Friday, November 6, 2009

Because I Can Always Come Back

In "The Death of a Hired Man," one of my favorite poems, Robert Frost famously wrote, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / they have to take you in." You can bet Frost wasn't thinking of the Catholic Church, but he could have been. We are all prodigals, and a loving parent is always waiting at the door.

The poem is a conversation between a farmer and his wife about a hired man, Silas, who has worked for them on and off through the years and has just shown up on their doorstep uninvited. He is asleep in a back bedroom as the couple talks. The wife tells her husband that Silas has come home to die.

I thought of this early Friday morning while stewing in a private matter that periodically gives me some pain. Does it matter what it is? Each of us is, from time to time, and some more often than not, in pain. (Frost looks like he's in some pain here, doesn't he?) The pain is often, though not always, self-inflicted. Whether you're talking about a troubled relationship, a physical illness, financial trouble, an addiction, loneliness that comes from really being alone or just thinking one is—life itself can be pretty miserable.

The door of the Catholic Church is always open, figuratively and often literally, and it offers not just pain relief (spiritual Advil) but something positive to take the place of the pain—something that the pain may be telling us we're lacking all the time.

There are many things about my church that invite me back again, that tell me the door is always open every time I slip up, every time I fall, every time the pain returns.

The porchlight over the rectory door alongside St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly is always on, 24/7/365. Knowing Father Barnes as I do, you're probably going to have to knock pretty hard at 3 a.m. to get an answer (he's still young enough to be a deep sleeper), but I'm willing to bet you could wake him up and the door would open unto you.

Father has taken to sitting on the front steps of the rectory of a morning or, when the summer weather is nice, on a bench in the rectory garden in the high afternoon. His German shorthaired pointer, Finbar, has made a hash of the garden in the past year, even eating the mouse off the statue of St. Martin de Porres, so admittedly the garden in 2009 hasn't been what it was in 2008. But it's great to see Father sitting there, and several times I've sat down on the steps beside him or hopped the fence to talk with him in the garden about something on my mind.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, is another open door. It's something that is not that well understood, even among some Catholics, I suspect, but in my eighteen months in the Church I have found great joy, great relief—grace is not too strong a word—in going to confession.

Since I joined the parish, I think the most important thing Father Barnes has done is to open an Adoration chapel in the lower church. In the old days, when five priests lived in the rectory and there were ten masses a weekend, masses would be celebrated here, in what is effectively the basement, and simultaneously in our beautiful main church. Now the lower church is used for men's group, for other social functions and meetings, and, since July 2008, for Eucharistic Adoration. From 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. the chapel is open, and the sixty hour-long slots are meted out to volunteers. Ferde and I each are signed up for five hours a week. (I signed up for one hour originally, saw Ferde had signed up for five, and decided I could do no less.) Those of us who commit to at least one regular hour make it possible for anyone to drop in whenever the Spirit moves them. This is very important, and I pray that more parishioners will make the commitment to at least one hour a week. You never know when the hired man is going to come home.

The rosary is, for me, another symbol of a door that is always open. Its circular string of beads is a never-ending return to what else but the cross? I usually carry my rosary in my right front pants pocket, whether I've said the rosary already or not that day. Its light pressure against my thigh is a constant reminder of the graces that await me the next time I pray.

Sunday Mass—even better daily Mass—is an open door to every hired man looking for home. I experience it this way; it is usually the best hour of my day, an hour I generally do not want to end. Of course, for there to be Mass, even greater sacrifices are needed than the hour here and there from fifty or sixty parishioners needed to keep our Adoration chapel open. Men by the tens of thousands have to give their entire lives to the priesthood. And they do.

I have met many "hired men" in my eighteen months at St. Mary's. Three striking examples come to mind. There is "Jake," a man who lives alone and seems quite disturbed. But every Sunday at Mass I see him lighting votive candles before the altar of the Blessed Mother. "Benny," one of my favorite fellow worshipers at morning mass, seems to be pretty heavily medicated for what he calls ADHD. (It seems to me that he might be suffering from something a bit more serious.) Benny always greets me with a smile on the front steps of church, where he finishes a cigarette after Mass before going back inside to pray alone. "Hal" is a guy I run into at Adoration periodically. Hal, a smart professional, has been out of work for a year in this awful economy; I can see that he is in a lot of pain over this; and still he comes to Adoration one hour a week.

Jake, Benny, and Hal—Webster too—all hired men, all looking to come home.

Robert Frost was not a Catholic. In a mock résumé of his religious career, he called himself “Presbyterian, Unitarian, Swedenborgian, Nothing." But I have always been touched by "The Death of a Hired Man" in particular and find it quite a religious poem.

Warren, as the farmer is named in the poem, has lost patience with Silas and thinks that Silas's brother ought to be the one to take him in. It is Warren who says, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in."

Warren's wife counters, "I should have called it / Something you somehow haven't to deserve."

This to me is grace: something given that I probably don't even deserve. In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the father who greets the child come home. In Frost's poem, it is the mother. The name of the farmer's wife is Mary.