand. Sometimes my refuges were places of comfort, places I went to let my hair down and be me, though I was often trying to figure out just who, exactly, “me” was. And sometimes, in the flurry and bustle, my refuges were times of peace, sanctuaries of silence, places of rest.
I moved away and grew up, only to find that, in the loneliness of my soul, something was missing. I didn’t know what it was, but it seemed to be linked to a young man and his Sunday morning habit. As I sat with him in Mass, holding his hand and fighting back the overwhelming desire to cry (and losing most of the time), I sensed that same feeling I felt back in our fallen tree. It was peace, and silence, and safety. I could hide from the things that disturbed me and settle in to be myself.
Once upon a time, there was a refuge in the Garden of Eden. It was Paradise, and it was perfect. Before the loss of innocence, there was peace. Now, living in the midst of our fallen world and my fallen self, I find my refuge is a glimpse of heaven.
I go to her, my refuge, and I snuggle in her lap. Her cool hands brush my hair off my forehead, and she holds me. She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t distract me. She lets me be.
When I’m ready, she points me to her Son, whose arms have always been open, waiting. She understands that settling in, being myself, is not comfortable. I don’t like what I see. I have sinned and fallen short; I have fallen, just as Adam and Eve did, again and again.
I think of my early days of attending Mass and my childhood tree house when I hear Mary called Refuge of Sinners. I think of how my children run to me first when they’re hurt, and I imagine Jesus running to Mary, to feel the solace of her strong embrace and the comfort of her soothing words.
Did Joseph go to Mary in his doubt too, to find refuge in her unwavering faith, her ongoing assent to the divine plan? The disciples found her a refuge, from the three years of Jesus’ ministry to Pentecost to the present day.
Jesus took on our sin — my sin — and died. What higher purpose could His mother have than to act as a refuge to the very ones he offered his life to save? Jesus wants us to have His mom for comfort, just as He did throughout His life.
In my sin, I always expect a place like prison, dark and cold, gray and unwelcoming: a punishment. Sinning makes me think of Hell, instead of repentance. But through my repentance in Confession, I come closer to God. When I cooperate with the great graces God has waiting for me — and which His mother so gently and often points me toward — I can grow past my sin, past my imperfection, past my faults. Coming back to God, the ongoing conversion story of my life, makes me a better Christian.
And in being a better Christian, I am more like Mary, my refuge and the refuge of all sinners. She stands there, offering comfort, encouragement, and peace. She reminds me that it’s not about punishment or suffering; it’s about God’s will.