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Saint Maria of the heavens

‘Lives of the Saints’ series

Saint Maria, my mentor and friend, was undressing in front of about 300 people. There was a general air of frustration, displacement and perhaps a peculiar sense that time and self were both melting away. This air spread out like an odorless gas from the industrial vents, like someone was reading Kafka quietly – almost, but not quite, out of sound register.

The security guards with their casual wielding of power.

The legions of strangers, who somehow made us feel trapped in our own, stuffy heads.

The exchanged papers.

The averted eye.

The bored voices of petty tyrants shouting orders nobody can hear.

Airports are hell.

Ah, but you may think, “at least I get out eventually, leave the airport. And chances are it’ll be off someplace pleasant, or home.” This is true, and perhaps that very point is what makes hell so hellish. To have this vessel so made for the heavens, and yet caught in an eternity of delays, of lurching up only to crash on the runway; of that constant, Sisyphean cycle of expectations unfulfilled, of hopes lifted and dashed, again and again, forever. More still, an eternity of increasingly angry, embarrassed, unfriendly eyes. Those eyes, or perhaps the hint of what they could be, given an eternity, were perhaps why I was so glad to catch sight of Saint Maria on the other side of the security checkpoint. We met with bare feet, the contents of our lives somewhat haphazardly spilled on merciful benches. A good thing too, for in that brief meeting of friends in a place made surreal by its monolithic materiality, I discovered a glimpse of heaven, of how it ought to be.

Jesus between us
And through that little glimpse of heaven in a friend’s harried but hearty smile, I began seeing a few other things around me I’d missed. A couple embracing cheek-to-cheek, mixing tears and laughs.

Children filled with playful curiosity over the moving tracks, as their parents watched and re-learned to cherish things often taken for granted.

The amiable joke between strangers.

The planes fueled and ready.

Each person I saw had something to make the place bearable: they were known, and they were loved. A daughter calls her mother to confirm the airport pickup, and breaks a long spell of homesick hearts. A husband turns to tell his wife some admittedly terrible joke. Eyes roll. Laughter. Farewell and On my way texts. The going away and the coming back, as the Scriptures say. Known, and loved.

Heaven is without strangers, or borders, or suspicion. It is like stepping outside the doors of the last airport, and finding car after car lined up, each driver calling you by your true name: “Stay with me before the wedding! We have plenty of room! Come, drive with me to our home, sister! Let me grab your bags, brother! It’s so good that you’re coming home!”

Saint Maria and I finished our conversation with the apologetic brusqueness that clocks and schedules and deadlines dictate. As she left, that certain hollowness returned, like some gas had made the air was too thick for me to get a good breath in. I could not know what Saint Maria thought about such small exchanged pleasantries as we re-looped our belts, put on our shoes, and checked our clocks nervously. It seemed probable, almost certain, that our discourse had amounted to one more annoyance on an already tedious and substantive pile, one more embarrassment amidst a general place of public vulnerability and loss of control.

I could find Hope, though, that brother of Love. A Hope that is never satisfied, but never dashed; the kind of true hope that makes faith. Perhaps the holiness of that brief, bare-foot exchange was not lost on her, that I was not alone in watching Jesus walk between us, and between many still in line. Likely not. Then still I look to heaven, where all holiness is cherished: known, and loved. There in heaven, where one day I will meet Saint Maria in something like a passenger pickup lane. We will turn and speak a language of laughter, saying “welcome brother. Welcome, sister. Let’s go to the wedding feast.”  

  • Evan Underbrink is an instructor of Theology and Church History at the New Testament School of Theology in Greensboro, North Carolina, as well as a freelance writer and poet. He holds a Master’s in Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School and a Bachelor of Arts in Theology from Whitworth University.

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