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Starting Point

Learning wisdom through living it


When I worked in New York some years back, the company I worked for sent me to computer school at the New York University branch on West 42nd Street. I went all summer long. I took several courses, one of which was Assembler and that is, or at least was back then, “machine” language -- the language closest to how the computer commands were written.

It was very difficult for me, learning arcane computer gobbledygook. I had limited access to a computer, which did not help. My teacher was Professor Broadbar, and he lectured every morning from 10 till 12. I took copious notes. I bought books. I took more notes and bought more books. But hands-on computer use was rare. In the afternoon I took the subway back to the office at Kidder-Peabody and did what little homework I could on whatever computer there was available.

My head was overflowing with Assembler-related terminology. But when it came to really understanding it, I was a below-borderline idiot.

Come September I returned to work full-time with my certificate and was assigned writing a simple program. I tried, and it bombed. I tried to fix the problems, and it bombed again.

Ed Bradley, who worked at Kidder, saw me going back and forth with the printout of my failure in my arms. The printout was a multi-page directory of computer language that I could not read. Its code lay where I had goofed but I could not make any sense of it. He came over and asked if he could help. “Sure,” I said. And he sat down next to me and with a red felt marker went over each page with the patience of a saint. He smoked, and an occasional gray ash fell onto the page he was working on. I gently wiped it away.

“You’ll get the hang of it by the doing,” he said. “You can read and read about this stuff but you will know more than the books by failures and successes. The machine itself will teach you. There. I fixed this program. Just keep at it, and I am never farther away than a tap on my shoulder.”

I ran the program again, and it worked. I wrote more programs and slowly learned a lot. I was not aware I was learning anything, but Ed was right. The engagement with the machine did the trick.

I will always be grateful to Ed. He stayed late several nights helping me meet deadlines. I have read a lot of books about life and love, God and monasticism, trying to figure out the machine language that is the goodness of life. And yet when I put the books down, I remember Ed and his wisdom -- life gives us its wisdom through the living of it. And Ed taught me by his kind-hearted generosity that being helpful to others in need is at the heart of the way God’s assembler language works. Life is enhanced, eased, beautified and warmed with learning how to be of help to other people -- and learning how to ask for it.

The least I could do for Ed as he helped me was to keep clean the page he was working on. He would mumble a “thanks” with each pass of my hand over the strange looking symbols he was marking with red ink as I cleared the page of ashes from his cigarette.

When I left Kidder, Ed knew I was returning to the priesthood after a two-year leave. I made a point of thanking him for all he had done for me.

“Now you go from fixing programs to fixing souls,” he said. “I am glad you asked me to help you a while back. We all need our goofs. They are how we learn. It’s the only way God has of getting through to us with his love. It does not come from books.”

I never thought of myself as a fixer of souls -- but because of Ed and so many like him, I have tried to take to heart that the learning of life is in the loving. It is the closest I have come to God-language. God is in and through it all, from the marking of some of our pages in red, and the wiping away of smudges, until we get it right and running -- all through the living of it.

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

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002