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.

 

 

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Now and at the hour of our death

This is a work of fiction.

He returns from the daydream, and is lost in the chant of Morning Prayer. Pressing his finger to the page he finds his place in the text. Awkwardly he edges back into the singing, drawing cringes from the monks standing next to him. He is tone deaf and his voice buzzes and bobs like a discombobulated June bug as his brother monks lift their rich, well-rehearsed voices on a ribbon of prayer to the ceiling of the basilica. Undeterred, Brother Lucius singsimagesBKZGVSUA with enthusiasm that would make St. Benedict proud. But he thinks with a hidden grin that his voice might cause the 1,500 year-old saint to rise and appear in the Church, bewildered at what had woken him so rudely from his slumber.

Brother Lucius shifts from cheek to cheek on the seat of the oak choir stall and tugs at his habit, snug over his plump belly. The black garment is not his preferred monastic garb. Underneath, he is wearing the true vestments of his calling, a T-shirt, denim overalls, and work boots. The other monks have come to accept the pungent smell emanating from Lucius, a familiar perfume of dried sweat, grease, motor oil and dust. His face smudged black, callused hands permanently stained. Crescent moons of dirt under fingernails from digging and scraping in gardens and orchards.

During the sign of peace, the one moment of intimacy in the monks’ Liturgy of the Hours, Brother Lucius forgoes the traditional embrace, perhaps to spare his confreres contact with his perpetually soiled habit, or maybe out of simple mischief. Instead, he sticks out one finger. Amused the monks return the gesture in E.T. fashion. Morning Prayer ends, the monks file out of the church. Brother Lucius sheds the habit. This morning, he pulled on an unblemished white T-shirt he bought at Wal-Mart and a stiff new Pioneer feed cap, as if he would be going somewhere special. He cinches the straps on his overalls and heads to the courtyard, still and silent within the high ramparts of the monastery like the mustering ground of a fort. It used to be crossed by two cobblestone sidewalks that met in the middle at a large Terra cotta fountain. The grass was mowed and a garden of flowers and manicured shrubs were tended by a large contingent of novices.

Vocations have dwindled at the Abbey in the past forty years and time has not been good to the courtyard. The fountain and sidewalks crumbled and eventually were carted away. Their pieces were hauled by wheelbarrows to the borders of gardens throughout the Abbey grounds or crushed into gravel for the road pinched between rows of live oaks to the ruins of the Abbey’s ancient dairy operation.

The shrubs in the courtyard died and were uprooted with chains. The hands of novices these days are soft from studying theology and cleaning bathrooms.  Now the courtyard is all Brother Lucius’s. He has answered the call by raising roses, rhododendrons, miniature pine trees and cherry blossoms. He nurtures a magnolia tree, and cares for bursting prisms of perennials. This morning his entire focus is on a small pine at the fringe of the yard. He waters it furiously, hoping to save it from rust corroding it’s branches. He quietly prays that it isn’t bark beetles.

Finished with watering, he returns to Common Room in the monastery for a cup of coffee. Anxious to get back to where God always awaits him, he rushes into the hallway leading toward the back porch. He hurries down the dark hallway and startles and elderly man emerging from an adjoining passage. Lucius greets the man but realizes something isn’t right. No one but monks are allowed in the cloister. The man doesn’t respond, but lifts something from his side. Lucius isn’t sure what strikes first, the electric jolt inside his ribcage or the ringing in his skull.  A muffled explosion echoes off the polished walls. He sags to the floor and looks at his outstretched hand. The tips of two fingers are missing. The man steps closer, his eye’s are pewter, holding no light. Lucius now recognizes the black of the rifle.  He pleads, No, don’t. Lucius feels bad for the man. He knows something terrible is happening. No, don’t, he says again, this time a whisper.

Brother Lucius is standing on the back porch of the monastery. A June breeze is carrying the faint aroma of manure from a pig farm on the ridge two miles to the north. He casually lifts the feed cap off his head and adjusts it like all farmers do, and wanders south past the Guesthouse. There is no one about, only a cardinal chiding him from a linden tree and silent robins divining for worms. It’s unusual for the Abbey grounds to be so empty on a warm spring day and he feels lonesome. Near the parking lot, he passes a white statue of Mary, brilliant in the morning sun. The Holy Mother holds her arms out, beckoning him to a maternal embrace. He thinks cheerfully of the rosaries he makes for the Abbey gift shop. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…” he says. The loneliness lifts.

Entering the walnut grove he is among friends. The old monk planted these trees as saplings four decades before. Now they provide shade to pilgrims who come to the middle of nowhere to find peace at his Abbey. He lovingly opened the path he is walking on now, not paved or graveled, but carpeted in soft grass. It moves unobtrusively, like an ocean jet stream through tallgrass and timber floor, to the spongy edges of moss-covered wetland. The trail climbs across sun-bathed ridges and through the apple orchard where Jesus could easily have led his Apostles.  One of the red-cheeked novices who helped build the trail is now in his 40s and gray around the temples. He runs the guesthouse, inscribed at the entrance with the words of St. Benedict: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Brother Lucius practices Benedictine hospitality by taking local farm children on hayrides in autumn and by baiting hooks for Catholic school students from the city who come to the Abbey to fish for bluegill and crappie.

Lucius enters a small stand of timber and is blinded by shadows.  He blinks his eyes in the muggy darkness and steps around muddy grass where a small stream trickles across the trail and pools in the cottonwoods. The glade is haunted by a dilapidated shack, not much bigger than a child’s playhouse. A shoddy Cross of St. Benedict hangs on the front door, faded to strained pink by years of weather. A small sagging porch hangs on for dear life. Spiders and centipedes have taken up residence. The Abbey hermitage hasn’t known human habitation for two decades. Father Placid, a delightfully odd monk, last lived there for a two year period. He slept on a cot, raising his food in a small garden that has since melted back into the forest floor. Brother Lucius occasionally visited Father Placid in the cool of the evening. He usually found the monk sitting on the porch with a childlike smile on his face, tapping his toe to music only he could hear. Father Placid was considered strange by many of the younger monks, who didn’t approve of the old monk’s use of marijuana, but Brother Lucius liked his strange confere, though they had little in common. The priest deemed himself a mystic, a spiritual descendent of the Desert Fathers, whose writings he had taught in the seminary. He studied Islam, Buddhism and Judaism, and he read Greek, Latin and Hebrew like a New York Times Best Sellers.  Placid was fascinated by extra-terrestrial life and loved the alien conspiracies bandied about on 2 a.m. radio talk shows, which he listened to on a transistor radio (his only concession to technology). Brother Lucius chuckles quietly at the thought of his friend, now in his 80s, tottering on a cane still spinning wild theories.

The trail leaving the timber climbs steeply into the Midwest sun. Brother Lucius is again blinded. He sympathizes with guests who often retreat from the humid ascent to the shade of the grove or the air-conditioned guest house. Lucius wipes a work-coarsened hand across his glistening brow and bends to massage his arthritic knee. His own Mount of Olives awaits. The ridge, baked dry by hostile summers, is balding at the top like Brother Lucius, combed over by bluestems, fescue and Indian grass.

He breathes deeply as he enters the apple orchard at the end of his climb, enjoying the familiar sticky sweet smell in the air. June drop, the trees discarding the apples left after harvest. He drags his feet between the trees,  kicking up rotting apples in the grass until he swears he can taste the pungent fruit on his tongue.

Brother Lucius looks down from the hillside on the Abbey lake where he goes alone when the darkness takes him. The doctors finally came up with a name for it. They told him he was bipolar. But he prefers what he had suspected for many years before the diagnosis. That he is so bound to nature, to the land and to the seasons, that the great joy he feels in the outdoors has come with a price. In the winter when cold and dark take the land, he knows he is closer to death. In the spring, nature is struggling to be reborn, mothers are giving birth and babies are fighting against their own birth. The shoots on trees are straining toward the sun. Growth is painful. Brother Lucius suffers with this knowledge. In summer when the world lazily marks time Lucius loses himself in long sweaty days, satisfied with the exhaustion from manual labor.  It is the only time of year that he sleeps soundly. When crisp fall evenings slice away the cottony heat and the land swells with abundance, melancholy settles on Lucius. He is spotted in the lengthening shadows of the woods, or trudging the lakeside in his Carhart jacket. He drifts silently away from the community, like the leaves falling from his precious trees.

A streak of lightning dissects the horizon. Emotions swells in his chest as they always do when tortured weather is about. He walks to the water, slides his hands comfortably into the bib of his overalls and gazes at the purple storm groaning toward him.

Lucius, or William as he was called as a child, is standing in the rain staring at the sky above his family’s farm outside Wichita, Kansas. A faint bark cuts through the hiss of the downpour. He swivels quickly and sees his father’s silhouette through the rain, near the storm cellar. William moves toward him and makes out his father frantically waving him toward door to safety. The obedient boy runs through the mud to where his father his holding the unwieldy door open. William drops into the cellar foxhole, his father ducks quickly behind him. Immediately, as if giving chase, what sounds like an assault of baseballs crashes into the cellar door. The hail stops so suddenly William’s ears lurch. William waits, his body like one tense muscle. He looks around at his mother, his younger brother and his father. Only his father, who looks no different than if he’s come in from another day milking cows, is breathing.  The silence is broken by a distant voice outside. His mother’s eyes widen, she squeezes William’s brother to her side. William’s father calmly walks to the top of the cellar, pries the door open and peers out. He turns and says, You boys don’t go near this door, and slips away. William notices a strange green stillness through the slamming door.

The wait for his father seems like hours . Without preamble, the storm erupts again. Terror rises like vinegar in the boy’s throat. The door to the cellar bounces like a bed in a horror movie. But more terrifying is the roar of a freight train above his head. Just like they had described it in school. Even though he has lived his whole life in “Tornado Alley” he has never been close to one. Now a twister is trying to rip his family from a root cellar. And his father is gone. He rushes past his mother to the top of the stairs o open the door, but something (a demon?) is pushing against him. He digs in against the top step and presses both shoulders against the door, head bowed beneath the weight. He thrusts upward, leaping out of the earth. The door breaks free for a moment. He peers for a moment out into an abyss of purple and black, tangling and boiling like evil. A crash of lightning splinters, clean and malicious, and he tumbles down the stairs.

An explosion ruptures the darkness.

Brother Lucius lies on the floor of the monastery. The thunder of the second shot surrounds him. His ears scream. He is sucking rapid gulps of oxygen but he can’t swallow fast enough. The old man stands over him,  rifle barrel cutting into his sternum. For a moment Lucius sees regret in the weary eyes, but then nothing. The man lifts the barrel from Lucius’s chest, struggles to gather it, then cradles it to his bosom. He turns away  and limps down the hallway. A cough, deep and ragged, bubbles to Lucius’s lips, and blood splatters onto his new white T-shirt.