When you get to be my age—71 or thereabouts—remembering takes up an ever-increasing proportion of your mental life. In my case, remembering is not infrequently spurred by sorting: going through stacks of books, file folders, photocopies, email printouts, magazines, piles of newspaper articles, and more.
Atop one stack I recently found an obituary from the New York Times, Aug. 4, 2004, when the pages were still capacious: “Sidney Morgenbesser, 82, Kibitzing Philosopher, Dies.” (Douglas Martin, who wrote the obit, clearly enjoyed himself: “In the 1950s, the British philosopher J. L. Austin came to Columbia to present a paper about the close analysis of language. He pointed out that although two negatives make a positive, nowhere is it the case that two positives make a negative. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ Dr. Morgenbesser said.”)
Right below that in the stack was a long 2006 obit for the novelist Muriel Spark, followed by a photocopy of Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker profile of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (“The Ghostly Ones,” Sept. 20, 2004) and a photocopy of a 1990 piece on Iris Murdoch by Sarah Booth Conroy.
Each of these items (not to mention others in the same immense stack) sent me down winding trails of memory, intersecting with other trails. But the one that sent me the furthest was a short piece of my own that appeared in a magazine called Christianity and the Arts (Fall 2001), a special issue devoted to “The Madonna,” guest-edited by Carl Winderl. Here it is:
During Holy Week of 1999, I was in Philadelphia for the annual meeting of the Association for Asian American Studies. On the afternoon of Good Friday, instead of attending the scheduled business meeting, I decided to go to whatever church was nearest. That turned out to be Saint John the Evangelist, a Roman Catholic church, where I attended a performance of Franz Liszt’s Via Crucis (The Way of the Cross). Saint John the Evangelist was not stripped down, like many modern Catholic churches. There were grottoes and niches and altars all about. Certainly the Quakers wouldn’t have approved of this place, nor would the Baptists among whom I learned how to worship God.
The sanctuary was packed, and the people who filled the pews shoulder to shoulder looked like a cross-section of the city. In the pew just in front of me, a bag lady sat wrapped in three layers of coats, giving off an acrid smell that hit me like a slap in the face. Next to her was a cologned man, immaculately groomed.
I closed my eyes and found myself taken back to early childhood, sitting in a Baptist church next to my beloved little brother, Rick: a time when I didn’t grasp the details of what was going on but was enveloped in mystery. It seemed to me that my brother was sitting next to me in that church in Philadelphia. I had the uncanny sense that he was seeing everything I saw.
It occurred to me then with a conviction I can’t explain that we would have felt at home here as little boys. And for the first time, following the Stations of the Cross, I felt something more: a deep, piercingly sweet appreciation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, linked with the love my brother and I felt for our own mother and at the same time suggesting the incomprehensible love of God for us.
Before that moment I had understood Marian devotion intellectually, and could even discourse learnedly on it, though like many Protestants I was mostly conscious of its real excesses; but I had never felt it. I am grateful for the gift of that afternoon in Philadelphia.
If you have been following this column, you may recall that our daughter Mary (third of our four children) met her husband-to-be, John, in a philosophy seminar at Wheaton College. They were married in August 2003, shortly after Mary graduated, and soon after that they began taking instruction to become Catholic. In the years since, Wendy and I have worshipped many times with Mary and John (and, in due course, their six children) in the Catholic churches they have attended over the years. For the last five-plus years, their church has been Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio.
I had no idea, when I was sitting in that church in Philadelphia in 1999, that all this lay ahead. But twenty years later, I am even more grateful than I was that day for such a “deep, piercingly sweet appreciation of Mary” in mysterious communion with my distant brother: a vision, you could call it—a showing, however modest.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.