My family drove to a country church in a small town southeast of Dayton. Sonny, my father’s boyhood friend, had a daughter who had chosen to marry young. The arrangements for the wedding had been rushed, and she may have been pregnant. At any rate, we were all aware that Sonny was not pleased, and the bride walked down the aisle with her eyes fixed on the planks of the wooden floor. The priest took his place before the couple and began the wedding Mass. He opened his sermon with these words: “The divorce rate in the United States is fifty percent. Half of the young people who stand before me to take their vows have chosen a doomed path.” The priest smiled, pleased by the shocked reaction of the crowd, then explored the pitfalls of wedded life in detail. After the service, I asked a regular congregant whether the priest always spoke so rudely. He told me that the man was known and loved for his direct manner.
A young priest married my nephew Dan and his bride Rachel. I had trouble paying attention to the ceremony as my eye kept drifting up to the mural painted on the wall behind the altar. Jesus crucified gazed up to heaven with one eye, and down toward Mary and a disciple with the other. These two suffered from a similar ophthalmological disability. Although they faced away from the cross, each attempted to look up and over their shoulders at Jesus while also gazing forward at the clouds above them. Lazy eye, according to the artist, was a common affliction in Jesus’ time. The priest stumbled along during the sermon, and pointed up at the mural and said, “Marriage is just like this painting.” He might have meant that a good relationship involves sacrifice and putting your spouse’s needs before your own, but I assumed he meant that marriage and crucifixion (a slow death so painful that one’s eyes no longer maintained unified focus) were equivalent. I shuddered as I repressed a laugh, and my wife gave me a warning glare that promised suffering long and hard if I failed to maintain proper church decorum. “By God,” I thought. “That idiot’s right.”
My grandmother died when I was nine, and the unfamiliar funeral rituals shocked me. I remember sitting in a pew in a dark Catholic church reeking of incense and flowers. Grandma rested in the wooden box before the altar. I studied the service bulletin as I listened to the priest intone, “May perpetual light shine upon her.” A narrow beam of light shone from the middle of the printed cross and split the blackness of the bulletin’s cover. I suddenly saw my grandmother’s soul trapped in a dark place. Only a thin glimmer of light offered her meager comfort. And then a wave of fear washed over me as I wondered if there was any light at all, or if my grandmother existed in any form anywhere.
My great uncle Norby died when I was about twenty. I had become accustomed to memorial services and could follow the proceedings with more detachment. The monsignor celebrating the funeral mass had a pale, waxy complexion, and when he spoke he sounded as if he’d never had a moment of passion in his life. His monotone delivery gave away his underlying boredom, and he said nothing specific about the man who had died. Instead, he told us that Norby looked down from heaven and prayed for our sinful souls. If he had bothered to learn anything about my great uncle, the monsignor would have known about Norby’s wicked sense of humor, his occasional sarcasm and irreverence. If Norby witnessed this funeral, he would have laughed at us as we sat in the hard pews and endured the cold observances.
Another priest displayed a similar lack of knowledge about the character of the deceased, though the cleric spoke with greater warmth and care for the mourners. He recalled his encounters with my sister during the time when she still came to Sunday services. He’d asked her how things were going, and she’d reply, “Peachy.” Apparently, he remained oblivious to my sister’s dry sense of irony, and that “peachy” could mean just the opposite if one paid attention to her tone of voice. Or perhaps he didn’t see her reserve, her unwillingness to complain about her affliction. Or her habit of offering minimal feedback to folks who had no idea what her condition was like. The priest went on for a bit, and one would have thought that Carla was the Mary Poppins of ALS. He paused for breath, and Clare, Carla’s four-month-old granddaughter, let loose a loud splutter. She gave the priest the raspberries. Dan, Clare’s father, started laughing, and the folks seated around him joined in. At the reception after the burial, Dan told me that he was sure that Clare had delivered Carla’s rebuttal.