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Starting Point

He rode his bike through town, delivering a gift of happiness


There was a row of shops not far from the house in which I grew up. Many needs were met by those small stores: food, dry cleaning, a drug store, barbershops, a paper store, a small Chinese restaurant.

Benny rode his bike near the shops every day. His bike had a large metal basket on the front wheel fender and in that basket Benny placed the goods he was sent to deliver by the various owners of the shops. There were days when his basket was so full that his front wheel wobbled. He never seemed to mind those times when he had a full load. Other days he had less to deliver, and his bike was far easier to balance.

When I knew him, Benny was about 50 years old. He was mentally impaired. His world was that bike and the places it took him. I used to see him in other parts of town on Sundays, riding around with an empty basket. I did not know where he lived, and the thought never crossed my mind as to who cared for him.

He always waved to everyone he passed and smiled at people he did not recognize. Many on our street knew him and tipped him when he made deliveries to their homes. His life was one of very simple and modest exchange. I suppose the storeowners paid him something. Little did I realize then the remarkable quality of a particular good he delivered to anyone who was fortunate enough to be on his route.

He was a happy man.

I moved from that area, and it was not long before I found myself in a much larger market space. I was becoming a part of a world where success and happiness meant very narrow things. It was and is a world where the slow paced and ungifted would quickly fall behind, never to catch up. It is a world in which so many people have so much they thought would bring them happiness, but they feel an aching emptiness.

Benny did not know about such things. All he had were his bike, his deliveries, the streets and people he loved. His life seemed full with these simple things. In a sense, the basket of his life was never empty.

So I grew up, moved away, became a priest and 20 years later moved back to my old neighborhood. I was assigned to a small parish not far from where I used to see Benny.

Many of the shops had changed. They were bigger and certainly not as quaint-looking. I cannot remember if I thought of Benny in those first years I was assigned to the parish.

One day a call came in. A man had passed away, and his family asked that our church handle the services. The funeral director told our secretary that the family had taken in the deceased many years ago and cared for him till he died. It was Benny.

I said the Mass and afterward went to the home of the family who cared for him. They filled me in on Benny and how he had fared those 20 years. As he aged, he stopped delivering but would still ride, still wave, still smile at strangers. They said he was such a gift to them because he was a happy man.

I suppose that many passed Benny by in more ways than one. I do not think he looked at folks who passed him in that way. He kept on riding. We all kept on riding, though in different ways.

If there is a Paradise, and if Benny is an angel, he now has a mind unimpaired. He can look back on his life and see what he may have missed, but also what he found: happiness and the joy of riding through life and giving it away.

If there is a Paradise, we on earth are a bit of a ride away from it. But there are those who pass through our lives, telling us how to get there. Some may walk into our lives. Others may come by plane or car.

A precious few will come by bike.

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

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999