By Denise Trull
In all my years directing theater, I slowly over time formed the habit of seeking out the minor characters in a play. The ones who come and go perhaps for one scene and then disappear. Why were they there? Were they important to the story? Were they necessary? And the answer to all these questions came to me over time in fascinating ways. These minor, little wonders of personality who shed light on the greater hero of the story in a nuanced way that could almost have been missed. Yet, when caught, brought many an aha moment in its wake.
This habit of delving into the smallest scenes also had a lovely side affect. It made me pay attention where attention was most needed and expected. In my prayer. When reading Scripture. In its particulars.
The Word of God is a living word. Every time I open the cover and leaf through its pages I take a little intake of breath anticipating what will jump out at me. I have discovered that each word matters. Each dialogue has import. Each action must be pondered no matter how small. Sometimes I will have read a passage of the Gospel for years never even catching the words that I am reading now at this moment, on this particular day. It is the treasure of great price. And it enriches in a thousand inexhaustible ways.
It was one such reading, on a late December evening, by a steamy kitchen window as I stirred my spaghetti sauce, that brought back to me a random memory forged long ago in the midst of early motherhood. It lay waiting hidden in the familiar story of Our Lady’s and St. Joseph’s fateful and desperate night beating at the doors of inns. To no avail. What I read that evening made me put down my spoon in wonder. Our Lady being profoundly comforted by the seemingly small actions of an Inn Keeper’s wife. Yes, for me it's a wife. All you Biblical exegetes out there think what you may about me. Mary needed shelter and in my imaginings it is a woman who led her down to those caves.
Mary was tired. Hmm, exhausted to be more precise, agree all those women who are walking around in their last and final month of pregnancy. Her legs were probably swelling, and mother of God or not, she had a sciatic nerve and it was no doubt rearing its ugly head.
Her first baby. Remember the fear of that? What would it be like? Can I do it, really? Will everything be okay with the baby? And there was no mother, no St. Anne for 90 miles to allay her fears. She was alone and so young. Mary was perfect and sinless - but you can have fears and worries even when you are sinless. She just gave them over to God faster than we do. But she had them.
She was giving birth to the Messiah. How would she protect Him for the rest of us? She was burdened with all these thoughts as Joseph was frantically knocking on doors in Bethlehem. No room. No room. No room. Did she start crying? Did Joseph start crying when he looked up at her? Did no one see their little island of distress in this sea of travelers? Well, yes, someone did. An Innkeeper's wife saw them through her own busyness and frustration at the crowds flowing in and out her door. And up she walked.
Why did this story seem so suddenly familiar to me?
Fast forward to December 1991. I am walking in the park with 18 month old David in tow. I am nine months pregnant with Thomas and let us just say I am not glowing. I was two weeks away from my due date, and if one more person had told me, "my, you are having those babies so close together, aren't you?" I don't think I would be entirely in control of my faculties.
It was a nice day for December, so I had this great idea of taking David to the park to see the geese - his favorite thing at the time. We were doing quite well all things considered, when I had the brilliant idea of letting him out of the stroller to walk free.
David is an adventurer from way back and he toddled ahead toward an unsuspecting goose who was minding his own business in the grass. David tried to grab his fascinating, feathered behind and that is when, let's just say it, all hell broke loose.
The goose went running and half flying down the hill honking bloody murder. David started running after the goose, down the hill faster and faster and then came me running full tilt after David. It was like a page out of a Sandra Boynton counting book - I half expected to see ten pigs in bowties dancing past us down the hill.
And as fate always seems to have it, you are never alone when at your worst. There are always witnesses.
Our pell mell fiasco rushed past a lady running. She had perfectly coifed hair, her neat and tidy matching track suit was pink, and her spotless Nikes put my shabby, flapping Birkenstocks to shame. She glowed. She stared frightened, and then flummoxed as we rushed past.
As is the way with running toddlers, David could no longer keep up with his feet. He fell down and skidded to the bottom of the path and that MOM thing that grows to 100 times its normal size, kicked in - with super human strength I ran as fast as my pregnant, waddling body would allow. It wasn't pretty, but I made it to him.
And then, the finale.
My sciatic nerve went pong, my legs caved in and I fell in a heap next to David. He was crying, I was crying, the goose was crying. THIS WAS REALITY, SANDRA BOYNTON.
Well, up came the perfectly coiffed lady, helplessly looking on at our piled up predicament. She reached into her backpack and said hesitantly, "I have a ..... wipe." And she handed it to me saying these blessed words, "It is so hard sometimes isn't it?" Talk about your dropping down dew from heaven. Sympathy for a massively pregnant woman. There is a special place in Heaven for people of this kind.
I took the small, square wipe and helplessly looked at David's bloody nose and my scraped hands and the whole thing was a bit - I venture to say, more than a bit, ludicrous. I stared up at her and as if on cue we both started laughing out loud. For a long time. Then she helped me up, she helped put David in the abandoned stroller and she walked me to my car. Her parting words? "You must be so happy. I haven't been able to have children. It seems so .... wonderful".
That was a pure, bonafide Come to Jesus moment for me. What I saw as so out of control and messy and exhausting she saw as wonderful. And she helped me by her small kindness to see it all anew - the utter gift of motherhood. I promised prayers on the spot for her to conceive. I prayed a long time for her through that year, though I never saw her again, this small but wondrous character in the drama of my life.
Did the Innkeeper’s wife do the same for Mary? Did she give Our Lady the will to make it down that hill to the cave? Did she help her off of the donkey? And perhaps come back later with a woman’s touch to allay the fears of giving birth? We don’t know. But on the great and wondrous night God entered our world, her small store of comfort made Our Lady able to go on - to believe God was watching over her. Think of that. She probably never saw her again, but she would remember her always and tell Jesus about her. This small but significant character in our salvation history.
My son Thomas was born two weeks later, all pink and perfect and beautiful. And that was the year I understood the wonder of the Incarnation. And the wonder of the small and passing characters in our lives that show us the beauty we missed or give us the comfort we need to climb that one particular hurdle. Thank you track suit lady. Thank you Innkeeper’s wife.