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Starting Point

Present as love to all times and all places


His name I cannot remember, though his face is as vivid to me as it was when I last saw him. He was 9 years old back then, so he would be about 34 years old now. I wonder if I would recognize him. I hope he is doing well.

He came to early Mass with his mother almost every morning. They sat in the first pew, and I soon realized that she was coaching him to be an altar boy. She poked him every few minutes to make sure he caught this or that routine.

The morning came for the first meeting for altar boys, and his mother dropped him off before any of the other kids arrived. She told me that he was so eager to serve Mass, but that he was very nervous and she worried that he might not get along with the other kids. I asked her why, and she said that he was a loner.

He was so friendly with me and eager to please. I noticed that he did keep his distance from the other kids.

Over the months that followed, he always showed up on time and could not do enough for me. He desperately needed to do and be right. I sensed that something was hurting in his life.

I asked the pastor about the boy. The pastor sighed and told me that the boy’s father drank and that he had been arrested several times for beating his wife. I then understood the need of their son to find a warm spot in his life. Other things I had noticed then became clearer to me. The little boy looked undernourished and sad, even though he smiled. It was the kind of smile that was asking for something, asking for help and recognition. Asking for more attention and love than his parents were then able to give him.

Several weeks ago, I thought about him. His face simply “arrived” in my mind’s eye one morning as I sat in church. I could think of nothing that would have summoned his face. And yet it was so clear to me.

I thought back on those first months after I met him. He did fine as an altar boy and then for some reason moved away, and I never saw him again.

That little boy was a window through which I saw someone who exists in each of us.

It is said that human pain is an invariant. It is one of the few constants that all people experience. To suffer pain is to be human. Pain is not only something that happens to us, as if getting hit by it from the outside. At a more lived and fundamental level, pain is very much a part of how we simply are.

We are estranged from God and each other and most of the time we hide that well, especially in our own culture. We are hit from all sides with the message that pain is abnormal. We assume that when and where it exists, pain can be eradicated if we take the right medication, find the right therapist, think the right way, find the right group, read the right book, listen the right way. And so we smile our way from therapy to therapy, from dream to dream, all the while feeling oddly distanced from that ever-present sense about ourselves that we are not quite at home here and that something about that hurts.

That little boy’s face spoke volumes to me. In it I saw the hurt of his mother and the pain of his father, a man and woman whose anger and hurt scarred a young life. I know they never meant that to happen.

He was hurting and he smiled and so wanted to please. He was young enough to attempt to negotiate with the new and fresh experiences that were flooding into his young life. There were places that were good and holy and not hurtful -- like the church. And he would go to there and to school, to playgrounds, asking for something and not understanding quite what, asking out of hurt.

Dorothy Day believed with all her heart that prayer could change everything in time -- even the past. I was astounded when I read that, and the more I thought about it, the more fantastic it seemed to me. She was a firm believer in the fantastic. She believed in God who is present as love to all times and all places -- as God was and is to that little boy.

So I prayed. I prayed for him as I remembered him. I prayed for his parents as I remembered them. And I prayed that God be good to them.

Wherever that boy is, he is now a man. When he looks back on his past, may his gaze be softened by love. May he see his parents as God does. May he know how hard it is for each of us to know and give love when there is pain and anguish. And if he has children, may they be happy with a father who somehow grew to be a man who loves more and more the older he gets.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001