”For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” (Thomas Merton)
I see him at the vigil Mass every Saturday evening. He sits in a pew toward the back of the church. So, by the time he reaches the front of the Communion line, I’m already back in my place – praying, watching, remembering.
Though we both live in the same small town, where secrets are not easily kept, I’ve never known his first name. To me, he’ll always be the “unwitting catechist,” and I’m content with that.
He resembles his late father; and, it was he, rather than the son, who once wagged an accusing finger in my face, thus teaching me something truly important about integrity and authenticity at a tender age.
My first childhood home had a fateful encounter with a demolition crew many years ago. No doubt the house was already well beyond its prime by the time the Daltons took residence there in the 1950s, but I have no recollection of its warts. Instead, I remember it as a magical place, and I suspect I always will.
A formidable maple – “my tree,” also gone now – served as sentry at the front edge of the property. Countless times I traversed the deep grooves of its bark with my small fingers and scaled its rung-like branches as far as I dared. On one side of the trunk, the tree’s sinewy roots poked up through the ground like a child’s bench, a perfect perch on which to savor a Popsicle, swap stories, or simply relish the pure freedom of a young child’s summer day.
The large backyard was a wonderland, overgrown in places, lending a true sense of mystery to the space. It served as a de facto neighborhood playground, and many adventures were concocted and acted out there under its seemingly inexhaustible inspiration.
For the first eight years of my life, that house and its immediate environs were virtually my world; and, it was a charming place indeed. Of course, being a small boy, it never mattered to me that my family and I lived in a rented apartment. It mattered to my parents though, especially my mother, who had long dreamed of owning her own home.
The move comprised no more than half a mile, but distance is an unreliable measure of change.
Yes, the new house was “ours,” but there was no maple tree, no intriguing backyard to attract playmates. In fact, there was really no yard at all, only a narrow driveway and a boring one-car garage.
My initial response to the move was grief.
“There seem to be quite a few children in this neighborhood, Stephen,” my mother observed one day from across the room. “I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends here.”
Embarrassed at having been noticed, I let the curtain slip from my fingers and turned my attention away from the window and the children playing outside.
“Maybe,” I replied in a near-whisper. Shyness can make social transitions so very difficult.
Thankfully, over time, my mother’s words proved prescient. I did make good friends and forged life-long memories in the new neighborhood. In fact, if my first eight years are characterized by memories of things and places, the next few years are filled with names (Paul, Phil, Evans, Justin, Jackie, Jimmy…) and endearing faces. Those were, in fact, the happiest days of my childhood.
My friends and I typically matched our activities to the season. In summer, we seemed to play baseball morning, afternoon, and night. In the fall, our street became a touch-football field with telephone poles marking the end zones. And, in winter, we played street hockey both after school and on weekends, as long as daylight accommodated.
Often, boys from nearby neighborhoods would join us for our games. That made our play more realistic as we’d have more positions covered on the field; however, it also changed the group dynamic a bit and eventually presented me with an early moral dilemma.
I wonder if there’s anything – temporally speaking, of course – that the human heart desires more than fitting in, i.e., being accepted by one’s peers.
I’m not a fan of foul language. Even as a child, I was very careful with my words, never wanting to offend God or others. While my closest friends always respected who I was and how I tried to conduct myself, kids from other neighborhoods were not always so understanding. They would occasionally tease me about my “holiness.” And, though most of their jibes were not mean-spirited, being a sensitive child, I tended to take their words to heart.
I don’t recall how the idea first came to me, but the more I worked it over in my mind the more sense it seemed to make. Convincing myself, however, was only half the battle. When I summoned the courage to raise the issue with her, my mother looked less than pleased.
“Why would you want to do that, Stephen?” she asked.
“The other kids say swears, Ma.”
She carefully studied my face. “You know it’s not right to use bad language.”
“I know. But, if you give me permission, that would make it okay, right?”
She remained silent for some time, and I could feel my face flush under her persistent gaze. When she finally answered, she did so with obvious hesitation. “I don’t like this, Stephen.” She shook her head slightly as she spoke. “But… I do understand.” After another pause, she continued, “I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you choose one word to say. But, that’s all. Does that sound fair?”
“Thank you, Ma!” I said gratefully, feeling a weight had been lifted from my small shoulders.
We then rather delicately discussed my possible choices – an interesting exercise between a mother and her young son. While I don’t clearly recall our rationale, we ultimately agreed upon the word “sh#t.”
Soon thereafter, my friends and I gathered to play touch football. It was a beautiful fall day and, though we didn’t notice it at the time, one of the local residents was sitting on his enclosed front porch observing our play.
As the game progressed, so did our use of salty language. Feeling a newfound freedom and connection with my peers, I made liberal and creative use of my new vocabulary word.
“That was a sh#&&y pass!”
“You really looked like sh#t on that play!”
“This ball is as dirty as sh#t!”
I was playing my role to the hilt until a porch door suddenly swung open, and a large, angry man stepped out.
“Hey!” he bellowed. The game abruptly halted and all of us players gave him our full attention.
“I’ve been listening to you guys and your filthy mouths for half an hour now, and I am sick to death of it!”
He came down from his steps to confront us at closer range. My heart was racing but my feet were anchored in place.
Pointing a thick finger at one of the boys, he screamed, “I’m sick of listening to you!” Then, he pivoted, aimed his finger at another, and yelled, “And you!” He quickly turned again, “And you!” Finally, as I knew in my heart he must, he turned his rage my way. He glared at me and thrust his finger forward once for each pronounced word of my sentence. “And! Especially! You!”
My first instinct, though I didn’t act upon it, was self-defense. “You don’t understand,” I thought to myself, “I had permission.” Within a split second, however, defensiveness yielded to shame for my actions. I had indeed been responsible for the verbal assault this man experienced, and any protestation, even one pointing to a mother’s consent, would have been an empty excuse. My eyes dropped from the outraged man’s face to my own feet. I felt crushed.
“I’m really sorry, sir,” I said, still not looking up.
“I don’t want to hear any more of it!” he proclaimed loudly to all of us. “Do you understand?”
I and several others answered, “Yes, sir.” Then, our game broke up and the dispirited players scattered.
As I was walking home, the scene played over and over again in my mind. I knew the man was justified in the action that he took, and I felt true contrition for my offense; still, I couldn’t help feeling like a victim of injustice. He had singled me out as the worst offender without really knowing me.
The realization, when it came, was sudden yet gentle, like a soft voice in the soul. Even being a child, I could understand. Indeed, the angry man didn’t know the real me because I hadn’t shown him the real me. Instead, I’d pretended to be someone else in order to feel more like a part of the group.
Sh#t happens! My real sin was falsity and compromise. And, the angry man was my wake-up call – a true friend.
I’ve come to trust that the soft voice in my soul was/is my conscience, helping me interpret my world and inviting me to live more authentically (i.e., closer to God’s plan for my life). I wish I could say that I’ve always been true to that calling. Alas, I’ve needed many wake-up calls.
So, I will be at the vigil Mass again next Saturday evening. When my “unwitting catechist” passes by, I will see again the face of his father. I will remember. And, I will lift up a prayer of thanks.