"What an absolutely gorgeous morning!" I thought to myself as I drove through the seemingly endless expanse of corn fields and pumpkin patches that border either side of this harsh, barren, concrete line I casually refer to as "the 5". Everything I see, the patchwork land, a few large, majestic oaks, and the occasional farmhouse roof, are all gilded by sunlight, breaking through the foothills then refracted through a blanket of dew thrown down just hours before.
Today's journey will be long. Driving, flying from the township with a population of one thousand, one hundred and fourteen; where I, along with one thousand, one hundred and thirteen other people, are referred to with disgust as BATs -- Bay Area Transplants -- by the natives of this agricultural paradise better known as the Central Valley. On any given weekday, you'll find swarms of worker bees dispersing from here to various parts of the San Francisco metropolitan area, where they'll collect their nectar in the guise of paychecks, then come back buzzing like drones to their identical track homes, as uniformed as the hexagonal cells of a honey comb.
However, today is not one of those days. Today is Saturday. Yet the place I'm going is just as foreign to my little hamlet as the metropolitan madhouse I migrate to during the week. My destination is a city of two hundred thousand plus people, with a higher crime rate per capita than any other city in this good ole U. S. of A., a large glass and concrete island, isolated in a sea of lush bright green and dark yellow farmland.
As I exit the interstate, the realization of my day hits me like a ninety-five mile an hour fast ball right to the ole noggin. The euphoria of this glorious morning knocked clean away by the fears that kept me up through a long and sleepless night. I park my truck and look across the street at the cold, angular, gray stone structure that is my destination. A wave of nausea hits me for no apparent reason. I open my door and take a deep breath of the crisp December morning air.
The ride took 17 minutes.
"Steeevie, Steeevie, Steeevie," Robert said with his usual overabundance of enthusiasm. "Guess today is the biggest day of our lives!"
"Guess not, Bobby boy," I said with a mock enthusiasm that only he could not see through. No matter how many times I've told him that my name is Stephen, I prefer Steve... and hate Stevie, he always gives me the same pat response: "Oh sorry, Stevie boy. Won't happen again."
I could never understand Robert's perspective. He has always looked upon this day as though it would be the greatest day of his life. By far, the greatest day of my life was the day I married Ann, followed closely by births of our children, Denise, Paul and Michelle. Robert has a wife and a daughter, but ever since he was accepted into this class, his studies have become the most important thing in his life.
Robert's wife Maggie was as quiet and uninvolved as they come, never interacting much when she came to our group functions&which wasn't very often. Her primary focus was their daughter Crystal, who was a bratty, high-maintenance Prima Donna who always whined until she got her way. Come to think of it, I could understand why Robert didn't seem to like being at home. And if I was Maggie, and had to live with Crystal (and Robert for that matter) 24/7, I think I'd be looking for any excuse to spend as much time away as possible too.
With Robert off to greet another poor victim, I crossed the street, walked up the steep, polished stone steps of St. Mary's Cathedral, then entered through its massive, finely carved mahogany doors. I could feel the temperature drop by about 15 degrees. The high vaulted ceiling, the great expanse of dingy white marble, made this church nearly impossible to heat during the winter. But for the same reason, this church was a great place to come during the summer. It was the only place that the poor could go on those dry and dusty, hot summer days to stay cool.
Whenever I entered this church, I felt I was going back in time. The stained-glass slits-for-windows high above, the ornate dust covered statuary, the wrought iron chandeliers dangling overhead and a smell that reeked of just plain old old, which whisked you back to the end of the dark ages. Oh, and that smell was old. The smell of burnt candle wax, burnt spicy incense, and the dank, damp smell of musty air gave you the impression of being in a church that was six hundred years old, rather than sixty.
"Stephen! Come here. I want to have a word with you."
Sister Mary Joseph was a Benedictine nun who retired from St. Ignatius Catholic High School, located on the rich side of the city, where she had been principal for fifteen years and a teacher for a bazillion years before that. For the last nine years, she's been Director of Religious Formation in our diocese. She is 4'10", ninety-two pounds soaking wet, eighty-six years young, with a mind as nimble as someone half her age, the face of someone twice as old&and the bark and bite of a twenty-five year old Marine drill instructor,
"Well young man, how did you sleep last night?" Everyone under the age of seventy was a "young man" to Sister Mary Joseph. "You look terrible." She spoke with her signature gravelly voice, yet somehow it was a little softer this time. "Are you still concerned as to whether you should be here today or not?"
"Sister, I didn't sleep a wink. All I could think about was where is my life supposed to go, and why am I doing this. With my history and lack of academic background, I can't understand how I could possibly still be here."
"Come with me." Sister said, "I want to have a word with you in private."
We walked back to and through the vestibule to a little known side chapel that was unoccupied. Sister Mary Joseph closed the door behind us, then motioned me with her frail, veiny hand to sit in the closest pew on the right. She sat down in the pew on the left.
"Stephen, I want to tell you the reason why you are here. Do you remember the interview you had with the board about two years ago?"
"Do I remember? How could I forget? That was one on the most nerve racking moments of my life."
"Well Stephen, for all intensive purposes, you should have been dismissed after that interview. You were defiant, somewhat belligerent, and were missing no less than twenty percent of your assignments. However, when it came to the point where we had to make our decision, which we did after much prayer and reflection, none of us on the board felt comfortable with letting you go. It just didn't feel right. As though God had touched all of our hearts at once, telling us directly that you are to be his servant. You are the only candidate that I know for sure that is supposed to be here."
"But Sister, that was two years ago. How could you possibly know now?"
"Because you are the only one here today that's still questioning whether he is supposed to be here. Your uncertainty is my certainty."
Sister Mary Joseph spryly jumped up from the pew and headed toward the door. As she opened it, she turned around to see me still sitting in my pew.
"Stephen, get up, put on your alb and head into the vestibule.
"You're about to become a deacon."