Cold tea, black and bitter as coffee, poured into chipped mugs for a motley crew consisting mostly of teenaged boys. Sandwiches of peanut butter and raisins. Or thick slices of cheddar cheese. A new take on the worker-priest. This one? Benevolent, yes, but stern when necessary: no shenanigans allowed, not even the mild hazing by older boys clutching the bottom rungs of a shaky ladder, a younger one at the tiptop warbling, as instructed, “House of the Rising Sun.”
Friday was payday. Cash on the barrelhead. And the day came when it was, “That’s it, boys, I’m tapped out.” Yes, that’s right, why didn’t I say, “I’m not doing this for money anyway. Truth is, I didn’t think I had a choice in the matter. So I’ll work on, if it’s okay with you.” Here’s the thing, though. We don’t get to do that. We can’t go back and unsay or say or say different. If we could, he would have known for a certainty, then and at so many other times, that he was a godsend.
Tireless? Something bolder, surely. Let’s paint the exterior of Good Shepherd in Swainsboro. Let’s build a daycare center! Let’s take these troubled children on a camp-out. Let’s start a study group for all you young people. Let’s all go on retreat to Honey Creek or Coleman’s Lake or the middle of absolutely nowhere. Always his shirt the first to be soaked through with sweat. Not a standing reproach, exactly, but not not one, either. Or call it an invitation to full commitment. To doing well whatever was worth doing.
Come on, Father Jud. There are only, like, 18 people in church today. Why did you have to holify so much of this dry-as-dust communion bread? No, no, please, I can’t choke down another mouthful. Sigh.
Riding along in his little red car, headed for the mountains. To set up camp for all the others. (What am I? A sherpa? Day laborer? How is it that I always seem to get singled out?) Here, hold the steering wheel, he says. If you don’t mind, I’m going to light my pipe. Or here, you drive for a while. But F-F-Father Jud, I don’t even know how to drive a stick. Sure you do. A very minor miracle: apparently I did.
It’s time for confession, Father Jud. I may have been a goody-goody, on the whole. But when I had the chance, I took my swigs from the bottle, just like all the others. And looked as innocent as a lamb when you came in, sniffing the air, knowing full well that your lambs were up to no good.
My own father, happy for now, there in the front of Jud’s canoe. Escaped from his clients’ problems. From feelings of inadequacy in the face of those problems. From the obligations and expectations that came with being Jim Abbot in his hometown. No, I can’t quite hear what they’re saying. It doesn’t matter, though, because I know without having to overhear: Jud is that rare thing, a true friend for my father.
(And my mother, too, of course. Oh, Jud and Dot, Jim and Louise: give me one wish, and I would give you twice the number of years together.)
Always the pause. Wait for it. Wait for it. The rigamarole done — partly done, anyway. Those readings that I really, really tried to listen to. And then he paces forward. Maybe a hand on the front of the first pew. The other held out, upturned, an offering. The eyes down, then up, bright, searching for yours. Just a second longer. And then we’re off, in a direction that no one guessed, a music behind the words, a vista revealed of a place where it matters what you think and do. Where you are summoned to try, at any rate, to be your best self.
“Do not love the world or the things in the world.” But, surely, Jud sinned and did. A bird, a favorite tree, his family, his congregation. Truth. Struggle. Laughter (except when it became hysterical, the entire congregation possessed, Dot maybe the worst offender, George Van Epps wheezing and setting us off again, Father Jud standing there, bewildered, waiting it out, but there was no waiting it out, tears streaming down people’s faces, clutching our sides, and it’s a wonder there was no speaking in tongues, though maybe that was our version of it, our way of establishing some balance, some counterweight to all that solemnity that he loved, too).
Not a man comfortable with authority figures. Thanks a million for that, Father Jud. That has made life really easy for me.
Stubborn. Anyone could see that. Or persevering, if you prefer. Did I ever hear him say the word “compromise”? A better question: isn’t there something to be said for being true to who we are, each one of us?
Anathema to him: any and every injustice. And what was his justice? I would not have the presumption to say. Because it was his life’s work, namely, the search for a full understanding of justice — in the life and words of Jesus, certainly, but also in this very world of ours, the one in which Jesus was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit / and born of the Virgin Mary, [in which] He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”
On my last visit to the nursing home, I entered to a kind of variety show taking place in the lobby. A three-piece band playing golden oldies. I walked through to his room. Empty. I returned to the lobby and sought the help of a staff member. “There he is,” she said, and she was right. Over there, in his wheelchair, taking everything in. I waited out the music. When it ended, I went to him. Did he know who I was? Maybe. But I might have been his only friend in the world, the way he lit up, his enthusiasm, his graciousness. We visited the garden behind the building and fed the birds. We took a tour of the grounds. We ate dinner together: the important thing being to dispense as quickly as possible with dinner itself to reach dessert. Then it was time to go.
Had I admitted, then or before, that I had wandered? That I could no longer say exactly what I believe? No, because I choose to think that his affection and esteem for all of us boys and girls encompassed a confidence that we would find our way. That we would always push forward, knowing that he himself was up ahead somewhere, setting up camp.
Requiescat in pace.