669) Peace at Last

“Merciful Snow”

A short story from Rev. Michael Lindvall’s book The Good News from North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town, 1991, pages 26-33.  Lindvall is a Presbyterian pastor who grew up in Minnesota, and has served parishes in Michigan and New York.

        …Priscilla Atterby died at eighty-four years:  “fourscore if by reason of strength,” as the Psalmist has it.  Priscilla was a world-class worrier.  She worried most about her three children, who are themselves now grandparents.  Each of them moved out of town right after marriage, partly, I suspect, to distance themselves from the immediate clutches of their mother’s unrelenting concern.  Two of them moved out to California, and Priscilla worried about earthquakes.  One moved to Chicago, and Priscilla worried about crime and fire.  “Fire?” I asked when she shared her anxiety with me during a pastoral call.

     “What happened once can happen again,” she answered.

     Her face was deeply lined.  People who knew her longer than I said that the worrying was something that had animated her only for the last twenty years or so.  When she was younger it was something a bit different that drove her.  “Agitation,” somebody called it.  “Priscilla always looked agitated,” this friend had said.  I think the image was meant to be taken literally, like the agitator of an old Maytag wringer-washer, never sitting still, never letting anything be.  It was, I suspect, Priscilla’s agitated love that chased her daughters to California and her son to Chicago.  It was this agitated love that slid into worry in old age.

     During the funeral it started to snow, gently at first, and then very hard.  The television had said that if this storm “swooped south, we might really get walloped.”  Newscasters everywhere seem bent on talking about winter weather in apocalyptic terms as if the same thing didn’t happen every winter.  On the other hand, folks here, being quite accustomed to it, try to outdo each other in being blasé about blizzards.

     I, however, am possessed by an outlander’s agitation about snow.  My readiness to cancel everything at the sight of the first snowflake has become something of a standing joke in town.  True to form, I had told a half-dozen people how worried I was that we wouldn’t get Priscilla in the ground before the latest blizzard immobilized southwestern Minnesota.

     I was reading the New Testament lessons when I first noticed the thick, heavy flakes through the funeral home window.  The storm had “swooped south,” I thought to myself.  My minister’s calendar-brain began to race ahead to everything in my life that the weather was going to foul up for the next couple of days: a meeting about the church’s budget deficit, a Presbytery meeting over in Mankato where I was doing a big report, and the annual meeting of the congregation on Sunday after church.  A worry lump began to congeal in my stomach.  I was reading through the funeral service on automatic pilot when I realized the words from the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel were bouncing from my eyes, out of my mouth, and into the ears of Priscilla Atterby’s crowd of mourners:  “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I it unto you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

      Priscilla, I thought, you never knew peace in this world.  Yours was a troubled heart, anxious, thumping, rising to a start at every little threat.  But in funeral meditations you don’t say everything that’s on your mind.  In prayer, we remembered Priscilla, for whom “the fever of life is over” and who now knew “peace at last,” as Newman had prayed.  Death, after eighty-four years, had stilled her troubled heart.  Last night Minnie MacDowell had peered into the casket at Priscilla and said, predictably, “She looks so peaceful.”  That old mourner’s euphemism appeared to be true in this case.  Priscilla really did look to be at peace.  The worry lines were relaxed from her face, her anxious eyes now peacefully closed.  With a word, God was able to convince her of the simple truth that a lifetime of cajoling by her late husband and three children had never brought her to, namely that “everything is gonna be all right, Priscilla; everything is gonna be all right, Mom.”

     We sang Abide with Me, got in our cars, and drove very slowly to the cemetery.  We walked up a long, shallow hillside to the open grave, a warm black cave in the blinding white of the snow, and there we laid Priscilla Atterby.  I went straight home afterward, somehow feeling good for her, but in a dither about how the snow might foul up the next few days of my life.  

     It snowed all that day and night and most of the next day.  Then for two more days the wind howled and screamed.  The old manse we live in trembled before the power of it.  When the storm was over…  we were snowbound—literally bound by the snow for four days.  Everything stopped:  school, meetings, work for most everybody except the plow operators and the mailmen following in their swath.  

     My agitation built and then crested on the second day when it became obvious that more than half of a week was going to be plucked right out of my calendar.  I canceled meetings and fretted over what was not going to get done, all of it seeming so essential.  Everybody agreed that we’d had a “decent little storm” and that I had not been an alarmist…

     When I informed a fellow clergyman over the phone that I could not make the committee meeting in Mankato, I heard a set of half-forgotten words tumble out of my mouth and onto the phone.  “Milt,” I said, “look at it this way, in a hundred years we’ll all be dead.”  That piece of folk wisdom belonged to my late Uncle Paul, my mother’s gangly bachelor brother, who could be counted on to say it every time something didn’t go just the way he or somebody else had planned, which I recall as being fairly often.

     After that remark there was, of course, nothing else to say, so I hung up and looked out the window at this white act of God that was in all its lumbering and relentless might foiling the plans and plottings of thousands of His creatures.  “Be still.”  The words whispered invitingly to me.  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  It is often so hard to hear such whispers in this life.  Priscilla Atterby had known God, but had never been still, not until four days ago when God’s love finally held her agitated soul in a quiet embrace.

     This cold, irresistible embrace held us so tenaciously that we had to drop our armful of doings and makings and plannings and yield to stillness.  It was a mandatory stillness that insisted we listen as it told us what we know but forget again and again.  In tandem, the blizzard and Priscilla’s death… were a manifestation of simple truth;… all our mortal effort, all our ambitions, all our worries, all our dreams, whether noble or vain, are little before God, not so much because we are so small, but because God is so great.  The blizzard was barely a whisper, as divine utterances go, but it was enough to still me and put before me again who God is and who I am.

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Psalm 46:10a  —  He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

John 14:27  —  (Jesus said),  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

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O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is done.  Then, Lord, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–John Henry Newman

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