In March of 2013, at the age of fifty-five, I became a Roman Catholic. By choice, not by marriage. Go figure. That’s its own curious and winding story, and it’s not directly what this series of posts is about, but while on that journey I one day found myself in a bar in Winchester, Massachusetts waiting for some friends, books in my backpack. Being a belly-up guy myself I took a seat at the bar, said yes to an IPA, and pulled out the book I was reading. One always wonders if that’s a good idea, knowing you could encourage or perhaps provoke a conversation about it if you didn’t manage to hide the title from your bar mate, but such is life. And where better than a tavern to mix it up a bit.
Let's call him Michael. Yes, Michael showed up at the bar a few minutes later, not to meet friends as I recall, but just to get reacquainted with a beer at the end of his day. Perfectly nice guy. Jovial and chatty, if a bit jacked-up. Someone you might really look forward to meeting or not meeting at the bar, depending on how your own day had gone. But there he was. We introduced ourselves, talked briefly, he glanced at the cover of the book I was reading, and damn, before I had a chance to drop a napkin over it he was off and running. All it took was something “Catholic” in the title and his story, which flowed as though prepped and oddly at the ready, poured out. As in a torrent. It turns out I’m a decent listener, so I hunkered down in my barstool kayak for this white water ride.
Michael had been a Catholic, until that fateful day -- the day his brother perished in a plane crash. Apparently his brother had been away on business and in fact had rearranged his flight so he could get home earlier to see his family. That new flight went down, with him on it. A perfectly horrible scenario. Some of the details that Michael related to me are sketchy in my memory, but I vividly recall the part of the story where he recounts getting up in the middle of the night after hearing the news about his brother, and paying a visit to his own Catholic priest. He pounded on the rectory door and waited for the bleary-eyed padre to appear, at which point Michael unloaded his pain and fury. You know where this goes. Hell, his brother had even rearranged his flight to get home earlier to be with his family. "Explain it to me, Father. You and God explain the whole effing thing to me!" Michael wrapped-up by making sure I was aware that to this very day whenever he by chance encounters this same priest, he sneers at him and greets him with the one-finger wave. And as we said, that was the end of Michael’s Catholicism. The end of Michael’s God.
As he left the bar I sat there wondering what that story was all about. Why did he have to tell me all of that? What was the need? Also, he seemed both spent and exhilarated when he left, as though publicly and properly justified. What for him had been accomplished? I can understand that he momentarily off-loaded on his priest layers of grief and bitterness. Anyone might. But why did he also appear so pleased, even delighted? And why did he only spew his story and then depart, making no effort to engage with me, since we had spoken barely a few words to each other up to that point? Interestingly enough, I also caught myself wondering why, in a way, I wished I had such a story to tell. Me, the fellow who was moving toward the Church. Where had we just visited? What had Michael touched? Why was he so eager to go there? Was all of this also exposing a protected place in him and in me? I felt it and maybe identified it, but perhaps avoided it. A zone that is off limits, even to those closest to us, and perhaps even to our very selves. A private cell that utilizes the strongest security measures one can install. A world in me that opens into the deepest hidden corridor. What if I wanted to, and needed to, find out what was going on with all of this? I suppose I could. I suppose I should. Damn.
Shortly after that bar encounter I began to formulate a question for Michael. A terrible question, and the first question in this series. A question for which, had I asked it at the bar, I imagine Michael would have driven a muddler through my skull. And understandably so. A violent question that, if asked of me as well, I can’t guarantee that my response would carry less vitriol. I might also reach for the muddler. Or something sharper.
And so it emerged with time, but was never posed: “Michael, may I ask you a terrible question? As tragic as your brother’s death was... And by the way, my own brother died slowly and painfully... (which he did, my brother Dave, at fifty-two from colon cancer)... but as tragic as your brother’s death was, did it also provide you with the one thing you had always desired more than anything else in life, a reason to not believe?”
This series attempts to address something about Michael. And about me. And who knows, maybe even about you. These posts present an ever-growing collection of questions. Certainly not original ones, or just God-type questions. And somewhat random they may also represent similar questions often met with an angle of aversion. Wedges that find their way down. Questions not about your golf game or wine or human relationships, but questions about our closed or nearly-closed personal systems. Territories and landscapes we have cordoned off in the name of courtesy, propriety, and safety. Top secret facilities. Questions that I think I would want my friend to wield, but not with great frequency. And not without great care. And not without reasonable humility. You may find these questions to be annoying. I certainly do. Oh joy.
What are my qualifications for formulating and presenting these questions? I don't know. I claim no particular expertise, except in my nearly sixty-year share of human nature. In that I’ve done post-doc work and a residency here and there, with more to come I imagine. But it is not my credentials nor yours that interest me. Let them be stripped away. These may be matters in which they mean nothing. I worked in an Ivy League institution for nearly thirty years and, correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression is that the academy rarely travels in these lands. And yet, please help me. I may reference a source here or there, but for the most part will just crash along by reflecting on my own life and tendencies, as I’m persuaded that the most important questions of life are both simple and difficult. And so I offer a few of them here, in a decidedly buckshot approach to encouragement and engagement. Mere tinder toward the bonfire. Starting fluid.
Will you help me locate and focus these questions in their raw, nagging transparency? Or have we invested so much blood and treasure in avoiding them that we’re beyond cashing out some stock? You’re in the process of dying and so am I. Why not stumble along with me? What's to lose? Maybe there is much to gain. And yes, you can buy me a beer.