It snowed hard in Norfolk in the thirties—deep snow, sledding snow, the kind of snow that every kid loved to see. That morning, even the poor section of 13th Street glistened in the breaking light. What a perfect morning for church!
I dressed and crept out of the house in time to make early Mass at Sacred Heart, the church of my former school, the church where the nice people went, people who lived in fancy houses in Ghent, sported new clothes, and ate in downtown restaurants. I loved our family church, St. Mary’s, but on that particular Sunday, Sacred Heart matched the majesty of the breaking day.
I set out in the snow with cardboard stuffed inside the holes of my shoes. By the time I arrived at the massive carved walnut doors, the cardboard dripped, and my feet ached, but I didn’t care. I was exactly where I wanted to be.
I took my seat, half-frozen from the cold. When the time came for communion, I sloshed down the aisle, a lone ragged kid among the finer creatures of the city. I received communion and then returned to my place to kneel in prayer as the wafer melted salvation on my tongue.
Nothing prepared me for what happened next. A spear of light flashed through the stained glass and hit me like a physical blow. I leaned back against the pew. A dam broke in my mouth and a garble of words flowed out. I tried to clench my jaw, but I couldn’t hold back the sounds as I scooted across the pew, crossed myself at the aisle, and ran out into the frosty sun. I collapsed onto a snow-covered slab of granite that led up to the steps of the school. My jaw and body relaxed into the coldness of the stone. I laid there in the sunlight, physically exhausted and mentally drained.
A young couple came out and hurried toward me. “Are you okay?” they asked in unison. “What happened?
I squinted as they approached: wool coats, leather boots, bright smiles. Nice people. “I don’t know,” I said. God, I prayed, please make them go away.
“We were behind you.” The woman’s breath puffed white in the cold. “Something happened in there.”
“Nothing happened.” I closed my eyes and begged forgiveness for this little lie. The woman put her hand on my shoulder and said they just wanted to understand. So did I, but what could I say about the light, the jolt, the mysterious words that seemed both meaningful and beyond explanation? I opened my eyes to the sunlight, bouncing off of the snow. The woman shivered at my side.
“It’s cold,” her husband said. “Why don’t you let us take you home?”
“No thank you,” I replied. Their kindness grated on my nerves. “I’m fine. Just tired.” I dragged myself off of the granite and slogged home through the snow.
I didn’t mention what happened to anyone for a long, long time, but soon afterward, I began to notice halos of color surrounding people—blues, golds, greens—beautiful color infused with light. Not everyone had color—only certain people. This, too, I could not explain. I noticed it first on Mama and reached toward her one day, grasping at her shimmering gold haze.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I traced her outline in the air. “You’ve got something on you. Colors or something.”
“Don’t mind that.” She brushed my hand away. “It must be the light from the window.” She followed my gaze to the shaded front of our house. No way that the light came from outside. I knew that. She did too, but Mama made it clear with her stare that this wasn’t something to talk about, so I never referred to her gilded edges again.
I continued to see the lights off and on for years and once spotted two nuns dressed in black habits strolling the sidewalk on Granby. One glowed, and the other didn’t. I thought the glowing nun maybe had something on her garment or that the sun might be playing tricks, so I hurried closer behind. They turned left onto Market Street, where they were covered fully by shade, and the light continued to shine. I wanted to run up and ask if she knew that she had colors shining from her body, but I thought about the look Mama had given me and kept my mouth shut. Eventually, I turned around and went on about my business, figuring that whatever it was that made certain people glow, it was nothing for me to understand.
There’s no accounting for ways of the spirit, no telling why a poor kid from the street saw and felt things that seemed to pass even the nice people by. From my earliest memories, I’ve been touched by random moments of grace. It wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I heard two women talking about auras. It was the first I’d ever heard anyone else mention these mystical shimmers of light. I asked them what they meant by auras, and they showed me a picture in a book with light surrounding a saint. I told them I’d seen that light for years. They looked skeptical, and kept talking about matters of the faith. At one point, they discussed the practice of speaking in tongues, and I told them too about that bright cold morning at Sacred Heart when the words tumbled unintelligible from my mouth. They seemed not to think it possible that someone like me would have had experiences like that. It didn’t matter. I was grateful to have words at least for these moments. I found an odd relief in that.
God blessed my life. With all that has happened, both good and bad, with all the success, I’ve always believed that it was not me that was able to accomplish and give, but something greater working through me. As a child, these experiences were just sights and sounds for which I had no explanations, no intention, only the dawning realization that there were things in life—big things—that even adults could not explain.