Des Moines, Iowa
Holy Week always takes me to a place having little to do with my present belief system. Despite the break so many years ago from early tradition, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem thrusts me back to a time before the onset of skepticism and teenage logic. The world slows down and I find myself serving Mass again at St. John’s. For the three years before high school I was an altar boy. Wearing a black cassock with a white surplice over it, I entered a realm beyond the drab and the mundane. Latin was the language there and mystery was its waters.
I’m reminded of the nuns who also wore black and white. They lived in community, across the street from the church and less than a block from the school. Occasionally I was given an errand to deliver something there, or to retrieve something that one of the sisters needed for the day’s instruction. Every time I entered their home I was greeted by one of the retired nuns who treated me like a guest and always gave me a cookie or a piece of candy. I was never rushed out the door or told I had to get right back to school. But I was always treated with kindness. And in the classroom, I frequently had two recurrent thoughts: “how do they go to the bathroom under all of that?” and “there really are people in this world who do things out of kindness and not for personal gain.”
Early on the drive home from St. Paul this morning I asked Sarah and Mary if they wanted to stop for breakfast. Sarah said she wasn’t hungry, that she’d been up in the middle of the night and had eaten a slice of pizza. I asked her if it was a leftover. She said it was, from a pizza she purchased the day before for herself and a homeless man. I asked her how that came about. She says she doesn’t have time to volunteer at a shelter so she oftentimes looks for an opportunity on her walk to or from class to purchase a meal for a street person. She will see someone and ask if they are hungry. The initial response is usually “no, but thank you.” Sarah is persistent, though, and will reply that she is going to buy herself something and would like to share it. Almost always she has a companion for lunch.
This evening at Good Friday service Mr. Sheaff sat in front of us. For years he’s been the theater director at the local Catholic high school. He has seven kids, at least. One of them is Bridget, a long time classmate of Mary’s. I coached Bridget in basketball, beginning in the second grade. That entire season Bridget never made a basket, either in a practice or in a game. The same was true the next season. As a fourth grader she started to understand layups and made a few in practice. She went scoreless, though, for the season. At the beginning of fifth grade Bridget told me it would be her last season; that she wasn’t cut out for basketball. I said if she came early to practice we could work on her game. She oftentimes did and her layups improved.
The last game arrived. Bridget had yet to score that season. It was a back and forth game but with a minute to go we held a four-point lead. But Bridget had yet to score. With fifteen seconds left I called a time out. We all agreed that Bridget had to score. I drew up a play. Rose would set a screen. Bridget would be free in the middle of the lane, ten feet from the basket. Mary would inbound, fake to Emmy, and feed Bridget. The play worked to perfection. Bridget swished it from eight feet. The girls went wild and hugged Bridget until she cried for help.
After the game, as Mary and I walked through the parking lot, we saw Bridget and her father in their car and approached them. Mr. Sheaff had never spoken a word to me in four seasons. We congratulated Bridget on her game. Her father stuck out his hand and shook both Mary’s and mine. He said “thank you.” I said Bridget had a great game. His eyes welled up with tears. He said, “I really mean it. Thank you.” Mary has never forgotten that, nor have I.
There is a story about a Buddhist monk who was meeting with a famous old lama for the last time. The master beckoned the student to approach. He did, believing he would receive the master’s most secret instruction. The master whispered his final teaching: “Be kind.”
- Fred Van Liew