One of my correspondents has asked how religious I am. This is a legitimate question—it’s one I sometimes ask myself—, but the answer is complicated. I’m no good with abstractions, or with arguments for that matter, so to illustrate my thoughts, I’ll tell a couple stories instead. Both stories are factual and they share the same setting, the interior of a Toronto church. They both took place almost thirty years ago. Thirty years is a long time, but I’ve been thinking of these stories on and off ever since. The first one follows below, and I’ll post the second, which shows the other side of the coin, next week. Names have been changed to protect the guilty as well as the innocent.
One Sunday, I went to eight-o’clock Mass and stayed afterwards for a couple minutes to enjoy the peace and quiet. There was the usual number of stragglers who kept to their pews after the service, singles and couples scattered throughout the church. Some were kneeling, some sitting with hands folded in their lap. It was the middle of winter, and a few people stood in the aisles, taking forever to pull on their coats, and talking to each other in sibilant whispers. The priest, Father McBride, had gone out to the vestibule.
A derelict appeared out of nowhere and walked up the nave with his hands in the pockets of his coat. About midway up, he turned into a pew and sat down quickly. An Asian woman was kneeling in the pew behind, and the man bumped her folded hands when he sat down suddenly like that. She reared back with a look of disgust and put her hands up in a defensive gesture. When the bum spoke to her, she collected her things, stood up, and hurried out of the church.
Father McBride finished in the vestibule and came up the main aisle with his eye on the man in shabby clothes. The priest was short and squat and rolled down the aisle like a bowling ball. He held his arms out from his sides so he could move more quickly in his vestments.
“Come on now, get out of here,” he said to the bum. “You’re bothering the people.”
The man looked at him but didn’t say a word.
“I said get out. You’re making a nuisance of yourself.”
The bum appeared to be formulating a response. His lips moved but no sound came out, and it all took too long for Father McBride.
“Get up and get out,” he said. “I’m telling you to leave.”
The man stood up then but moved in a cramped, awkward fashion. The kneeler must have been down. He had to support himself on either side as he came out of the pew. Every eye in the church was on him.
Once in the aisle, he drew himself up and looked down at Father McBride in his vestments. The bum wore a dark overcoat, sizes too large.
“I don’t have to leave,” he said.
The priest hesitated then and said, “Oh yes you do. I’m telling you to leave, so you better get going.”
The bum stood where he was and didn’t say a word.
“Get out now,” said Father McBride. “And if that’s the case, I’ll show you how.”
With that, he grabbed the man by the shoulder and gave him a shove. Like many street people, the bum was exceptionally strong, and Father McBride’s push hardly moved him at all. It was like trying to displace an oak from its rooted spot. The man stood up straight and glowered at the priest.
Two elderly women in furs stood by the altar. When Father McBride pushed the man, they both shouted, “Get out of here!”
The priest’s face was bathed in sweat, and his voice had turned guttural.
“There’s going to be trouble if you don’t leave,” he said. “Is that what you want, some trouble?”
By now, everyone who remained in the church had stood up and moved closer. A couple ushers and one of their sons started edging up from the vestibule. A third usher touched the bum lightly on the elbow, and he brushed the hand away at once.
“I’ll stay if I want.” His face was black with anger, and he thrust his head forward from the shoulders like a cornered bull.
Father McBride shouted at him. “If you don’t leave, I’ll call the police. What do you think of that?” Then he turned and started walking away.
“Go right ahead and call the police,” the man sneered. He held his hands out and low down, as if shielding his groin from attack.
“I will,” growled the priest. He took two or three steps towards the altar, then wheeled around so that his chasuble flared out behind. “And in the meantime, you get out,” he screamed. His words echoed in the vaulted ceiling.
Suddenly, the ushers formed a square around the interloper and began walking all at once towards the vestibule. He went along with them, mumbling and cursing. The whole group halted for a moment in the middle of the vestibule and then disappeared down the stone staircase that led to the doorway.
The bystanders left in twos and threes. The last I saw of Father McBride, he was standing in the middle of the nave. He stood alone and perfectly still, as if he couldn’t pull himself away or think of what to do next.
3 thoughts on “The Church, I”
A page turner.
Thanks, Barry–I hope you’ll stay tuned.
Growing up in a family of 8 children I started off as a’good Catholic’. I won the religion prize, I sang in the choir and went to church every Sunday. But around 12 years old, my brain took over. I reasoned from first principles that religion and God were a hoax and could participate no more. I looked at the people around me who most represented the church and decided they were not a good advertisement for Catholicism.
Much to the chagrin of my family, I dug in my heels and never went to church again (except for funerals and weddings).
But as I said, I was one of 8 children. And for several of them, they live their Catholicism in the way it was intended. They are ‘good people’. They visit the sick, give comfort to to the grieved and have let their high moral compasses guide their lives. But then again, that’s how I’ve lived my life as well. Go figure.