His breath made a rope of mist in the icy air. Like a dancer, it whirled and climbed toward the brightening sky as Father Jonas turned two merry little twirls beneath it. His old bones were stiff in the bitter cold of the damp courtyard, but the sun was sitting in triumph on the chapel tower, and a brave bird was crying so wild a good morning that his heart leapt up to meet its note of joy.
Christmas Eve had dawned and Jonas felt as weightless in spirit and free in soul as the misty air. Birdlike, he hopped through the courtyard, chirping a carol under his breath. Despite his thin skin and rheumatic bones, he felt this lightness most days, for the self he had always been was slipping away, replaced by something that felt like sunlight. He was very old and couldn’t remember much, even his own name at times. But oh, he was happy.
People, he knew, whispered that he’d lost his mind. This assumption left him quite indignant, for his mind gleamed and shimmered within him like a newborn thing. He heard myriad voices and saw half shadows of things that took his breath with their beauty. The only things he’d lost were the heavy thoughts that set him too roundly in his body, the little worries that stuffed the minds of everyone else too full for wonders. Most of his life, they filled his mind too and forced him to all sorts of practical deeds. But now, old age had set him free.
With stiff fingers, he unlocked the chapel door. Sweep out the cobwebs, set the hymnbooks straight, light the candles, the old man could at least do that they said. He could indeed and relished every minute, for he loved the chapel. He felt vaguely that it was his last home, a place in between, already tinged with the air of the unknown world that called him on. He was a daily presence in the great place, a tiny figure scurrying about in his billowy black robes with a face that looked ancient as the hills and eyes that were fresh as a child’s. His hair was a poof of unruly whiteness that looked like a dandelion ready to blow away in the wind of his constant bustle.
“Bring joy to this house O Lord,” he sang his daily prayer as he opened the gate this morning, for however old he got and however many thoughts he lost, the prayers never left. “Bring joy, please, oh please” he added once more, for the sorrow he felt in the people who came to the chapel hurt him long after they had gone. In the absence of his own heavy thoughts, he found that he often knew the dark thoughts of the people near him. Not the substance so much as the essence. Anger, grief, joy. He carried it with them somehow, when it came, and lately, all that came was sorrow. Every soul that entered his chapel seemed bent and battered by it. And he felt battered himself and sometimes, the heavy thoughts seemed about to fill his own mind too.
But not today. Having prayed for the sorrowful, he nearly skipped in the door and down the aisle. Christmas Eve had come and there was so much to be done. He must hurry his inspection. Hands on hips, he stood for an instant, smack in the middle of the chapel and gave it a quick looking over. All was calm and still and bright with new morning and he was just about to scamper to the closet for the broom, when something caught his eye. Then fixed it still. He took a long, quivering breath. Slumped in the back corner pew fast asleep, his head on the cold wood, his feet dangling in the air, was a little boy. For an instant, Jonas was still as a startled rabbit. Then he leapt for the corner.
He stood over the child, unsure of what to do. He felt that there were some old, heavy thoughts that ought to dictate his reaction, but he could not recall them. All he felt was wonder at the small, flushed little thing, sleeping there like a little sparrow fallen from its nest. He glanced toward the rafters where the angels slept. He shook the boy’s arm. But the child’s deep breathing did not cease until Jonas bent near to his face and reached one gnarled finger to touch the flushed little cheek.
And the boy awoke. Two blue eyes fluttered open and instantly widened at sight of Jonas’ startled face just inches a way. The boy scrambled to sit up, his eyes filled with a quick succession of sleepiness, bewilderment, and fear.
“I fell asleep,” he began, then “the angels were singing,” then, with a cut of despair across his face, “ oh, please don’t tell anyone I’m here.”
To Jonas’ utter dismay the blue eyes brimmed with tears. He swiftly grabbed the child’s hand and gave it a fluttery pat.
“I won’t, don’t worry,” an odd smile came to Jonas’ face, “I don’t have to anymore. But what is your name?” he chirped, flitting about the boy like a small bird in restless curiosity.
“Brendan,” the child replied, and dashed the tears away. The fear ebbed from his eyes as Jonas laughed and tapped his feet and took his hand. The boy yawned, suddenly unafraid. “Bren for short. Who are you?”
“Jonas. Ooh, Brendan’s a lovely name, ah, oh!” said Jonas, and his eyes widened. “Brendan. Like the saint. The adventurer who went in search of wonders. Well,” Jonas’ face was once again an inch from Bren’s nose, “have you found them yet?”
“Found what?” swallowed Bren, his own eyes a little wide in meeting so fierce and inquisitive a gaze.
“Wonders! Wonders, of course, boy, have you found the wonders of God like the saint you were named for?”
“Well,” said Bren, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, “the windows talked to me last night, and the statues, and the angels in the ceiling sang. Does that count?”
“Count, count! Of course it counts! I’d stand on my head for a day to see such a sight,” Jonas sang, then dropped abruptly beside Bren in a motion that belied his age. “Those angels? Up there in the rafters?” and he pointed toward the dark ceiling where the angels kept a demure silence. Bren nodded.
“They told me to come back, so I did.”
“I knew it,” whispered Jonas, eyes wide. “I always knew it!” he crowed, leaping to his feet, “but my eyes aren’t light enough to see them yet. I think my mind is though,” he nodded at Bren, as if this explained a great deal, “but since you saw them and came to tell me it’s almost as good! What did they sound like?”
Bren gave his best imitation of the angel’s tune, waving his arms wildly to indicate the swelling harmonies and the breath like wind or ocean waves filling the chapel. Jonas laughed aloud and waved at the angels just to see if they might stir.
“And the windows?” he begged after, clasping his hands and shifting from foot to foot in his longing, “what did the window people say?”
And Bren, fully awake now and entirely forgetful of caution, grabbed his friend by the hand and pattered with him from pane to pane, describing the bell-like chiming and the jeweled laughter. When he came to the figure of Jesus, he halted. He tried to put words to the way the light had filled the rooms in his heart, the way that it had made him part of itself, but he fumbled. Jonas put his hand on Bren’s head.
“I know, lad, I know,” he whispered, and his gnarled hands went to his heart in a fist of worship as the two stared up, silent, at Christ in the window with the sunlight streaming through his heart.
The sudden scratch and slam of the outer door jolted both of them from their thoughts. A set of footsteps echoed in loud, hard falls throughout the chamber and Bren dove behind the nearest pew just as Eric strode into the nave. Jonas, hands still clasped over his heart gave a gasp, turned on the spot and looked wildly about him.
With the instinct of the child he was again becoming, he knew that Bren must not be discovered. His hands were still clasped at his heart and he dropped them suddenly into a most awkward, straight-armed freeze at his side. Fixed in place, eyes set upon Eric’s dour face, Jonas looked as if he was shrugging a question to the air. Eric glanced up from his dark gaze into some distant and apparently troublesome space, and raised an eyebrow as he drew even with Father Jonas.
“What in heaven’s name are you doing?” he barked. “Isn’t it early for you to be cleaning the chapel?”
The peremptory way that Eric spoke and his apparent ignorance of Bren put Jonas at a strange and sudden ease. One glance into the younger priest’s face showed him the great, brooding storm of bother that darkened his eyes. His thoughts, Jonas felt, must be very heavy indeed.
“It’s never too early to be here,” he smiled arms loosening. He folded his old hands in a deliberately peaceful motion and rested them on the belt that cinched his long, black robes. His own eyes gleamed with gentle curiosity as he took a step toward the younger man. But Eric only raised an eyebrow and slightly rolled his eyes as he kept on his way toward the front of the church.
“Well. See that you dust the alter,” he called back over his shoulder, “I was in here earlier and it is filthy. It looks like the statues are shedding, I can’t understand it.”
Jonas gave a huge wink in the direction of a certain pew. A muffled giggle sounded from behind it and Eric whirled round.
“What was that?”
“What was what?” replied the unruffled Jonas.
“That sound, like someone was laughing,” growled Eric.
“Perhaps,” said Jonas, with the smile of an utter innocent, “it was the angels in the rafters.”
He was not prepared for the fierce frown like a jagged scar across Eric’s face, and the younger man’s stomp back down the aisle toward him. Jonas stepped back a pace like a frightened child as Eric glowered down on him, blue eyes navy with anger.
“Nonsense,” he hissed. “And foolishness.”
Without another word, he stomped past Jonas and the hard clang of the outer door proclaimed his departure. Bren, still on his knees behind the pew, peeked his curly head just round the edge. Jonas stood still looking off toward the entrance as if his sight followed Eric into the courtyard beyond. One thin hand fluttered to his heart.
“Why is he so angry?” whispered Bren, standing up and moving close to the old priest.
Jonas turned a bewildered face to the boy.
“I don’t know lad. He’s that way all the time now. But he’s never been like that before.”
Bren moved a little and Jonas absentmindedly put an arm round the boy’s shoulders. His own shoulders slumped and his head drooped by the second. “Everything feels different these days,” he whispered to the little boy. “No one is happy anymore. Even here.”
He sat down in the nearest pew and his great eyes, like two pale pearls in his parchment face were bright with sorrow. Bren wriggled up next to him and leaned his head against the old man’s shoulder.
“They bring the darkness in with them,” Jonas sighed, remembering the storm in Eric’s eyes, “their thoughts are too heavy. They don’t notice anything else. I’ve prayed and prayed for them, but nothing seems to help.”
“How awful,” whispered Bren as the old man’s voice trailed off. The thought of having a mind so full of shadows that no angel’s laughter or music could reach it was a dismal idea indeed. But Jonas suddenly stiffened and grabbed Bren’s hand.
“You’re going to help,” he whispered, “I’ve prayed, I’ve prayed lad. I prayed that God would send us joy. And he sent you!” His voice rose and he stood, face beaming, “The angels sent you for Christmas! We must help them, lad,” he grabbed Bren’s hand, “you and I, our thoughts are light,” Jonas released Bren’s hand and waved his arms wildly about in his distress “we have to help them, help that poor young priest. Somehow. We have to make them forget the darkness so that they can see. The angels sent you so you have to tell me how.”
Jonas turned a gaze of saintly demand upon Bren so that the boy stared back with eyes turned sapphire by the intensity of his startled deliberation. Bren felt quite nervous, for though the angels had certainly brought him, they hadn’t mentioned his being an answer to anyone’s prayer. Bren’s face scrunched into deep thought. He squirmed. He shifted. He looked all round as if the answer might float down from the ceiling. And then he sat upright as a small flame and turned eyes like starlight upon his friend.
“It’s Christmas,” he stated.
“Yes,” blinked Jonas, “I know.”
“Yes, and that means gifts,” crowed Bren, “You can’t be sad when you have a Christmas gift! I know, because my mum used to give them to me.”
“Gifts! For all the people?” laughed Jonas, slightly incredulous. But the thought took swift hold in his mind. Of course a Christmas gift would do the trick. He eyed Bren with respect. The angels knew their business.
“How will we do it?” he asked.
“We’ll put gifts everywhere,” sang Bren with a fling of his arms, “and when they all come in next, for the service– that priest and all the people and the boys who sing – they’ll find something nice and they’ll think the angels left it for them and they’ll remember to look at the angels and then they’ll laugh and forget to be so sad.”
This made startlingly good sense to Jonas.
“What will we give them?” came the next fierce question.
“Well,” pondered Bren, “if you have some money then we can buy things and I’ll help you put them all over. One for each place where they sit.”
“I only have a few coins, they will have to be small,” said Jonas doubtfully.
“Little presents,” pronounced Bren, remembering candy and tiny toys and warming to his role as the answer of the angels, “are the best. And I will draw pictures of the angels to put with them. And we will leave a special picture for the angry priest and the pretty lady. And we can gather holly outside,” but he halted as he remembered that he could not risk being seen. “Well, you can, and you’ll have to show me where to hide while you’re getting the presents.”
During Bren’s small speech, Jonas’ lined old face had widened into a grin like a boy’s. His eyes danced and his fingers drummed and at the last words he stood and did a small dance so that the mad poof of his white hair looked more than ever like a dandelion in the wind.
“Glory be to God in the highest,” he trilled, “and on earth peace. Peace to men – that’s what they’ll feel when we remind them tonight. Oh, and then,” he sat back down beside Bren and his face was almost grieved with the depth of his pleading, “will you introduce me to the angels? I think I could hear them if you were with me.”
Bren simply grinned. The schemers stood. Jonas held out his hand and the little boy took it. Together, they pattered up the aisle and set about their plan without further delay. In less than an hour, Bren was cozily stowed in a little alcove in the balcony, where he could spy on all who entered and sketch the angels. Jonas, meanwhile, filled his pockets with every spare coin he could find, set a basket on his arm for the holly and made for the streets with strict instructions and a shopping list from Bren. Candy. Toys. And one red rose for the pretty lady.
He returned apologetic, for those commodities were rare in time of war. But a brilliant (Jonas thought) idea had come to him (Bren’s approval made it doubly so), and he had gone to all the friends he could think of, mostly the kindly wives of the oldest dons, and begged what seemed to him quite a treasure trove of trinkets. Buttons, pens, a brooch or two, a tiny toy car, a tin soldier, even a necklace and an orphan teacup lay piled in his basket under the bright holly. Best of all was the bag of chocolate drops from the youngest wife. When told that they were for a little boy, she set them in his basket without another word. At sight of these Bren crowed in delight, then added his stack of drawings to the trove. The treasure was ready for distribution.
The afternoon was waning as they set chocolate drops on top of every choirboy’s books (and ate a few for sustenance themselves). The trinkets, they placed on top of the hymnals and prayer books, with sprigs of holly and drawings of angels beneath. Under Ruth’s window, in the pretty lady’s seat, they placed a rose, and two very special drawings, while Eric’s hymnal was topped with a drawing much larger than the rest, folded, and addressed to him in big letters. Bren had drawn his favorite angel winking, for Eric was a special case and needed extra treatment.
The old chapel echoed with laughter that day. Bren filled the air with tunes from his whistle, the old stones warmed to the shuffle of such friendly steps, and a fresh air – spiced with holly and chocolate and merriment – danced into the farthest corners of the church. By the time the sun winked its last through the stained glass and sent tall shadows leaping through the aisles, all was in place. Bren ran for the balcony when the first step sounded in the courtyard, and Jonas joined him soon after. With a comradely glance toward the angels, they set their elbows on the rails and held their breath as the first people entered the church. Christmas Eve had come and something new was about to begin.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.