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Living Unseen in Pomp and Circumstance
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The sacristy was somehow kind of a creepy place, though I didn’t have that word for it then. It just made me uneasy. There, one specific adult, empowered with mysteries supposedly beyond all other mortal men, donned garb of multiple layers in a participation mystique that had many nuances to plumb. The cassock, the chasuble, the stole, and a half dozen other couture raiment of ritual which I have forgotten.

It was an uncomfortable place because of roles. As an altar boy, I knew the very specific and very time sensitive actions and words to say, even though I made mistakes. I often got caught up in a kind of trance out there on the altar. Ripe with fertility for that kind of thing. I was there, but the pressure and overweening theistic gravity of it all made me want to go away from that place that was too much like the rest of my life. Full of unexplained authority that asked too much understanding and compliance to that which wasn’t explained.

Not to mention the incense, the candles, the body of Christ, the bells, the golden instruments, the stigmatized statues full of crucified and suffering human beings, the somber faces of the audience, the flowing robes of the holy celebrant. It’s a lot to take on at 8 years of age.

Yet, the altar, because the role was so well defined, was more comfortable than the sacristy. You knew what was going to happen next. In the sacristy, you were unsure of your role as an altar boy, the priest might ask you to do this or that, but it was different from one time to the next.

Portly old Irish Father R. was a jolly and kind soul, but he did play the part of the solemn officiant of Christs’ offering of his body for us to eat. Confusing for me, and I’m sure I had no idea of all the complications for Father R. I am guessing he would have liked to be more of his jolly self all the time.

It must be lonely to be Holy. I felt that from him. Most of all, in that sacristy, I remember the smell of wine, as he finished the rest of what was in the chalice or refilled it from the designated official altar wine bottle to “rinse” out the Blood of the Divine. I thought was important that I didn’t notice that, and so I didn’t.

I went alone with Father R. in his car some Sundays; he was dispatched to a satellite chapel 8 miles out of town for Sunday service, in his newish Cadillac. It was clear that he loved fine cars, and that confused me too. I didn’t see the connection between shiny cars and spiritual meaning.

But I did get to see a bit more of Father R. on those rides; I don’t remember anything of what we talked about. No doubt he was very casual and I very guarded. As far as I remember, he respected that. I remember that he loved to drive fast; up to 90 miles an hour on two lane curving country roads. Good that I believed that a priest couldn’t possibly die in a car accident and had superpowers prevent that.

It must be lonely to be Holy. We ask too much, I think, when we ask anyone to be holier than we feel ourselves. That is the trap of the spiritual path, when we otherize the numinous and sacred we place a burden upon another. It is unfair. It can’t be borne. I don’t think all of that gravitas served Father R. well. On the other hand, knowing what I do now, I’m sure America looked great compared to Ireland. Who knows what privations he endured, served up by the Holy prior to his emigration in the “Old Country?”

I am trying to find my own holy in my everyday life now, so as not to burden others with it. As you can probably imagine, I still have a lot of altar boy scenery in the landscape of my mind. A legacy of various elements of my so-called spiritual upbringing. Being an altar boy was only one of them. It’s important to claim that Sacred, so that it doesn’t emerge from an earthen hole to bite my ankle or trip me up. It is a gift to bring to the surface. I’m not as good at it I wish. Life is full of complication. Regardless of my errant tracks, though the road to the Sacred will never leave me. I sojourn now ever so much more slowly than a shiny green 1963 Cadillac. Speed kills.


This is a fine piece of writing,Paul.

Thanks, Evalyn!

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