Saturday, April 10, 2010

Father B.

My first husband and I met in a hospital. He was a nursing student, I was an intern. After two years and random vicissitudes, we made the ill-considered decision to wed. We were, after a brief excursion to Chicago, back at the same little hospital. The excursion and return were both fraught and conflictual; the return was, at least on my part, a desperate default whose repercussions I feel every day of my professional life.

Father B. was the hospital chaplain. He was a youngish man, cheerful, blond, about a decade older than us. To me, of course, he radiated Catholic mystique. His presence at deathbeds and codes was as an emissary from a world from which I felt excluded and into which I longed to be admitted. Since my intended was Catholic, Father B. seemed a natural choice to marry us.

We had the requisite pre-nuptial sessions over dinner in the tiny flat in which we were, in retrospect, living "in sin." I recall sitting on the living room floor, drinking wine, and talking -- we probably gossiped about the hospital, I think he told some anecdotes from seminary, and I remember nothing about the heart of the matter -- presumably that marriage is a sacrament, and that we'd raise our babies in the (only true) Church.

Seven years later we divorced, at least in the eyes of the state, and didn't set foot inside any kind of church for the whole duration of our ill-conceived union.

A few years ago I Googled Father B. and found a name similar to his on a list of sexually abusive priests. After initial shock and dismay, I concluded that I did not have enough data to say it was our Father B.

This week, after the European recrudescence of the abuse scandal, I remembered Father B. and re-Googled; the available data was more robust, and, yes, the Father B. who had been chaplain in our little hospital in the late 1970s had committed abuse in the 1960's, which had come to light in the late 90's. A Holy Cross Alumni obituary reports his death in the spring of 2008, at the age of 71.

Seventy one. In my memory, that idyllic place, we still sit in the dank living room at Henry Street listening to Fr. B.; he is blond, enthusiastic, youthful. Catholic, a priest, intellectual, immaculate, a friend and colleague. Not dead in a Catholic nursing home at 71, sinful, criminal, disgraced.

A complex sadness sits like a stone in my chest -- disappointment, disillusion, grief, loss, guilt, sorrow, regret. It's hard to name. It may be nameless.

Lord have mercy. On all of us.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


The riverwalk, today, was a riverslosh. As water leaked through my 35-year-old LL Bean boots, I couldn't help imagining my soggy walk as a prelude to tonight's footwashing liturgy. I'd spent the morning setting out bowls and towels, as well as removing the tarp from the organ and the towels from the sacristy sideboard that had been set out to catch invading rain.

The errant river, receding, has left a debris field of the usual styrofoam coffee cups and plastic drinks bottles, reminding us of the reciprocity it mandates, the mutual servanthood -- that we not sully it with our leavings, the effluvia of our unquenchable desires.

This is no paradise, no gilded age. My self-portrait is in a flatbed's hubcap; behind me, in verso, the dirty river thunders. I enter the Triduum unprepared, a slate scoured blank by Lent, Leonard Cohen's cold and broken Hallelujahs sounding in my mind's ear like rusty windchimes in a gale. I shall see what I shall see, hear what I shall hear. It's like going for a walk with my camera: I am all eye. And silence.

Liturgy is word and act; it is embodied and relational. You have to take off your old boots and get your feet wet. You have to touch each other.

From the outside it might look strange, disturbing, barely comprehensible, even risible, like a word stripped of its meaning, an absurd and contingent grunt. And, let's face it, from the inside it's also a little odd -- the bread, the wine, the stained glass, the ranks of organ pipes. The God-Man crucified; the God-Man resurrected.

But what about being-here-at-all isn't odd ? And that's the terrifying, sorrowful, agonizing crux and heart of the matter, isn't it.

What better place to begin than with a naked foot ?