Intermission: Showing My Cards

Is that a question?

I’ve done very little research for this ongoing series of questions.  (You’ve noticed?)  I figured that, if you can’t drag a dredge through a life in its late fifties and scrape up at least a little content then, good grief, what were all those miles for?  And besides, I don’t really know how to handle quotations and attributions.  To say nothing of the semi-colon; someday I should learn.

Twice the Gospels record a curious statement from Jesus, which I take to mean that ultimate things are “hidden from the wise and understanding and revealed to babes.”  Heaven knows I am not among the “wise and understanding,” and though I hope there is nothing juvenile in my probings, I do aspire to the childlike in my questions and explorations.  And, as with a kid, may those questions be with few inhibitions.  And may they be thoughtfully and kindly relentless.  What the world needs now, it seems to me.

Perhaps only at the end of this world will there finally be the proper orientation of all things.  Maybe our souls, if we have them, long for that consummation above all other yearnings, even as we fear the day.  As a kid I wondered why anyone would avoid a search for God if there is possibly a God to be discovered.  Why would one choose to live independently of that consideration?  Made no sense to me.  And so I dig around.  And maybe in the process grace makes its way toward me.  And perhaps this is the most marvelous thing.

What do I believe?  I believe in the historic Christian message.  I believe in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, Savior of the world.  I believe that this believing is a placement of trust, rather than a mere assent to what may be the facts surrounding his existence two thousand years ago.  It is a throwing in of one’s lot.  A hoping and a confessing and a grasping and a cherishing.  And I have trusted this Jesus, not because it brings me peace, which it does.  And not because it can carry difficulty and sometimes permit confusion, which it does and will.  And not because there are not dark nights of the soul, because there are.  And not because I receive forgiveness, which I believe I have received and do receive.  And not because in a walk with Jesus there is embedded purpose, which I’m persuaded there is.  

No, in the end I believe in the Christian message because I'm convinced that what it claims about Jesus in time, space, dimension, history is actually so — that the message is in fact true.  And wouldn't that be something?  Yes, it seems to me that when all is said and done the problem with the Christian message is that it’s true.  And therefore, for any person, it becomes the most wonderful of troubles with which to cope.

I have been a believing person since my youth.  And though I have never suffered from chronic happiness, a full body scan would likely reveal deep veins of contentment and deposits of joy.  To say nothing of laugh lines.  But my writing here tends to express my specifically Catholic journey, which for me emerged in earnest at mid-life.  My itinerary developed over time, and I suggest it, or something similar.  In the end you may arrive at another destination, but I think I can promise that you will unearth considerations that had not occurred to you.  There’s a danger in that of course.  But, as you and I have always said, since when has a truth seeker ever needed to be afraid?

Here’s what I did, and I recommend it — search “Catholic conversion stories.”  You’ll find months of stuff to poke around in.  And give the personal stories themselves room to be important in this process.  Beyond that, follow the links and threads and references.  There will be plenty to sit with and walk with and argue with and consider.  Not surprisingly I also read a lot of Catholic writers, many themselves converts.  Authors whom one doesn’t normally encounter as a Protestant, only because they’re not usually part of the conversation.  Some of the writers who influenced me were Thomas Howard, Richard John Neuhaus, G. K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, Arnold Lunn, Romano Guardini, Walker Percy, Hilaire Belloc, and James V. Schall (born in Pocahontas, Iowa, so what’s not to like?).

And please, Flannery O’Connor is reason enough to become a Catholic.

What I came in touch with increasingly satisfied my mind and moved my heart, seeming both of reason and mystery.  History unfolding, bearing the marks of the promised keeping of God.  A place of rest and substance, offered even to me as a gift, a grace only to be received.

In the early days of my journey toward the Catholic Church I would attend Mass at St. Paul Church, Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I sat in the back, on the right, near the confessional.  Wouldn’t want to be too close to the front.  Me and some homeless guys.  A little chilly, wearing my jacket, with a rack of dog-eared song books and missals in front of me.  Sitting and standing and kneeling through what can seem the perfunctory readings and movements of the Mass.  I felt as a stranger, yet oddly at home.

And then during the Liturgy of the Eucharist we arrived at the Agnus Dei — “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us…”

And I stood there and wept.

Can you tell me why?

Marvin A. Wigdahl

‘A’ for Augustine.  Although Dad told me one time he thought Augustine was a character in the Bible.  But I'll cut him some slack on that one, as we Lutherans didn't hang out with the Saints much.  Years later when I entered the Catholic Church I took Augustine as my confirmation name.  And if Dad were still around, and wasn’t entirely miffed that I’d swum the Tiber, I think he would smile at that.  Not sure though if he would smile about my other new name, “Jimmy Confirmande”, which was given to me by my friend and sponsor, Anthony.  “Hey Jim, this is great!  Not only are you becoming a Catholic, you’re becoming an Italian!”  (Spoken with proper Italian-American inflection.  And yes, he talks with his hands.)

Twice in my life I saw my dad cry.  The first time was when my brother Dave died.  We were in Valley City, North Dakota, where Dave had lived for many years, and we were meeting with the local pastor about the funeral service.  Dave had said one time that his friends there in North Dakota were like family to him, and while we were sitting with the pastor that somehow slammed into my dad.  And he cried there at the table, wondering out loud if we had not been enough of a family for Dave.  The second time I saw Dad cry was when he was dying.  He was in the local nursing home and he knew his time was short.  We were sitting together, and at one point his good friend and Marine Corps buddy Rod came to mind, and with tears running down his face all he said was, “Semper Fi, Rod…   Semper Fi”… 

Dad was the guy in my hometown you would call if you didn’t know what else to do.  He had this gift for receiving and stabilizing the tumultuous moment.  He could absorb the fear and uncertainty of the situation, and then parcel out the necessary constructive steps to go forward.  Always with tact, and never without compassion.  He was by blood and tradition a stoic, being of fine Norwegian stock.

Definition of a Norwegian:  

A Norwegian is a shy, generous, and thoughtful person, who will kick your ass on skis.

Dad would always cut to the chase, after all he was a hardware store guy, but had also been a mortician, and wasn’t keen on beating around the bush.  I remember one day our distant relative Lenora dropped dead, up on the north side of town.  And whoever it was who found her called my dad at the store, which was my town’s version of dialing 911.  People liked and respected my dad.  Fair to say he was the unofficial mayor of Ruthven.  And as I said, he always knew what to do, whether your furnace had gone out, your Maytag wasn’t being so dependable after all, or you just found a dead person on your porch.  “Better call Marv.”  

Anyway, back to Lenora…   Dad got the news and shortly after that picked up the phone to call Lenora’s brother to let him know.  “Hi Ron, it’s Marv Wigdahl.  Yeah, Ron, Lenora’s dead…      yeah, we just found her on the porch.   Yeah…   I’m sorry, Ron…        Yeah, why don’t you give me a call later.”  Dad was thoughtful and caring, while not really emotional or sentimental.  He was very strong and direct, and people appreciated that and leaned on it.

And just to continue the death and dying theme, there was the time when Dad was a funeral director and he and his partner Bud drove a long distance to make a “delivery.”  Dad drove over and Bud drove back, so on the return trip Dad rolled a sleeping bag out in the back of the hearse to take a nap.  Then at some point he woke up, realizing the hearse had come to a stop.  So he reached over and pulled back the curtain on the side of the hearse to see where they were.  And there was this guy, standing there pumping the gas.  Dad said later they almost had to make another delivery.     Classic.

(Viewer Alert…   you might want to skip this).  And years later when Dad died at the nursing home in Ruthven I stayed in his room when the guys from the funeral home arrived to pick him up.  They kindly asked me, “Jim, are you ok with being in here for this?”  And I said, “I am, thanks.  Dad would want me to be here.”  So they lifted him off the bed and slipped him into a body bag right there in front of me.  Zipped it up, and off he went.  

My siblings and I discuss the many ways our parents should have done things differently.  And maybe they should have.  I certainly should have.  But they also played the cards they were dealt, and did the best they could.  And so shall we.  The baton has been passed.  I go forward with the stoicism of my father and the tears of my mother.  And for these twin gifts I am eternally grateful.

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.