A loving arm around me
By JAMES STEPHEN BEHRENS
The first roller coaster I saw was the Cyclone at Coney Island, N.Y. I was in kindergarten and my mom and dad took my sisters and brothers and me to the amusement park. The roller coaster was enormous. I watched the cars ascend that first long track and stared in awe as it slowed at the very top and then plunged downward and roared and rolled its way through the rest of the ride. The people in the car screamed at that first descent. Some raised their arms above their heads as the car sped down. I was too young and scared to ride it. But I envied those who did.
Some years later I took my first ride on the Zephyr roller coaster in New Orleans. I was older and held on tight to the safety bar as the car began its ascent. It paused just for a moment at the top of the first hill and then headed down. It was fast, furious, and cheap enough that I rode a few more times. I felt like a veteran, but never did let go of the bar.
After I was ordained a priest I used to take kids to Seaside Heights at the New Jersey Shore and there was a ride called the Mouse. It was not as big as the Cyclone or Zephyr but it was a fast and hair-raising ride. There was a long ascent and then all the thrills as the small car careened its way through the rest of the ride. I rode it a lot with the kids, and even though I was more seasoned and relaxed in the experience of terror, I never let go of the bar.
Not long before I moved away from New Jersey, I walked the boardwalk at Seaside Heights. I was alone that day. It was late spring and a gray day, the kind of day when thoughts tend to gather, as clouds do. I was about to move to Georgia and a new life and a lot was going through my mind and heart. I felt in between places in my life, not unlike that spot at the top of the roller coaster where there is no other option but to hold on tight and head down.
The rides were being readied by their owners for the soon to be arriving summer crowds. I walked onto the pier and headed toward the Mouse and watched as the operator, a young guy, tested the ride. His young son was with him. They rode it several times. The father had become so used to the ride and so secure with all its turns that it was old hat to him. But it was obviously new to the little boy. As the car ascended, the boy attempted to raise his arms but his dad gently put them back on the bar. The car reached the top, the father put one arm around his son, and off they went. It was a pleasure to watch.
Life is a ride. In many ways I still hold fast to the bar. But in my better moments I know that there is a loving arm around me, too, for the whole ride.
Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga.
National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001