Monday, August 29, 2011

A Parable: the Minister, Tree Branch, and Me

I share something in common with a certain man of the cloth. It seems we both reside in street-level bachelor pads in private homes on the same block. And that is the long and short of our common ground, I suspect. Everything else I know about this man is limited to our encounters—for lack of a better description—which have been numerous the past couple of years. When I see him in the early morning hours—presumably before he goes to work, if that is the right word—he’s always walking a very small dog, puffing on a cigarette, and sporting a Roman collar.

I have always assumed he is an Episcopal minister. Having experienced a Catholic upbringing and education, I just never knew a priest who lived in a basement apartment, which doesn’t mean such living arrangements are unprecedented. The priests in my past always called hearth and home a parish, or resided somewhere on the school grounds where they taught. But then again, a friend of mine worked with a Catholic priest in a Barnes & Noble store. The guy needed the money and had to both locate, and pay for out of his own pocket, his accommodations. These are hard times for all.

Anyway, today—post-Hurricane Irene day one—I was outside and picking up scattered debris, including a large tree branch that I dragged to the curbside. With my back unintentionally turned away from this approaching holy man, I heard him—quite uncharacteristically—say something. I swiveled around and momentarily considered asking, “You talkin’ to me?” As per the norm, however, he was staring straight ahead, cigarette in one hand, and dog leash in the other, fulfilling his morning ritual. I surmised he was speaking to his little canine friend, because I never saw a Bluetooth, or any comparable technological device, in his ear. This man is old school and, for that matter, pretty old.

But then I spied that the tree branch I had moved was jutting out a foot or so onto the sidewalk proper. Had I noticed this before, I would never have placed it in such a precarious position, and I immediately moved it out of harm’s way. I proceeded to do something of a double take at that point, realizing that this neighbor of mine, who always does his best not to make eye contact with anyone—and, by osmosis, speak to anybody—had indeed addressed me. In fact, as soon as I laid eyes on the branch partially on the sidewalk, my brain—without any prompting on my part—replayed the previous moment. Yes, this mystery servant of the Lord, whose holy threads no doubt reek of nicotine, had chided me. Considering that I was cleaning up a big mess, the scolding was both unnecessary and unappreciated.

Harking back to my boyhood, I was always turned off by the unpleasantness and sometimes-outright nastiness of a fair share of religious sorts. The more innocent and less cynical child quite often cuts to the chase. How could some of these men and women who purport to do God’s bidding and adhere to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth be so disagreeable? I was never impressed with autocratic “good businessmen” known for running parishes with an iron fist and Wal-Mart bottom line efficiency. It seemed so incongruous to me then, just as it does to me now. I was literally both frightened and horrified by the fact that a Sister Lorraine character actually passed nun muster and was permitted to teach children. She sported both a habit and a burgeoning mustache some four decades ago when she threw my friend Johnny down to the rock-hard pavement at the altar’s edge in church. It was during First Holy Communion practice, and he received this body slam courtesy of a chewed up hot lunch straw in his shirt pocket. There’s something wrong with this picture.

Happily, Sister Lorraine was gone the following year—from my school at least. Where she ended up after that, I don’t know. Hopefully, she joined the Teamsters, or maybe was discovered by a talent scout for the WWF. While I am the antithesis of a cheerleader on the God Squad, if you will, I still prefer religious folk to be godly—hopeless romantic that I remain—even in adulthood.

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