When I was perhaps ten years old my mother and father, devout Catholics who sought a deeper and more intimate spiritual experience than just their parish life, began attending meetings of the Third Order of Saint Francis, one of the many tertiary clans in the Church; the first two Orders being men and women who have sworn vows and belong to one of Catholicism’s many congregations of priests, monks, brothers, and sisters.
As regards the actual tenets of the Third Order of Saint Francis, and the depth and length of my parents’ commitment to it, and exactly where and how long my younger brothers and I went with my mother and father to the meetings, I have not a clue, although I can guess that simplicity and service were the watchwords of the day, what with that most admirable man Francis’s name engraved on the enterprise. But it is not the Order and its long history that fascinates me this morning; it is the fact that my mom and dad, then in their forties, working furiously to house and feed and protect and educate and elevate their many children, would happily add two or three hours to their duties every week or two, simply to go deeper into their faith.
We would drive to some unfamiliar church or school, two or three towns away, and make our way to the basement—always it was a basement, as if returning in spirit to the catacombs in which the Christian cult began so long ago—and there we would part, our parents into the meeting, and us boys into the nether chambers of the unfamiliar school. Often we would be nominally stationed in the library, or a classroom, where we would wait decorously until we were sure the meeting was up and running, at which point we would slip away to explore; I suppose my brothers and I ranged more freely in Catholic schools on Long Island than any other boys we knew, voyaging through teachers’ break rooms, and principals’ offices, and janitorial storerooms, and fraught haunted chapels, and even the occasional low-ceilinged gymnasium, where the floors shone alluringly, and we skated hilariously and silently in our socks.
Those dusty school basements, with their ubiquitous scents of stale coffee and linoleum wax and unknown schoolchildren; the clank and clatter of metal folding chairs, ever so slightly rusted, and never to be oiled in this life; the fat plastic smell of day-old doughnuts and the big buttery boxes in which they rattled; the beam and heft of the occasional Franciscan friar, and the wisp and grin of the occasional Franciscan nun; the hat-racks on which the men hung their fedoras and Irish caps, and the coatracks on which the women carefully draped their raincoats and lovely pastel overcoats; the motley other Third Order children we studiously avoided, as we ranged about the unfamiliar school, free and independent for exactly as long as the meeting lasted; I remember this all now faintly and clearly at once, all vague and sepia and almost forgotten except for a sudden crisp detail—skating in our socks!For many years the sort of writer I was would revel and relish in those details, and tease them out, and so defeat time, reclaim some of the existence we are so sure is lost with age; but now the sort of writer I am is staring not at the happy footloose boys but the weary gentle parents.
A woman and a man in their forties, avid and energetic members of their parish, with one small income between them, with four children in Catholic school and one more on the way, regularly surrender three hours of their weekend, so that they may more deeply explore a faith devoted to the revolutionary idea that Christ is resident in every heart, that miracles are not only possible but prevalent and accessible, that every living being is evidence of grace, and that every being, in a real sense, is potentially a priest, standing as awed witness and celebrant of divine love loose in this world. They took their faith so seriously, so happily, so thoroughly, so deeply, not merely as religion, but as compass point and lodestar, that I find I cannot take it any less seriously, not if I love and revere them, as I do.
Whenever I grow dark about my Church, and go gray at the gills about its addiction to power and greed, its corporate smirk about the lost and helpless, the very souls it was created to succor, I remember my mother and father herding us three youngest boys into the station wagon, on a Sunday afternoon, when we would have rather done anything else in the world except drive two towns over to the Third Order of Saint Francis meeting. Perhaps they too drove to the meeting a bit reluctantly, half-wishing they could stay home and nap, or garden, or watch the game, or repair the storm windows, or read Ernie Pyle in the hammock, but they went. Probably the best lessons we teach our children are not the ones for which we use words; perhaps those are the lessons the children never forget. As you see.