I have time on my hands. That is the essence of the thing.
At 9:30 in the morning, I climb the steps of the Basilica — a building out of all proportion to the town where it was built — in just the way that odd villages in Europe possess Gothic Cathedrals, this one, Romanesque, is at the top of a ridge and gazes out through the Narrows. Its ceiling, with elaborate plasterwork, is painted with tiny leaves and vines and sometimes reminds me a of a Paisley tie.
As a child, I came here from time to time with my father — our regular parish had a modest church in the first floor of a suburban school. One Good Friday when I was six or seven, he took us here, and for the first time I really noticed the towering windows — the drama of Christ and the saints, as imagined by Irish people 150 years ago.
When I was about seventeen, I began to attend daily Mass here. I had my license and could drive the seven or eight miles from St. Phillip’s on Conception Bay. Piety and road safety are different things, as I was often in a rush. One day I slid in snow and smashed the door of the Bronco I was driving.
That was a strange, difficult year. My mother was suffering a mental illness, and my father made a poor fist of helping her. I was trying to launch my own life and was applying to join the Jesuits. Often I was sad and edgy.
I have no idea how many funerals I attended that year. The 9:30 Mass often featured a coffin, but not always mourners. People died in boarding houses and nursing homes and their funerals drew no family or friends. Always at that Mass there were old people, who came mainly out of devotion, but also because they had nothing else to do. One of the priests lamented to me that he was a “geriatric babysitter” — hard words, but he was trying to explain his own complicated discontent.
At the back of the church, I often saw two obese men, brothers in their forties. After Mass they would drive to a third (much healthier) brother’s garage and watch him inflate tires and change spark-plugs. I thought of them as saintly. They did not last long — both dead in three or four years. I was not there, but I assume their funerals were at least modestly attended.
I think sometimes of those great big men, with their black-rimmed glasses and their rosary beads. What was the point of such lives? I don’t ask the question to be dismissive or cruel. I think it important to try to answer it.
I am not sure whether it is a fault or a virtue — but I am an ambitious person. Often, I take on bold projects, but I am also inclined to measure the worth of my life by my book count. How many are there? How were the reviews? I measure myself by my education and by the achievement of my children. This sounds like back-door boasting, but it has a relevance.
Often, my instincts dupe me. If there is pain in life, I assume that there is something more I can do. If I push harder, raise myself to a new level, I will be okay. I will make myself worthy of God’s love.
I was in my forties before I learned that I can do nothing to merit God’s love, and no failing of mine can make Him not love me.
“Man is created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord and by this means to save his soul,” says St. Ignatius at the beginning of his Spritual Exercises. I will spend my life learning what this does and does not mean.
Those brothers with their foreshortened lives, the aged daily communicants, the anxious priest, were all living in one corner or another of that sentence.
A gift implies need. I cannot bear to be embarrassed. I want nothing to do with my own need. And so I stand before God and change the subject. The hurry to repent of a sin or to charge off on a mission is often an attempt to get out of the hands of God.
But the brothers had fewer means of escape. They could not imagine themselves tackling a world that they were certain to leave soon. I like to think that they served God solely by accepting His gifts.