During the four years that Carole had studied at Cornell her childhood faith had eroded away almost completely. It was at Christmas time she hated that the most. She wistfully remembered her naive childhood when she excepted the stories of Jesus birth without dark doubts clouding her mind. But every year at Cornell seemed to take her further away from the simple faith of her childhood. The social sciences made religious ideas look impractical in modern life. Science classes made creation stories seem like ancient myths held by primitive and ignorant people. Her understanding of history characterized Christian people as flawed at best, usually downright sick.
There were religious groups on campus, but they all seemed like zealots to her. She suspected their smiles were insincere and thought Christians were really joyless and troubled just beneath the surface. She felt more comfortable in the company of friends who were exploring their new freedoms as young adults and entertaining fresh ideas that didn’t include worn-out creeds, traditional taboos, and parental restrictions.
There had been some parties to relieve the monotony. She had seen enough men to confirm her suspicion that one capable of touching her deeply would be exceptionally rare. Mostly she worked hard. As a result she was ahead of schedule academically. Most of her friends would graduate in the spring but she was done as soon as she tendered her research paper and completed a final class.
As she made her way out of Ithaca toward Ohio and home the first draft of her research paper lay on the seat beside her like an unwelcome passenger. It had been her companion night and day for months. Even now, on the way home for Christmas she found it difficult to put it out of her mind.
It’s not that she didn’t enjoy the subject. The paper was a biographical study of her favorite writer, Elisabeth Bancroft. During research for the paper Carole came to realize the part Christian spirituality played in E. Bancroft’s thinking and writing. That puzzled Carole. E. Bancroft seemed so aware and intelligent. Her work was recognized world-wide as brilliant. Her use of the English language was musical. She was truly literate like no Christian Carole had ever encountered. Her love for life, her grasp of history, her understanding of human character and attention to detail were unlike anything she had ever observed in a Christian before.
How could a person like Elisabeth Bancroft possibly hold on to such childish religious myths? Maybe she envied her. Maybe that’s what motivated her to do the paper. Maybe it was hope that she would find clues that would help her recover her childlike faith. Maybe it was something darker. Maybe she wanted to find evidence that beneath the surface was a weakness, and she could lay the old myths to rest once and for all.
She laughed at the incongruity of the music tuned on her radio. Most of the songs were vague holiday songs about snow and winter. Some were romantic songs set at Christmas time but the ones she loved the most, the ones that moved her over and over again to the verge of tears were the old sacred Christmas songs. But she didn’t consider herself a Christian anymore. The idea of a virgin birth seemed fantastic to her. The concept of God in the flesh seemed like Greek mythology. But still the songs stirred something in her.
Maybe her heart was tender because the songs called to mind memories that were painful to her. Maybe it was because the songs reminded her of the year here Dad left. –Her Dad who had essentially vanished from her life when she was only twelve years old. The Christmas he left she lay in bed and listened to the music coming from her mother’s record player in the living room and hurt and craved the love of a Daddy she would never have. Images of families on Christmas cards or on TV commercials gathered around a table for a holiday meal were painful for her. She made up her mind a long time ago that she would never forgive her father for what he did.
Aside from all of that she welcomed Christmas for purely secular and selfish reasons. She was glad to have a break from her studies and glad to be on her way home for a few weeks.
The highway turned through the mountains. The sky turned gray and the air cold. She calculated the length of her trip mentally. If the weather stayed clear she should be home for Christmas in four hours. She switched to an AM station to get a weather report. “Well, it’s going to look a lot like Christmas Eve tonight across upper New York State. Snow accumulations could reach three to five inches by midnight,” the announcer intoned. Just as the report ended the snow began. It came heavy and fast and for the next hour. Traffic on the interstate slowed. Some of those who didn’t slow down slid off the road. Things turned ugly fast. She felt her back tense. Visibility was getting so difficult that she began to consider finding a place to spend the night.
But she hated the idea of being stuck in a strange hotel on Christmas Eve. She drove on but another twenty miles took an hour and by the time she reached the next exit she knew she needed to do something. By now it had been dark for nearly two hours and she was tired. She exited the interstate to get some coffee and fuel and consider her options.
She realized too late that she had chosen the wrong exit. There were no gas stations or restaurants near the highway and there was no place to turn around easily. The lights of a villiage shone about a mile north of the highway. She drove toward them. At the edge of the village set a small church with a parking lot where she could turn around. She pulled in to the lot and tried to make a sweeping turn but the snow had come too swiftly. None of the streets had been plowed let alone private lots. Her tires began to spin in the thick, wet snow.
After ten minutes of spinning her tires and rocking the car she gave up and laid her head on the wheel. She didn’t know what to do. She needed to get out of the parking lot but even if she could, how would she get home? The snow was coming fast and thick.
While she thought there was a loud knock on the window and she looked up to see a man in his fifties outside the window. He smiled warmly and shouted above the wind, “Why don’t you come into the church. A plow should through in an hour or so. Come in a get warm.”
Carole shut off the engine and stepped out of the car into snow over her shoes. “We have some coffee and hot chocolate if you like,” the kind man said. She was eager to get home but she new she needed help. She accompanied the man across the parking lot and into the church. The little building was white clapboard with a steep roof and impressive spire, beautiful in it’s simplicity. Within it smelled of fresh greens, candles and coffee. An elderly lady was practicing the organ; the sound of carols filled the building. Others were busy in the kitchen.
The kind man introduced himself as the church custodian. He introduced her around to the others. Someone handed her a cup of coffee. Our pastor will be out in a few minutes. You’ve happened by just in time for our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. “We’re so glad you’re here,” one of the ladies said. “Oh, I was just turning around in the lot and gut stuck in the snow. I am a student at Cornell and I’m on my way to home to Ohio for Christmas. I really had no intention of stopping for the service. I’m afraid I am stuck in the parking lot.”
“Well it looks like you will be here for a while. It’s Christmas Eve. It looks like the Lord had arranged for you to join us. You know they say special things often happen on Christmas Eve.” “You’re right,” another of the ladies quickly added, “I have a friend who has a whole book called Christmas Miracles.” Carole saw nothing miraculous about getting her car hopelessly mired in a church parking lot hours from home on Christmas Eve.
“If you want you can use the phone. It’s on the wall in the hall.” One of them offered. She thanked them and got her phone card out of her purse. Her mom would be glad to hear from her and maybe she could help her decide what to do. The phone rang and she could imagine her mom running toward it in the kitchen where she would be working on food for Christmas. She answered on the first ring. “Hi Mom, it’s Carole. I’m OK, but I think I’m stranded. I’m at a church but the car is stuck in the parking lot. All the plows are busy. They say the plow will be through by the end of the Candlelight service. It’s an early service. I will be able to get out then, but I’m not sure I should get back out on the road the way things are tonight. The snow is getting deeper and they say it’s starting to drift.” “I know,” she answered, “I’ve been watching the news and they may close the interstate,” her mother said.
“I’ll see if I can get a motel room and tomorrow if the snow clears I will still be able to be home by noon on Christmas.” “Let me know what you do. I’ll keep the phone line clear.” “Bye, Mom. I love you. Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas honey. Be careful.”
When Carole hung up the phone the Pastor introduced himself to her. “Miss, we called the local hotel earlier today because we have guests coming in for Christmas and there are no rooms available. If you like we can make you a place here or if you prefer I’m sure we can arrange for you to spend the night with Mrs. Thornapple. She is here helping with refreshments and she is quite hospitable. She has a comfortable place a few blocks from here. If you like you could spend the night there and be on your way at first light. According to the weather reports things should be clear by then.
“Thank you, pastor,” said Carole. I would appreciate that. Carole called her mother to inform her of her plans and made her way into the chapel for the service. In spite of the snow enough people walked up from the village to make the little church comfortably full.
The service was as simple as it was beautiful. The church was dark for the whole service except for the candles burning on the altar and in the windows of the chapel. The songs were simple, familiar, ancient carols. She could not explain why she felt herself holding back tears. Toward the close of the service the pastor asked all the children to go to the isles and the pastor started to light the candles. Soft light slowly swept across the auditorium softly lighting faces. Expressions were thoughtful-songs were sung and children’s faces bathed in warm candle glow.
A the close of the service while each worshiper’s face was bathed in candle glow, a ten year old boy walked to the front and read a prayer of blessing.
Loving Father, help us remember the birth of Jesus,
that we may share in the song of the angels, the gladness
of the shepherds, and worship of the wise men.
Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world.
Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.
Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings,
and teach us to be merry with clear hearts.
May the Christmas morning make us happy to be thy children,
and Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful
thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The worshipers flied silently out into the night. Strains of music behind them, deep snow all around the chapel. Carole hated to extinguish her candle–when she stepped out into the night the light of the village glowed below like mirrors of the sky above now clear and filled with a million stars.
Mrs. Thornapple broke the silence. “Robert Lewis Stevenson,” she said, almost to herself. “Pardon me,” said Carole. “Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote the prayer the boy prayed before we were dismissed. “How did you know that?” Carole asked.
“Carole, I’ve had a life-long passion for English literature.”
“So do I,” said Carole. “I am an English major at Cornell.”
“We do have something in common. English literature is my particular love. I taught English until my family came along then I did work at home for a publisher for twenty-two years. I’ve always kept busy working with the language.”
“Will you be alone this Christmas?” asked Carole.
“No I have family coming over for dinner on Christmas Day but I’m all ready for that.”
The plow had been through and the streets were passable once again. Carole followed Mrs. Thornapple home. She lived about four blocks from the church in a small but tasteful home. Light spilled from the windows of the house out onto the snow. They made their way in and Mrs. Thornapple stirred the fire back to life. The fire filled the room with scent and sound and warmth almost at once. The whole room sprang to life.
The wall surrounding the fireplace was a beautiful cherry bookcase from the baseboard to the ceiling. Carole crossed the room and stood gazing at the shelves. Every available inch of shelf space was used. The books were beautifully bound–classics. This collection of books was obviously chosen by a person with a great appreciation for literature and fine books.
“Carole, what year are you in?” Trudy asked.
“When I complete my paper I have only one course and I will be done. I’ve been slaving away at this paper for months.
“What is the subject of your paper?
“It is a study of Elisabeth Bancroft. She is my favorite writer.”
Trudy looked up suddenly. “Elisabeth Bancroft is your favorite writer?” she asked.
“Yes and she has been since high school.”
“Carole, can you sit down here a minute while I get you some tea? It’s still early and it’s Christmas Eve. I would like to talk. Are you up to a little conversation before you turn in?” “I’d love it.” said Carole honestly. Trudy went to make the tea and Carole enjoyed the comfortable, warm room. It was remarkably like she was visiting an old friend not staying with a total stranger she had just met.
Mrs. Thornapple brought the tea on a tray with a boarder of holly pattern that matched the cup and saucer and tea pot. “Sugar?” “No, thanks, this is perfect.” She liked the warmth of the cup in her hand and the smell of peppermint.
“You know Carole, early this morning I took a walk and spend some time talking with the Lord, do you ever do that, Carole?” Mrs. Thornapple asked looking in her eyes. It was a very personal question Carole would have resented as invasive but the warm setting, the touching Candlelight service, Trudy’s hospitality, her kind face and gentle manner made the question seem natural. “No Trudy, not since Cornell–not like I used to.” I grew up in the church but I’m not sure I really consider myself a believer anymore.
Carole, on my walk this morning I had a strong feeling the Lord had special plans for the today. I don’t often have such a clear feeling. When we stepped out of the chapel tonight and I discovered our shared interest in English Literature, I thought God sent you here for a very special reason. You said something a moment ago that makes me quite sure he arranged our meeting.
I have something to tell you that I think will interest you. And even though you don’t consider yourself a believer, I think you will have to admit that our being here together this Christmas Eve is not meaningless coincidence.
Carole was usually very uncomfortable with people who claimed to hear God speak, or believe God arranged circumstances of life, but Trudy’s obvious intelligence, taste, and credibility were difficult to discount. “Carole, let me ask you something more. Do you believe God loves you and arranges the circumstances of your life for good?” “Oh, Trudy, I used to want to believe that, but I have had some very painful circumstances in my life. I can’t imagine God arranging those things for good.
“I’m not sure what hurts you have experienced, but I know this– in my life my soul hurts and hungers are the things God used to make me seek Him. I think sometimes God will take comforts and pleasures from us to make us seek things that are eternal–the things we will always value.
Do you think that might be the case with the hurts you’ve experienced? Carole sipped her tea before she answered and Trudy made no attempt to break the silence. “I’m not sure,” she finally said, but a part of her thought it might be true.
“Carole, what approach did you take in your paper on Elisabeth Bandroft?” “My paper explores her religious beliefs and how they affected her writing,” she answered. “Let me tell you why I am so sure God arranged our little meeting.” “I believe this is what I call a Divine appointment. Elisabeth Bancroft and I have been close personal friends for twenty years. I have edited two of her books, personally.
Carole was stunned. Mrs. Thornapple crossed the room and took a book from the shelf with an attitude approaching reverence. She walked back across the room and placed the book in Carole’s hands. “The is a first edition of the first Bancroft I edited,” she said with a smile, watching Carole’s face.
The ladies talked about Bancroft’s writing until the fire burned to coals and it seemed minutes. Finally Mrs. Thornapple showed Carole up to her room. “Good night, Carole. It’s is delightful to have you under my roof.” “I’m so glad to be here Mrs. Thornapple.” “Oh, come to think of it Carole, Elisabeth Bancroft has occupied this very guest room more than once.” Gesturing toward a table under the window she added; “Early in the morning I’ve brought her coffee while she was writing at that desk.”
Carole turned out the light and for the first time in years had an impulse to pray. “Oh, God, if any of what Mrs. Thornapple has said tonight is true, I want to know it, God. I want to know it. If there is a purpose behind the painful things that have happened to me, please help me understand what it is.” Soon she slept.
On Christmas morning Mrs. Thornapple was up early and Carole awoke to the smell of baking. It was a smell she remembered fondly from childhood. For a moment in that mental fog when she first woke up she thought herself just a child waking up on Christmas morning, but not knowing where she was or how she got there.
She made a brief entry in her journal at the table under the window and went down for breakfast. Beside her place at the table was a small book. “It’s by Elisabeth Bancroft. It was the first book we worked on together.” Carole slowly picked it up and turned it over in her hand. “Merry Christmas, Carole. I want you to have it. Maybe after you have read it, we can arrange a little tea with the author.”
Carole looked up delighted. “Oh, Mrs. Thornapple, I can’t tell you how much that would mean to me,” she said sincerely. After breakfast Carole called her mother, brushed the snow from her car, waved to Mrs. Thornapple, and drove away. In ten minutes the little village was far behind.
Warm air blew out from under the dash onto her feet and music drifted quietly from the radio. Carole could not explain it but something happened that Christmas Eve in New York. She knew the faith of her childhood was not completely dead. She had let her hurts and doubts cloud her soul long enough. She longed to pillow her head at home on Christmas night both forgiving and forgiven.