Sneaking back to Church

St. Vincent de Paul Catholic ChurchThe toll of Sunday church bells clears away the fog of early morning. A zombie, wearing slept-in basketball shorts and stained T-shirt, I shuffle in flip flops to mass at the the church a block away.

I look at my feet and wonder what is happening as they take me across a hushed street, up steps and through a Spanish archway. I’m late so I crouch into the nearest seat. My interruption is covered by organ music. Maintaining my irreverence credibility I slide my butt back and forth like a toddler on a pew polished smooth by decades of pious asses. 

I feel slightly dizzy–unmoored–like when I forget which direction I’m going. Can’t remember when  I last attended mass and I’m unclear about what I expect. I guess something other than burrowing in a dark room for days, torturing myself over what I could have done different, how I didn’t see it coming.

This colorful, spacious church is different from the stoic, small-town brick house of prayer in which I grew up– but oh so familiar: the smells, the music, the cadence of prayers.

 I like the pastor immediately. His voice makes me comfortable. It’s his last Sunday. He is retiring. He speaks easily and unsentimentally to the parishioners he’s served for 20 years about turning over his ministry to a new priest.

Having no expectations begins to feels like freedom, less self-conscious. Freedom is a new experience for me inside the formality of a Catholic Church, I realize, not listening to the lector reading from the Epistle of Paul.

Long lapsed and out of favor I ease back in my seat during the kneeling parts, still remembering the words. Comfortable with the mystery of doubt, I’m agnostic about what they profess.

I’m experiencing the beautiful buzz where holiness and heresy meet.

But like the alcohol that killed her, this high won’t last and it won’t wash away the pain..

“Who do you think I am?” Jesus asks from the Sunday reading.

I settle in. I enjoy playing amateur biblical scholar.

It’s a trick question, I interpret on the fly. The Apostles’ answers don’t matter. Jesus, a man, a teacher, a friend has done his best; he has no expectations or claim to what comes next. What they do with his teachings and his name — spread peace or wage war, open hearts or close minds– is beyond his control.

Who do you think I am? he asks, knowing what they will seek in his name: whatever they most desire.

I don’t wait around for the bread and wine forbidden to me by church law

Grace has found me.




A sense of belonging: Picking at the gauze in my heart

This is a lonely time of year for me. It’s not because I’m alone. My wife recognizes the change and surrounds me with tenderness.

I love my relationships with my children. I enjoy daily phone conversations with my son Joe. My daughter Emily and I talk basketball and her boyfriend Sammy. My college son Jacob texts me, “Hey old man,” followed by amiable insults. Last weekend I took my daughter Annie to get her nose pierced.  Everything’s fine at home.

No, it’s the season. I keep Christmas at arm’s length. While friends and family are posting holiday plans and photos of Christmas delicacies on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve changed my profile picture to a creepy clown smoking a cigarette.1017032_10201667383311684_872608623_n

There’s a tightness in my chest that feels like gauze shred over a rose bush. I keep picking at it, but can’t quite get it all.

I used to plan the holiday with a ceremonial bottle of Jack Daniels purchased a week before Christmas. I would imagine the warmth of the liquor and lights and my family around me on Christmas Eve. Imagining was the best I could do. Two days later I was buying a fresh bottle. By Christmas Eve I was on my third. On Christmas morning I awoke frustrated that I couldn’t remember everything that happened the night before. I resolved that it wouldn’t happen next year.

I shrink Christmas now. With good reason I try to make it like any other day.  I am grateful for it, but I have no illusions, no expectations.

During this season, I still feel the stirrings of something big coming, but I try to be sill and stand outside the rush.

The loneliness can slam into me hard. I miss my kids back in Missouri. I long for innocence lost. I feel the absence of loved ones who have died. And sometimes– for brief moments– I miss those bottles.

I went into a meeting on a Friday night last week, and on the wall was a huge sign that said, “Alcoholism is a disease of Loneliness.”

The small meeting of eight people read  from a book called “As Bill Sees It.” The person running the meeting happened to choose a series of readings on loneliness. As so often happens in this program, it seemed like the readings were speaking directly to me at that particular moment in my life.

I’ve been sober five years and eight months. One of the benefits of coming to these meetings is that they remind me where I came from and that I am not doing this alone. I was staring at a reading called “A Sense of Belonging” when emotion surprised me.

An elderly woman was talking nearby when I ducked my head and wiped away a tear.

It was the name of the reading more than the actual reading, I said to the others in the room when it was my turn to talk, trying to gather my composure.  Everyone nodded knowingly when I noted with a raspy laugh  how things tend to weave together. I was feeling sorry for myself that night, feeling lonely, and I walk into a meeting about loneliness.

I told the group about the  day in a St. Joseph, Mo., courtroom when a judge handed me a jail sentence for drunk driving. I was terrified, angry and lonely.

My attorney assured the judge that I was attending meetings and that I was sincere about sobriety. The judge gave me a 15 day jail sentence and two years probation. I left the courtroom. As I walked down the hallway, a gray-haired man in a suit got up from a nearby bench and greeted me. I recognized him as an attorney who had appeared before the judge three cases before mine. He had waited for me. He offered me his hand and told me to keep going to meetings. It works, he said warmly.  I was speechless for a moment then thanked him. He smiled kindly, squeezed my hand once more, and left.

Then, I left the courthouse and went up the hill to the jail to find out what I would need for my incarceration. As I entered the jailhouse, a bearded guard approached me. He was a gruff, older man, probably 65. Somehow he had heard I was coming. He had been sober for a long time, and he wanted to assure me that I was on the right path. Everything is going to be OK, he told me, you don’t have to do this alone.

With one more swell of emotion,  I looked around at the small Friday night meeting and whispered, “I don’t feel so lonely any more.”

The elderly lady approached me afterward, asked for a hug, and thanked me for sharing. “You feel better now, don’t you,” she said.

Yes, I admitted, my voice still rough.

I glanced at the big sign on the wall and walked into the night, breathing easier for the moment.