by Anne Harlan Prather
“Tony, Tony come around. Something’s lost that can’t be found…” The words were an alien intrusion into my heavenly contemplation. They came with a plethora of emotion, which emotion was supposed to direct the nature of my intervention. I listened as the prayer repeated again, and then the third time.
This petitioner must be Roman, I thought, because the Romans were more apt to repeat than the other types of Christians. I immediately related to this petitioner, being the king of desperate prayer repetition. Nevertheless, the object the petitioner sought was not clear, and I listened to the prayer fade into the ether with no idea how to intervene.
I will freely admit that heavenly assignment of patronage seems arbitrary—I don’t understand why, for instance, the original St. Anthony got pegged to be the patron saint of lost things. Cecilia for music makes sense—she was a musician. But Anthony? The original, I mean? I have no idea.
But I do know how I got picked to be the third front-line St. Anthony. Oh, so you’re confused? Well, surely you didn’t think that it was the same Tony who answered all your prayers over the centuries! No, indeed, that would never do.
The truth is that even though we have the eternal viewpoint and even though we see things omnisciently, we are still human. So, in order to avoid declines in prayerful concentration that arise from boredom, the Assignment Council changes up patron saints. You really only have to have three qualifications to be in the patronage pool. You have to have the name of a current patron saint, or you have to have been good enough at earthly intervention to get yourself canonized. You have to be through your stint in purgatory. And, unlike the assignment of primary patrons, which always seemed arbitrary to me, you have to have a history of needing prayer for the thing you now intercede for.
So, I don’t know how the original Tony came to be the patron saint of lost things; I do know how I became the frontline patron saint for the early 21st century. I didn’t just lose things in my life. I lost major things. Like, in the middle of BFE Africa once, I lost my passport and every single bit of documentation I had in a mucky jungle slough. My first wife divorced me over this one, because we spent the rest of a miserable trip trying to get my papers replaced so I could get home. My second wife divorced me because I lost my car keys and thus couldn’t go retrieve her when her ancient Toyota died in the middle of a snowy highway near Cheyenne, Wyoming, where we were living at the time.
But I think I qualified for front-line patronage because I misplaced a month’s worth of very expensive heart medication. I never told my wife or my doctor because I felt fine and the whole thing was so humiliating that I couldn’t stand the embarrassment. And then, when my heart went into overdrive, I didn’t have the medication. So I joined the choir invisibly without a backward look. I am a front-line patron saint because my death was the direct result of losing something. And, also, listening to petitioners is a lot like being in purgatory.
Oh, come on, Odelia! You know better than to put your really valuable jewelry in your definition of a safe place. No, I don’t know where you put it, in case you’re curious. I have to ask God just like you do; the only advantage I have is that I’m less distractible. So if I intercede for you this time will you promise not to put your jewelry in a fake log in the middle of your unused gas fireplace the next time?
One of my petitioners, a lovely, slightly autistic woman, who claims to be a secret harborer of the theory of everything, wrote a journal entry called, “A Probabilistic Model of the Loss of Commonly Used Items” in which she states that the ability of a thing to be lost relates to the number of times the thing is withdrawn from storage to be used. She once asked me, in a rare non-petitionary prayer, if I could validate that pattern. I am not required to answer such prayers directly, but I did pass that one on. It brought a certain amount of amusement, even to the face of my dour patron, the original St. Anthony.
But there is something weird happening, which has no possible explanation that I can see. My personal bones are buried in an old cemetery in Denver, under a very nondescript marker. But over the fifty years since I was buried there, a long procession of lost things have accumulated in the grass around my grave. The list includes, but is not limited to:
- At least 100 lost receipts for charitable donations, spanning dates from the year that deduction was passed to the present day.
- Seven car keys, one of which belonged to a limited-edition Lamborghini driven by some rich dude with more money than sense.
- Jewelry of all sorts, from hugely expensive diamond pendants to costume jewelry.
- One brass brassiere.
- A small, forlorn T-shaped tool with a polished wood handle as the top of the T and what looked like a socket wrench as the vertical part. It lay half-covered with dirt, its polished wood handle shining bravely out through the bushes where it lay, a small island of defiance in the winter-bleak graveyard.
- Over three hundred grocery lists
- Five checkbooks
- Twenty-five credit cards, with limits on them varying from two thousand to fifty thousand dollars
- One set of original layouts for a wedding program—dropped at my graveside by a bride who was more interested in finding a quiet place to make snookie with her beloved than in getting the thing to the printers on time.
- One model flying saucer
- Fifteen Hummel figurines, lost over a period of twenty-five years by fifteen different people.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, I asked the original Tony if I could get permission to return some of these lost objects without the usual restriction of being petitioned for intercession.
“Absolutely not!” My canonized namesake roared. “We have enough trouble with people worshipping us without intervening in their lives in another-worldly way!”
I should have known. The original Tony has no sense of humor.
So, I went in search of Luke. The original, I mean, not the current front-line Luke who was an early oncologist in his earthly life and tends to see every issue in terms of cancer. It’s made him a worse rule-booker than my original.
It took me a while to find Luke because he spends most of his time hanging out with the other apostles in a supposedly secret club they have. It’s secret in the sense that it changes celestial locations randomly, but if you’re one of them, you always know where it is.
I had found it first a short time after I entered Heaven because, ironically, its changes in location reminded me of the loss habits of my petitioners. So when I showed up at the Apostles’ Club, they weren’t surprised or unhappy to see me. Luke looked up from the dice he was causing to roll straight boxcars and grinned. “Tony, Tony, how’s it going?”
“I need a permission form for divine intervention, and my lead won’t give it to me.” I replied.
“Hunh.” Luke frowned. “What for?” He raised a glass to his lips and drained it. He gave a lusty sigh of satisfaction.
“Because of all the stuff that keeps appearing at my grave!” I tried to keep the frustration out of my voice. The Hummel figurines had really been the worst. To a person, the women who misplaced these items were sentimental old souls who haunted my silent moments—during which I was supposed to be composing new hymns to Jesus for the upcoming Revelation Festival.
And besides, all the collectors of the Hummel figurines weren’t even Catholic. They were Lutheran or, in one disturbing case, Episcopalian.
Luke regarded me from behind his dice and drink cups. His eyes were a deep brown and, even aided by heavenly order, his beard still managed to look scruffy. “You really think you deserve an SIP just because miscellaneous lost things are appearing at your grave? Frankly, given your position in Eternity, I’m surprised you can even still perceive your grave!”
This comment cut to the quick. Going through the Pearly Gates after a short period of chastisement was supposed to release you from earthly concerns. So in some ways, being appointed a front-line patron was equivalent to being a domestic servant. Just cleaning up the mess, was the thought. I bit my lip.
“I wouldn’t be seeing my grave if it weren’t for all the stuff decorating it!” I snapped.
The dice rattled. Like all heavenly objects, the dice could change shape at will. In this roll, Luke had turned them into two thirty-five sided dice in a transparent cup. He was staring at them with all the concentration of a crystal gazer. “I think,” he said after a long moment, “that you aren’t looking at this correctly. Did it ever occur to you to ask why these things are appearing on your grave?”
“Well, duh!” I shook my head. “It’s Satan down there trying to torment me!”
“Given some of the objects on that grave, I can certainly see why you think so.” A woman walked towards our table, golden hair floating behind her, a harp on her back. “But Satan can’t intervene in that way without God’s permission, and God does nothing without due deliberation.” She swung the harp off her back, set it on the floor, and sat down. A glass full of something deep red appeared in front of her.
I tried not to groan. Nothing like running in to your project leader when you are behind and the deadline is approaching. But I was curious. “What do you mean, a symbol of Satan on my grave?”
Cecilia—for it was Cecilia, the original patron of musicians—smiled enigmatically. “A harp player goes through Death’s tunnel. He’s a good guy, always been faithful. So Peter says to him, ‘Welcome to Heaven! Here’s your harp! And here’s your harp key!’ A little while later, another harp player comes in, but this guy’s a sex offender, and we all know where he’s going. At the end of the tunnel, Beelzebub is standing there, holding something behind his back. He looks at the man and says, ‘Welcome to Hell. Here’s your harp.’”
I didn’t get it.
“Tony’s problem,” Luke said, with the voice of a physician consulting a fellow professional, “is that he’s about to fail his Standard Upgrade exam.”
“My—” My jaw dropped. The room began to go dark and before I quite knew what had happened, I was back in my own quarters, a sheaf of blank music paper on the stand before me. For the first time, I heard a sour note in Heaven—a harp twanging away, miserably out of tune.
The last straw was the sixteenth Hummel figurine. It showed up on the twenty-third of December. A midnight snowstorm had mostly buried it, but beneath the snow, I could see that it had broken into two pieces. It had originally been a milkmaid, but her pail had come free from the rest of the figure, and it lay, achingly alone, almost buried in the snow. The voice of the petitioner was a keening wail, a cry that almost tore me from Heaven’s grasp.
And suddenly I was in a hospital room, standing beside the doctor and a nurse. The nurse held a tiny bundle in her arms. Even as I looked, I could see the child wasn’t breathing.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Henrich. We did all we could, but the baby doesn’t have enough of a brain to sustain itself. It’s really better this way.”
I heard a thud! And saw a Hummel figurine sail across the room, tossed by the father whose face wore a look of anger, betrayal and disillusionment. But the mother wept, inconsolably, as she reached for the baby. She laid the child on her breast and sobbed, unashamed, for nearly half an hour before the nurse removed the child’s body from her arms.
I didn’t hesitate. I went to the Arrivals area and found the baby’s soul—Annette, her mother, had called her—and told her we needed to do a little intervention. Then I sat back and watched as Annette held the Hummel figurine that had been lying on my grave and knit it back together. Then, taking the figurine in her hands, she launched herself into her mother’s hospital room. She was singing an old German song, one her mother had heard as a child.
“Mother, I’m so happy. Take this figurine and give the world the joy I know is in you.”
The mother stared at her transformed daughter and then held the figurine in her hands as dawn stole into the dreary room. I left them there, telling myself rebelliously that I didn’t care if I got some Heavenly ration of unpleasantness for this intervention. Heck, I hadn’t even heard the words of the woman’s petition.
The scene in the hospital room faded, and I found myself in front of the music stand again, only now the words and tune flowed. On my grave, the harp key moved and transported itself to the living room of its owner. I wrote and sang and listened, and as I did, all those things, the items that had haunted me, began to return to their places—sometimes to the hands of their petitioners, but sometimes to the trash or the hands of a neighbor.
As the notes flowed beneath my pen, I saw the mending that took place when lost things were placed appropriately, and I understood, suddenly, why not all prayers were answered in expected ways.
Healing light, be my guide
Behind, before me, and beside
Let me see and know your kindness
In spite of all my earthly blindness.
“I would say,” Luke whispered from his place beside the music stand, “that you have achieved your Standard Upgrade. You have become one of God’s healers.”
Anne Harlan Prather is a true polymath, with an undergraduate degree in classical guitar performance, a Ph.D. in botany, a career as a visual artist, and teaching experience in two languages over 30 years, starting as a teenager. Throughout her life, faith has been a central feature. She lives in Seattle.