There is this man who is thirty three years old. He suffers from mental illness and lives on the street. Last Easter he was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church. I watched that happen while sitting in the “sophomore class” with a man who had been in the same RCIA class as me.
On Sunday I go to Bible study before Mass. Raphael showed up. He and I made smiling eyes and thumbed each other up while other people read and commented on the scripture. It turned out that I sat next to him during Mass. Always a bit of a risk because he will often ask the person he is sitting with to go have coffee or lunch after — and this Sunday I had lunch scheduled with a young friend to celebrate a new job. We had not started the liturgy when Raphael started asking me to hang out after lunch. ” I am having lunch with someone.” I told him. He begged me to come along. I told him I would think about it during Mass and that we would come up with something.
Even as we knelt during the Eucharistic prayer, he whispered about how he wanted to get out of Old Town and just go somewhere nice with me. I kept my eyes shut and put my hand on his arm whispering “this is a place to be quiet– Shhhhhhhhhh.” Gently, like a soothing breeze. As I knelt there – not listening to the priest any more, an idea came to me. So when we were singing the final hymn, and he yelled in my ear “maybe you can take me to the grotto”, I was not suprised. “Meet me at 2pm. Here in front of the church.” He was ready. “I have saved up ten dollars for lunch and a ticket for the elevator. I am budgeting my money now.”
While we were still in the parking lot outside of the entrance, my phone buzzed. Constance, a woman who I have known for a few months, was calling. I answered. “JB, I am freaking out. I want to drink.” I laughed nervously and I told her I was with someone and to go to a meeting and I would call her in two hours. “OK” she said. Raphael and I went in and walked around for awhile. Every few minutes he would thank me for bringing him. “JB, God bless you!” — He kept saying it and hugging me — until, I started to get irritated with the oppressiveness of it on this hot day. I patted his arm and started talking about a statue.
After awhile, I looked at my watch and saw that it was 4:15. “Fifteen more minutes until we have to head out.” I said. And then I asked if Raphael wanted to get up and go see the statue of Christ lying dead in his Mother’s arms , strangely located in the glass building that overlooks the airport. “No. Let’s just sit here for the rest of the time. It’s peaceful here.”
A boy about six ran into the center of the circle pushing a toddler . She was dressed in pink, riding in one of those folding strollers that looks like an umbrella. He parked her off to the side and stage whispered “SHHHHH! WE HAVE TO BE QUIET HERE.” His little voice did not seem soothing and gentle. He looked at us and smiled, skipped over close to us, and then balanced on one foot at the entrance — his leg pointed out like he was going to dip his toe in to test water temperature. I asked him “are you going to walk the maze?” He put his foot down and looked at me. “It’s not a maze. It’s a labyrinth.” Raphael busted out laughing at that. He lightly punched me on the fat part of my arm. “He told you!” He put his arm around my shoulders. “That kid really told you, JB.” I let his arm rest on me for a beat before I bent forward and started fiddling with my flip flop. I stood up and stretched, and then sat back down a little further away from him.
We watched the boy begin his journey. The little girl in the stoller watched too, staring at us with big eyes and a pacifier in her mouth. I looked up at the tree tops and wondered out loud at how tall and straight they were. “I went to a lot of churches” Raphael said. “And their crosses were empty.” I nodded in recognition of something I have felt.
I was not raised a Catholic, but have always, since I can remember, been drawn to the scared signs and symbols — the rituals that we do in the church are practices I’ve sought out … not really knowing what they are — or why I am drawn for them. I love my sobriety coin — I carry it around like a talisman in my pocket. Whenever I have traveled to a city and have time to wander around, I wil find myself in one of God’s Houses — and I always pray, make an offering, and light a candle. I don’t know where this urge comes from; I’ve done it for years. Even on our vacations — while Ed waits outside tapping his foot.
The Christmas after Bo died, Ed and I fled to Cabo to avoid the our sadness. We left the resort on Christmas Day and went into San Jose. In the center of this tiny town is The Mission San Jose del Cabo. Outside on the square in front of this little church was a joyful and garish local celebration complete with a live Nativity and santa pinatas, children playing with their new toys. I bought a candle and went inside to get some rest from all that crazy stuff that was running around in my head — and from the shaking and sweats my hangover had brought on. Nobody was in the sanctuary. It was quiet. I knelt at the foot of the altar and looked up at at Jesus on the Cross. I stayed there for a long time — captivated by all that agony on that guy’s face ….. and the suffering in the eyes that were rolled up to the sky like he was thinking “what the fuck.”
Growing up, I was taught that the empty cross signified the resurrection — that was the deal. No Jesus on the Cross in our church. That was something too intense and uncomfortable. Not clean and neat like the little shot glasses of grape juice and wonder-bread squares we took from silver trays at our communion services. As I knelt, that day, I could not stop looking at those spikes in His feet and hands, and the blood dripping from his brow and I felt something piercing my heart. I put my head down on the rail and cried. I wanted to stay in that place forever, but Ed was waiting so I dried my eyes and left.
“I mean, JB. God invited me in to the Catholic Church. It’s not the same as those other churches where you go and listen to some guy talk to you. Here you know, you get to have a conversation with God.” Raphael brought me back to where we were. Sitting.
“I don’t know how, but I knew all the words and prayers to say. The cross isn’t empty in the Catholic Church. There is a man on the cross who died for us.”
He said “man” like it was italicized and bolded – holding his hands up towards those trees. And then he dropped them to his sides on “died”. And then he laughed and punched my arm again.
We watched the boy. He was carefully placing one foot in front of the other, heel-toe heel-toe following the spiral path. The girl in the stroller started rocking back and forth trying to move closer to where the boy was. Her face was getting red. I thought she was about to scream. Before she could, an out-of-breath man jogged up to the place where the boy was walking. As he entered the circle, he scolded him “next time, please wait for me.” And then he looked over at us and made an apology face. I gave him an “it’s fine” smile and shrug back. The boy said “but Daaaad…!!” the man dropped to one knee, put his hands on the boy’s shoulders and said “Son, this is a place to be quiet.” Then he stood up, took the boy’s hand and together they pushed the little girl away down the path.
Raphael watched them walk away. “He’s a good father.” And then he nodded and turned to me. “He’s a good dad.”
We sat there.
“Do you think I’m going to be OK, JB?”
Then we got up and walked through the Sorrows of Mary. We stopped at all seven and I told him what they meant. We were there for another hour. I dropped him off on Burnside at the mission shelter. I watched him get in the line that was already very long. And then I re-dialed Constance as I drove away.
I had to cry again about Raphael and Constance and that guy on the cross last night.