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1987, Guymon Oklahoma
"Someone has been leaving a rose each week at the foot of Our Lady's statue in the chapel." Mrs. Birdsill smiled and looked warily at me. "We're not sure who it is."
I stood in the rectory hallway, just beyond her desk, staring hesitantly into her eyes with a question mark on my face. Mrs. Birdsill was the administrative assistant for the parish. She looked out for Fr. Burger and Fr. Joe Haley. Her family was well-known and well-respected in the community. They had many children in various grades at the local public school. One, a daughter, graduated from my class at Guymon High. Like everyone in the community, I always liked the entire family and certainly enjoyed Mrs. Birdsill. She was cheerful, friendly, and a good representative of the parish.
"Really? That's interesting!" I feigned ignorance.
"Yes, someone really loves Our Lady."
"Yes, that's great!"
Uneasy, I was trying to make an excuse to leave. I had been in the rectory to see Fr. Burger, who gave me spiritual direction and helped me better understand the Faith. I had an appointment to see him once each week. I enjoyed my time with Fr. Burger; he encouraged and corrected me very gently. I was leaving when I stopped to chat with Mrs. Birdsill. Smiling, waving, and making up an excuse, I was out the door.
The following week, I left work around noon for lunch. Most of the time, I drove out of the parking lot, turned right on 6th Street, and passed the warehouse on the right with the hard-facing department on the left. We were in the agricultural tillage tool manufacturing business. These tools were famous nationwide for having "hard-faced," chromium carbide edges that would last much longer than standard tools as farmers drug them through their fields attached to big John Deere or Case Harvester implements. Hard-facing was a welding operation, and the hard-facers were a very skilled, well-respected, and highly valued employee group at the company. I would drive by them at noon most days, and on to the end of the property, where I would turn west on East Street, which sounds funny, I know. Crossing 12th Street, the four-lane avenue near the factory, I would keep moving west for a mile before turning right on 19th Street, then left on Chisolm Drive. Three doors down, and I was home for lunch. The entire trip would take less than ten minutes.
However, this day was not "most of the time." This was the one day each week when I would do something special instead of eating lunch. I did not drive by the warehouse on the right and the hard-facing department on the left. Instead, I turned left just ahead of the hard facers onto Maple, a small side street, and then right on 5th Street, another four-lane thoroughfare opposite 12th and from my home. 5th Street would take me over the railroad tracks that ran through town and into the heart of Guymon's downtown retail district. I sat at a red light before finally turning right onto Main Street.
Main Street was the lifeblood of our community. Main Street had some of the most memorable, locally owned and operated retail stores. It was the main artery for high school kids to drive up and down after school in the evenings. We called it "dragging main," and everyone with a car or who knew someone with a car did it. In the evenings, as high schoolers, we would drive or park in lots along the side of Main, waving to each other and otherwise showing off or flirting as the case may be. Dragging Main was built into the DNA of Guymon High School students.
However, I was not turning to "drag main." I was on a mission. Parked on the street, I looked both ways and crossed to the local flower store on foot. A few minutes later, I walked out with one beautiful red rose, the stem in a long glass vase filled with fresh water. I jumped back into my car and held the vase firmly in my left hand as I pulled back out onto Main, steering with my right.
The parking lot at the church was mostly empty when I arrived. There was no noon Mass at St. Peter's. The main sanctuary was locked; however, the side chapel was left open for Eucharistic adoration. The chapel had a small altar for morning Mass celebrations and a glass wall that looked out into the expansive sanctuary. We could see the tabernacle on the far side with the little red candle lit, indicating that the Real Presence was there. Also in the chapel was a beautiful portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patroness of the Americas. Just as you walked in and to your right was a beautiful statue of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, the one to which Mrs. Birdsill had referred.
Walking from the parking lot and down the sidewalk toward the chapel door, I attempted to hide my rose, at least as much as possible. If Mrs. Birdsill were looking out the window next to the rectory door, she might see me with this rose in hand. Hopefully not. Hopefully, she was busy or otherwise distracted. I walked into the chapel. It was empty. Good.
Walking over to the statue of the Immaculate Conception, I placed the red rose at Our Lady's feet. I said a prayer and told her that I loved her.
Walking out after adoring the Eucharist for twenty minutes, I wondered. I wondered if Mrs. Birdsill might be watching. Do you think she knew?
Later that evening, I sat in my reading chair with St. Thérèse's book. On the stand by our doorway sat her statue and her relic we received from Fr. Haley.
"Like St. Agnes and St. Cecilia, I want to offer my neck to the executioner's sword, and like Joan of Arc, murmur the name of Jesus at the burning stake." Thérèse was writing of her immense desire to sacrifice all, even her life, for her love of Jesus. She wanted to imitate the love and sacrifice of the saints.
Through this outburst of love, Thérèse allowed me to see something in her soul that would eventually consume me in my own desires and reflect my immense love for Jesus and Mary. This was my first glimpse of a different kind of rose, even though tiny. That rose, bright and beautiful, though I only could see it faintly due to my spiritual dullness, was a unique color. It was what I would many years later call "the most beautiful color in the heavens." It was the color of the combined spirituality of St. Joan of Arc and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. "St. Joan and St. Thérèse, together they are the most beautiful color in the Heavens!" I compared them to a field of flowers in Jesus' heavenly garden. At that moment, however, not enough light penetrated my soul to truly sense this rose's magnificence. One day in the future, this colorful rose would electrify me and be the efficient agent of change in my life, resulting from my total consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary on July 16th, 1986.
That afternoon, I had, in thanksgiving for my total consecration, given one more beautiful red rose to Our Lady, and she, through St. Thérèse, returned a rose to me. Our Lady's rose was not perishable like mine. Hers was a rose of grace. Hers was the dynamic, saintly duo of St. Joan of Arc and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Our Holy Mother and my "little mother," St. Thérèse, brought into slight focus my trip to France after high school, which led me to St. Joan of Arc for the first time. It was all coming together and, over time, would keep coming together in splendor. The seed of this rose would grow through cultivation and burst upward toward the sunlight one day.
That day, though, was far in the future. For a rose to bloom, it must be planted in fertile soil. The soil of my soul was dry, waterless, and impure. Nothing could grow there. I had placed my rose to Our Lady in a vase with fresh water where it could survive. Our Lady needed to put her rose, the one she wanted me to carry to Jesus, the rose of the "most beautiful color in the Heavens," in a new, fertile environment. There was work to do.
Our Lady needed to lead me to fertile ground. I needed to abandon the old plot, die to it, leave it for good, and be grounded in the new. That journey to new, fertile lands would take nearly twenty years.
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That's lovely. I too, owe Our Lady a great deal. She brought me back to the church by a long sequence of events, involving the purchase of a miraculous medal by my mother in Italy ( she is not Catholic and had no idea what it was). She has never failed me.