Flight Into Egypt
by Catherine Fournier
I remember wondering why the thought of the Flight into Egypt kept coming to my mind as I toiled along the rocky dusty road, except perhaps for the fact that it was a dusty rocky road and I was carrying a child.
Looking back, I can see that while there may not have been many physical similarities between the two situations, there were spiritual co-incidents, too many to ignore.
It began innocently enough. We were looking for an interesting place to visit on our annual family canoe trip, and a lake in Algonquin Park caught our interest. "Greenleaf Lake ... Its spectacular cliffs support a relict flora which includes the Algonquin Wood Fern, known from only one other place in the world." True, the map showed a six kilometer portage, but we wanted a challenge and an isolated destination.
Portages are interesting experiences, and this one especially so. Unless it is very short, you cannot see the end of the portage until you reach it, and you quickly lose any sense of how far you have travelled along the path. Some portages run along roads, and they are wide and easy to walk. Others scramble along thread-like paths through tumbled rock and tree roots. They require good balance and strong ankles. Everyone travels at a different speed, so often you walk alone, with only your thoughts and the weight of your load as company. The only way to get over a portage is to put one foot in front of another. Rest stops are necessary, but you must never forget that the longer you rest, the longer it will take to reach the end and final release from the load.
As I've mentioned, the map clearly showed a six kilometer portage. What the map did not show was the height of the mountain watershed that it crossed, or that there was no water along the way. But we are experienced travellers, aware of the potential hazards of canoeing and portaging. We packed light, and our first aid kit was prepared for any forseeable emergency
At our first rest stop,7 year old Robert cut his finger with his pocket knife, a deep slice across the nail and tip of his finger. I washed it with some of our drinking water, and bandaged it well. This, I thought, was the foreseeable emergency. We had had our accident for the trip. Now, the rest of trip, except for the heat and the steepness of the hill, should be fairly easy. So we carried on. Toiling up the hill in the heat, the parallels between Greenleaf Portage and my spiritual life for the last few years did not escape me, though with a dry mouth and pounding head, I really didn't want to make myself feel any worse by thinking about it. I had been going through what the books inadequately call 'a time of spiritual dryness.' My faith and my belief was unshaken, but I had no inner sense of certainty, no sudden lift of joy, no 'water to a parched soul' for many, many months.
I told Peter once that 'I know God is there, but it's as if His back is turned. He's listening, maybe, but not answering, waiting for me to do something. But what?' Finally, I simply resigned myself to 'portaging'. Putting one foot ahead of the other, carrying on with no sense of how far 'til the end, only believing that there will be, eventually, a glimpse of water through the trees and a breeze bringing the smell of water and life.
Greenleaf Lake was as beautiful, as quiet and as isolated as we hoped. We all slept long and well that night. The next morning, Peter and I watched our three youngest boys race around the rocky campsite. We marvelled at their energy. Peter worried aloud, 'Look at them, what would we do if one of them got hurt?' 'That's easy,' I replied, 'We'd have to leave the rest of the kids here, while you and I took the injured one down that portage and out to a hospital. We could make it in about 4 hours if we hurried.' Peter groaned, 'Yeah, that sounds 'easy'.' Just the thought made our muscles ache. 'Hey, you guys,' we called.' Settle down!'.
But as it often is with active boys, within 20 minutes,we heard a scream. Robert lay on the ground, crying and holding his face. 9 year old Jonathon knelt beside him, looking worried. I ran over, 'What happened? Jonathon, did you knock him down?' 'No,' Robert sobbed, 'It's my eye.'
We helped Robert up and over to a patch of sunlight. The tears coming out of his right eye were pinkish, and we could clearly see a scratch on the glassy smooth surface of his eyeball, right over the pupil.
'It's a scratched cornea, he needs antibiotic ointment and bandaging.' I said. 'So, it's just like what you said.' he answered. 'Yes,' I agreed, 'We have to leave the rest here, and head for the hospital. We can pick up the canoe on the way. It has to be you and me because we can travel the fastest together. Tina and Andrew are old enough to leave behind.' 'And if we hurry, we can be back here in about 12 hours, just after dark. If we all go, it'll take too long and we'll either all be walking in the dark, or sleeping somewhere else for the night.' Peter confirmed. 'We should take Sarah along to help.'
We looked at each other. 24 kilometers of canoeing and 12 kilometers of portaging. This was going to be a long hard day.
Given our condition, we made very good time, covering in only 1 hour and 45 minutes what had taken us 5 hours the day before. Of course, in this direction it was mostly downhill. As we walked, I remembered a Park Ranger mentioning that another party would be travelling this portage. 'If we meet them, we could ask them to keep an eye on the other kids.' I thought, and felt better. I wasn't happy about leaving them behind even though I knew there was no other choice.
'It would be too much to hope that one of them is a doctor.' This thought flitted through my mind so quickly it was hardly expressed in words. 'Or maybe, we'll meet a fisherman or Park rangers in a power boat.'
I held on to that thought. A power boat would be just what we needed. Any time saved could mean the difference between visibility and total darkness. It just isn't safe to try and walk in the bush at night. Animals are the least of the worries, it is far more likely that you'll trip and seriously injure yourself. We could hail a power boat, and it would feel so good to sit in it and zoom along the water... I had to remind myself not to get my hopes too high. Meeting a power boat was so extremely unlikely.
It was about this time as we were crossing a wide open space, hot and dusty in the sun, that I first thought of the Flight into Egypt. Why, I couldn't imagine. Robert was too old to be the Infant Jesus, Sarah would be extremely insulted to be considered the donkey, and well, Mary and Joseph we aren't.
Granted, we were hurrying to protect a child, but we were hurrying towards help rather than away from danger. Still, I thought, perhaps Mary felt this way. Isolated and alone in a vast wilderness, scared for her Child's safety, yet determined, doing all she could to protect Him, hot, tired, and relying on trust in God. Every mother is aware of the strength, endurance and sheer fierce determination to protect that is mysteriously added to our personalities during childbirth. I guess it could be called 'the graces of motherhood.' Never had I had to draw on it to so deliberately and consciously. It was also more 'portaging'-carrying on in faith and belief, in spite of the silence from God, the absence of confirming signs.
Once we finished the portage, we still had to paddle the length of Grand Lake to our car, then we would drive for an hour to the nearest hospital. Grand Lake is a long narrow lake, crossed at the halfway point by a railway bridge. The wind was in our faces and the paddling was slow. We prayed a rosary as we paddled along. In an hour, we had finished 12 decades and reached the railway bridge.
There were people having lunch on the embankment. As we drew closer, I called 'Are you headed for Greenleaf Lake?' 'Yes,' they answered. I could see two children, a fortyish man and woman, and an older man. 'We've had an medical emergency and have left part of our party behind.' I started. 'When you get there, could you keep an eye out...' 'What kind of medical emergency?' the woman interrupted. 'Our little boy has scratched his cornea,' I answered. 'Why?' 'Because I'm a doctor.' she answered.
I couldn't believe it. Was this an answer to my prayers and end to my spiritual drought, or just a fortuitous meeting? To meet a doctor in the middle of the wilderness seemed too much to hope for, an unreasonable, impossible request I hadn't even made.
Yet, here was a doctor just when we needed one. With a complete first aid kit including ophthalmic antibiotic ointment and eye patches. At a sheltered flat landing place, the only one for miles. In plenty of time for us to return to Greenleaf Lake well before dark. Every need, every circumstance had been answered.
Later that afternoon, I remembered a legend about the Flight into Egypt. I told it to Peter, Robert and Sarah as we trudged yet again up the six kilometer hill, (our third time over this portage!)
'As the Holy Family hurried away from Bethlehem after the angel's warning that the Infant was in danger, they passed a farmer in his fields outside the city walls. It was early in the morning, just after dawn, and the farmer was sowing grain in his freshly plowed fields. He nodded as they passed. Joseph leading the donkey carrying Mary and Jesus, smiled and raised a hand in greeting. Later that day, almost evening time, a group of Roman soldiers came marching out of Bethlehem on the same road. All that day, Bethlehem had echoed with screams, sobs and the sounds of running feet. The farmer had wondered at the sounds. The Roman soldiers called the farmer out of his field and harshly demanded, 'Has a man and woman carrying a baby passed this way?' 'Oh, yes,' the farmer assured them. 'They passed as I was sowing my grain.' And half turning, he waved a hand toward his field, rich with tall grain, ripe and ready to harvest.'
We walked in silence for awhile. What was arranged for us seemed, to me, to be no less miraculous. With God, nothing is impossible, and nothing is overlooked.
There is more to this story, a more serious medical emergency, more miraculous co-incidences and help arriving just when needed. More signs and confirmation that for me, the portaging may be over for awhile, the lake is in sight. And that however little we resemble the Holy Family, God is watching over us as He did Mary, Joseph and His Blessed Son, Jesus. I tell the rest in another article.
Before we left the camp site on Greenleaf Lake, big brother Andrew held Robert (with his eye bandaged) while we packed a lunch and gave last minute instructions to the other children.