Brown mustard seed, by Dsaikia2015
When I was a child, the Hickey Family had a regular seat, like most do at most churches, at St. Vincent DePaul Roman Catholic Church in Richboro, Pennsylvania. We sat about six rows from the front, on the left (that’s stage right to you theater geeks), beside a pillar to which was attached a speaker for the church’s public address system.
I wasn’t tall then, like I am now :) so I couldn’t see the processional or recessional or what was happening at the front of the church. Mass was a purely auditory experience for years and there was that big speaker with the booming male voice. It had to be God. This was God’s House.
I did notice that God’s grammar changed. Sometimes God seemed to be talking to the congregation and sometimes God seemed to be talking to himself. I couldn’t figure that one out, but I let it go.
I would have been eight or nine years old when I made my first Holy Communion and then I could go to the front of the church, but no one was talking then. I looked up into the rafters, expecting to see a loft like a treehouse, where God actually lived. I couldn’t find out and couldn’t figure that one out, either, but I let that go as well.
I would have been about twelve when I started to serve as altar boy. I wasn’t an altar “server” because there were no girls serving in 1980s Roman Catholic Pennsylvania. Somewhere along the line, but certainly by then, I must have learned who was actually talking during Mass. I don’t recall the moment when I put it together, which is odd because it must have been upsetting to lose my scheme of intelligibility, my way of making sense of things.
Father Dragon coordinated the altar boys and he did not think much of my skills. A typical Mass included three boys: two with candles who rang the bell during the consecration of the elements, and a novice who carried the cross up and back but otherwise did little. The schedule ran for two months and I was on it once per schedule, in the novice role.
When Father Dragon left, Father Mike replaced him. After he left St. Vincent DePaul, Father Dragon was stabbed in the parking lot of Veterans Stadium, but he survived. I saw him once after that, when I was in Chester County Hospital for an appendectomy and he came to visit my roommate. He remembered and greeted me but then ignored me and that was OK.
Back in Richboro, Father Mike gave me a chance, showed some confidence in me, and I became good at the job, including the senior roles with the candles and the bells. One Sunday, we had a priest from Panama and with his accent, I could not figure out what he was saying. During the consecration, we could not see what he was doing, either, nor figure it out from his tone and rhythm, what I would now call prosody, but we knew that the bell had to ring three times during the consecration so we rang it, then rang it again at a point which we guessed to be about half of the time left, and then again near what we thought to be the end. At least once, he was still talking when we rang the bell, which isn’t good.
I was sure that I was going to be in trouble for that one. It’s pretty easy to get into trouble during a Roman Catholic Mass. Instead, for whatever reason, the Panamanian priest, and I wish that I knew his name, decided that he liked me and I became, in effect, his caddy. He was on a monthly rotation and I served every Mass that he served and eventually I came to understand what he was saying. That’s how it was until we moved to Chester County. I didn’t try to enlist as an altar boy after the move.
By the way, if it seems as though I am nostalgic for the institutional sexism of the Roman Catholic Church, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, please do not misunderstand me as saying that. I believe that Jesus Christ was biologically male and necessarily so. No woman would have been heard or recognized during that era in that, or almost any, culture, but to extrapolate from that fact to the principle that only men are qualified to lead the church is completely ridiculous and wrong.
In fact, I know that in some portions of Scripture, the original Hebrew calls God “a womb-like God” and I like this image. As a man, most of the time, I need my Holy and Perfect Father, but there are times when I need my Eternal Mother as well. God transcends gender but God also plays within the rules of human evils, like sexism, to get God’s mission accomplished. I believe in a perpetually practical God.
I tell the story about St. Vincent DePaul because it’s the best story that I have about the faith of a child, to which we are called. I have been thinking lately that I do not have enough faith, and longing for a belief so clear and certain as that which would take the booming voice of the nearby speaker as God in the same room.
A little learning is a dangerous thing, according to Alexander Pope. I have master’s degrees in Christian education and in counseling psychology and I know that there is an element of humility in both faith and science. Faith tells us to be humble before our perfect and powerful creator, tells us that we can’t know everything. Science tells us that we don’t know everything and constantly have to learn and revise our understanding. That is the common ground that I see between the disciplines, though it seems to be absent from both camps in our time, as they are entrenched and at war. That might be another tale for another time.
Half of the problem is that I know something. I was United Methodist long enough to know that whether or not something is the will of God can be judged against four criteria: Scripture, tradition, reason, and authority. I have enough experience with contemplative faith to know that God’s calling typically comes with a combination of joy and peace. I have read enough of the Bible to know that encounters with God – I love Moses’ response – are often a source of absolute terror.
Enough? No, and that is the other half of the problem. The first half is that we know something. The other half is that it is not nearly enough, not really very much at all. We know the route enough to get us into unfamiliar territory, know the directions enough to get lost. We have a little learning.
For example, if my apartment burns down today then I know that the American Red Cross will shelter me for awhile and support my efforts to recover, as will some other groups. They will help me with insurance claims and with food and clothing temporarily. As a scientist, I can attribute this help to the natural human tendency for mutual support, rooted in evolutionary behaviors that contribute to the survival of communities. However, I also know that sometimes, people act evilly, take advantage of others who are in a weakened state, and I would regard the actions of those who helped me as morally good, their support as manifestations of love by a powerful and caring God.
My father died on Thanksgiving 2013 around 9:00 AM. He had other heart attacks in the past so it makes sense that he would die of a heart attack. However, a convoluted and mildly unlikely series of events put me into his house at the time. The CPR that I did was of no help, but I was there with my mother, so she wasn’t alone while my father died, and I see God in that. The heart attack was at 9:00 AM, not at 1:00 PM, when my father would have been driving, with my mother, to Cape May. The same heart attack would have killed him behind the wheel. Considering how fast he usually drove, my mother would have died in the unavoidable accident, as would anyone else nearby on a day when many families are on the road. I see God in the timing of what happened and regard it as a blessing.
Within the last year, I had a cancer scare. When I sat in the waiting room, then the examination room, anticipating the results and praying for mercy, I knew that I had no right to it. I knew that many patients have the same biopsy and hear that they have cancer. I knew that I might have that experience myself someday. It might even be what kills me. This time, I heard good news, that I do not have cancer, and I see God in that.
Around the same time, Scott, an acquaintance to me but a very good friend of some of my friends, was diagnosed with cancer. Friends and family prayed but Scott was not spared and he left behind a wife and two children under five years old. He was younger than I am, and otherwise healthy, and I do not understand why he had, much less died of, cancer.
There I was, divorced, without children, and I would have traded places with Scott in an instant if I could. If the natural order required a death, it would have been so much better to be mine than Scott’s. Of course, because I knew something of Scott, and because our experiences with cancer happened around the same time, they are paired in my mind but in no other real way. It’s not as though we both awaited a heart transplant which only one of us could have.
Still, why does one man develop and die from cancer and another not? I have only a little learning. I do not know and I don’t trust or want to hear from anyone who claims to know. Forget the faint connection between Scott and me. No one can explain how or why he had cancer, how or why I do not. It’s all vague, genetic predisposition this or degree of exposure to carcinogen that. Faith cannot explain it in the general sense nor science in the specific sense.
We have a little learning. I have a little faith, and Scripture says that a little is enough. God knows what else we know, what distracts us, and does not expect us to have large or perfect or complete faith. God reaches out in mercy, in grace, and the feeblest movement back, the whisper of response to the call, truly is enough, not for an answer, but the answer is a mere means to the end of things being as they should be. I respectfully suggest that this is how we live, in the space marked by a little understanding but the potential for enough faith, and that is why I wish that I had more.