by Cheryl Ann Smith.
Life in Roanoke, Virginia, has been a surprise. In fact, it has been layers and layers of delightful, colorful, beautiful surprises.
I had heard about the lovely mountains surrounding the city, but I hadn’t expected the majesty and grandeur of the view from the nearby Peaks of Otter. From that vantage point, one can see at least nine mountain ridges, the parkway snaking along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the vastness of the valley between the mountains.
From that point, one can also see the Appalachian "gaps and hollers" I’ve read about and the verdant valley farms. And imagine seeing all of this bathed in a sunset glow!
Within those mountains is a culture entirely different from that of Roanoke, a city in the valley. Every week, a nearby mountain town, Floyd, hosts a Friday night bluegrass jamboree. So well-known is this weekly event that people start streaming towards the town throughout the afternoon, dressed in everything from sparkles and dancing shoes to overalls, flannel shirts and country hats.
By suppertime, musicians pull out their instruments, and start playing in every nook and cranny of the main street. In the winter, they find storefronts, including the local 1950’s style barber shop, where the barber just keeps on cutting hair.
Throughout the evening, folks walk from one group to another, drinking in the exuberance of the music, and often breaking out in flat foot dancing (like clogging). Musicians with banjo, guitar, stand-up bass, mandolin and fiddle make magic with their fingers.
My favorite musician is Lightnin’ Jack, an elderly wisp of a man who gets so excited in his fiddling that he starts whirling and twirling as his fingers dance across the strings.
Another surprise was the Bible Belt culture—that is, the culture of the Fundamentalist Protestants of the American South.
I am deeply moved by the way Christianity is woven into this culture. It makes me think of our foundress Catherine Doherty’s experience in pre-revolutionary Russia, when God and prayer were spoken of freely. I haven’t heard a hint of apology or embarrassment in saying anything religious or any political-correctness-hesitation either!
Let me tell you a story that exemplifies this attitude. One day, I went to pick up my shoes from a repair shop, and the young fellow at the cash register remarked on my "necklace." He obviously wasn’t Catholic or he would have recognized a medal (of Our Lady of Combermere).
Not having the time or inclination to embark on a theological discussion of Our Lady, I just thanked him. However, he asked what it was. Evasively, I just said it was of a statue in my home area. But he persisted in his questions.
So I broke down: "It’s a statue of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Yes, it’s not the usual picture of Mary in prayer. She’s running to embrace her children."
This young man’s next words stopped me in my tracks: "Why, it reminds me of the father of the Prodigal Son, running to meet him."
That was a profound connection that I had never made. And what an image: the Father and Mother, eternally running to embrace us.
The final aspect of life in Roanoke isn’t so much a surprise, as a delightful discovery. For the first time in my thirty years in Madonna House, I find myself in a small prayer house.
Most of the time has been with Margarita Guerrero in the quieter summer season. Now Patricia Lawton, who spent the summer helping out in Combermere, has returned, and the fall activities have quickened the tempo of life.
But through all these variations, I have fallen more and more in love with the essence of our Madonna House way of life. I love the simplicity of peacefully serving through my tasks of cleaning, laundry, and "the garbage run".
I loved living with Margarita, who positively glows and sparkles with her love for God and life, and with Patricia, whose immense motherly heart embraces all who phone or come to the door. I love the beauty and power of our prayer, which radiates love and faith into a world so desperately in need of both.
Life in Roanoke: layer upon layer of beauty and peace, with the oasis of Madonna House nestled in a sea of concrete, Roanoke nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and hooked in the Bible Belt, and all nestled in the embrace of God and Our Lady.
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