This morning, on my way to work, I stopped to chat a minute with a neighbor, an older gentleman I see nearly every morning on my walk to work. We always wave at one another, exchange “Hello” and “How are you?” but we’ve never really talked before. Sometimes, I catch him napping in his lawn chair.
This morning, I decided to take a minute and tell him about a community picnic I am helping to organize and so it is we “got to talking”. I learned he is “full-blood Apache”, in his words, and originally from Arizona, from land he considers to be sacred. His name is Thundercloud, but “people around here just call me Joe. Indian Joe.” “Thundercloud?” The sound of it made me sigh. I said it is a beautiful name. He said “Thank you for that sigh when you say my name.” He was sincere. I told him that the closest I came to having a name like that was when friends, who happen to be deaf, gave me a sign language name. The name they gave me is made by tweaking my smile dimple with the sign for the letter D – the first letter of my name. “Yeah, that’s a nice name, too.” Joe laughed.
Indian Joe has been in the Denver valley several years, but he is looking forward to returning to his sacred home in a few years, when he is seventy. I asked him if he thinks we can carry that “sacredness” inside us wherever we are. He laughed. “Of course.” I told him about a hummingbird I saw on my walk and asked if he knew the significance of hummingbirds. “I know it,” he said, tapping his forehead. “I have it right here, but I can’t come up with it right at this moment.” “No worries.” I told him. “Maybe it will be there next time I come by. Hope we get some rain.”
He gave me a long sizing-up kind of look.
“The Virgin Mary showed herself to me.” He paused, gauging my response. I laughed, taken aback at the coincidence that I had been, just an hour earlier, reading an account of Saint Marie-Bernarde Soubirous. In 1858, at 14 years old, she was reported to have seen a number of visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at a cave grotto near Lourdes, the now-famous site of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. The shrine, in the southwest of France, is known for the miraculous healing powers of an underground spring. I grew up in (and left) the Southern Baptist Church, so my background information regarding holy apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary is limited, at best. As a spiritual seeker, I have been reading a wide range of spiritual literature these last few years, but only this morning had delved into this particular subject area, in a book about sacred pilgrimages I happened to pick up at a yard sale recently. When I shared the coincidence, he laughed. “No kidding. Just this morning?” “I am not a Catholic.” I confessed. “Don’t matter.” He said. “I believe in the Great Spirit”, he said, hands spreading to include everything around us. “I tell my friends I don’t care what you believe in, Catholic, Baptist, whatever, you are still my friend.”
He was quiet for several seconds.
“The Virgin Mary showed herself to me in the burner of my stove. You want to see? There is a picture of her, plain as day. You really want to see?” “Sure”, I said. “You want to come in and see? You feel OK about coming in?” “Sure. I’m fine”, I assured him. “No, maybe it’s better you wait here. Some people are a little nervous about seeing the Virgin Mary. Sit on the bench. I’ll be right back.”
Waiting, all I could think about was the Grilled Jesus episode of Glee, when Finn found an image of Jesus cooked into the top of his grilled cheese sandwich.
Indian Joe came back around the side of his house with the stainless steel cover of a stove-top grill in one hand, and an empty ceramic window-box planter in the other. “Look here,” he said, carefully keeping the important side of the grill cover turned away for effect. “I’ve got two to show you.” He turned the planter upside down to reveal a white, pink and gray swirl in the pattern of the ceramic. It was obviously the random result of the production of this planter, but its resemblance to the iconic Virgin Mary in robes was remarkable. The image, complete with white halo, was simply gorgeous. It reminded me of very ancient stone mosaics of the Virgin. “Wow. That is beautiful.” “You see it, don’t you?” Joe smiled. For the big reveal, Indian Joe pivoted the stainless panel toward me. In the center was a large flame-scorched splash of color in the same iconic shape as the first, but radiant. “Can you see her? Can you see her?” Transmuted by the alchemy of flame, the metal had turned mostly golden, the glowing Virgin Mary clothed in blood red robes, the whole image haloed in iridescent green.
My eyes welled up. “You see her.” Joe was relieved. “You received a blessing here today.” He leaned the images side by side against the bench so we could admire them both, together. ““You were drawn to stop and visit for a reason today, weren’t you?” Indian Joe seemed very pleased. “You always have a place here. Stop by anytime.”
A little later when I got home, I searched the Internet for hummingbird symbolism and the first story I turned up was a legend about an Apache warrior named Wind Dancer. Wind Dancer was deaf, but sang magical songs that could heal or bring much-needed rain. As the story goes, he once rescued a woman named Bright Rain from a wolf, and immediately fell in love with her and they were married. Later Wind Dancer was tragically killed, but would visit Bright Rain when she went out for walks. He would appear in the form of a hummingbird. I get it. I do. I have long believed there are no coincidences. But, really, what are the chances that in the first story I turn up, I find a deaf person, an Apache, a healer and a hummingbird who brings rain –on the very same day I met Indian Joe Thundercloud, with whom I discussed deafness, sign language, Apaches, miracles, hummingbirds and rain.