The Phenomenon Based on a True Story as a Young Man in High School
I quickly turned, looking down the old grand staircase of McAuliffe Hall, past its dark richly carved exotic woods. The Edwardian-inspired oak newel post anchored the steeply winding handrail just a few feet from where I nervously stood. The twist of spiraling handrail fell away like the trajectory of a jet fighter dropping into a death spiral through the tall spaces below. The ornate balusters, in rhythms of dark and light, all blurred past in one single sweep of descending vision spun past the scrolls of fleur-de-lis, hand wrought as only someone devoted to the service of God could craft. Exquisite artistic perfections to steady anyone wavering between floors with its delicate iron ribbon of Art-Deco spirals gracefully restraining with its unfailing embrace...inward.
I had no interest in admiring beautiful devotions to God. I felt the time between heart beats quickening. Fear pummeled my chest from the inside, wracking my nerves. These minor works of art were just insignificant details now, swirling in the swift transformation of vertical space, between worlds known and unknown. My eyes finally hit the first marble tread widening at the main floor...leading outward to the foyer. I looked at the stone floor where just moments before I had firmly stood, sensing the mysterious attraction. Something had drawn me up here. I had taken those first steps hesitantly, uneasy as I felt the smooth surface of the stair’s inviting volute, leaving behind the every-day pedestrian world that I walked with confident stride…everything safe, familiar, and comforting...falling aside.
The subtle radius of that first step and its delicate handrail reached out to me. My eyes traced the sensuous curves of the hand-worn wooden rail spiraling up the winding staircase. It filled the emptiness of the towering space, like the silhouette of a beautiful woman slowly turning while disrobing. The stair tower rose up on one side of the long public foyer, up from the simple orthogonal grid of grouted slate tiles that led only to more right-angled turns and the classroom floors beyond. Up through the tall foursquare space, filled with the faint lingering scent of pipe tobacco still clinging to the rough plaster walls, occasionally settling day after fay against the next lower band of wall panels with their projecting ogee crowns and intricate dentilled fascias.
I too rose, but at such an incline I was forced to witness every step I took, recording into my memory each deliberate act of will, climbing the forbidden cavernous tower where the sacred men of God descended each morning back-lit by the shifting diffused colors of a morning sun. Soft hues of light gradated down from the elevated panes of stained glass windows perched high above in the shed-dormer 'squints'. It was as if they arrived each day on rays of light dispatched from the Sun. At night they would ascend again, this time into the sparkling dark scrim at the end of each day, after their earthly obligations were dispensed saving souls and reaffirming heaven’s purpose. A cycle of life, as regular as the passing of each day, and as inevitable as each starlit night.
As I reached the third landing nearing my anticipated destination, I gasped for a steady breath to strengthen my resolve... moving forward a couple of steps and then side-stepping into a shallow niche between the tower and the massive main hip roof, a transition space with a small recessed window just above. The uncirculated air smelled musty, used, and old… like the stacks of random books piled high leaning against the walls for support. Papers and journals lined the walls of the small half-circle alcove, almost a closet. Like the intimate space across a pillow’s edge, in the close embrace of a morning lover, hair disheveled in piles and tangles. These were the records of complex passions deep and subtle, an intercourse of thoughts exchanged in timeless moments, fervently written, rarely read. It was here somewhere, among these forgotten texts of eternal love and daily devotions, amid the de-contextualized moments of lives floating on unbound pages… that I could feel it somewhere.
I had spotted its cover just the other day, while returning from a somber meeting with the school’s academic Dean. I was failing Latin, and possibly Biology, even though I had invented and built a working projecting-microscope out of junk lenses and broken gears, so that the whole class could see for themselves, all at one time up on the laboratory's walls, the glorious orgy of paramecium and amoebas flagellating themselves across a wet glass slide. They should have given me an award! But aside from trying to share my deeper visions, that perhaps only I found curiously meaningful and exciting, I practiced a posture of keeping a low profile. I did not want to draw the attention of those who could alter my fate. My father would put me to hard labor on his construction crews pouring concrete and raking rocks.
Just before the biology lab on the main floor, were two white marble pilasters solid as the earth. They stood twelve feet tall on their twenty four inch wide plinth bases, projecting part way into the hall facing each other. Like sentinels they signaled the threshold between the flagstone field of the long entry vestibule, and the freshly waxed rift-cut oak parquet floors leading further inward to the grand parlors of another era. These rooms had been converted into laboratories, ceilings dropped for fluorescent lights, work-top slabs of sea-green soapstone installed that over time acquired the odor of sulfur and formaldehyde. "Class-rooms" for the smartest and wealthiest boys in Fairfield county. I met only some of the criteria for being here, having been supported generously by my hard laboring, 2nd generation, Italian father who understood perhaps more than I realized...what this place was all about, although I knew we both respected its religious authority and the presence of wealth.
My life was great now! This fancy school and my cute girlfriend with her '68 Fiat 'Spyder'. I was in heaven! But I wasn’t focused on any of these fortuities now. Besides, who cared about stupid languages no-one spoke or invisible bugs dumber than dumb. I had seen something mysterious and primordial in that pile, like an occult alchemical symbol, as secret as the longings whispered across a pillow, like the desire of a shared love lasting forever. I had not been able to stop thinking about that symbol for almost a week. Day and night I dreamt about it hovering in my mind-scape, like a sacred fire burning away the sky revealing the greatest of God's secrets.
This book had caught my attention just before reaching the landing at the entrance to the staircase. I was with my adviser and mentor, Father Daniel Lewis who was soon to become head of Jesuit training in Boston. Yet despite his demanding obligations he was kindly escorting me back from my own personal inquisition, telling me not to worry. He sported one of his many burlwood pipes stuffed with exotic Balkan Latakian tobacco that smelled like old wet Persian rugs smoldering along the Baltic seacoast. A fragrance, if you could call it so, that for some reason I found comforting and reassuring. It’s smokey density swirled earthward down to my familiar ground amid the student low-lands. But I had seen it.... the symbol.... at that moment, just before the stairs.
I knew instinctively that this book was different from the others even though it wasn't old or particularly distinguished. It was dog-eared and tattered, not thick.... no leather covering, etched titles or gilded edges. Odd, I thought, that it wasn’t the title or author's name that had demanded my attention, but the simple enigmatic symbol, overarching the images of a few leaves on the cover. It seemed so intimately and timelessly familiar tugging at my deepest memories. I knew it from somewhere, lost in the clouds of time. It was like the body of the Egyptian goddess Nut, or the Milky Way Galaxy itself seen at just the right season, as if etched into my very soul over repeated incarnations. Perhaps it was from a past lifetime, or even more incredibly, a future existence!
But now, I stood quietly, quavering at the center of the alcove, trying not to knock into the stacks or to push anything over….I focused with keen attention on the slightest change in the gradient of light across the floor below, or any disturbances in the silent shadows. I could feel my heart beating against my ribs, the heat rising in my face, the first drops of sweat escaping from my forehead. If only I could escape, from whatever this was that had called me up here, pulled at me. The thing that had ensnared me like a wild animal just at the moment of knowing it had been irreversibly captured by some unknown force…. and then, I saw it.
It seemed less important now….just a book….except for that symbol on the cover that somehow still commanded my instant attention. This could just as easily have been any other ordinary cheap paperback from a drug store rack. As I gazed at the cover in curious reverie, I studied the symbol, the symmetrical serifs to either side, the curve of the enlarged font rising and arching, varying in thickness and width over the sprouting leaf. I imagined the rising and setting of the hand that might have brushed it's arc...like the path of the sun at Equinox…and the moon when they are but opposite sides of the same turning.
I twisted to the left cautiously leaning out from the alcove spying the top of the staircase, then down into the better day-lit common spaces below, listening for any approaching footsteps. And then finally, on the same floor where I stood, I peered deeply into the dark diminishing depths of the dormitory corridor their doors closed to each other, receding into the vanishing distance like a tunnel of mirrors...nothing.
And in a flash I grabbed it! Quick as a dear at the forest's edge, stuffing it under my jacket just beneath the proud emblem of this noble school, the Stag. Holding my breath, I took one step quickly into the center of the hall, exactly where I had stood weeks before with Father Dan reassuringly at my side. I exhaled and breathed deeply steeling myself, and without heal nor toe, walked stoically towards that sturdy newel post, remembering Father Dan's advice. I braced myself against it, as if he were still here beside me but only long enough to gain my balance, and then swiftly descended the endlessly turning steps of that Jacobean staircase until I was at last home-safe on the main floor of McAuliffe Hall, exactly where I was supposed to be.
I could hear spring's first birds twittering outside. The robins and chickadees calling in the mid-morning light from the garden wall. I glanced at the familiar wall-hung pewter sconces with their steeple-top finials flanking the entry door. Its steel-framed perimeter glazed with leaded glass. The steel muntin pattern the same above as below, with a waist-high bar across each door connecting the horizontal bronze handles to the vertical floor-to-transom elegant cremone bolts. I had passed through these doors a thousand times on my way to class. But this time, as I crossed the stone threshold, worn in the middle from decades of students, the lanterns unexpectedly flickered as if someone was working on the electrical system. I tried not to place any significance on the coincidence, and instead braced myself to pull the heavy slow-swinging doors toward me into a securely closed position. I stood facing the narrow vertical astragal, a metallic lip that lapped one door over the other. It sealed tightly as I eyed the tall sliver of interior space quickly disappearing. I was centered on the door, centered between the cut stone pillars of the North facade, and centered on the building's overall architectural axis, an imaginary line defining the main building's primary symmetry.
My awareness moved from that 2 dimensional line, to the entry's perfect stone arch. I could see that it's arc also centered on the door's threshold. Again my consciousness expanded outward from that threshold point. I sensed the sun's path high above me as if it were tied to the same center. At that moment the sun cleared the treetops, brilliant sunlight broke out across the walled courtyard. The intense light reflected off the car's windshield and sleek polished hood, sweeping across the granular surface of the white quartz-pebbled courtyard, becoming like a mirror of the sun's surface. The gravel stones shone and sparkled as if glowing from within, each with its own internal source of light spread out like a sea of burning particles. I was frozen for a moment, Prometheus with his treasure in a field of stones all aflame. I felt a similar fire igniting in my heart as well, pulsing in synchrony with the luminous field I stood on. Gravity held my feet to the quarry of embers, burning in appearance...but with no sensible heat. I walked quickly toward the East edge of the glowing ground to where I had parked only 15 minutes ago. I opened the car door wide and in the rebound of its flexing hinges pulled it swiftly closed behind me as I dropped safely down into the driver's leathery bucket seat. I finally disengaged from the disorienting vision. I closed the canvas, top down. And in the security of that shaded space, gathered my thoughts. What on earth had just happened!? What had I seen?
I pulled the book out from under my jacket holding it reverently in my shaking hands. I studied the cover that had become as familiar to me now as my own name. And in that extended time of contemplation I finally beheld the meaning of that powerful symbol. I imagined that this was how the author might have first seen it as well, through the limited gaze of human eyes looking into an infinite mind he had but touched, and in so doing had become one with it as well. The embodiment of sacred energies transmitting its numinousity through a single human life. A passing flame in a sacred book that forever changed how I viewed the world. As I drove away....everything dimmed to normal.