"one little clink, and then another"

The retreat this past weekend went very well. One of our best experiences, I think. I'll write more about it when things quiet down a little around here, but here's the dramatic reading Heather wrote to get us into the story of the widow's two coins:

I have walked two miles today, and now I am at the Temple. The house of God, the glorious place, where I will do what I have got to do.

But now I stand looking at it, the white marble pillars, the engraved gold on their tops, and I seem to shrink into myself. I'm sweating. It's so hot. The beautiful lady walking ahead of me, with the gold woven into her veil, she has a servant with her, fanning her with a huge fan. I have my old brown dress, and my sweat, and the two pennies clenched in my hand. I follow her in through the high gates, watch the heads turn toward her. Their eyes slide quickly over me, they don't see me, and why should they? People don't like to look at ugly things. Not here in the Temple, where everything is beautiful, to honor God. Not here where you can hear the choirs singing, even from out in the courtyard, the music rising like incense—incense and marble and gold, gleaming in the sunlight, what am I doing here? What did I ever think God wanted with me and my rough hands and my old clothes and my ugly face? What did I ever think God wanted with my two pennies, him that has marble and gold? I should turn around. I should turn and go home. But I can't face it, the walk. Home under the beating sun, for nothing. I swore I would do this. I made a vow to God. You're not supposed to break that. Even if you offered God something he didn't want. You promised. That's all.

I promised. I go on.

God has everything. He made everything, all of it is his. Things more beautiful than gold or pillars—the thousands of stars in the night sky, the red poppies with their petals softer than the silk that woman ahead of me wears. Water. Is there anything as beautiful as running water, the way it gleams like live silver in the sun? A man gave me a cup of water on the way here—a water-carrier with two heavy buckets he'd probably carried for a mile, I knew he couldn't afford to be giving it away, but he did, and smiled and called me “mother” for respect. I never tasted anything so good. I tried to give him one of my coins—though I could hardly stand to let it go—but he wouldn't let me. Such a kind young man, such openness in his face, it made me wish that my Johanna were still with me. A man like that, that was what she needed. Johanna. I pray for her every day, and every day I wonder. Where she is. If she's all right.

God gave me a good life. Oh, you could say it was a bad one, people do say that; what do they know? I'm alive, not dead. I still have joy, in a cup of cold water, in the face of a young man. I have something to give to God, even if they say it's nothing. My husband is dead, and of my two daughters one died in childbirth and the other ran away. And yes, it hurts. It always has and it always will. God hurts, too. It doesn't help to have gold or stars or incense, I think, when you have children who've run away, who are living their own nightmares and still will not come home.

I wanted to give him something. I wanted to give him something, to tell him thank you, to tell him I know, to say please, please do all you can for my Johanna and I know you love her too. And this is all I have, and he knows that; if he allows it I should be getting a little more next week, but until then I don't know what I'll eat, and he knows that too. It was the only way I could do it. I tried and tried to save a little up, but I couldn't. So I had to, I had to do this for him. He'll take care of me, I thought. He's taken care of widows before.

But now I don't know. Now I feel ashamed. The temple shines with gold in the sun and I have come to give him two pennies. Two pennies, as if they were worth something. As if I was doing something important, as if me and my sweat-stained dress were something God wanted to see. What will they use my two pennies for, in this temple? To buy a rag to wipe the floors with? What will people think of me, seeing me drop them in the offering box?

The beautiful lady in her silk dress is still ahead of me, walking slowly between her servants under the colonnade, gracefully. She turns aside a little, to avoid a group of dusty men listening to some kind of teacher. They lean in, all eyes on him; his face is hard and angry as I pass by, and I hear him saying “they eat up widow's houses and then they pray long prayers in front of everyone—”

And I stop for a moment; for a moment I turn back towards them, because I am amazed. Because yes, they do. Because Simon, the man who now owns the house I birthed my babies in, he does, he prays long prayers in the synagogue and everyone thinks he is holy, and when I went to the judge to say that Simon cheated me the judge yawned and looked away. Because why should he listen? Simon is somebody and I am nobody. Nobody at all. And this teacher in the temple, how does he know?

As I pause, as I look back at the teacher, he raises his eyes and meets mine. He sees me. His face isn't hard, for a moment, it's like that young man's, the one who gave me water. But sadder. Tireder. Like he knows the weight of it, like me. And for that moment he sees me.

It's only a moment. One of the other men opens his mouth to say something, and I turn away, hoping they didn't see me, hoping they didn't see their teacher staring at an ugly old woman, and her staring back. I go on. The beautiful lady is there, a few steps ahead, at my destination. The offering box. She is untying a purse from her belt; it's heavy. Other people are watching her too. She tips it into the slot, holding it by the bottom; I hear the heavy ring of the coins falling in, I see the glint of gold. Someone near me gasps. “All of it!” I hear someone murmur a blessing. I stand there, not moving, hoping no one sees me.

I am nobody. Nobody.

I stand there for a minute, trembling a little, as one by one the well-dressed people put their money in. Silver, gold. I am nobody. I am ashamed.

But I promised.

I step forward, still shaking. There is no one by the offering box now, no one to shoulder me aside, this is my chance. Oh God, take what I give, you know it can't be more. You know I would if I could. Oh God, have mercy on me, have mercy on my Johanna. I hear the tiny clink of my little copper coin falling on the silver and gold in the box; one little clink, and then another, and my hands are empty. I have nothing left to give.

I turn away, quickly, hoping no one saw.