From the Prior’s Window
I’m afraid “window” is misleading – or, at the very least highly figurative – this month, as I am writing this reflection from a basement room in Anchorage, Alaska, that has no windows at all. This makes for a very dark and quiet retreat, but provides no glimpse of the scenic wonders of the place.
Ordinarily, only downhill ski enthusiasts would choose January as a time to visit Anchorage, and the last time I enjoyed that sport was when I was assigned here in my youth – 1977, I believe – but that’s to get ahead of my story. I am here now because the pastor of the Dominican parish is a good friend of mine, and he invited me to preach at a Memorial Mass for Fr. Bede Wilks, who was the first Dominican pastor here, in 1974.
I really have no idea how Dominicans were invited to Anchorage in the early 1970s, but I remember a group was asked to come up and look around. They were told we could have the care of any parish in the city. We chose the cathedral – not because it was the most elegant church in Anchorage (it wasn’t then, and it isn’t now) but because we felt its downtown location offered the best chance to minister to the greatest number of individuals. Fr. Bede and three or four others made their way north in June, 1974.
1974 was the year I was ordained. I’d been working with Fr. Bede at our campus ministry in Eugene, Oregon, and I’d grown to love him. I still had a year’s study to complete, and then a year of Clinical Pastoral Education, but I eagerly joined him, and the other Dominicans, in Anchorage, in 1976.
Those were the days of the pipe line construction, and life in Anchorage resembled something out of a Western movie. The old-time residents were suspicious of the newcomers, and the newcomers were lonely because no one would talk to them. Fr. Bede had a scruffy beard and he cultivated a Wyoming whine that made the new arrivals feel at home, and he was a priest, so the more settled residents accepted him – if somewhat tentatively. We got invited to all the best parties, and we heard all the gossip.
And we did a great deal of good work among folks who found themselves adrift morally, socially, and spiritually. At a penance service someone came to me and said, “I don’t know where to begin; I haven’t been to confession for –” I don’t remember how many years it had been, but it was almost before I was born.
I couldn’t think of anything to say, but I was inspired to ask, “Well, what brought you back after all these years?” The person replied, “A friend of mine told me to come down here because you Dominicans do things differently.” As nearly as I can tell (I preached this in my Epiphany homily) the only possible thing we may have done differently was to take a cue from the Three Kings and Fr. Bede: to lay down our gifts and embrace the Christ we encounter in one another.
This may sound trite, but that task is a lot harder than it sounds, and Fr. Bede knew it. I’m pretty shy, and I protect myself with a formality that took Fr. Bede (who was also shy) aback. He coped with his shyness by coming up to people and socking them in the arm. When I asked why he’d never socked me, he simply gave me a very odd look. But one day he caught me wiping a knife on my pants leg and putting the knife back in the drawer. He ran into the kitchen and embraced me. He shouted, “Thank God! You are human!”
The sun came out today, so I was able to take a long walk, and to see just how much Anchorage has changed in the years since my last visit. Our downtown neighborhood, which used to turn decidedly “down-market” as soon as one passed the banks and bookstores, has been gentrified, and the pawnshop I used to visit has been turned into something quite respectable.
Lest anyone wonder why I visited a pawnshop in those days, I asked my grandmother what she wanted for Christmas one year and she said she’d like a gold nugget. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to look, so I took a chance at the “Fourth Avenue Loan Company,” and – sure enough! – it looked as if I’d walked in on the 1894 Gold Rush that put Anchorage on the map.
No place is prettier than Anchorage when the sun comes out in the winter. The city is surrounded on three sides by mountains, and because the sun doesn’t get very high above the horizon, the mountains glow in a day-long sunset that looks as if it were painted by Maxfield Parrish. In fact, I always thought Parrish had invented those apricot and violet tints until I saw them in real life, on the mountains in Alaska.
When I left St. Albert’s our chapel was still glorious with the poinsettias and other decorations you, our friends, had provided. As I remarked in my thank-you notes, your generous Christmas gifts give us great hope as we look forward to a New Year. We have no idea what it will bring, of course, but your prayers and support allow us to look forward with hope and confidence.
May your 2012 be blessed and grace-filled. You will journey thorough it accompanied by the prayers and sincere good wishes of each of the Dominicans at St. Albert’s, not least those of the humble scribbler of these lines,
Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.