THE OLD WOMAN OF BALS (‘BALSH’)

Some of us are seekers, travellers towards the dawn which itself heralds yet another round of spiritual inquiry; many recall fleeting moments of the Divine Light. After their own seeking, finders appear happy to dwell in the Presence who, in Julian of Norwich’s word, desires to ‘oneth’ with each of us in peace, justice and compassion, and grounded hope.

And yet, finders are not immune from the God of surprises: the Presence can be lost to them only to re-emerge without warning, and often in the most unexpected of places. So here’s a story of rural România:

A friend and I were hitching from Bucharest to a Danube crossing point into what is now Serbia when we were dropped off outside an old Orthodox church in Balș (‘Balsh’), a small town. Opposite the church were little, dark brown wooden houses each adorned with a kaleidoscope of summer flowers.

In the unkempt churchyard stood a large tree whose canopy invited welcomed shade from the strong mid-day sun. We decided to rest under it before continuing towards the ferry at Turnu Severin. My friend quickly fell asleep but I was drawn to the faded frescoes on the church’s exterior. They depicted some of the miracles and parables of Jesus, but as a totality seemed to convey an inner message. What was this message? Alas, being too tired to give it more thought, I joined my friend in slumber.

After a while—I don’t know how long—I became conscious of feeling cold. Suspecting a sudden change of weather, I opened my eyes only to see an old woman, clad completely in black, standing over me. Her frame had blocked the sun’s warmth and she was peering down at me with great interest. Not wanting to frighten her, I quietly said ‘hello’ and slowly got to my feet. Now, I’m of average height but my new friend only came up to my chest. Looking at each other for a few seconds, I noticed how her watery eyes sank deep into their sockets. Her aged wrinkled skin, browned and leathery, spoke decades of toil in the nearby fields.

I then pointed to the church, signalling my appreciation. She smiled and uttered something, probably asking after our origins. So I volunteered ‘Anglia’, at which her eyes widened with amazement; she emitted a long ‘Ooo . . . Ang-li-a!’

Then, reaching up, she cupped my face in her bony hands, dragged it down to her level and kissed me tenderly on the forehead. Patting my cheeks, she again said something in a low, caring voice before slowly wending her way through the long grass and broken gate towards the houses.

I came to see her as embodying the ancient, feminine story of eastern Christianity, someone who met, in me, the masculine, western side of the Church. Divine Love helped us transcend all our differences while incarnating a unity and wholeness that reflected the frescoes’ inner message of peace, justice and compassion, a message I have repeatedly discovered in the Sermons on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) and Plain (Lk. 6: 19-48). It’s a message that is continually revealed through Love’s ‘almightiness’ or, put another way, Love’s healing omnipresence.

Love always seeks us out. In welcoming it, we find. Thus so, we can spread it like Jesus, the great sages and mystics . . . and like the old woman of Balș who similarly did what Love asked of her. I give thanks still for this angel of Wisdom.