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STEPS OF THE SUN
You plopped down in the still-warm recliner. Your dreamy world. It was supposed to be different than the other world, the one outside your windows, the one where big countries threatened to swallow smaller ones, where people held others hostage at gunpoint, where earthquakes wrenched away people’s tenuous grip on lives, where war stole young men from their families and broke them on its wheel.
Your leg twitched.
It hadn’t been a well-known war. Hell, people didn’t even call it a war. The Korean conflict. Vietnam was the same, but in the popular consciousness, remorse, guilt, protest, and casualties on the evening news had conferred on it the honorary title. Something like a common-law marriage. If it went on long enough, it counted. Vietnam had made a deep contusion on the national consciousness.
Between June, 1950 and June, 1953, a million-and-a-half had been drafted, fewer than for Vietnam, but you had “earned” a 4D classification. You’d been flunking out, not because you went to parties or refused to study, but because you’d never learned to manage time very well. Father O’Connor had pulled strings to get you into the seminary. You told him you had been considering it for some time. And in the interview, you must have said all of the right things. Still, at times it seemed incomprehensible. To be a C.O., you had to prove that your life previous to the draft was consistent with those beliefs. Had yours really been? Though your father had been killed in WWII, and your mother died a year or so later, that didn’t make you exempt. Cancer, they said about her, but you knew it was your father’s death that killed her. And you had vowed privately that you would never, under any circumstances, fight in a war or serve in the military. It didn’t seem like justification for a C.O. -- you hadn’t been against wars on any principle, although you believed killing people was wrong -- it was a grudge, personal, defiant. After ending up in an orphanage and being placed in the hands of the Jesuits, and because there was no one else, you blamed the war.
Later came the mentor who urged you to follow the church and taught you to fish. When Father James popped the lid on his box of flies, the portal to another world opened. Legions of tiny green, brown, blue, and yellow artificial insects packed in a small compartment like a hundred keys that might unlock a hundred doors. Standing in the stream, the current massaged your legs, and the breeze touched with warm spice refreshed your every breath. After releasing a fish, he had turned to you and said, “This is where I talk to God.” And in those moments on the river, it had made sense, a fabulous metaphor glittering with myriad reflections. “See how the trout always face upstream,” Father James said as you stood together on a bank, watching the fish hunkered near the bottom, tails waving, occasionally swimming up, down, or sideways with a bright flash of their bodies before returning to their places. “They constantly look ahead to see what’s coming down the river.”
“Looking ahead for food,” you’d said, peering at the fish, thinking, unlike people, who tend to look behind.
“Yes, that’s right. A trout’s life is about finding food and shelter.”
“So, when you’re fishing, you try to find a fly that looks like the bugs the fish eat.”
“And when you find the right one, you catch a lot of fish.”
“Yes, sometimes you do.”
“If that’s true, I’m surprised there are any fish left. Why haven’t they all been caught?”
“Well, a few reasons. First, there are more fish than you can imagine -- many, many more. Second, it isn’t as if everyone thinks it is important to be out here, not the way I do, the way we do. Some people have no interest in standing where we are right now. Third, even when you match the hatch, as they say, things can change and very quickly; for instance, sometimes the fish suddenly begin to feed on a different insect.”
“Maybe that’s God’s way of protecting them.”
Eventually, you came to believe that in this way was recapitulated the greatest mysteries surrounding the life of faith: nothing static or easy or predictable. On some days it seemed hopeless. With cast after fruitless cast, you thought you would never again feel the energy in that line when connected to a fish. Other times, sweet joy. Jesus. Lovely. The brown and orange speckled beauties pulled from what those who failed to see the thrill in it may simply have seen as water.
What had you known back then that you no longer knew?
Other priests had talked about the “call,” the peculiar circumstance under which one felt summoned to minister. Nearly all of the stories sparkled with passionate urgency and recounted the incredible sense of freedom that accompanied the life of service. A priest had described it as the difference between being a puddle of water and becoming part of a great wave rolling toward some distant shore. You hadn’t had that. Looking back now, it seemed more like responding to an ad on a grocery store bulletin board: “Wanted: Someone to commit to a simple life of narrow possibility. Low pay. Physical intimacy prohibited. Time to read and write. No difficult questions about what to do. Security.” You would have walked past the ad but for the last part. The last part reached out and tapped your shoulder. Then, after a year of assisting Father Gene at one of the larger parishes in the city, after you knew you did not have what it took to manage the day-to-day affairs of one of God’s flocks, you excused yourself from the table, slipped out the back door, and put your face in a book. You had been there ever since, living your life in the second person, watching it all as if in a mirror.