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Starting Point

Peewee: the poor man with a million-dollar laugh


Peewee is a layman. We work together here in the monastery, in an old barn where we store our bonsai pots. We had a major fire in the that area last November, and since the fire, we have needed all the help we can get.

We wrap and ship bonsai pots and other accessories to places near and far. Peewee was in need of a job and came several months ago. There is an old familiar saying, usually spoken with glad surprise when a friends presence brightens ones doorway: Well, look what the wind blew in.

In our case, it might just as well be said that the wind of the fire that night in November kept on blowing long after the flames were put out. But bad winds turned good. A lot of goodness has come our way since that night. Fires have died. The winds still blow. They brought Peewee.

He works hard and happily. I like to hear him laugh. He can brighten a rainy day with joy when he laughs.

In a recent article, the late singer Frank Sinatra was quoted as saying that he often heard music in his head and was mystified as to where such beauty came from. I at times experience such music, too, but there are times these days when laughter as well enters my mind. Peewee’s laugh rings in my ears and lingers long after he has gone home, and makes me smile.

He does not have much money and has not traveled many places. I do not know if he envies those who have. He has never said so. He seems possessed of a gift that has afforded him great pleasure in immediate localities. He is the kind of person who takes a delight in the simple things of life. I like to hear him speak of such things.

His laugh makes me wonder about what it means to be human.

We suffer from a strange version of the ideal human as complete, self-contained, fulfilled, and satisfied. We strive to reach that goal. The road to the attainment of this self is, for many of us, believed to be found through wealth. One can walk that road if one can afford it. Such a road seems to be always just ahead of us, as if on a receding horizon that never comes closer or gives way to our weary feet. No matter what we buy or what we think or who we ask directions from as we seek this road to completeness, we never find it. And we never seem to take a good look at those around us looking for the same road. All the lonely people, as once sang the Beatles.

Peewee will never walk such a road. He is well on the way to somewhere else and laughing all the way.

Not long ago, I and saw Peewee sitting in a cart we use to transport pots and soil. It was a cool fall day and he was on his lunch break, reading a book. I said hi as I passed, and he looked up and smiled. Later, I had to use the vehicle. He had left the book on the front seat. It was a book of devotions to Mary. I have long thought there are many ways to God, and long before we ever think of using the mind to draw near to him, he has preceded our attempts. He precedes our thoughts through human warmth, beauty, longing and laughter. All of these things are of the road to God.

I suppose Peewee thinks me a religious man, and considers as well this monastery a religious place. I know he has thought about heaven and also know he is no stranger to the hard road.and to heartbreak. I hope his love for God deepens through his devotion, his reading and prayers.

Yes, I think about God. And, yes, this place is special. I suppose my being a part of it involves me in something religious. Yet, it continues to be for me such a thinky enterprise, a road of words and rituals and meetings and elevated discourse -- things that in their own way do what any enterprise does: offers a guaranteed or at least hoped-for exchange.

But something in the very depths of our humanity bids us stop, look down at our very feet, at the road we are all on, this day and tomorrow.

Peewees laughter, his light heart and joy invites me to listen to something of God.

The laughter of Peewee echoes in me. It laughs in that place in me that is incomplete and in need of God. I want room for that kind of grace, that kind of laughter. I want always to be empty enough to hear it, hope for it, cherish it. And to keep on walking.

The road to heaven is toll-free. There is no getting it or even losing it. It is ours as we live. We find it when we live from our incompleteness and our need for each other. It is an easy road to find. One of the signs to it is laughter.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998