Thursday, August 27, 2009

Because of Cesareo

I imagine that all of us have angels in our lives. We may not see them, but I imagine it’s hard to escape their influence.

Not all angels are dressed in shimmering white. Not all of them have wings. Some are bossy (the archangels), some whisper and flutter. Some fight (Michael). Some fall (Lucifer). The whole business of angels is complicated. One of the most significant angels in my life is Cesareo Pelaez, 76 today and battling the consequences of a stroke but 37 and a regular hurricane when I first met him in 1970. (That's Cesareo on the right in front, with my brother David, wife Katie, and daughter Marian.)

Cesareo Pelaez landed in my life when I was nineteen, during my own fall from A student at premier boarding school to C student at premier liberal-arts college. But hey, it was 1969. My wheels were spinning, even though I knew that what I wanted and needed most was spiritual direction in my life. Cesareo provided that, directly and indirectly. It’s the indirect part that led to my becoming a Catholic nearly forty years later.

For reasons too complex to entertain here (the direct part), I took several long trips in Western Europe with Cesareo. I was five years removed from dedicated service as an altar boy at my family’s Episcopal Church and, except for Christmas and Easter, and “chapel” events at the aforesaid boarding school, I had not attended church in those five years.

In Europe with Cesareo, I did not so much attend church as explore The Church, the church of his devout youth, the Roman Catholic Church. This was not on the program initially; remember, this is the indirect part. But in every city and town, it seems now in memory, Cesareo’s Catholicism, brewed up in the hothouse of Cuba in the 1930s and 1940s, bubbled to the fore, and I, the nineteen-year-old non-Catholic, learned about Catholic culture.

After a while, it was quite common for us to take in Mass at Notre Dame or Montserrat or St. Peter’s or San Damiano; it was par for the course if we stopped into a Catholic bookstore and browsed for an hour; and a day at the Prado was spent mostly in front of saints and Madonnas. We visited Lourdes three times and walked in the candlelight processions of thousands, chanting the Rosary simultaneously in three or four languages—although that does sound impossible, doesn’t it? Memory is a funny thing. We visited Assisi and gawked at the intact body of St. Clare, 800 years old but seemingly fresh and firm as a daisy. Cesareo knew the precise location of the obvious icons (the Pieta in the first chapel to the right inside St. Peter’s) and the less obvious (the Moses at San Pietro in Vincoli). We saw them all.

Thirty-five years passed. Cesareo and I worked as business partners, usually harmoniously. Each of us started our own businesses—he a world-famous magic show, me a couple of far less celebrated publishing ventures. The businesses continue to exist within a block of each other on the main street of our town. Our homes are a mile apart, also on the same street. Cesareo is my friend, my former mentor, but first and foremost one of my archangels.

I suspect that all of us who have converted to the Catholic Church can point to some Cesareos—angels who came fluttering or flying or storming into our lives, bearing, maybe in spite of themselves, the Good News.

I would not be a Catholic today without Cesareo, and for that I will be forever in his debt.

What are the names and stories of your angels?