The National Catholic Review
Paul Mariani
For Fr. Bill McNichols
From house to house he treks, and inn to inn, the feral dogs
following the exhausted donkey. His wife, tired as she is,
does not complain. She knows he is doing all he can,
but there is no room, no room, no room. In time to come,
that common cri de coeur: no room. He hears the clink
of tankards, the bawdy laughter in the inner courtyard,
the dogs closing in. It is dark, dark, but somehow
filled with light, a dark light which is always there, he sees,
though there are precious few who dream enough to see it.

My little grandson gets up from talking to his train set
and looks at me. Then, without the faintest warning,
charges into my arms, believing without sufficient reason
that I will somehow be ready to catch and lift him
high above himself as his shadow falls across me.
He laughs, knowing he is somehow safe, though
my left arm hurts from sanding floors and lifting wood
in his father’s house, and the arthritis I have always
dreaded shoots once more across my right hand and wrist
to remind me once again how time keeps running out.

At last he finds someone who will let him use the stable,
a cave in the cold rocks, ripe with the dank smell of donkey
dung and hay. He covers his young wife with the tatters
of his cloak, stung again by what it means to be without,
here where someone with his blood was anointed king
a thousand years before, before the deportations, before
the shod boots of troops speaking in barbaric tongues.

And now the quickening contractions. Joseph the dreamer,
Joseph the shadow of the Father, the stand-in, here in this
backwater with the name God’s house. And only after
so much time has passed even Herod’s scribes will scratch
their heads, trying to remember where this quasi-mythical
Messiah will be born. Something reaches down and begins
again here on this threshing floor, like those waters from
the temple flowing east, a trickle of light only first, and then
the baby’s cry, as now the mother wraps him in her arms.
And the man, warmed by what he has been witness to,
swears he will do everything he can to cover both of them
in his failing, trembling arms, knowing it is that other Father
who keeps him grounded in the presence of so much arcing light.

Paul Mariani, professor of English at Boston College, wrote this meditation on the icon "Shadow of the Father," by the Rev. William Hart McNichols, of Ranchos de Taos, N.M.

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