It Takes Faith – by Helga Gruendler-Schierloh

You can go home again without having to stay there, I mused as I looked across the horizon and yawned.

Rubbing my eyes to shake off the sleepiness settling in me, I no longer wanted to postpone what I came here to do. While visiting my native Germany, I decided to once more return to Schellenbach, the small, rural Bavarian village of my childhood. I hoped that a bit of nostalgic getting-in-touch with my roots might ease the longing I often felt when I remembered whom and what I had left behind when I moved to another country thousands of miles away.

I pushed myself off the jagged rock marking the intersection between the paved highway and the sandy path that led me into the nearby pine forest. When I approached the shady gathering of trees, my steps grew heavy.

Drawing a deep breath, I told myself, “It takes faith for dreams to come true. It takes faith to end nightmares. It takes faith….,” before I entered the wooded alcove sheltering the shrine of “The Madonna of Vesperbild.” 

I stepped into the semi-circle made up of plaques crediting the power of prayer for granting a variety of miracles and turned my attention to the “pieta,” the artful depiction of the grieving Virgin Mary holding her slain son in her lap.

The light of a myriad of candles reflecting ominously off the sacred icon’s gilded parts and the glittering baroque decorations surrounding it, put me once again under its spell—just as it had in my younger years.

“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” my husband, the product of a devout evangelical American family, once teased me when I refused to eat meat on Good Friday. Although my belief in the supernatural had undergone significant changes throughout the years, I often retrieved my early conditioning like an old security blanket. It felt like home. I made me feel safe.

That’s why now kneeling down on the weather-worn prayer bench facing the revered image, I eased into a meditative peace that permeated me with a soothing reassurance of an existence beyond reality—a getting in touch with one’s soul. For a few fleeting minutes, I felt surrealistically at one with the hurts of the past, the joy of the present, and the still untapped possibilities of the future.

I let my head sink onto the narrow ledge touching my torso. Pressing my right cheek hard against the wood’s rough surface, I closed my eyes. Tears welled up and dangled from the tip of my nose before seeping into the crevices below.

I remained motionless.

Frozen in that pose, I lost track of time.

I was oblivious to the sun dimming and the wind increasing. However, the gusts of air brushing across my tear-stricken face and cooling the wetness on my cheeks crudely chilled the magic that had held me enraptured just moments before.

Shivering now, I forced myself upright. Still in a daze, I made my way toward the vinyl-covered oak table where fresh candles of all sizes and colors were beckoning.

I slipped a handful of coins into the slit of a prominently placed offertory box, then picked out a short, slightly yellowed stub made of beeswax.

Plain and sturdy, I thought. So the wind won’t blow it out too fast, and it can burn much longer. Plain, sturdy, and reliable—that’s how my childhood home used to be. 

“Yes, this one is perfect!”

My voice cutting into the surrounding stillness, I approached the spider-like wire arms of a huge, metallic candelabra. Shaped like some bizarre Christmas tree, the roughly three-feet tall structure was covered with a myriad of tiny spokes holding a vast variety of candles. Most of them were no longer alive. Only about a dozen—all white, except for a single red one—still flickered nervously in the evening breeze while highlighting the immediate area with a warm yellow tinge.  

Careful not to drop the stubby piece that was beginning to soften in my hot palm as if yearning to be sacrificed, I searched for a suitable spot to attach it. When I found one near the top, I borrowed the lonely burning red candle to ignite my own.

Then I fastened my offering to the tree of light. Although I knew the magic I now felt couldn’t last, I delighted in harvesting this special moment to honor and celebrate a bygone time that was innocently carefree as well as a solid stepping stone into adulthood.

My father was not a religious man. I assume his war experiences had extinguished in him any trace of trusting in a kind and benevolent god. It was my mother who made sure her two girls regularly attended church on Sunday. She also instilled in me and my sister a strong belief in our own abilities for mastering life’s challenges.

I guess, in revisiting my upbringing, I also aimed at reinforcing the wholesome benefits my parents had so generously supplied. Mom’s optimism and gutsy take on life, combined with the steadfast security dad provided, would forever shape my vision of the contentment I was striving to achieve.

As I gazed upward to the tip of the metal pole rising in the center of the light brigade, I eyed the melted remnants of pinkish wax. Drooping, the gooey chunk was still solidly anchored to the metallic thorn piercing its middle.

I suppressed the urge to straighten it.

It felt somehow disrespectful to interfere with someone else’s intent for this disintegrated candle. Maybe a physical ailment interfered with placing it properly, or it had been hung sideways on purpose—in some odd plea for hope against all odds.

I did, however, free up and rekindle the thick, sunken wick of that contorted bulge. Staring at the newly-born flame I was suddenly overcome with a wave of emotions. To seek comfort, I joined the wind’s breathy whispering with, “It takes faith.”

Yes, I thought, it doesfor so many things, but especially to bid farewell to a world that only exists as a memory.

Dizzy and elated, I opened my arms toward a sky that was barely visible through the dense thicket of trees. When my hands shook, I stuck them firmly into my jean’s pockets and bolted from the clearing.

I retrieved my car from the local church’s parking lot and raced up the hill to the castle of Seyfriedsberg.

After passing that estate’s main entry gate, I pulled into a muddy patch near the Duke’s horse stables.

This castle was one more reminder of things now way in the past.

During World War II, the Duke and Duchess of Wallerstein had vacated their   picturesque hilltop home, for it to shelter a group of senior citizens from the nearby metropole of Augsburg while that city was being bombed. In this haven of relative safety amidst a world filled with strife and bloodshed, Catholic nuns were overseeing the wellbeing of the people in their care.

Out here, in the countryside, the war could almost have been missed if it had not been for local males being recruited to fight, and eventually a slew of displaced refugees showing up. That’s also how my mother and I had arrived—after fleeing the embattled territory along the country’s eastern border.

Being a rather outgoing and talkative child, I soon developed a special bond with the middle-aged nun in charge of the temporary nursing home’s food supply. That godly woman with a heart of gold actually managed to implement a hands-on approach to the humanitarian message of her calling. 

Hunger driving me, I often darted up the hill to knock on the castle’s kitchen door, where “Sister Ehrentrud” would fill my kettle with soup. Once in a while, she even curled some baked goods into my small fist. I, on the other hand, rewarded her kindness with spending long hours combing through the surrounding meadows to pick bouquets of daisies, her favorite flowers, for her.

When the entourage of old folks eventually moved back to the city, the castle’s owners returned—and our local fairytale place was once more off-limits to commoners. 

On Sundays, we would see the Duke, the Duchess, and their children worshipping in a pew especially reserved for them near the altar—set off from the village population.

Everyone seemed to take this division for granted.

But during our feeble, old priest’s lengthy sermons, my young mind shifted into wondering if heaven might be arranged this way as well—with a chosen few comfortably seated while everyone else squeezed together on long, narrow benches. I also imagined how it would feel to have my own designated seat in church, the privilege of riding pure-breads, and the luxury of a personal tutor instead of attending our tiny country school.

It was then that I concluded life on earth simply wasn’t fair—and it remained yet to be seen what kind of a setup the afterlife had to offer.

Now shaking off my reminiscing, I headed toward the small chapel facing me.

After unlatching a tiny cast-iron gate that opened into a pristinely maintained patch of grass and flowers, I glimpsed two grave stones. One of them marked the resting place of the former Duchess of Wallerstein who succumbed to cancer in her early forties. The other held the remains of her son, the young Duke of Wallerstein, who took his own life at the age of twenty-one. 

Painfully reminded that even blue bloods weren’t shielded from life’s tragedies, I succumbed to a respectful silence. Then, to escape the gloominess that threatened to engulf me, I hurried to take in the view I came to see.

The setting sun spread a golden glow across the valley below.

Nestled into the lush green bottom of it, my childhood village appeared to be wrapped into a translucent and peaceful aura which imbued the small scattering of red-shingled roofs with a touch of rusty other-worldliness.

The houses were closely huddled together—as if taking comfort in the fact that although few, they were strong in unity. Off to the right of the cluster, I spotted the farm-house where my mother and I had first found refuge until dad returned from the war.

My sister was born in that place. 

Suddenly I smiled.

Several years before, I had brought my teenaged son along to show him “where I had come from.” After deliberately parking in this very spot, I exclaimed with a sweeping gesture, “Honey, look, this is where I grew up. Isn’t it beautiful?” 

Absorbed in reading the ‘The Hound of Baskerville” during our drive from the city, he reluctantly put down his paperback. He leaned out the window, tweaked his nose, and shouted, “Whew, Mom! When you were a kid, you must have held your breath a lot.”

I closed up the car to lock out the pungent odor of manure before squeezing my son’s cheek and muttering, “Good grief, aren’t you ever romantic! Couldn’t you a least reflect on the beauty first and comment on the stink later?”

Asked if he cared to take a closer look at the castle, he lifted his head anew from his novel, only to grumble, “Not,” before adding, “Unless there’s a very pretty princess.”

When he heard that only an old Duke was living there, he instantly disappeared again into the backseat to retrieve his book and find the page where he’d left off.

Recalling this little incidence, I abruptly sobered.

Jolted back into reality, I suddenly missed my son and daughter tremendously.

It was time for me to leave the world of my own childhood behind and focus instead on creating a wonderful one for my offspring.

Helga Gruendler-Schierloh is a bilingual writer with a degree in journalism and graduate credits in linguistics. Her articles, essays, short stories, and poetry have appeared in the USA, the UK, Canada, and South Africa. Her debut novel, Burying Leo, a Me-Too story, won second place in women’s fiction during Pen Craft Awards’ 2018 writing contest.