Sometimes, there's a higher power involved

Sometimes, there's a higher power involved

In the late summer 1987 when I was 32 years old, a couple of important things happened almost simultaneously.

At the same time I was starting a new job, a long-term relationship was coming to an end.

As you can well imagine, my life was a bit unsettled.

I’ve never been the kind of guy who puts much faith in prior planning; in fact, I’ve never put much faith in faith itself.

As a recovering Roman Catholic, I carry with me the twin burdens of world-weary skepticism and indoctrinated optimism, which is a lofty way of saying I have no idea what happens when people die.

I remember as an altar boy back there in elementary school, I used to volunteer for funeral duty. This, among other quirks, set me apart from my fellow servers, but there was something much more interesting happening when there was a casket in church.

Oh sure, I enjoyed getting tipped after weddings when the best man would slip me an envelope with a $5 bill inside. That was real money back then, and a 10-year-old kid could stretch it a long way: packs of baseball cards cost a nickel, a 45-rpm single was a buck, bottles of pop took a thin dime and a copy of Mad was 35 cents.

But what did I really contribute to the ceremony? My role was strictly background stuff, just slapping a smile on my face and going through the motions of an everyday Mass.

Funerals were altogether different.

For one thing you had to be able to adjust on the fly. Sometimes the priest would need your assistance with the censor, which meant walking into the nave and circumnavigating the coffin.

Other times, you’d be called upon to light candles specially placed on either side of the deceased, a responsibility that got even more difficult when you could feel every eye in the place upon you.

Sadness bore down even as you did your best to add a little light.

Funerals required the priests wear black vestments, and that added a weighty solemnity to the proceedings as well.

Once the service had been completed and the pallbearers had done their job, the church emptied quickly as the scene shifted to the graveyard, a short drive in my little town, maybe a mile or so.

I can recall a kind of grim satisfaction as I extinguished the candles, returned the cruets and the chalice to their assigned places, and removed the cassock and surplice, hanging them back in the closet.

With luck no one would ever remember me being there, and that was always an altar boy’s fondest wish after serving a funeral.

God help you if you screwed up.

But that was part of growing up Catholic, living in fear of committing a sin, any sin, but especially a mortal one.

Those could land you in hell for eternity, a length of time even the smartest theologian couldn’t actually quantify.

“It never ends” was the best anyone could do, and that was an unsatisfactory answer and, to my way of thinking, a fatal flaw in the faith of my father … and mother … and sister … and brother.

So I drifted away, getting more distant even as I spent four years at Notre Dame, arguably the most prominent of Catholic universities.

And then in the late summer 1987, a quick decade after my graduation, I found myself back in the same church where I’d been an altar boy, sitting alone in the back, trying to figure things out.

The relationship I’d been in had — owing largely to my own failures — reached its inevitable sad ending, and I was filled with the kind of guilt only a wretched penitent can know. The woman who had opened herself to me had finally had enough of my arrogant assumption that she’d always be there.

I couldn’t blame her.

She left my apartment that Sunday in September and never looked back. Last I heard she was doing well. I hope that’s still true.

Nothing makes a person feel worse than knowing he’s caused pain.

Alas, we’re all susceptible to lapses in judgment, and the best we can do is, as the last words of the Mass advise, go and sin no more.

It was in that frame of mind I sought the advice of a visiting priest who happened to be filling in for the pastor as he visited Lourdes. He was an Irishman, a folksy, gregarious, approachable man of the cloth, someone who radiated not only understanding but a willingness to listen to even the most egregious sinner.

He drew rock-star crowds on the steps outside the church after his services, so there was no chance for me to approach him there. I thought about calling him and trying to set up a get-together, but because he was always out and about in the parish, dining with families who’d invited him to share a meal, that was out too.

In the end I simply walked up to the front door of the rectory late one weeknight and knocked, a paper bag tucked under my arm.

“Yes,” he said in his brogue, “how can I be helpin’ you, then?”

Those were words I never thought I’d ever hear again.

“Father,” I said, “I wondered if I might talk to you for a minute.”

“In you come, then,” he said, swinging open the door. “And what’s that in the bag? A little somethin’ to wet me whistle?”

We sat in that living room for an hour, maybe more, and the more I let it all out — my mistakes, my guilt, my doubts about the future, my worries that nothing was going to make me feel better — the closer he listened.

“Whatever’s passed is in the past,” he said, reaching into the bag again. “You cannot change it, but I’m thinkin’ you know that.”

“How can I be, I don’t know, better?” I asked. “Am I just stuck?”

And then this priest from thousands of miles away, his Roman collar undone, his eyes locked onto mine, said, “I don’t know.”

I nodded.

Suddenly, I got it.

“You’ll be gettin’ chances, probably soon,” he said. “It’s gonna be up to you how you live up to being your best self. It’s tha’ simple.”

In the weeks that followed, I got more comfortable at my new job, cleaned up my apartment and began seeing a woman who would, 20 years later, marry me on the beach at Kitty Hawk.

It wasn’t tha' simple, but then again, you gotta have a little faith.

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