A Knock on the Door
There once was an old woman with a magical house. Every now and again the house would grow a new room, and the old woman would know it was time to expect guests. She never knew who would come, or when, just that some day there would be someone in need of that room, and it was her sacred duty to keep it ready for them.
She and the house had an odd sort of relationship, almost symbiotic. The house needed her as much as she needed the house. I was never sure where the magic came from for those extra rooms, but my guess is that it was from the bond between them. She needed guests to be happy, so the house supplied them.
As you might expect, after years of organic growth the house was a great shambling thing sprawled across a hillside, like something from one of those magical Japanese movies. In fact, the house was so odd it was a wonder anyone ever dared approach it seeking help. But I guess word had got around that the place was safe after all.
So that’s why Zephan turned up on a Friday. Trying to look nonchalant, he lifted the old-fashioned door-knocker, only to have the door swing wide. Inside was a cheery little parlor with a fire blazing on the hearth and the old lady knitting a great shawl in one of those bright colors whose names never seem to match the color themselves, like puce or vermillion. “What an odd color!”said Zephan out loud, before he could help himself.
“Do you think so?” The old lady peered at the shawl. “I have wondered myself. But this is what Mrs. Oddsworthy asked for specifically. She does have the most extraordinary taste.” She stopped, laid aside her knitting and rose. ‘Oh, but do come in. I am Mrs. Stone. I see you have been invited. I have just the room for you.”
Zephan’s mouth, which had gaped a bit during this last bit, hurriedly shut, then opened again and said, ” I don’t know what you mean. Invited?”
Zephan followed silently behind Mrs. Stone, but his mind was agitated. He turned over her few words in his mind, much like a jackdaw would look for jewels among pebbles. What did she mean by saying only a fortunate few are welcomed here? Hadn’t he decided on his own to take a bruiser’s dare? No one invited him! Rather than get another beating, or worse, make his mother worry, he’d decided to just get it over– a knock on the door of the strange old house. He didn’t really believe the stories that said people had gone in and never come out again. Did he?
Mrs. Stone turned in mid-stride, as if jerked around by Zephan’s doubts, and said, rather sharply, “I’ll not have you fretting, boy, for this house is a harmless as she comes. No one is ever held against their will. You are free to come and go as you will.”
‘B-b-but why am I h-h-here?” Zephan managed to stutter.
“Well, I don’t know,” she said crisply, shaking out her skirts and turning to go on. “The house hasn’t told me yet. This way please.”
After a few more corridors (Zephan had lost count) they stopped in front of a big black oak door with Zephan’s name on it!!! This is too weird! I am outta here first chance.
Mrs. Stone swung the door wide onto a teen-aged boy’s Fantasy Island. Game consoles with comfortable swivel chairs, the best bluetooth head sets, game controllers and joysticks, mouse pads and webcams. And one of his favorite games was already loaded and ready to play. He barely noticed the large bed and easy chair in the corner, but he did take note of the door and windows opposite their entry point. They didn’t appear to be locked.
“Well?” Mrs. Stone smiled.
Zephan shifted uncomfortably. “I’m going to have tell my mom where I am. Then I’ll come back. For a while. To see.”
“So we’ll see you at dinner then,” said Mrs Stone, nodding her approval. “Just knock on the door and someone will answer and bring you to the dining room. You’ll get to meet the others then.” She turned backed and added, “Oh, and give my love to your mother, please. She was such a sweetheart during her stay here. Always looking out for other people. I expect she still is.”
Surprises from the past
Zephan edged through the door, hoping his mother wouldn’t notice, but of course, she did.
“Zephaniah? Where have you been? I wanted you to go and get more goat cheese from Mr.Raintree before nightfall.” She spoke quietly, without reproach, but simply describing how it had been.
Zephaniah grimaced. He had forgotten. “I went to the old house on Hearthstone Hill. You know the one. Chocko had dared me, and I thought you would rather have me go than have me come home with torn and dirty clothes again.”
She turned her face in his direction eagerly. “Really? You went there? Did you try the door?”
Zephaniah was puzzled by her eager response. But then he remembered she had been there too. “Yes”, he said,”Mrs. Stone said to say hello.” A pause. “I’ve been invited.”
Zephaniah definitely didn’t expect what happened next. There was silence from his mother, her head turned down and away, as if rejecting his words, when suddenly she lifted her head and turned toward him, her blind eyes were wet with tears and her face shining with joy.
“Oh my son, I have prayed for this day,” she said, voice trembling. “”They told you I was there too?”
“Yes.” He nodded, though he knew she couldn’t see. If he waited she would tell him what he needed to know, who these people were and why they did what they did.
They came and got me the day I was blinded, and took me to the house. I raged for days about the unfairness of it all. But Mrs. Stone was like her name–it all bounced off and had no effect. She held me as I cried, listened as I shouted at God, and waited…When I was finally quiet within, she spoke four words, “You have a mission.” That opened a door in my soul I didn’t even know existed. A mission? A mission!”
She paused, and ran her hand through her short brown curls. Long hair was a bad idea for a blind person. “I spent a year there, learning how to live as a blind person, how to accept help with gratitude, and how to be independent. I learned how to use my blindness as a point of witness. Those who saw my peace wanted to know its source and I was happy to share. Then the last part– I was told I would have a son, and he too would have a mission. He was to be treasured by God.” She smiled gently at Zephaniah.
Zephaniah sank into a chair, his head spinning. The fire in front of him swam in his vision as he recalled that strange moment half a year ago. A voice had called his name from another fire. No one else heard it. He thought he imagined it. But now he wasn’t sure.
Zephaniah rolled his shoulders, trying to release some tension, and then rubbed his hands across his face. He didn’t know what to do now. Voices calling him from flames! He must be crazy! Except his mother had said he had a mission.
“Mom, please tell me everything you can about the house and that old woman who seems to run it. If I am to go back, I need to know who they are and what they want.” He spoke quietly, but with a firmness beyond his years.
“Her name is Mrs. Stone. As far as I can tell she is as old as the house and still going strong. She is solid as a rock, immovable in her opinions, flinty eyed when it comes to mischief, but she has broad shoulders and a soft heart for the sorrowful. Go to her when you are in trouble and you will receive unfailing aid,”
“But the house, Mom?”
“I don’t know, honey. All I know is that people staying there were given jobs to do, some of them pretty heroic. Like the time Lester had to lead a herd of sheep off the mountain in a crashing thunderstorm at night. Good thing he and his dog know that mountain like thee back of their hands er, paws. I just had to learn not to feel sorry for myself, and one day to marry and have a son.” She sighed wearily. “I don’t know else to tell you.”
“Can I trust them?” Zephaniah asked.
“With your life, ” she said swiftly. “They saved mine, you know. I was a proud, heartless vixen the day that fall blinded me, and drove the will to live out of me.” She reached out for him and he took her hand. “Ask anyone who knew me then and they will tell you that blindness was the best thing that ever happened to me. But I will add, no, it is the best only because of Mrs. Stone and the house.”
“Why do you say the house, Mom? Do you mean the people living in the house?” Zephaniah released her hand.
She smoothed her skirts, frowning a little. “No. Though they did help. It was the house.” Then she smiled. “It is alive, Zephaniah. It knows what you want and what you need, and when to give them both. It is like the world’s best parent, only it never speaks directly, only indirectly. And it is full of love, infinite love, for each one within it. Always room for one more. It always seems to know when someone’s coming. It’s the house that tells Mrs. Stone, you know.”
The snap of resin popping and wood burning was the only sound for a while. Both mother and son seemed far away, in quiet conversation with themselves. Finally, Zephaniah roused himself. Something had changed. He no longer looked like someone to be bullied. He had grown into a young man in an evening.
Zephaniah paused on the doorstep before entering. It wasn’t often doors swung open soundlessly at his approach, he thought to himself. No word, no knock, no touch even. Well, Mom had said it was alive. He stepped across the threshold.
Sconces on the wall flared one by one, lighting a path for him. The hall was long, with doors closed on either side, and no hint as to what lay beyond. He walked maybe 100 yards and then stopped. There was no sound of human activity of any kind. Is the place empty? He wondered, Or is everyone asleep? “Hello?” he called.
“Hello.” Mrs. Stone emerged from an alcove that must have been ahead. “Welcome back. Are you ready to begin?” She was dressed in a red velvet robe trimmed with sable, quite regal compared to the last time he saw her. Her hair was swept up and pinned with a diamond clasp.
Zephaniah blinked. “Where is everyone?” he asked.
“This is a private moment,” she responded, “one of great gravity. We honor it by giving you room and time for introspection. Your room is available to you as long as you need it. Everything that you need for your journey is also available to you there. If you need anything, simply ask out loud and you will be heard.” She bowed solemnly, then said, “Know this. You are not alone,” and turned and left him, disappearing into the same hidden alcove from which she had come.
Zephaniah blinked again. That was strange! He thought to himself, but maybe it will be clearer after I find my room. Looking around, he saw the lights now extended in a new direction; where the corridor met in a T intersection, then turn left, then off to the right into a small, somewhat shadowed alcove. He approached the door soberly, until the placard on its front could be read.
Shock, then awe, then confusion registered on his face. Was this his mission?
The sign on the door held two words.
Almighty Father, grant this servant of yours the dignity of the priesthood. Renew within him the Spirit of holiness. As a co-worker with the order of bishops may he be faithful to the ministry that he receives from you, Lord God, and be to others a model of right conduct.
Zephaniah approached the house on foot, with a pack slung over one shoulder, and a staff in hand. His dust-stained brown robe was worn and patched, with a hood that hid his graying hair. His beard, neatly trimmed was gray also.
A hundred yards away, he stopped to take out a flask and drink, and then wipe his forehead with an old handkerchief.
The house looks the same. Has it really been forty years? He thought to himself. Well, time to see what has changed.
As he came to the door it swung wide. Well, that hasn’t changed, he thought. Then he spied Mrs. Stone hurrying toward him, a most atypical grin on her face. “Welcome, dear Father,” she said. “Your room is ready, of course. The house knew you were coming.”
“Of course,” he said solemnly, and smiled in return.
“Are you coming to stay, Father?” Mrs. Stone quietly enquired as they walked down the corridor.
” I believe I am, Mrs. Stone,” he said. “I think I am to spend time in prayer. My heart is restless now and finds no peace in anything else. Nothing else will do. I am full to overflowing with the richness of lives I have shared, the births, deaths, marriages, baptisms, the community celebrations. I need to let all that richness take root and bear fruit in me, and for that I need solitude and peace. I have seen both the grace and goodness and wickedness that people are capable of. The human soul is a great mystery. Just imagine, Mrs. Stone, if I had walked away from the invitation 40 years ago. Obviously, I would be different, but different how?”
“It is my observation, Fr. Zephaniah, that second-guessing life choices goes nowhere good. I think it safe to say that the choice you made has made you a wise, gentle, and generous man, one who seeks after holiness. You can’t do better than that. But you have an obsession about doors, I’ve noticed…” she waited, eyebrow cocked, for him to react. He laughed.
Then suddenly she drew herself up regally, looking not unlike she had forty years ago, but without the red sable-trimmed robe. She placed her hand on his head and he felt compelled to kneel. She spoke. “So then, Hidden of God, do you bring to fulfillment the prophecy your mother received long ago. She would be very proud. Truly you are Zephaniah, Treasured by God, for your faithfulness. Be at peace.” So spoke the living Stone of the House with many rooms, on Hearthstone Hill. And so it was.