Little Theresa rented a little room from an old woman with a big house and lots of space to spare. All the furniture Little Theresa had was a bed, a dresser, and a chair in the room; but that was enough for her. There was also a wastepaper basket and a braided rug made with old ties, twisted in a spiral pattern. There was a crucifix over the bed, a mirror over the dresser, and a picture of her parents and older sister Scotch taped to the mirror. There was a door to the rest of the house, another door to a small closet, and a window that looked over the back yard. Summertime, the view was blocked by a maple tree. In wintertime, she could see the neighbor’s house where three German Shepherds barked all night long. Little Theresa liked her little room. Simple as it was, it had more than enough for her. The only thing about the room she disliked was the crucifix the landlady hung over her bed.
Some people might dislike a crucifix hanging over their bed if they weren’t Christian and didn’t like or approve of the things it symbolized. Although Little Theresa didn’t advertise it, she was very much a Christian of the Roman Catholic variety. Some might object to a crucifix because it presented a gruesome spectacle of a naked man nailed to a cross. While this crucifix indeed had a naked man nailed to a cross, a loincloth strategically hung over the area that usually offends. A crown of thorns was placed on the man’s head and little nails could be seen transfixing the man’s hands and his crossed feet, but no blood dripped from the holes or down his face. He had a scar on his side where a spear had been thrust through, but it might as well had been an old scar, for it had lost its goriness. It was as tasteful and moderate a torture scene as could be portrayed.
One strange thing about the crucifix was that it was not made of wood, as you might expect, but of some substance that resembled gold. Little Theresa knew that Jesus had not been crucified on a gold cross, so that bothered her a little. No, it bothered her a lot. In fact, that was the one thing she disliked about her room and would change about it if she could.
If the crucifix had only bothered her a little, she might have just turned her head and pretended it wasn’t there. It hung over her bed, after all, and, except for the butt end of the cross, when she looked directly up from her pillow, it was well out of her eye shot. Unfortunately, the crucifix hung on the wall opposite the mirror and was reflected by it. That made it seem like there were two crucifixes in the room, which made the room doubly unsatisfactory. She just couldn’t avoid the golden crucifix.
One night, she couldn’t sleep. The dogs were barking, but she was up, thinking about the crucifix being made of a substance resembling gold. She took it down, first placing it on the dresser, then inside the dresser, and finally, under her socks. It was no use. She still couldn’t sleep. The crucifix was all wrong and she knew it, even when it was hidden. Something had to change.
Little Theresa might have painted the crucifix so it wouldn’t resemble gold, but that wouldn’t be right. It was her landlady’s crucifix. She might have asked the landlady to take it away; but that wouldn’t be right, either. The landlady would worry she had lost her faith. Little Theresa hadn’t lost her faith and she didn’t want the landlady to worry. She had a very strong faith, a faith that could not easily be explained.
To solve her problem, Little Theresa did something she rarely ever did. She went shopping. She was not one to solve her problems by shopping, as many people do. She usually felt better after giving away stuff, rather than getting more. But this was different. She needed a new crucifix. She would get one that was right for her and give the old one back to her landlady. The landlady would see that she still had a crucifix, so would not worry that she had lost her faith.
There weren’t any crucifix stores in Kenilworth, so she traveled to New Haven one day, just to buy a crucifix. Many were gold or inlaid with jewels. They wouldn’t do. Some were a plain cross, with no naked man. They wouldn’t do, either, for she knew that the reason the cross meant anything at all was because there had been a tortured naked man nailed to it. She had read what St Paul wrote about the cross. It was once an object of shame and degradation, an offensive scandal to the early Christians, of whom he was one. None of the crosses in any of the stores were symbols of shame and degradation. None of them were an offensive scandal. They were all symbols of riches, victory, safety, and domination. They were all wrong. She had to find a way to get the original meaning back.
She didn’t get home that night from unsuccessful crucifix shopping, till very late. The neighbor with the three German Shepherds had walked his dogs already, like every night, and, like every night, he didn’t pick up after them. Little Theresa stepped right in a giant dog turd in front of her house. She cleaned it up as best she could before walking into her landlady’s well-kept house, tracking dog shit all over her clean white carpet, but she missed a hunk. As she scrubbed and cleaned her landlady’s formerly immaculate white carpet, Little Theresa got an idea; a wonderful, creative, radical, dangerous, appalling idea. An idea that would preserve the original meaning of the crucifix.
That night, Little Theresa still couldn’t sleep, she was so excited about her idea. In the morning, she went and bought sandwich bags. Her landlady had sandwich bags that she could have used immediately, but it wouldn’t be right to take a single one. Little Theresa had to get her own. That night, while returning home, she followed the neighbor as he walked his three German Shepherds. When the neighbor failed to clean up the dog shit, Little Theresa was right behind him and sprang into action. She picked up the dog shit in a sandwich bag, herself.
To anyone who might have observed, this would’ve seemed like standard, saintly Little Theresa behavior. She cleaned up all the dog shit she could find and, in doing so, made the world into a better, more dog-shit-free place. She did that kind of thing every day, but it was what she did next that was so wonderful, creative, radical, dangerous, and appalling.
Everyone has to find their own way to connect to God in a way that works for them. Everyone starts off doing what everyone else does, what their parents do, what their youth leaders tell them to do. Some of that clicks, a lot of it doesn’t. The true saints among us are not satisfied with the standard ways if they don’t work; they’re always looking for something more authentic. In doing so, they take chances and may offend everyone else; but they hit upon forms never before tried that capture meaning in more vivid ways.
Little Theresa brought her bag of dog shit inside and placed it open on her dresser in front of the mirror and the Scotch taped pictures of her parents and older sister. The dog shit was dirty and disgusting. It stank up the whole room. It made her feel like puking. It was perfect.
She then took the gold crucifix down from the wall and stuck the end in the dog shit until it stood erect. She then smeared the shit all over it, till the gold-like substance was completely obscured. She even smeared the naked, tortured man till he was covered in shit. In doing this, she did not intend any disrespect. On the contrary, by doing this, she meant to acknowledge the tremendous sacrifice that dying on the cross involved. She had recaptured the original meaning of the cross, not by going back towards traditional forms, but by moving forward into new forms and expressions.
Little Theresa knew that her landlady would not understand. Neither would anyone else if they saw the gold crucifix smeared with and mounted in dog shit. The good thing was that no one, other than the landlady, ever came into Little Theresa’s room, so they would never know. The landlady would know, though, for she came into Little Theresa’s room to clean and to look around when Little Theresa was gone.
Little Theresa would have to clean up her display and air out her room every morning, before going to work, so as to not offend her landlady’s sensibilities. Every night, on her way home from work, for her own sensibilities, she would follow behind the neighbor to collect dog shit to put on her dresser. It was just another thing Kenilworth’s resident saint did that made her a saint. Another thing that made her so very alone, yet connected with the things that, in the end, to her, really mattered.