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Historians are often taught to begin their analysis by focusing on the big picture, the meta-narrative that spans decades and defines careers. But I think that the more mundane flotsam and jetsam of life have similar worth in explaining epochs, important lives, and the texture of history itself. It’s also still the Christmas season (at least until I have to fly back to England on the 18th) and after facing the terrifying milestone of turning 20, I’m in the mood for nostalgia. So indulge me, in telling a very Christmas-y story.
My Dad grew up in a devout Baptist family and while he has strayed somewhat in terms of attendance and even denominational loyalty, he did come out of that upbringing with a deep suspicion of Catholicism. This made his choice to marry a Catholic girl from the next town over particularly perplexing. In due time, he had two daughters and allowed his wife, my mother, to raise us as Catholics, if only because he had no feasible alternative (having fallen away from the local Baptist community) and was adamant that we be raised to believe in something.
That did nothing to increase his affection for the Catholic Church, however. Every time one of us came home discussing what Father so-and-so had said in his homily, we could rely on a shout from the kitchen, “He’s not your father! You’ve only got one of those, and it’s me.” I can recall one memorable occasion on which my mother was unable to take us to our parish’s Ash Wednesday service so he was drafted into service, with much grumbling and threats to simply “bless” us with ashes from the pellet stove. Under threat from mom, he did bring us, but spent the whole service whispering jokes at the expense of the Pope and the parish priest in my ear, and then glancing at me in consternation, along with a gaggle of old women sitting near us, when I attempted to cover my giggles with poorly executed coughs.
Most teens go through a rebellious phase; mine manifested itself in a three-year flirtation with conservative Judaism and a near refusal to go through with confirmation. (Though, in my defense, I read enough theological texts on both sides to qualify it as a bit more serious than the normal resort to green hair and unfortunate piercings.) My dad sat through most of that as a spectator, and while I don’t think he would have been upset with me had I gone through with that conversion, he was happy when I became theologically comfortable enough to go through with my confirmation when originally planned. Even if he mercilessly mocked the bishop, his monsignor, and the six attending priests. In his defense, incense makes him ornery.
However, my journey with Catholic spirituality isn’t quite over. I think my mother, as with most of the kids in my confirmation class, expected me to settle down into Catholic agnosticism, going with her to church when she asked, giving up except for holidays in college, and baptizing any kids for the sake of tradition. My intellectual life (to be pretentious and 16 again) was a serious matter to me, and I found it increasingly hard to square the mainstream Catholic faith I saw with my own beliefs and desires.
I also happened to be at the age where I had a car and a JDL, and when I decided to make off to the nearest monastery to hear a Latin service “because William F. Buckley Jr., mom!” no one put up too much of a fight. (It also delights me to remember the facial reactions of other parents when my mom began complaining about me; ‘she reads too much, is this woman on drugs’ or ‘she spends too much time listening to F.A. Hayek, what’s a Hayek, is he a gangster rapper?’) She was even less impressed when I decided to start attending there full-time but accepted my spending Friday nights with a group of mostly elderly priests and brothers as a better alternative to spending that time at house parties. My dad was a slightly different story.
If there was (and, to some extent, is) any one thing that my dad dislikes about Catholicism, it’s priests. They are chosen by a far-off bishop (rather than by the community, in the Baptist tradition), they are celibate, and exuded a general air of being unable or unwilling to deal with the real world. My choice to spend so much time with so many of them, becoming attached to that place and those priests in a way that he had never seen with any of the parish priests we had before, was both worrying and weird.
And monks, who seemed to him the ultimate in both strangeness and the above-mentioned characteristics, were the ultimate evil. When I needed a ride, he refused to enter, and when I was invited to bring family to dinner, he sent my mom alone with me. He also took great pride in convincing my sister that monks are really naked under their habits. The undoubted stubbornness that I know he possesses let me write of that reality as the one that would always be, there was no reason to hope for anything other than peaceful coexistence.
There is no grand dramatic ending to this story, no conversion or gunfight or death-bed confession. It ends with sleep. About two years after I first began going to the monastery, on a particularly snowy December night my parents insisted on driving me there and dropping me off for Vespers while they drove around to look at Christmas lights. When they returned, after I had walked bit of the winding driveway and waited for a few minutes, I sat in the back of the car and began to nod off, as overburdened high school seniors are want to do.
“Did you see that?”
“No, Phil, what?”
“He was waiting for her.”
“That monk that she always talks to, he was waiting at the window, watching her like a hawk. He didn’t move until she got in the car.”
“He was making sure that she was safe, he wasn’t going anywhere until he was sure that she was getting in a car.”
“Yep. Oh, look at that reindeer.”
He never mentioned what he saw to me, or even to my mother again. But it meant something to him, that men he considered at best “odd ducks” were worried about the safety of his child, were so like him. So now he’s willing to be dragged to dinner, to help out when they need extra hands on a building project, and even to make friends with the monk who is a carpenter and cabinetmaker, just like him.
It’s a nice story, but not anything world-changing, maybe not even worth the pages in a book. But I think it is because it shows how the little accumulated experiences of life add up to something greater, to tolerance or hate, to unity or division. Roman legionaries talk to their Christian captives and a revolution is born; Italian merchants do business with Jewish bankers and a generation later their sons learn Hebrew with the sons of the men that they first began to see as human; one man sees the humanity in the everlasting “other” and gains a new, if reluctant, respect for them. The beauty of small stories is both their intimacy and the unexpected birth which they encompass.
*To those that very kindly followed me and my writing: I had no intention, seven-plus months ago, of taking this unannounced hiatus. The unfortunate combination of a semi-serious illness, various summer academic commitments, an internship, and a sibling that my parents require my help for care with when on break halted all attempts at Ricochet during the summer, and the sheer business of life at a uni famed for its all-or-nothing attitude plus picking up a new sport (with the concomitant seven weekly practice hours) produced a similar result up to now. Still, regardless of these excuses, I sincerely apologize. I can’t promise anything like a consistent posting schedule, but I am going to make a concerted effort to both be around and write more. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year. — KirkianWandererPublished in