Introduction (and Question One)

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.

Portions

My wife and I went to lunch the other day at a Mexican restaurant.  Very tasty food and a cozy bar, although the bar sat empty that hour of the day as we were out in the dining room.  I looked at it longingly over the room divider, and suggested to my bride that, should I come up missing on any given evening she might locate me there.  After all, one does have an obligation not only to wander off now and then, but to test drive house margaritas to note their octane for future reference.  I do have a purpose in life.

At lunch I scanned the menu and immediately thought of that guy on the Food Network who goes in to rescue failing restaurants, often in part by reducing the number of menu items to streamline the operation and to avoid overwhelming the customers with choices.  (He usually sledgehammers down a few walls to boot while he's at it, but let's stay focused).  This Mexican restaurant and menu have so far escaped the rescue approach, and they appear to be doing pretty well, in spite of not yet having the food guy come in to modify the options and tear up the place.  On this particular day I went with the Deluxe Burrito.  It was a delicious combination of ingredients, and was well presented.  I only wish the waiter had warned me that it’s also the size of a propane tank.

I came, I ate, I staggered out.  We could all go on and on about restaurant portions these days, and I’ll speak no more of propane…  or methane.  But the size of the burrito was out of my control, and next time I’ll know.  The number of scoops of ice cream that I will have at home this evening is within my control.  And there’s the wonderful rub.  It’s that time-stopping moment of silence and decision, the life-altering power of private choices.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not the ice cream police.  What I’m trying to get at is, when does a “no” mean “yes” to something else that is honestly more satisfying, and maybe even more life-giving?  How will I live in that even sacred moment in time when the choice presents itself, never again in that instance to appear?  And what of my inclination to dismiss it as a simple and silly conflict?  Maybe it is in this case.  Or is this really a shaper of persons?  A critical divide?  A holy moment?

Are the decisions we make in small, daily, hidden matters actually of greater weight and consequence than we might imagine as we then observe our approach to larger, perhaps public matters?  That is to say, what are we doing when no one else is present?  Is it true that I am most fully myself when no one is watching?  Oh my.

On top of that, what meddlesome God would pry into my choices?  It must be to damn.  It surely could not be to save.  Good(?) God, I must find out.

I Am You

Crap.  (A modest, yet serviceable, midwestern expletive).  

I had nearly bought it…   no, really…   the notion that mine are the unique thoughts of the day.  That novel constructions are “par for the course” for me.  That surely no one (at least so far this millennium) has wrapped his or her mind around the personal insights with which I amaze myself daily and occasionally proffer to the public free of charge.  No ordinary speculations, these.  I trust you’ve been impressed.  But now lately my private insight yacht has been taking on the reflective water of others and I’m being forced to shore to reconsider.  Which is a drag.  Sort of.

Because there is an odd solace in a mirrored discovery.  I carry the silly disappointment that not only do others share my thoughts, they are very possibly well out in front of them.  But now too I see, the musings of others are likely mine as well.  And isn’t that curious?  And potentially bothersome.  I mean, if no one carries within himself unique considerations then there is everywhere to be and nowhere to hide.  How completely liberating.  And how wonderfully disturbing.  Now we’re getting somewhere.

For example:  How could you and I have a conversation about God that is not entirely shaped by our fears, assumptions, and personal histories?  In other words, over that beer, could we have a "free" discussion, a talk into which we don't immediately inject our favorite pet peeves or unexamined certainties?  You know what I'm talking about.  Because you are me.  And I am you.  And you and I are both without novel thoughts.  So why don't we lay down our God-damned (which they may literally be) defenses and discuss what could ultimately be matters of great urgency?  Respect me, listen to me, and challenge me, and I will show you the same courtesy.  And bring some decent jokes if you have them.  Who knows, we may discover not that which we’re inclined to believe, but perhaps that which is in fact true to believe, if it can possibly be known.  And isn't that what we're drinking about?