A VIEW FROM A MOUNTAIN TOP
Ninety-one years of age, sixty-six of them as a priest in New York City, provide the top of a mountain of sorts to look back over the journey, its hardships with the terrain, the relationships made along the way, and experiences that suggest a mountain ascent as a metaphor for the spiritual life.
My brother, Jeb, died last November after many years of suffering from Parkinson’s. Never losing his sense of humor or his sense of faith, he explained his evening prayer: “Dear God! My name is Jeb; not Job!” About 5 AM on a summer morning in 1944, our small family group gathered at the Larchmont train station, helped Jeb board the train, and quietly watched the train shrink in size as it disappeared down the tracks. Jeb was on his way to war, the USAF. After the war, a distinguished career in State of
Maine and government. May he rest in peace! When I see a news article or book review that would arouse his interest as it did mine, I reached for the phone to call him to exchange comments. He isn’t there! US
Some memorable scenes from sixty-six years of life of a New York priest:
St. Jerome’s, South Bronx, 1944; A police car came to the rectory for a priest (a custom in the 1940s); I climbed the ladder up the railroad bridge with the cops, walked out between the rails over the Harlem River; there he was, face down, a little boy about ten, next to the third rail! Dripping wet! Motionless. Second Avenue trains eased slowly by on each side at a mournful pace, passengers at the windows looking down at a little boy, who just went for a swim and the adventure of crossing a railroad bridge.
St.. Thomas More’s,
East 89th Street, Manhattan
, winter 1956, a bitter night. I was jarred from sleep about 1 AM by the sound of sirens and crashing glass. Fire engines had been pulled up to the building next to the church. It was thoroughly in the dark, the only light coming from the torches of the firemen and the last flicker of flames as a Niagara of water thundered into the last of the fire. “This way, Father,” a fireman said, as he escorted me over the icy steps. “The third floor.” There was not much left to anoint with the blessed oils. As I knelt down, the three firemen dropped to their knees, crossed themselves, and, almost ceremonially, removed their helmets in reverent salute to the sacraments of Jesus at the passing of a life!
East 22nd Street, Manhattan
, 1954: The receptionist caught me after my Sunday Mass. “There was a phone call asking that a priest be sent over. A young man was dying.” She gave me the address. “Second floor.” Young man. Probably AIDS, I thought. At the apartment, I could see beyond the open door some twenty to twenty-five individuals, some children, mostly young adults rather fashionably dressed, and some senior citizens. Soft rock was playing in the background, so appropriately. A young man asked if he could help me. I said that someone here had phoned the rectory, asking that a priest be sent. “I can’t imagine who that might be,” he replied, looking into the room. “I was the one who telephoned for the priest.” It was a neighbor across the hall. I was ushered to the bedside of the dying man - his arm around his partner - and introduced myself as the local parish priest, bringing the sacraments for the sick. “Would you care to receive the sacraments ?” His mother, sitting behind him, said, “Say yes, David”.
What to do now? Confession; Sacrament of Penance? Do you put a couple of dozen people out of the room? There is a little community here, friends – gay and straight – neighbors, the sick man, his partner. Let’s deal with the community. I explained group absolution. “I feel that each of us has at some time disobeyed God’s plan. Have we not?” Remarkably, there was a sense of all nodding their heads in agreement. “And we are profoundly sorry, are we not, for any way we have offended our neighbor in truth, justice, and compassion?” Again, a consensus of agreement. The soft rock, so appropriate, was still playing in the background. And then, “… Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
I reached for the pix and the Blessed Sacrament. The dying man could not receive a whole host. I broke off a small piece and moved to place it in his mouth. I dropped the particle of the host. It fell into the rumpled sheets. The sick man’s partner reached for the host particle and looked up, “Father, may I give him Holy Communion?” I nodded. I had given David the last rites. His partner had given him his last Holy Communion!
In blogs to come, I shall try to share some other views seen from the mountain tops.