Someone very dear to me was rushed to the emergency room two Sundays ago and found to be dying. My wife and I drove out to be with him and have sat for hours in his room on the cancer ward. We’ve watched Spongebob Squarepants with him, listened with him to the professionally cheerful nurses and the slightly evasive doctor, paced the hallway when he had to suffer the more undignified parts of being cared for. We brought him home on Saturday and settled him in.
This has made me angrier than perhaps anything else in my entire life. I’ve said things to the cosmos involving various forms of the worst word you can think of. He does not deserve this. Later, okay, but not now, not for years.
On Sunday morning we decided to go for Mass at the church nearest our hotel, on the sole grounds that it was an old building that might still be beautiful, while the church around the corner from our friend’s home was modern and likely not to be beautiful. The choice was essentially random. I was still angry, but Mass is Mass.
It’s an inner-city church, and as beautiful as we’d hoped. The immigrants who built it a hundred years ago did well.
It had a congregation of academics and artists and people stereotypical for this hip northeastern city — the kind of city that remembers the ’60s and has a brewpub every two blocks — like the old man with a long ponytail next to us and the woman in the flowing madras peasant dress next to him. Bernie Sanders buttons were to be seen. The congregation included a lot of Africans, with the women dressed in bright beautiful African dresses and their sons with dreadlocks.
It was a gift, being there. I had grown up in a New England college town, and this church and its people reminded me a lot of St. Brigid’s there, to which we’ve gone since we entered the Church. They were my people. I felt instantly at home. If you’ve seen the Bernie Sanders’ “America” ad, that is the world of my childhood, and I found it there.
The Mass was simple; informal but reverent. The peace went on a bit, with people going out of their way to stretch across the pews to share it with us. In his homily the priest offered a striking biblical insight and a moving quote on mercy from Francis, and useful instruction on living like Christ. I tried to sing but every time started to break down, but as Mass went on I felt the universe right itself.
I left the church feeling happy and Julian of Norwich-y, though still angry at the cosmos. I felt “Damn the cosmos all to hell” and “All manner of things shall be well.”
At the pub
Last night I went to get dinner at small pub near my friend’s home. I was sitting at the end of the bar with my laptop, ignored in a friendly way by the people nearby, when a roughly 60-year-old guy, dressed in old New England preppie style and wearing a Red Sox cap, sat next to me and started talking to the bartender. They were obviously friends.
Guy: “I’m looking forward to Sunday.”
Guy: “It’s Easter.”
Woman two people down the bar: “Yeah. Of course it’s Easter.”
Guy: “Gave up beer for Lent. Don’t know what I was thinking.”
Bartender: “Geez, man.”
Guy: “Yeah. [Pause, then regretfully] I like beer.”
The bartender shook his head. The woman two people down the bar laughed. The rest of us looked sympathetic.
This was also a gift. His was a small witness shared with a friend and the temporary friends you meet in a townie pub. It was more humorous than pious. But it was a witness, and one shared with others as you would share any other basic fact of life. It was not “religious,” the kind of thing that feels as if you ought to preface it with “And now, ladies and gentlemen, a word from God” as the spotlight switches on. It was his life, and he shared part of it with his friends. That was good to see.
The gift of the Mass in a church that felt like home, and the amusing witness of a man in a bar, those for me are small signs that my friend’s sudden illness does not give the final word about the cosmos or man, that God is at work in his own way accomplishing his ends.
My secular friends would say that I’m clutching at straws, and I admit these are not pillar of fire-type signs. They would say going to that particular Mass was just luck and the guy in the bar someone just as deluded as I am.
But they’re not signs for me because they tell me something I didn’t know. They are signs because they reminded me of something I already knew but could not feel, faced with the massive unfairness of my friend’s terminal illness: that God became one of us and suffered death too, and remains with us and comes to us in the sacrament, and gives us to each other as friends. I am still angry, let me be clear, but not as angry as I was.