Last night I slept in a house built in the name of God, a shelter for His shepherd to a mountain people. The church touches His house -- a chalet with eaves built long, going low to the ground to hold the weight of winter snow. The eaves lie wide like long ears listening, and the church bells ring into them each hour. In God's house live my pastor friend, Pascal, his wife, Amelie, and their three small children.
Pascal and Amelie were strangers from a village 50 miles away when he came to preach in L'Etivaz. In a year's time their warmth had melted any late snow left on mountain hearts. He moved his family up into the valley knowing that to be tucked in the folds of the Swiss Alps is to be hidden deeper and held even more quietly in winter. Inside the mountains, the folds darken early on a winter afternoon, and the sun passes to another ridge.
It's April now, when mountain seasons shift. Glacial snow is shuddering and streams begin. Inside the chalet, under the long-eared eaves, I woke early and lay still, listening in my bed under a bookshelf. There was no direct light in the village, but by spying through a heart-shaped cut in the middle of the wooden shutter, I could see an alpen glow on the snow high up. The children moved upstairs. They were playing quietly. Papa was praying.
When Amelie brought us together for a breakfast of village brown bread, butter, and her own current jam from canes in the yard, Pascal came down wrapped against the floor's cold stone in a white terry robe. His black church shoes showed below. He discovered that I knew a Latin song of grace, so the children gave it as a gift to me, singing in rounds with their voices circling in layers of ice-clear sound. We squeezed hands Amen. I passed the basket. Pascal moved the pitcher closer to his son, who poured out the hot milk and dropped in precious bits of chocolate. The white swirled into brown, as he put two hands around the glass to drink. I snagged a mug at the last moment from the smallest , Isabelle.The table was clothed in heavy linen, and in one corner was the sun in a pot of golden summer honey. We ate it on buttered bread until wer were filled.
After breakfast, Pascal went back to his study. The children ran out leaving little Isabelle near where Amelie and I washed. Amelie went to the cupboard, as I picked up a plate to dry. She pulled out a bag holding, to my dismay, a loaf of American-looking bread. Inside, the loaf leaned against the clear, plastic sack. The crust remained dimpled where Amelie had touched it. Conscious of its being out of place, I thought how it didn't belong in a village that squeezed whey from cheese with a wooden press, but being guest-like I went on drying dishes. I decided it must be for the children at lunch with their yet indescriminate, untrained palates. Amelie cut the loaf. The soft, pale sides came off quickly. Then she sliced away the spongy crust on top so that all that remained was a white square. In the next room, Isabelle tipped over into a pile of blocks. Momentarily, I forgot the bread and left the dishes.
Listening to Pascal preach, sitting with his flock on the scrubbed white pine benches, I pretended I was invisible and completely comfortable on the wood without cushions. The clean, pine church had filled in five minutes with peasants with ruddy skin and square jaws, whispers in "patois"m across the pews, the smell of clean hair, the shine of it, and gestures of tanned and knotted hands reaching to touch in warm, once-a-week greetings. Pascal came in from the cold vestibule in flapping black robes.
His sermon was punctuated with hymns and blessed by the breathing of his congregation. The church bell rang the hour, and cow bells swinging on the hill behind the church rang another time. Pascual stepped down from his pulpit to celebrate the sacrament. He wished away the napkin covering the blessed bread, and there I recognized the white square, pale and shinning in its crustless state. Amelie had cut it into bit-sized pieces. When it came around to me, I ate with discreet chews, then gulped. Strong jaws around me moved and swallowed , moved and swallowed.
The rest of the hour, I got up and down at the right times, but my thought rose and wouldn't settle while searching this latest irony. How could I have been told more clearly that the substance of the bread was in its symbol and not in its white flour content? White, American, sesame-seeded, with this bread we celebrate sacrifice -- the smaller vision of self given up and a greater gained. Pascal gives time to his village family, thought to his prayers for them, food to his children. Amelie cooks for her family, cuts the bread for her husband's congregation. We all live the sacrifice in simple ways, so that our being includes the good of others. Only the small self is gone, overshadowed by the resurrection of a larger vision.
I left the church smiling. Some American bread may slouch in its plastic sack, but the symbol remains strong. Outside the open door of the church, Sunday School children played "cache-cache" between the gravestones. Bells sounded off the valley walls. The milling congregation was lit by the year's young sun. I ran back to the chalet to hide from a glacial wind under the low eaves. Tucked in my sun-warm shelter. I watched a brown cow push a bony head between barbed wire and drink fom the parsonage fountain. She sucked in cool water, then moved away to graze.
Because Monday and school for me was 100 kilometers away, I left my "family" that afternoon. Amelie slipped a foil-wrapped snack for the drive next to my seat. Fifty kilometers later, on the other side of the Col de St. Croix, I was hungy and pulled away the shiny wrapping. Tucked in the cinkled aluminum lay the crust and cuttings from the holy bread, spread thick with butter and brother love. In celebrat ion, I savored all of it.