Saints and Sinner
Write your own All Saints sermon, he said, that’s your homework. It doesn’t have to be written down on paper, or typed. And you don’t have to preach it, he said. It’s memories of saints in your own life, people who have meant so much to you. And maybe you knew them personally, but not necessarily.
Most Wednesday evenings at church he gives us homework. I try to take it to heart. So, keeping faith with the sound of the sea, surf crashing on the white sand fifteen stories down, and its fog, this has been the perfect if for me physically, emotionally and mentally wearing, draining, tiring October, nevertheless perfect. Some heat, some chill Florida Gulf Coast mornings, some fog, one big storm, lots of sunshine. This condo, a haven at the end of each exhausting day, incredibly welcoming, ineffably an escape, an oasis, like arriving at St. Peter’s Gate, what a gift and blessing for the two of us.
But my saints, eh? Many live saints, there are hundreds of thousands still, for the saints of God are just folk like me. For my homework, though, I’ll admit a few, all behind the veil that is One Way only, behind from which Harry Potter heard voices, but from whence no one could be brought back. And if you went there to get them, you yourself could not return.
Maybe you wouldn’t want to.
Memories only then, and only those I knew personally. As my mother on the undertaker’s gurney, wrapped except for her face, wheeled slowly out into a drizzly Sunday morning, paused for my final goodbye with a blessing and the sign of the cross on her forehead. No one we really knew and loved was perfect, but for a moment of All Saints, we can remember only what was. From my mother: life.
The Reverend Thomas Dorgan Byrne, the only real Father Tom, who was rector of St. Andrew’s, Panama City during the high school years when I needed a saint, who saw in me what I’m still looking for and hoping God sees even though I cannot.
Father Fred. The Reverend Fred Yerkes, for many years Archdeacon of the Diocese of Florida, who actually welcomed even me to his staff of camp counselors two or three summers. A kind, patient servant of God who still remembered me thirty-five years after. What comes to mind about that last magical summer? One boy’s mother sent him a package of sandwiches for our group. Everyone ate what we wanted, then he set the box with the remainder outside on the step. In the wee hours I, the counselor, woke to the sound of paper rustling and the familiar, strong scent of a Florida night: a mother skunk and her half dozen or so kits, fragrantly, ravenously devouring what was left of our box of sandwiches. Father Fred has joined the saints triumphant behind the veil; I wonder about all those who were in my group that summer of 1953 before I went off to college and the rest of my life.
Father Fred had a car that he shared with my friend Jack Dennis and me. A black 1951 Chevrolet Fleetline, it was parked in my garage out back for decades, the garage door ajar, and from time to time over the years I’d peer in the window at it. The last time I looked, it was gone. I wonder if it’s parked in the circular drive in front of my mansion? Along with that Olds Cutlass. And the red Duesenberg. No, the Olds is still out there. But the Duesy and the Chevy?
Can what was happen again beyond the veil, like playing a song again and again?
But saints. And Jack. Jack Dennis. Everett Jackson Dennis. His father died when I was a freshman at Florida and Jack was a senior at Pensacola High School. The next year, Jack went off to Sewanee, which I think either Bishop Juhan or Henry Bell Hodgkins covered, and then the Navy. Last time I saw Jack was 1966, in Washington while we also were there after our Japan tour; a Naval officer like me, he was in charge of a project putting a battleship back into commission for service in the Vietnam War. Best and closest friends in our high school days Jack and I assumed we’d be priests together. I’ll never know why Jack didn’t and wasn't. I’ll never know why I did and am. The saint and the sinner.
I’ll bet Jack is who took Father Fred’s car out of my garage. ὁ ἀναγινώσκων νοείτω