I Saw the Water Flowing

I Saw the Water Flowing March 13, 2024

the grotto at Frankfort Mineral Springs, a natural cave made of shale rock
photo by Mary Pezzulo

It’s really spring now. The world is recalled to life.

I was raised to believe that exactly one thing gives life, and that’s God. Everything else is an illusion. The created things you love are obstacles to that one pure source of life I don’t remember when I was told that, or by who; it was conveyed to me, that’s all. Now I believe that life wells up for you in all kinds of places. One of those places, for me, is in nature.  I have to go for hikes or I don’t feel alive. First the car was sick and then I was, but now we’re both better, so this afternoon I escaped Steubenville and went for a hike in nature. Up to that miraculous waterfall where I’ve been so many times, the one that makes me think of the Vidi Aquam. 

I was the only one in the parking lot when I got to the ranger station– the perfect time for some meditation on the things I have learned.

The trees were barely budding yet. Overhead was bright and clear, and the park had cleared the raspberry brambles from either side of the trail in some place. At first, I might have been walking in a meadow instead of a forest. The path was so muddy, in places it turned into a little swamp.

Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro, Alleluia.

There was the noise of the stream, just out of sight. I heard it long before I saw it.

I couldn’t imagine why the water was high enough to make such a sound. There hasn’t been much melting snow this year.

For no good reason, I was afraid.

Just hearing the sound of the stream worried me.

I felt that rush of panic, the one that’s tortured me for years now: nothing is as it ought to be. The Catholic Church isn’t what she thought I was at all. She is a violent and capricious mother who ruined my life and did a thousand times worse to others of my brothers and sisters. But I’ve discovered I still believe in Christ. I’m certain I found Christ in Catholic sacraments. I would like to follow this Christ. But I can’t do what’s expected of me. The panic attacks and flashbacks make just getting to Mass nearly impossible, and I can’t even imagine going to confession again. I can’t go into a box with one of those men, not after everything I know now.

Does this mean Christ wants nothing to do with me?

I saw the stream soon enough: swollen, cloudy, noisy, irreverent, bursting almost beyond its banks because of the rain we’d had last week. It tore down the side of the path and disappeared into the woods. When I tried to cross it to continue down the trail, I couldn’t find a dry stone. My horrible purple hiking shoes were soaked and the ankles of my jeans soaked with them, and then I plunged into the shadow of the pines. Pine trees are always shady, no matter the time of year. They are orderly beings, their trunks ramrod-straight like the pillars in Gothic cathedrals, the branches arrayed in a spiral like staircases. Their smell is so clean, it’s nearly unnatural. Only their roots are disorderly. They sneak up on you. I found myself picking my way over ankle-twisting roots, the same way I used to hop from one faux marble tile to another without stepping on cracks when my parents took me to church.

Maybe the pines had a chant like the stream.

There wasn’t any wind to rustle the needles just then, but somehow I could imagine the trees making a noise: not a glorious resurrection chant. Maybe they were just reciting my catechism to me, in Latin of course. Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. That was the phrase that popped into my head. I don’t know who first said that phrase to me. I don’t think we used it much around the house growing up, strict as my childhood was. I do remember praying fervently that my Methodist relatives would turn aside from their sins and become Catholic. I remember begging God to torture me with my rebellious brother’s purgatory on top of my own, so that he could be forgiven and go to Heaven as well, and then being unable to sleep because I was so afraid of all that pain. Did God want me to go to purgatory for my grandfathers, the lapsed United Brethren one and the lapsed Catholic one, as well? How many sinful people did I have to atone for so that the Father would stop being angry? 

And now that I’ve failed so utterly, will anyone atone for me?

Is the Father angry with me that I can’t go into a church?

Am I going to hell because of the panic attacks? Will I have to watch Adrienne burning there as part of my punishment?

Could I possibly get a toe into Purgatory, and could Purgatory be more of a hospital than a jail? Not some terrifying Medieval lazar-cote where they stuff diseased people, but a place where I could heal and get better? And what would I do in Heaven after getting better? Heaven is where the saints are. Saints must be disgusted by me.

Et omnes ad quos pervenit aqua ista, salvi facti sunt, Et dicent: Alleluia, Alleluia, sang the stream behind me, brash as ever, even though it’s Lent and the Alleluia is forbidden.

It seemed like magic that the water would be this high and noisy without any melting snow.

They certainly hadn’t trimmed the raspberry brambles from the stretch of the trail that came after the pines. Slipping and squishing on the muddy ground, I stumbled the wrong way and tore my hand on a prickle. It bled just a little.

Next thing I knew, I found the foundation of the old cabin where sick people used to stay. A long time ago, this waterfall was said to have healing properties. Pilgrims came there and drank the water for their health, but now there are signs warning you not to because the water isn’t clean.

Next to the cabin were the stairs.

Next to the stairs was the cataract.

Several times when I’ve been to that place, the waterfall is missing, or little more than a trickle. Today it was alive. Today my noisy, irreverent stream and every other stream in the park were feeding over the lip of the shale cliff, a cacophony of water.

Water was flowing in the place where I’d found a room made of ice in January. Water was sliding out of the shale rock across those red streaks where the iron dust stains the wall red. Great big drops of rain were going drip drip drip off the ceiling of the cave, a sparkling deluge on a clear day. The hollow stone that formed a cup was full and overflowing with bright clear water. Water was pouring everywhere without thought, without economy, without common sense, a gushing torrent of generosity forever and all eternity whether anyone understood it or not, whether anyone appreciated it or not, whether anyone chose to receive it or not.

I wanted to talk to God.

I couldn’t think of a thing to say to God.

I had it on the tip of my tongue to tell God that I’d failed, miserably. I’d broken. I couldn’t do anything required of me. I’d failed at my Sunday obligation and I couldn’t possibly go to confession. I’d failed at raising my daughter to be an obedient Catholic as well. I’d failed at holding fast to the Barque of Peter as the pirates who drive the ship massacred me and my friends. I’d thrown myself headlong into trying to perform the Works of Mercy for my neighbors– yes, because I liked doing it and believed it was right, but also because, somewhere inside, I thought this was my last chance and I’d go to hell if I didn’t.  And then I failed at that too. And for a year I hadn’t been able to do anything for anyone, and I felt so guilty and afraid. I wanted to tell God all of these things.

I wanted to tell Him that I was afraid He couldn’t hear me, because I’d been told a long time ago that souls in mortal sin are inaudible to God. I don’t remember  who told me that either. I wasn’t even sure what my mortal sin was, but it certainly felt like I’d fallen that badly. I automatically started ticking through the conditions for a mortal sin, to see if any of my failings were bad enough.

And all the time, I knew my words were unnecessary, because God already knew.

I dipped my fingers into the natural font formed by that eroded stone, and made the Sign of the Cross. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” 

I touched my wet hands to my ears and eyes. Last of all I tasted just a little drop, in spite of all the signs telling me not to.

I sang. Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro, Alleluia: Et omnes ad quos pervenit aqua ista, salvi facti sunt, Et dicent: Alleluia, Alleluia.

And, having broken every rule and done everything wrong, I hiked back to the car, and went home.

 

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

 

 

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