Twice in my life I have heard voices, just two times, and technically it was the same voice each time: a deep basso-profundo Robert Goulet-like resonance that I felt more than heard. The first occasion was about fifty years ago, on a sunny summer afternoon in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with my friend Richard. And, no, it wasn’t his voice, nor was he privileged to hear it. The message was just two words, but you shouldn’t ask. If I hadn’t followed their directive, however, you wouldn’t be reading this today.
The second message came, equally off the cuff, three weeks ago in the early stages of the pandemic and directly related thereto. It said, simply, “Get your house in order”— no exclamation point required. This sort of event is so rare that I take heed and act accordingly. [Lest you think this was God or the Son of Sam, don’t. I credit both of these communiques to my innermost being whopping the outer shell up the side of the head as a course corrective. God works in far more mysterious ways; She really does.]
Peter and I are each in the “high risk” category for COVID-19; one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, if I should breathe too deeply in the check-out line at Ace Hardware or put the change in my mouth. I took this message at face value: circumstances may remove any opportunity to settle scores before they put me on a ventilator in isolation. So I did an inventory of relationships in need of repair. That’s what matters. All my stuff can become Fargo-Moorhead’s second biggest garage sale. After Jim O’Rourke’s, that is.
A quick tally reveals a pretty uneven balance sheet: there are many apologies I must bestow, and countless more I may not even recognize, but the list of people who’ve wronged me is remarkably short — there are just three. These are cases where the words of another cut so deep and refused to heal that I recall them vividly; where and when and what was said, though I’m also clueless why those words were necessary at the time. I’d like to forget them but don’t seem capable. The first injury was six words; the third was seven. The second instance requires a paragraph of paraphrase but it boils down to four. Just seventeen hurtful words in seventy-five years is a pretty good record. On the flip side of that spread sheet, however, I can’t begin to count all that I’ve said and done, much of it just being flippant or “clever” but just as hurtful, whether intended or not. Probably not.
Blanket or wholesale apologies are, as they say, not worth the polyester they’re printed on. So I’ll spare myself that embarrassment. Real apologies, on the other hand, happen at the boutique level of commercial exchange; close, intimate, intentional, and heart-felt. I hope to be up to that task. I tried a few weeks ago — even before “the voice” — to correct a wrong I had done to someone I like very much. Sadly, it only made things worse, so I hope for better results now. Here goes.
There is one person whom I owe the largest possible apology; oddly, it’s someone who authored one of those three hurtful statement hurled at me. Wish me luck on that one. There are some others that have gone out recently in the mail; handwritten notes count for more that tweets. [Take note, Mr President.] If you should receive one, there’s no need to handle it with tongs; I ran it through the microwave on the way to the post office. And I genuinely believe the contents are even less toxic than the envelope. Read it and react as you see fit. If the apology is insufficiently large, let me know and I’ll adjust accordingly.
Then there are all those harms I have done unwittingly, by simply being the creature I have been. If you fall in that possibly very large category, I implore you to reach out to me, identify the harm that I have done, let me consider it and make amends as required. In all these cases, I shall attempt to follow the spirit of the law, rather than the balance sheet of pure numbers tabulated by an accountant. Forgiveness doesn’t work that way.
When I was an undergraduate, most of the guys in my wing of the dorm went to St Thomas More, the university parish for Catholics of the Roman persuasion. I went with them out of companionship to “hangover” Mass on Saturday afternoon — knowing full well that we’d be hung over the next morning and not make it to the 11:00 o’clock service.
One day I had an issue that needed spiritual guidance, so I made an appointment with Fr Chuck. Once we’d talked it through, he observed, “Say, I haven’t seen you at communion lately.” I said the likely reason was that I wasn’t Catholic. He wondered if I’d like to do something about that, to which I said, “Why not.” So we went through a couple hours of “Can you buy into this?” and one Saturday afternoon, I was duly baptized (for the second time) in the chapel, with Dorothy Ryan, the parish secretary and a former nun, as my witness/sponsor. This didn’t happen without another important step: Confession. And remember, this was the early 60s and Vatican II was underway.
The Friday night before the baptism, Fr Chuck and I had dinner at the Howard Johnson’s, the all-you-can-eat Lenten fish special. So there we were in the booth, facing one another, with the waitperson passing by frequently, asking “More fillets?” and the priest inquiring about the condition of my soul. Shortly before the check arrived, he absolved me of those sins I’d acknowledged and issued an appropriate penance: no “Hail, Marys” were involved; I simply had to do something nice for the person I disliked the most. Can you imagine the agony!
First I ranked the people I disliked, and then decided what act of kindness would satisfy God, while at the same time not alerting the person that an actual act of kindness had been done to them — a balance only Solomon could achieve. Well, I did it in good faith. But the “conversion” lasted only as long as it took to get home to Chicago and discover Vatican II hadn’t happened in the conservative Polish parish that was my local church. Cardinal Wotija couldn’t be elected John Paul II soon enough for them so the pendulum could swing back where it belonged. That Friday night Lenten special at Howard Johnson’s, however, has stuck with me, even if Holy Mother Church has not. And I afford you the benefit of that experience today.