We owned a shelf of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books when I was in high school, but the family hardbacks were limited to a handsomely illustrated and mostly unread Bible,Too Late the Phalaropeby Alan Paton,Not as a Strangerby Morton Thompson, andThe Edge of Sadnessby Edwin O’Connor. Each of the novels was a critically acclaimed bestseller in its time—The Edge of Sadnesswon the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for fiction—but onlyThe Edge of Sadnesshas fallen out of print until its welcome resuscitation as a Loyola Classic.
Some books are so much of their age that they can quickly seem as quaint, old-fashioned, and nostalgic as foxtrot tunes. And that, I think, was the fate ofThe Edge of Sadnessafter Vatican Council II (1962–65), widely regarded as the most significant religious event in the Roman Catholic Church since the sixteenth-century Reformation. Pre-Council Catholicism is personified here in the St. Raymond’s pastor referred to only by his title, Monsignor: “an eccentric, despotic, devout old man who, like so many of the old-time pastors, seemed to have won from his people something that was not love, exactly, but a peculiar kind of exasperated idolatry.” (26)
His kind would fade away after Vatican II, as would the Latin Mass that O’Connor’s Father Hugh Kennedy “said,” facing the tabernacle and generally without the vigilant participation of his congregation. It could be a grand and regal spectacle but it had little to do with the Lord’s Supper or the practices of the early church, and so it was replaced by liturgies in English in which the aloof and anonymous parishioners of Old St. Paul’s would have been expected to offer the responses that altar boys, with memorized, misunderstood, and mispronounced Latin, had recited in the past. And there were other far-reaching changes. The church was no longer considered just the hierarchy or the clergy, but also the laity, the people of God, who were given a greater role in the management of their parishes. Ecumenism was encouraged. Hymnals were modernized for good and for ill, with some folk Masses becoming indistinguishable from a hootenanny. The harsher codes of canon law were rewritten in a more pastoral way. Religious orders were required to reexamine and in some cases alter their rules, their habits, and their ways of proceeding.
The consequence of that happy upheaval was that The Edge of Sadness seemed, to many, yesterday’s news.
Published five years after the enormous success of The Last Hurrah, Edwin O’Connor’s third novel was born out of his close friendships with priests and his deep affection for and fidelity to Catholicism. And his alert, sympathetic, adjudicating intimacy made his book a catalog of the many things that were wrong in the church and needed aggiornamento—in the Italian of Pope John XXIII—the act of revision and updating. Because for all its wry asides and vaudevillian comedy, Edwin O’Connor’s novel is a profoundly melancholy book about loneliness, lost ideals, and the lack of integrity, whether among vain, crafty, tyrannical capitalists like Charlie Carmody, from whom we expect it, or among affectless, cynical, scandalous priests, from whom we don’t. Even its first paragraph begins with Father Hugh Kennedy’s self-denying delusion: “This story at no point becomes my own. I am in it—good heavens, I’m in it to the point of almost never being out of it!—but the story belongs, all of it, to the Carmodys, and my own part, while substantial enough, was never really of any great significance at all.”(7)
The book covers a half a year, more or less, in an unnamed city that combines various aspects of Boston, Massachusetts, and Providence and Woonsocket, Rhode Island; and its architecture is founded on a rather limited number of scenes that are far longer than those in most four-hundred-page novels: a populated birthday party at the Carmody home; conversations with Father John Carmody, Hugh’s seminary friend; scenes from the Old St. Paul’s rectory and parish, including hilarious dinner-table conversations with the zealous, stiff, naïve curate, Father Danowski, and, when Hugh can find him, encounters with Roy, the lazy, prevaricating janitor; Hugh’s memories of his father; a flashback to Hugh’s four years recovering from alcoholism at the Cenacle in Arizona; a nostalgic afternoon idyll with Mrs. Helen Carmody O’Donnell, John’s kid sister and the one woman from his youth whom Hugh could have imagined marrying; a confessional visit with a seemingly dying Charlie Carmody and, linked to it, a final St. Raymond’s rectory visit with the icy, chastising Father John; and then the inspiring, transporting final pages that signal the surprising, even miraculous, metamorphosis in Hugh.
Edwin O’Connor was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 29, 1918, and was raised in affluence in Woonsocket as the oldest son of a highly regarded doctor who specialized in internal medicine. His high school was the Christian Brothers’ La Salle Academy in Providence—he got there by train each day—and then, in 1935, he went west to South Bend and the rigid discipline of the all-male, seminary-like University of Notre Dame.
A powerful and persistent influence on Edwin O’Connor there was his principal English literature professor, Frank O’Malley, to whom The Edge of Sadness is dedicated. O’Connor called him “the greatest single help for me in college,” for O’Malley was the charismatic mentor who got the Rhode Island talent to change his major from journalism to English, and who introduced him to the greatest of the European Catholic philosophers and writers. But O’Connor had observed O’Malley’s otherwise wide-ranging and incisive intellect too often fuddled with alcohol, and so he gave Father Hugh Kennedy a similar affliction—O’Connor himself was a teetotaler—in order to provide his friend an example of hope and of a way out.
Also crucial to Edwin O’Connor’s development as a fiction writer was his job as a radio announcer, which he had after his graduation from Notre Dame in 1939 until he joined the Coast Guard during World War II, and his fondness for an uncle whose theatrical background extended from vaudeville to the movies. A gregarious joker, raconteur, and mimic, O’Connor was enormously attentive to accents and voice, and the speeches and spirited dialogues in his novel need to be read aloud to fully appreciate how good his ear and timing are. And his irony is a joy. Writing about Hugh Kennedy’s nighttime walks around a parish that includes skid row, O’Connor has the pastor recall a movie scene from the thirties or forties:It was a scene in which a priest was walking alone at night, through a district that I’m sure was intended to be very much like this one. It was sordid enough, suitably down at the heels, yet in the film it had an odd liveliness: one had the impression of neon and noise and motion. There was a peculiar wailing music in the background, and from the darkness came an occasional scream of violence. Through the shadows one could see the tottering and seedy drunks, the faded streetwalker, the few sharp-eyed hoodlums. And then the priest appeared: an erect man with a steady stride. He was quite handsome. He was also obviously a familiar and impressive neighborhood figure. Although his coat collar was turned up he was recognized at once; the recognition produced a chain reaction of edifying behavior. The drunks managed to straighten themselves and tug respectfully at their hats; the streetwalker, suddenly ashamed, turned away, pointedly fingering the medal at her throat; the hoodlums vanished in their evil Cadillac; the cop on the beat relaxed for the first time, twirled his nightstick happily, and hummed a few bars of “The Minstrel Boy.” The “padre” was passing by, and the district was the more wholesome for his presence. As for the “padre” himself, he continued to walk forward as strongly as ever, something about him managing to suggest, however, that he was in a dream—a muscular dream. His smile was compassionate but powerful: one had the feeling that here was a mystic from some ecclesiastical gymnasium, a combination of Tarzan and St. John of the Cross. A saint, but all man. . . . (148–149)
After the war, there was more radio work and freelance journalism for O’Connor, and he lived hand-to-mouth in Boston even after the publication of his first novel, The Oracle. But The Last Hurrah, in 1956, made him famous and rich enough that at age thirty-eight he could buy his first car, a Porsche.
Still a suave and affable Irish bachelor, O’Connor became a favorite guest at fashionable dinner parties where he seems to have fallen into the good priest’s role of genial interlocutor and generous consort to the ignored. He became a man of regular habits and haunts, finishing his morning at the typewriter with a stroll to the café of the Ritz Hotel and the editorial offices of The Atlantic and his publishers Little, Brown—the sort of thing that fledgling writers imagine but few writers ever do.
Some of his jaunty life is reflected in Father Hugh Kennedy, who may seem to contemporary readers an incredibly carefree, negligent, and unharried pastor. There is little or no mention in The Edge of Sadness of parish councils, club and committee meetings, finance and administration, choir direction, confessions, baptisms, weddings, and funerals, counseling in his offices, contractors called in for repairs. We do not see him reading his breviary. We do not hear him preach—though he implies he does it poorly. Whenever Hugh Kennedy is called on, he seems to be available. That he prays is frequently asserted, but his spirituality is never deeply explored. We learn that he reads John Henry Newman at night; we do not learn which books or what nourishment he draws from them.
I have Jesuit friends who report thatThe Edge of Sadnesswas the first novel they were allowed to read in their training, but it could not have been because it was excellent preparation for the functions and expectations of priesthood. Rather, it must have been selected because it so well describes a very American variation on St. John of the Cross’sDark Night of the Soul.
The greatness ofThe Edge of Sadnesslies not in its insider’s view of ecclesiastical life, or in its portrayal of steely faith, bloody martyrdom, or the heroic struggle to seek out a seemingly ever-withdrawing God. Instead, it lies in its evocation of the age-old maladies of selfishness, lethargy, indifference, and bleakness of soul. One critic, in 1961, called Father Hugh Kennedy “the first dimensionally human priest to emerge from the pages of an American novel.” And it is that intensely honest and unsentimental perspective that gives resonance to Edwin O’Connor’s novel even today.
Ron Hansen’s most recent books areA Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fictionand the screwball comedyIsn’t It Romantic?He teaches literature and creative writing at Santa Clara University.
The Edge of Sadness
For Frank O’Malley
All characters and situations in this novel are fictional, and any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
This story at no point becomes my own. I am in it—good heavens, I’m in it to the point of almost never being out of it!—but the story belongs, all of it, to the Carmodys, and my own part, while substantial enough, was never really of any great significance at all. I don’t think this is modesty; it seems to me a simple fact. Because now that it’s all over, and I can look back on all those weeks and months—not with detachment, of course, but with a somewhat colder eye than before, I have the feeling that whatever happened would have happened whether I had been on hand or not, whether I had spoken or been still, whether I had known the Carmodys all the days of my life or had met them for the first time one sunlit afternoon in the middle of last week.
Still, there is this: I was at least there. The friend of the family, the invited intruder, the small necessary neutral cushion against which all belligerents might bank their shots in turn—I was there, as I say, and there I stayed. I stayed with the Carmodys and their story from the first—from that Sunday in June when old Charlie Carmody, saluting the one day of the year that could be counted on to move him deeply, gave himself a birthday party. . . .
The story begins, really, some days before that Sunday: it begins with an early morning telephone call. Even now, months later, I can recall that morning with a special vividness, for it was the first such morning in a long time. There had been a heat wave, a severe one and the first of the summer, and on this morning I woke to find that it had broken at last. The wind was sweeping in from the sea, and even here—here, in this old rectory, set in this soiled and airless slum—it was possible to smell and feel the morning, the sunlight and salt air. It was the start of one of the great dazzling days that sometimes break unannounced over this city, cool and shining and full of light, and I knew that if I got up and walked to the rectory roof and looked out through the scoured and cloudless morning I could see for miles and miles to the muted bluish outlines of the hills far to the north. . . .
Which, I should say at once, I did not intend to do. I was in bed and fully awake: I had awakened shortly after six o’clock. In recent months I’ve been saying the seven o’clock Mass, and I wake at this same hour each morning, usually without the alarm. Which is fine, but is only half the battle, for to wake up is one thing, and to get up quite another. And this, for me, is one of the old, long-standing problems; I can remember, years ago in the seminary, speaking of it to old Father Condon. Overscrupulous, to be sure, but there it was and there he was, my spiritual counselor: a marvelously serene old man with the face of a happy rabbit and almost no voice at all. It was said that he had worn it out, giving advice.
“Oh my goodness,” he whispered, his upper lip twitching away at some invisible carrot. “Oh my goodness me. Why, that is a very slight problem, my dear boy. It is almost not a problem at all. It is a mountain made out of a molehill: perhaps you know the expression? A little discipline, a little self-sacrifice, a little remembering each day of just what it is we get up for. We are doing God’s work, are we not, and Satan does not sleep till noon. That is a good thought, my dear boy: Satan does not sleep till noon. No no no. Keep that uppermost in your mind before retiring each night and you will find that in a surprisingly short time you will be bounding out of bed in the morning. Rising will become, not a chore, but a positive joy. Oh yes yes yes. I have lived a very long time and I have seen it happen again and again. Why, I recall that once, many many years ago now, of course, I. . . .”
And then his voice, as it had a habit of doing, faded off entirely, and he, poor simple kindly old man, all unconscious of this, kept on talking for some time, smiling all the while, his lips moving rhythmically, his long old hands feathering the air, presumably pointing up inaudible anecdotes. I stayed for the pantomime—young seminarians are not encouraged to walk out on the performances of their superiors—and considered the advice. I found that I had listened dutifully but had not believed. Seminaries are peppered with occasional doubts, but mine were secular rather than theological: I could not believe in the joyous morning bound. It was disbelief well-founded: thirty-five years between then and now, and while I rise punctually I do so grudgingly; each morning brings its own renewal of the battle. . . .
All of which has nothing whatever to do with the problems of the Carmodys, into which I was brought suddenly as the telephone by my bed rang, at six fifteen in the morning, and surprisingly the caller was old Charlie Carmody.
“Well, well, Father,” he said, “good mornin’ to you.” He had a queer, old man’s voice: strong enough, yet every word came out wrapped in some sort of powdery cocoon, as if he had a permanent dustbin in his throat. “I hope, now, I didn’t get you up out of bed, Father? It’s not too early for you?”
The question was solicitous enough, but then I had been brought up on Charlie Carmody; I thought I knew what he was really saying. My father had been a great expert on Charlie. They had been boys together, and my father—who never became successful in business—seemed to spend most of his time studying Charlie—who became very successful indeed—watching him with incredulity, some amusement, a certain amount of rather reluctant admiration, and a somewhat larger amount of positive dislike. He had collected hundreds of stories about Charlie and told them all; sometimes his analysis of Charlie’s character took the form of a curious defense.
“The man is misunderstood,” he would say. “There are people in this city who think that Charlie’s the meanest man that ever drew on a pair of trousers. He’s no such thing. In his whole life he never did anything mean just for the sake of being mean. One, there’s no money in it. Two, it’s not his style at all. Charlie’s not the lad to jab his thumb in your eye just so’s your eye will sting. But say you went into his real estate office one day to buy a little piece of land worth maybe ten dollars, and Charlie was good enough—you being an old friend—to sell it to you for a hundred. And say you went to go out of the door with your little bargain under your arm, and Charlie ran around from behind his desk to help you on with your hat—just to keep on being friendly. And say just at the moment he had your hat in the air, ready to slip it on your head, you twisted your head around of a sudden and got his thumb smack dab in your eye—well now, that’s the sort of thing that makes the day for Charlie. He’s not only cheated you deaf and dumb, but you almost go blind in the bargain! What sensible man could ask for more? I tell you, it’s the little bonuses that count the most with Charlie. They go to prove, don’t you see, that God’s on the right side. That he’s up there smiling away in heaven, whipping up the frosting to put on the cakes that his partner Charlie bakes!”
This was my father on the subject of his boyhood chum. Not a calm and measured judgment, exactly, but not without its truth, either; I discovered that as over the years, and from one source and another, I came to know a good deal about Charlie. Enough, for example, to know that while he would never have called me simply to wake me—a practical joke that put no money in your pocket was, to Charlie, simply not practical—still, if he could have wakened me en route,so to speak, to his main purpose, why, so much the better! Just one more little bonus. And so, still lying on my bed, I said, “No, no, I’ve been up for some time, Mr. Carmody.”
But Charlie was a veteran campaigner; his disappointment, if there, did not show.
“Ain’t that grand!” he said instantly. “Is that a fact, now? Well well. Up for some time. I tell you, Father, nothin’ does me more good than to hear a thing like that. Nothin’ makes me feel better than to know there’s somebody besides myself ain’t afraid to get up in the mornin’. Specially when he’s a young feller like yourself.”
This was Charlie’s brand of flattery. Or else it was simply that to the really old all others are young. In any case, on my last birthday I was fifty-five.
Charlie went on to pay his tribute to youth.
“Mostly,” he said, “they’re a bunch of bums. You have to club them to get them up out of bed, and then when you do they can’t do nothin’. It was different in my day, Father. D’ye know what time I got up when I was a young feller? I’ll tell you: four o’clock. How’s that for gettin’ up in the mornin’, Father? And d’ye know what time I get up today, old as I am? D’ye know that, Father?”
“You’ve always been an early riser, Mr. Carmody. . . .”
“Four o’clock!” he cried. “The same as always. Old as I am I’m on my own two feet and downstairs in the kitchen gettin’ my own breakfast every blessed mornin’ of my life. Would you believe that, Father?”
I would indeed, for his son John, who had been in the seminary with me, had often spoken of this habit of his father’s. He had spoken of it without enthusiasm.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he had said, frowning. In those days, John—fresh out of boyhood, towheaded, with large light serious eyes, and already regarded, even in the seminary, as pretty much of a lone wolf—still thought of his father, not so much with irritation (although there was plenty of that) as with a puzzled incomprehension—as someone who by right of position deserved respect and affection and love, but whose every baffling action threw one more block across the path. “You see, when he gets up everyone else has to get up too. Oh, you don’t actually have to, but you might just as well: I can tell you that after four o’clock there’s no sleep for anybody in that house. There are all those noises in the kitchen, for one thing, and then when he finishes there he can always find something else to do. Something that’s noisy. He’ll water the lawn, for instance. Have you any idea how much noise that can make? At five in the morning when it’s pitch-black outside? And when it’s Dad who’s doing the watering? With his own special early morning technique? Of course you can always complain but when you do he always says the same thing. He says we’re the last people who should be complaining because he’s only doing it for us. For us! ”
He had shaken his head, badly perplexed, and somewhere in the distance I had seemed to hear my father’s cough of knowing laughter. Here was corroboration indeed!
“Yes,” Charlie was saying now, “I get up nice and early before the sun and do the little things that need doin’ around the house. And then what d’ye think I do, Father? You’d never guess. Not in a million years you wouldn’t. I’ll tell you what I do: I go out in the yard and have a grand look at all the birds. Ain’t birds lovely, Father?”
This was the softer side of Charlie: rarely visible, like the other side of the moon. I said, “Are you a bird watcher, then, Mr. Carmody? That’s something I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“Ah well, I ain’t a loony about it, Father. I don’t go crawlin’ around on my belly through the wet grass lookin’ for the golden-headed hoohoo. That’s nut stuff. But the fact of the matter is that nothin’ makes me feel better than comin’ down and findin’ the whole place littered with birds, all kinds, singin’ and chirpin’ away all around me. I tell you, Father, there’s days I might be St. Francis himself!”
I said, “Aha.” It was a pale acknowledgment, unworthy of such an announcement, but the truth is that I had nothing better to offer. Thirty years as a priest and still unable to make the appropriate small talk with the living duplicates of the sanctified! Who, by the way, are more numerous than you might imagine. With Charlie, however, it seemed safe enough to stick to the birds, and so I said, “I suppose they come around because you’re good to them; you probably put out a little seed for them every once in a while.”
There was a pause.
“Ah well,” he said slowly. “I don’t exactly do that now, Father. No no. I’m a great man for the birds, none greater, but the way I do is this: they can damn well feed themselves. And they do! I’m here to tell you they do. On my grass seed.” The old voice had suddenly become louder; there was a new note, unmistakably grim. “Grass seed is sellin’ for two dollars the pound,” he said, “and every robin on the place is gettin’ big as a hen. Oh, I tell you, Father, a man has to look sharp or they’ll eat him out of house and home. What I do, sometimes, is I sit around waitin’ for them with a few little stones in my pocket.” A dusty reminiscent chuckle came over the telephone. “I pegged one at this big black devil of a starlin’ the other day,” St. Francis said gleefully, “and damn near took his head off. Well, well, we mustn’t complain, Father. That’s the way life goes.”
I agreed that it was, it was indeed, and took a look at my watch. It was getting late, and the question was: Why? Why, that is, this telephone call? Because nothing was clearer than that old Charlie had not called to discuss birds with a parish priest. Especially this parish priest: in all his life Charlie had never telephoned to me before. There was no reason why he should have. We were hardly old friends; he had of course known my father well, but me he knew chiefly as a boy who occasionally used to be seen about his house in the company of his son John. And although I knew all the Carmodys, it was only Helen and John to whom I was at all close, and in recent years I had seen John only half a dozen times, while Helen I had not seen at all. So that to hear from any Carmody was rare enough, but to hear from old Charlie was unprecedented. It is a tribute to my father’s schooling that I knew at once that Charlie wanted something, that he wanted it badly, and that he wanted it from me. But exactly what he could want—or, for that matter, what I had to give—was beyond me. Meanwhile, there was the hour, and Mass was to be said; the problem was to get Charlie to the point and get him there quickly.
But Charlie came to the point by himself and almost at once. Apparently tiring of preliminaries, he said with a sudden briskness, “Well now, Father, I didn’t call you up to talk about the robin redbreast, did I? I wouldn’t waste the time of a man like yourself on that. The thing is this: will you come to dinner? On Sunday next?”
And this completely surprised me: so completely that I could manage only the simple-minded echo: “Sunday?”
“My birthday,” he said matter-of-factly. In just such a tone might another man have said, “Thanksgiving” or “Christmas.” He added, “Eighty-two years old, Father. Eighty-two this Sunday, that’s what I am. And not an ache or pain in my body or a doctor’s bill in sight. How many d’ye know can say the same?”
“Not many,” I said absently, and wondered: Is this what Charlie wanted? My presence at his birthday dinner? Was this probable? No. Yet all the same. . . .
“Not many,” he repeated. Clearly, the answer did not satisfy. “I don’t know none,” he said. “Except myself. They’re droppin’ like flies around me but I feel grand. I might live to be as old as Methuselah’s Uncle Jack. So we’ll have a little celebration on Sunday, Father. John’ll be there, of course, now he’s back in the city, and I know he’d like to see you. As would we all, Father. As would we all. Will you come along?”
There was the possible answer: John. Was it he, back again in his home city after so many years away, the pastor now of the very church in which he had been baptized, who was behind the invitation? In a way this made sense, yet in another way it did not, for Charlie had never been known to bend to the wishes of any member of his family. Was it at all in character for him to invite his son’s friend to dinner—to his own birthday dinner? Simply to oblige his son? Once again I seemed to hear my father sounding his notes of polite derision. Still—and here is the really curious thing—almost instantly, and without the faintest reasonable motive (for was it possible that I could have wanted to go and watch Charlie cheer the fact of his own survival?) I said, “I’d like very much to come, Mr. Carmody. It’s good of you to think of me.”
“That’s grand,” he said. “Ah, that’s grand, Father. We won’t have nothin’ fancy. Just the family and a few old pals. It’ll be like old times.”
Old pals? Old times? Was this the explanation: had Charlie, subject to the confusions of old age, taken me for his own contemporary? But he had done nothing of the kind; clarification came with his most surprising statement yet. He said, “Seein’ you there will remind me of your pa. Oh yes, Father, your pa and I were great pals in the old days. Did you know that, I wonder?”
I thought of what my father would have said to this; I said only, “I knew you were boys together.”
“Boys and pals,” he corrected me. “Born on the same block, not fifty feet from each other. And in the same year. Ah, those were the great days, Father.” He sighed. “Beefsteak,” he said emotionally. “D’ye know what beefsteak was sellin’ for then, Father? I’ll tell you: ten cents the pound. And liver was nothin’ at all. Oh yes yes, Father, there’s not a day goes by I don’t think of your poor pa. He’s dead now . . . how long? Ten years, would it be?”
“Nine years. Well well. And here I am, fit as a fiddle.” He sighed and said, “Well well. But that’s the way life goes, Father. We mustn’t complain.”
This was a curious kind of resignation, to be recalled, apparently, only in connection with particular triumphs: the near-beheading of the starling with the stone, the outliving of my father by almost a decade. In view of the way life was going for Charlie, there did not seem too much reason for complaint.
“Well,” he said, “we’ll see you on Sunday, then, Father.” And then, as an afterthought, he said suddenly, “Ah, I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll have John stop by to pick you up.”
“No no,” I said quickly, for John’s parish, in which his father lived, was at the farthest point of the city from mine; the trip would have taken him miles out of his way. “It’s not necessary, Mr. Carmody. I have my car.”
“Not another word, Father!” he cried happily, for he had seen the possibility and was on it like a cat: here, in this needless errand for his son, lay the seeds of another little bonus. “He’ll be there for you with bells on. A nice drive in the open air of a Sunday: there’s nothin’ the boy likes better!”
I thought of the “boy”—who was my own age, almost to the day—wheeling his car through the open air of a large city on a steaming Sunday afternoon in summer; I said, “But Mr. Carmody—”
“Good-bye, Father!” he cried. “And don’t forget old Charlie at the altar now and again. Don’t forget the odd prayer. A man needs all the prayers he can get!” The dusty old voice stopped abruptly; there was a click; old Charlie was gone.
So it was all arranged: I was going to a birthday party. And all the while, as I rose, as I bathed, shaved, dressed, even as I prayed, the question returned, over and over again, drifting in like the soft flow of the morning itself—the question that still was: Why? Not so much why I had been invited—although, the peculiarities of my host considered, that was mysterious enough—but much more to the point, why I had agreed to go. Because these days I was hardly a birthday party man; also, I was not particularly a Charlie man. And, even leaving this to one side, there was the fact that any party of Charlie’s would be, for me, more than a party, a simple family get-together. The familiar setting, the old faces, the old themes, the memories, one after another: for me, it would be nothing less than a trip to the past. And in view of all that’s happened, is such a trip really necessary? Is it even advisable? For now, here in St. Paul’s at least—and at last—I seem to be doing well enough: then why not let well enough alone . . . ?
St. Paul’s: what a strange parish it is, really. Days, even weeks go by, and I don’t even think of this; then, without preparation of any kind, there comes a moment—such as this one, at the beginning of a glorious day—when suddenly all the lights seem to be turned on at once, piercing the comfortable protection of routine, and I am confronted with the cold fact of St. Paul’s. It is called Old St. Paul’s, but there is no New St. Paul’s—the adjective refers only to the age of the parish. The church itself is the perfect mirror of the district: once, three generations ago, active, prosperous, in a way even noble; today, a derelict, full of dust and flaking paint and muttering, homeless, vague-eyed men. This section of the city is dying and so is Old St. Paul’s. In a sense it is hardly a parish at all anymore, but a kind of spiritual waterhole: a halting place for transients in despair. Still, we have our permanent families, those who live and stay here: Syrians, Greeks, some Italians, a few Chinese, the advance guard of the Puerto Ricans—a racial spectrum whose pastor I am. Here the pastor cuts quite a different figure than he does in one of the old, compact, all-Irish parishes. I know those parishes well. I was raised in one; I have in fact been pastor of one. Now I am here—and it should be said that this is hardly regarded as a promotion. Yet I have no complaints, not a single one, for this parish has come to mean something so special to me that I can’t begin to say or explain. . . .
Well, my point is that in those other parishes there does exist, invariably, this peculiar rapport between the priest and the people, and I suppose it springs largely from their knowledge that he is one of them—that he is from their own particular branch of the tree. The result is that whether they love him or fear him or respect him or admire him or distrust him, they are aware of him, he does enter their daily lives, he is a part of them.
In Old St. Paul’s, not so. These people are good people—at least I think they are: after almost a year here, I know them scarcely at all. I say Mass for them (and they come: in fair numbers on a Sunday, very few if any on a weekday); I hear their confessions (despite certain obvious difficulties, for I am no linguist); sometimes I baptize them, marry them, bury them; occasionally I go to their homes on sick calls. There are the formal, necessary points of contact between the shepherd and his flock—beyond them we do not go. They accept me as their priest, but after that they keep their distance—and I must admit (and this is perhaps my fault, my dereliction) that I keep mine. And I must admit this, too: that sometimes, in the rectory, at night, I think with a little longing of the old days and the old ways—because, after all, a man may turn his back on something and still remember it. But these are thoughts that come and go, and not too often at that; for the most part, day in and day out, I know the truth: that this way, the present way, is for me the best way. The work gets done, I don’t neglect my people, and I can truly say this: that here, in this shabby corner, in what is undoubtedly the backwater of the diocese, I am happy. Or, if not happy—what a word that is!—at least content and secure in the pattern of my days. Which is more, far more, than once, not so long ago, I would have thought possible.
So then, why revisit the old days? Why go to see Charlie whooping it up for himself? Why even go to see John and Helen? Nostalgia? Curiosity? Even loneliness? Possibly; probably. Is there any harm in it? No. Is there any point to it? No. Yet all the same, on Sunday I am going to Charlie’s birthday party. . . .
And now I am going to my Mass. . . .