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keys (William A. Clark, flickr.com/spacesuitcatalyst)

O gremlins, O St. Anthony!

My faith is in science, but I try to keep an open mind.
By Meg Barnhouse

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There is great rejoicing in the land today because my phone, which was lost, has now been found.

It could only have been in one of two places: the campsite or the car. I had been taking pictures coming down the mountain toward the campground, and then I’d hopped out of the car to claim the site while my beloved went to register us. I’d been reading Rumpole of the Bailey stories from an actual paper book while I waited for her. We set up camp and got back in the car to go on an adventure. I looked around for my phone, because more beauty was coming and I wanted to be ready.

“I must have had it over by the tent,” I said, and went to look. It was a fairly simple campsite, and easy to search. The phone was nowhere. Over the course of the next few days, we took the car apart, took the bins full of clothes and gear apart, took the campsite apart. (It was in picking up the tent sack to feel whether my phone was inside that I met a huge tarantula. Fortunately, we were both pretty laid back, and the enormous spider had an adventure that day as a lesson for some Mennonite homeschoolers before being set gently back in the dry scrub. I will tell that story another day.)

We were driving my Civic rather than our camping van, because the keys to the van had disappeared ten minutes before we were supposed to leave town. My love looked everywhere. Three times. They’d vanished. This kind of thing happens to us enough that we call it “gremlins.” We look in the usual places, over and over. Most people who believe in the laws of thermodynamics would look once, eliminate that place, and go on to the next one. Five or six times, though, we’ve had the experience of looking in an obvious place just one more time and there it is, big as life and looking casual, the thing that was lost. The gremlins have put it back, and they’re giggling or doing a jig or whatever it is gremlins do. We still believe in the laws of thermodynamics, of course. They work so often. I’m sure there are scientific explanations for each time something lost has popped up in plain sight in a place that’s already been scoured. It’s easy to see, however, how people can start thinking magically when matter persists occasionally in behaving—well—magically. My faith is in science, but I try to keep an open mind.

When something is lost I pray to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. I started this when I was Presbyterian, although Presbyterians don’t believe in saints. I do not believe that prayer is begging the Divine to do something s/he/it/they would not ordinarily do, as if someone were sitting “up there,” arms crossed, waiting for you to ask before help was given, and then only if you asked in just the right way. I do not believe that prayer is only for the person praying, either. I think it’s a kind of energy not yet understood. I do not think it’s always harmless. Sometimes people pray instead of doing something sensible they might otherwise do, were they not waiting on the Divine to act.

I don’t really even believe in praying to St. Anthony. That said, we prayed to St. Anthony to help us find the keys, but they would not be found. We had looked everywhere. So we transferred all the gear to the Civic, packed it to the gills, and took off for West Texas. The next day, getting towels from a tub that had been searched twice, we heard the keys jingling. There they were. “Gremlins,” we said to each other.

Then, the way one does, I thought aloud that maybe there was a reason we needed to know we could camp just as well in the Civic as in the van. This is another place where my day to day behavior is a bit at odds with my theology. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. I can’t hold on to a belief that would sound abhorrent if it were spoken in a refugee camp in front of a child whose parents had been killed by the Janjaweed. In a multi-layered mind, though, one’s theology may not be strictly held by every layer of that mind. Some of my layers persist in wondering about the reasons things happen.

Most of us use our phones for everything: email, music, home library and research portal, camera, social media, and calendar. We drove home without listening to my favorite music. I felt the loss of the photos I’d taken of the desert mountains. Coming back to the world, I felt its lack keenly. What was on my schedule for the day? Who knew? Was I free October 25 to speak at a colleague’s installation, or was I doing a wedding that day? Good question. No answer. My office computer hadn’t backed up my calendar the way I thought it would.

I didn’t pray to St. Anthony about my phone. I think I was still sulking about the keys. Now an unbeliever, I went to the phone store at lunchtime to replace the thing, but I got so annoyed at the wait and the speed at which the staff were moving that I left. After work that afternoon I went to a different store, got out of the car, and said waspishly, “St. Anthony, this is your last chance to talk to those gremlins and give me back my phone. I would really like that as I hate setting up a new phone, and I love my phone, and I don’t really have time for this.” I decided to look one more time under the passenger seat where I’d been sitting while taking those last pictures before the phone went missing. I’d looked there twice before and so had my beloved. I reached my hand to pat around under there, and my fingers closed around the cool, smooth face of my phone.

O gremlins! O St. Anthony! Yes, I will be your playmate. I wondered what the lesson was here even though my theology says this life is not a school and there isn’t necessarily a lesson in everything. Laughing to myself and shaking my head, I sing hymns of gratitude to the mysterious, mischievous multiverse.

Photograph (above): cc 2007 Wiliam A. Clark. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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