In our family, we went to Mass every blessed Sunday of the year, and here and there you would have to go to Mass during the week because of funerals or weddings or Days of Obligation or Masses to Open the School Year or Masses in Memory of the Faithful Departed. So by the time I was fourteen years old, and sitting in my bedroom late one night calculating that I had endured something like seven hundred Masses in my young life, I resolved to miss Mass the next day—to blow it off, to skip, to avoid, to evade, to dodge, to unattend.
This was so shocking a concept that I sat there for another hour startled that I was even contemplating such an idea. Was it a venial sin to even think about missing Mass? Had I effectively missed Mass by deciding to miss Mass, like you could receive the Eucharist by sincerely desiring to receive it, though you were not physically capable of doing so?
And then came the flood of much more serious concerns, like the cold fact that I was going to have to lie to my mom and dad about having attended Mass. This was inarguably a sin, and even worse, I would be lying to Mom and Dad, who were people I much admired, despite my strenuous and aggrieved and often rude objections to their unreasonable demands for generally responsible and civil behavior; the nerve of them, to trammel my freedom so!
But the lure of missing Mass was not to be resisted, and I spent the next hour plotting the crime; I would simply prepare as usual, and behave in the usual surly manner, and insist shrilly on wearing the usual shabby clothing (the bellbottom jeans! the battered jacket with the buckskin fringe! the blue high-top basketball sneakers! O dashing man of fashion!), and rush out of the house with four minutes to spare for a five-minute sprint to church, and then . . . then I would simply turn north, through the small woods between our house and Mass, and head to the village bakery, perhaps, or just stroll unconcernedly along the railroad tracks, a free man, subject to no ancient religion and its pompous authority, bound by no rules and regulations—an independent spirit, a young man choosing his road for himself.
And this I did, my friends; this I did, sprinting out of the house in the direction of church, mostly thrilled at the success of my devious plan thus far, but with a tiny dark roil somewhere near my spleen or gall bladder; and headlong went I through the little alley behind the Murphys’ house, and toward the small bedraggled woods behind the firehouse, not even a forest but more like an overgrown vacant lot. And right here, at the big copper beech tree that marked the entrance to the thicket, my plans went awry, for I discovered that the faint sound of sneakers I thought I had heard was my next-youngest brother Peter, who stood there panting, ready to resume our sprint through the woods to Mass.
If my first sin that day was the unspoken lie of my true intention, here now came my second, and far worse; for I took my brother north to the bakery, and not south to Mass, and I swore him to the active defense of falsehood, if we were interrogated by the authorities. The sweet rolls we ate were bitter in my mouth, for reasons I knew full well, down by my gall bladder or spleen.
Of course we were interrogated, when we came home at exactly the time we should have come home, had we indeed been to Mass, for I was devious, and adhered exactly to pattern, so as to mimic an honest morning. Of course my mom and dad somehow knew I had skipped Mass, without a report being filed; of course they knew, somehow; and it tells you something of their grace and wisdom that they did not shout, or fulminate, or roar, or rain down coals of penalty. No. Our mom looked me in the face, and then went downstairs to do the laundry, and our dad gently asked about the readings at Mass today: What were they, Isaiah and Matthew, perhaps? And again I lied; for the third time that day I sinned, this time in word as well as deed, for I spoke warmly of the readings that day and even elaborated a little on their gnomic wisdom, and my father looked me full in the face and turned away from me. I was filled with shame and sadness, and went to my room, feeling some strange pain in my middle parts, down by my spleen or gall bladder.
A little later my dad came in and sat down on the edge of the bed and said quietly that we should have a conversation about Sunday Mass, and probably I was now old enough to make my own decisions about attending Mass, that he and my mother did not think it right or fair to force that decision on us children, that we needed to find our own ways spiritually, and that while he and our mother very much hoped that we would walk in the many rewarding paths of the Church, the final decision there would be ours alone, each obeying his own conscience; that was only right and fair, and to decree attendance now would perhaps actually force us away from the very thing that he and my mother found to be the most nutritious spiritual food; so perhaps you and I and your mother can sit and discuss this later this afternoon, he said, and come to some amicable agreement.
I sat there next to him, amazed and then moved at his grace.
However, said my dad, you realize that it is wrong and offensive to lie to me and to your mother about what you said you did, but did not do; and worst of all, you led your brother astray, and made him lie also, and for that you ought to be thoroughly ashamed of yourself. You owe your brother an apology for that, and it had better be a sincere and heartfelt apology, too, if you have any ambitions to be a decent man in the years to come. Why don’t you just sit here and think about the damage you just did to your brother’s open honest soul, to his innocence, to his respect and love for you, and when you are ready to make amends to him, do so, and we will have lunch.
I sat there on the bed for a while, and then I did seek out my brother and apologize to him, and we all sat down quietly for lunch, and nothing else was ever said about this, until now, in this small essay; but the thought occurs to me that in a lot of ways I have been sitting on that bed ever since, pondering the way lies come so easily to our lips and spin so easily out of our ostensible control, and stab the innocent, and dilute respect, and poison love, and tear at what we so much wish to be, which is honest and gracious and reverent. So rise with me now from the bed, brothers and sisters, and walk with me toward those to whom we should apologize, and then onward we go on the paths we each have chosen to the City of Light; and on your journey I wish you peace and joy unending.
Brian Doyle is editor of Portland Magazine and author, most recently, of A Book of Uncommon Prayer.
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