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Starting Point

Finding God on Saturday in the city


Saturday morning in Brighton, Mass., I was feeling just a bit blue, perhaps even overwhelmed by the concentration and concerns of academic and religious pursuits. I was a long way from home and a supportive and loving wife named Patsy. No matter how important the task, it is often easy to become so obsessed with goals as to be burdened by them. This can be true in any occupation, even as a religious educator or pastoral minister. One of my professors once asked his class if it were possible to lose one’s soul to the church and I must admit to being in agreement with him that it is.

The night before, in a lengthy phone call, my rut was shaken by the challenge of a friend back home in Mississippi. It was clear from our conversation that I was spending too much time secluded in my little fourth-floor room, studying and writing. I attended classes and returned immediately to my room. My friend reminded me not to take myself so seriously. “What about the promise you made to yourself to get out occasionally and enjoy a really nice glass of wine?” she asked. (That’s the wonderful problem with friends like Lorie -- they take you seriously when you say something like this!)

As I began my walk in search of a barber, a feeling of optimism seemed to well up in me. I asked a man if he could he tell me where to find a barber in the neighborhood. Though not from Brighton, he pointed me in the right direction, which corresponded with his own goals of the day -- he was headed to the Boston College-Syracuse football game. For about five minutes we walked together, laughed and shared tiny pieces of the stories of our lives.

As I peeled off toward the barbershop, he wished me well: “Good luck, Mississippi!”

The shop itself was a warm, inviting place, exactly the type of place my father took my brother and me when we were kids. It had three chairs and two barbers who obviously knew everyone who entered the door and half of the passersby.

My barber was a chatterbox. In his first paragraph he asked how I wanted my hair and launched into his philosophy of life and family. He has a 12-year-old daughter who is the light of his life. He must speak of her often, since an elderly patron stopped in just to say hello and to inquire about her.

The barber and I made all sorts of connections regarding life, work, people and the fickle New England weather that was unexpectedly treating us to a breezy warmth but would soon enough blast us with icy winds and snow. It was good to be sitting in that chair. It was good to allow the sacramental nature of simple, everyday tasks to intrude upon my worries. This man was not just cutting my hair, he was reconciling me again to God and God’s creation. We shook hands afterward and I would have paid much more than he asked, but I am not sure I was carrying enough to reimburse him for the worth of the experience.

It came to my attention that there was a liquor store a few steps from the barbershop. Wandering through the dusty rows of wines, I was glad to see that there were several interesting bottles that were not expensive -- a doctoral student’s dream. Placing a bottle of Chilean red wine on the counter, I began to browse further. This seemed to surprise the clerk and initiated another unexpected encounter. “You’re a looker, huh?” he said. I admitted to the truth, and commented on my enjoyment of tasting and studying wines in spite of my tight budget as a middle-aged graduate student.

Another new world opened as the man spoke affectionately of his son who is about my age and is completing doctoral work in chemistry. He beamed with pride as he spoke of how his son provided for his family and pursued his academic work simultaneously. We introduced ourselves. This was Mel, the store’s owner, and he was proud to say that he had been in this location longer than I had inhabited the world.

Walking toward home and my fourth-floor room, I was struck by the simple goodness of life. It was a quiet moment of celebration and gratitude. Years ago, Karl Rahner wrote that the true significance of sacraments is not that they are a hiding place to escape the world, but that they confirm the innate goodness of the world. In our celebration of the sacraments, we remember again that all of God’s creation is a graced horizon, a stage of sacramentality. The activities of our day are sacred. If we are called away from them for prayer, it is only because we must be renewed in our appreciation of their sacred nature.

As Psalm 46 says, “God is in the midst of the city.” That includes the sidewalk, the football game, the barbershop and even the liquor store. I cannot help but think of them as a catechism from which we learn of the goodness of God. Lorie was right: I need to get out more often.

John Switzer is pursuing a Ph.D. at Boston College Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. His e-mail address is switzerj@bc.edu

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001