Fr. Dennis can be seen waiting at the side entrance of St. Monica‘s on California Street at 6am every morning. If he didn’t wear his priest’s collar you’d swear he was on his way to the beach to catch a wave. The guy looks like Laird Hamilton with his wispy blonde hair and year-round tan. He holds a coffee and stands there smiling from 6 to 6:30, every morning, Monday through Friday, until he celebrates Mass. The guy is a saint.
Naturally, I try to avoid him like I owe him money. Don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’ve run out of things to talk about. Maybe it’s because he’s so decent and I feel crummy about myself. Or maybe just because it’s a little after six in the morning and I just don’t want to talk to anybody.
That’s the thing about 6:30am daily Mass. These are die hard Roman Catholics. It’s like a private club. First rule: no talking.
There’s a posted sign leading into the church that says: “Capacity 928.” But on any given morning during the week, there are less than 70 people. This means pretty much everyone has their own pew. I actually manage about seven. I sit near the church’s rear and far to the left, right next to the Third Station of the Cross where Jesus falls for the first time. The nearest person to me sits about five rows up. She’s a very old lady who holds a rosary close to her.
Most folks at 6:30am daily Mass are old. And Catholic. But not all of them. Some come to receive a blessing. Others come to get out of the cold (not that it’s ever too cold in sunny California). But there are a lot of homeless people in Santa Monica. When the doors open early in the morning, many will wander in just to nod out.
On rainy days this is a problem. At least for a World War II veteran named Willy, who’s in his 80’s. If most of these Catholics are hardcore, Willy is their general: the pre-Vatican II, Syllabus of Errors kind. He doesn’t like the sign of peace. Can’t stand liturgical dancing. Was infuriated when they moved the tabernacle off the alter. Willy especially doesn’t like it when homeless folks use our Catholic house of worship as a flophouse.
But one day, this sorry homeless bum stumbled in and crashed out in one of the back pews. He then started snoring like mad. And loud as heck, too. Old Willy put down his pieta prayer book and approached to wake him.
“Get up,” he said. “This ain’t a hotel.”
The guy rolled over and continued sleeping. Willy then turned to me, “Hey. You wanna help me get this guy out of here?”
I really didn’t want to. I felt sorry for the guy. “Just let him sleep,” I said.
Willy looked at me like I was on crack.
Haven’t spoken to him since.
There is one woman who’s spoken to me twice. The first time was after I had let my hair grow very long and grew a beard, too. I thought I looked pretty cool, but considering I stumbled out of bed most of the time on my way in, I probably looked like one of the homeless guys that nodded out in back. (In fact, one day when I was looking particularly ratty and praying after communion, I noticed somebody had left a dollar next to me.) She just walked up to me, grabbed my hand and said, “You look like hell, honey. Go shave and get a haircut.”
I didn’t take her advice for another month or two, but when I did she came up to me again looking like my mother when I graduated high school.
“Now that’s more like it. I knew there was a handsome face somewhere in there.”
That was it. Haven’t spoken since.
Everybody at 6:30am Mass is a story. You can see it on their faces. Only in most cases, you don’t know what that story is. You just hear things.
Like about the very sad looking man who sits near the front named Cliff. His wife of 35 years has terminal cancer I‘m told. He picks her up the Eucharist every day.
And there’s a Mexican ex-con who’s covered in prison ink. The right side of his face is scarred from the teardrop tattoo that was removed with laser surgery.
There is a woman named Marge who has been trying to conceive a child for as long as I’ve seen her. I know this because she told me once. On her way to sit down before Mass she stopped by my pew and said, “Pray for me. My husband and I are trying to have a child.”
Sometimes during petitions the priest will tell us to pray for the soul of so and so. The name doesn’t even register until he adds, she was a daily communicant who sat right over there, and he points to an empty pew. Suddenly, a strange realization comes over the church. We were all with that person. Every day. We all knew who she was. But most of us didn’t even know her name. That realization we all feel is guilt.
Guilt is a heavy emotion at 6:30am Mass. It’s thick as fog but invisible like radon gas, choking almost everybody. Most of us bring our own cloud. There’s a woman named Helen, whose cloud is quite large. She’s a wonderful woman, a mother of six. But she can’t stand her husband. They never talk. She’s told me as much. In increments. Over the years. She can not divorce him. He is not a drinker. Nor is he abusive. Therefore, she feels the Church would not condone it. And so she is stuck in this loveless life. One time I stayed after Mass for a bit and became sucked into a conversation with Fr. Dennis. When I finally reached my car I noticed Helen was parked nearby. She was weeping. I walked up to her and she rolled down her window.
“Is everything okay?” I asked as she dried up.
“I’m fine,” she said. Then she paused before adding, “I just don’t want to go home.”
I sort of stood there like an idiot for a moment wondering what I could do. I could’ve told her I’d pray for her, but coming out of my mouth it seemed so phony to me. So I just stood there until we were both uncomfortable.
Finally, Helen said, “Did you know tha
t St. Monica is the patron saint of married women?”
I did know. In fact, I knew that St. Monica is the patron saint of abuse victims, alcoholics, difficult marriages, disappointing children, housewives, victims of adultery and widows. I also knew that she was in a horrible marriage when she gave birth to her son, Augustine, who became a bishop and a great theologian. But I didn’t say any of this. Instead I said, “No, I didn’t.”
She then came to a conclusion. “I’m going to pray to her,” she said.
I told her I thought that was a great idea. And we went our own ways. Everybody goes their own way after daily Mass.
Strange things sometimes happen. Little things. Like one time a woman had a hanger attached to her jacket. She must’ve been half awake when she threw it on. Or sometimes, someone will enter the church, shout an expletive, and then leave. Another woman, a small Mexican lady obsessed with Our Lady of Guadalupe, will occasionally break into song – right in the middle of Mass.
A homeless man I’ve nicknamed “Tennessee” stumbles in about once a week wearing the weirdest clothes you’ll ever see. One morning he was wearing a wedding dress. I’m serious. He’s a horrible alcoholic and I don’t suppose he knows any better. He’s always trying to sell something too. Cassette tapes. Calling cards. Buttons. Anything he can find while rummaging through the garbage. He once tried to sell me some pornographic magazines.
I’m reminded of the story in the Gospels that talks about how we’re all seeds that become scattered about. Some of the seeds land on the path and they’re taken away by birds. Other seeds land near thorns where they are choked off before they can root. And other seeds land on the rocky soil. Those are the ones that grow only to wither and die. Only some of the seeds land on fertile soil. Those are the seeds that grow into something beautiful.
When I go home I often wonder what kind of seed I am. And I wonder if it is too late for me to grow into something beautiful.
Born in Detroit, P.G. Cuschieri is a writer who lives and works in Los Angeles. He is a grateful brother, uncle, friend and a proud Roman Catholic. He can be found on twitter @pgcuschieri.