Wednesday, September 17, 2008
What Might Have Been
“When you really look for me, you will see me instantly.
you will find me in the tiniest house of time,
Kahir says: Student, tell me what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.”
--Kahir, Indian Mystic 1440-1518 A.D.
Whenever we went on vacation and my father thought he was doing too much driving, he had a common line he’d always fall back on.
“I’m tired of being chained to the wheel!” he’d declare.
My father wanted to stay put and relax at wherever we were staying, while the rest of us wanted to drive over hill and dale—with him doing the driving, of course.
Being a salesman he drove every day, but being kids we didn’t care about that. We just wanted to go places.
I did a ton of driving Sunday, but it was nice to get behind the wheel after nearly a year of being car-free.
And I combined two good causes—taking my sister’s cat to the vet in Manhattan and then going to visit our parents’ grave in Staten Island.
I’ve been trying to recall the last time I went out there and I think it might actually have been the day of my father’s funeral, in January 2007. Has it been that long?
I can’t say it felt good to be there, but it felt like the right thing to do, especially after all this time. Last Thursday was my father’s birthday and the day before was my parents’ anniversary (something I completely forgot about) so it was good to be there, even if the day was so bloody hot.
I missed going to church on 9/11, my father’s birthday, so I went down to Trinity Church the next day on my lunch break. I got in the habit of going to Trinity when I worked just a short walk from the place, but now I’m actually closer to a Catholic church.
Being a good Catholic boy, I can’t help but feel a little guilty—well, extremely guilty, actually—that I’m walking down to a Protestant church, when there is a perfectly good Roman Catholic Church just a block away from my office.
The thing is…I like the services at Trinity better. I like the people, both at the lectern and in the pews.
I believe the difference is minor, that God isn’t going to mind which church I go to as long as I show my face in one of them.
Whether I play for the Mets or the Yankees, I’m still playing for New York, right? (Diehard baseball fans are probably gnashing their teeth at that one, but you know what I’m getting at.)
I just have this nagging fear that one day the Pope is going to jump out from behind a hotdog stand, kick me in the privates, and shout "how do you like me now, baldy!?!" I sort of hope that doesn't happen.
I got a bit of a jolt during Friday’s sermon when the priest, Mark Bozzuti-Jones, said that he believed the 9/11 attacks had made America a better country.
That’s a little tough to hear, especially since Wall Street had born the brunt of the attacks.
Obviously Father Mark was not saying the attacks were good or that they should have happened or that we’re all sinners and we deserved it, or that we were attacked because of the gays and the lesbians, and the Teletubbies and the Shriners and the Chicago Cubs and late night infomercials.
He meant that we as a nation had come through that horror and destruction and emerged as better people.
How I want to believe him. I desperately want to believe that something came out of that senseless, tragic day; that all those precious lives weren’t destroyed for nothing.
But when I look back over the last seven years I really have to wonder.
When I see how 9/11 has been used—as an excuse to launch a phony war, a ploy to re-elect a phony president, a justification for abolishing some of this country’s most cherished principles, and now as a campaign marketing tool for yet another snake oil candidate—well, I’m not so sure.
A Walk Down Broadway
One of the reason I enjoy the sermons at Trinity is that they are instructive. The priests actually try to engage with the congregants, they talk about real problems and how difficult it can be to hold onto your beliefs.
By contrast my Catholic upbringing was something along the lines of “you’re a no-good worthless slug who is destined to spend all eternity backstroking around the Ninth Circle of Hell, oh, and by the way, Jesus loves you.”
Now I can’t quite explain it, but for some strange reason, I didn’t take much comfort from this approach, and that might explain my lunch time hikes down Broadway.
And don’t get me started on the religious right, who, like the late and unlamented “moral majority,” are resoundingly neither.
I cannot abide this dangerous and patently un-American mixture of religion and politics. “Separation of church and state” isn’t just a catch phrase to me; it’s the law of the land.
And then there’s the war on science. Since everyone and his brother feels free speaking for God, I think I’ll join the club because I don’t think God wants us to remain ignorant, to refuse knowledge and learning.
Science is never going to steamroll religion and nor should it. I think we need a spiritual side to our lives to get through the tough times in life—like 9/11.
An engineer can tell you exactly what made the twin towers come down—that the heat had reached a certain level and the metal began to melt, and the buildings collapsed.
But that engineer can’t help us deal with the tragedy; he or she can’t offer you comfort in the face of such a mind-numbing loss.
I was walking through Union Square in the early days after 9/11 and a crowd of people had gathered in a circle and were praying together. Yes, in the middle of godless, depraved, sinful New York City people had come together to pray.
I had never seen anything like that, but, of course, we had never experienced anything like 9/11.
Nobody wanted to talk to an engineer at that moment. What was happening then was beyond any kind of science.
I’d like to think that we learned something from that terrible time, and, like Father Mark, we are better for it. But some days I have my doubts, which is why we have religion in the first place, I suppose—to get us through the doubts.
Father Mark spoke a lot about suffering during his sermon, how the more we love God, the more it seems we are tested.
"When the Buddhists say that life is suffering," he told us, "they were on to something."
Fortunately there are people like Father Mark around. When it was time for communion, a woman approached the altar holding her infant son.
After giving the woman the host, he took a second to touch the boy’s cheek and give him the most beautiful, loving smile that had so much warmth I could feel it in my heart.
And there’s always little things that give you hope. When we were leaving the cemetery on Sunday, a large Hispanic family was walking out behind us and one of them called out to me.
I turned to see a man holding my checkbook, which had fallen out of my pocket while I was sitting on a bench near my parents’ grave.
I thanked him profusely, astounded that I could have been so careless.
Maybe it was the extreme heat, but I was fortunate that this family came along when they did or I would have had a nervous breakdown when I got back to Brooklyn and discovered my checkbook was gone.
I slipped the checkbook in my pocket and thanked God for sending these people my way. I didn’t even think about talking to an engineer.