To an uncanny degree, the last two pastors of my old parish — barring an interrim guy who deserves more attention than I can afford him here — resembled characters from HBO’s adaptation of Generation Kill. Fr. F, dead ringer for J.P. Ransone’s wired Humvee driver, yielded his place to Fr. R, long-lost twin to Chance Kelly’s grouchy battalion commander. In this coincidence, I’ve found meaning, even a moral: beneath the placid forms of parish life, wars rage.
No need to tell me — I’m going to have to work a little harder for my Pulitzer. But what’s been obvious to every cradle Catholic since her first ministry coup became earth-shaking, paradigm-shifting news to me one summer evening about three years ago, when I came within a whim of punching someone’s lights out in the name of what I considered good religion.
This could be a long story or a short one. To do justice to all the players, especially me, I’ll have to tell the long version. The man — for our purposes, “Don” — who nearly fell victim to my flash mob of one, was one of the parish’s heavy hitters, a leader in the RCIA program, and from what I was able to gather, floating advisor or supervisor to several others. Though in his late 30s — about three or four years older than I was then — he managed to retain in his mien and carriage the spring of a Eagle Scout.
Don’s RCIA presentations were lively; he went off script to engage at length with any candidates who had questions or comments. Looking back, I realize that most of those candidates were me. Planted deep in a cube farm at a bank’s corporate headquarters, where custom discouraged discussing things like Incarnations, I was overjoyed at finding anyone willing to be a captive audience.
it was with a certain disappointment, then, that I realized Don and I could not be friends. This became apparent one evening when I joined him for after-Mass drinks. We sat with Don’s parish cronies. Like Don, all of them were aging singles. Also like Don, all of them poured their spare time into ministry. I wasn’t expecting a fast crowd, but even I was a little taken aback when Don informed the crew, “I saw the Harold and Kumar sequel over the weekend. It was pornographic.”
A gray-headed woman named Peggy nodded furiously. “I went with him. It was just disgusting.” Wrinkling her nose, she described some scene involving mayonnaise. When I glanced at Don, I saw he was wrinkling his nose, too. A review of “predictable,” “mindless” or even “jejeune” would have won my sympathy, but what I’d heard proved that Don and I occupied moral and aesthetic universes separated by an unbridgeable distance.
And so I began the awkward and painful business of blowing Don off. I cut our after-class chats shorter and shorter. When I spotted him across the courtyard, I’d smile, wave and turn away abruptly. When he caught me in a crowd, I’d shake his hand, exchange a pleasantry or two, and return to my conversation. My replies to the two or three e-mails he sent were brief and vague, and I let a day or so pass before sending them off, trusting the lag to deliver my message.
But Don wouldn’t take the cue. Rather than revert to a strictly pro forma relationship, as most people would have done, he continued to treat me as though we shared some especially close connection. Ubiquitous were the bright-eyed grins, the hearty “Hey, Max!,” the halfback-like dashes through crowds to proffer a hand. When I responded as coolly as good manners allowed, I saw hurt in Don’s eyes. But I also saw something else: resolve. He wore the look of a man who prided himself on not caving in easily.
I found it deeply unnerving, mainly because I found it inexplicable. Emotionally stable and socially skilled, Don in no way resembled my mental picture of a glommer-onner. I’d ridden in cars alone with him on a couple of occasions and never caught the slightest hint of sexual interest, which ruled out the other obvious motive. After some months of ducking and running and thinking, I finally arrived at what struck me as the beginning of a good hypothesis: Having served the parish in so many capacities for over a decade, Don claimed a proprietary stake in the place, as well as the attention of all the people in it. He would suffer no one to high-hat him, certainly not some newb who had yet to be admitted to the Sacraments.
The notion seemed to fit, and affected my perceptions of Don. His energy and devotion to service came to seem less like the marks of a Boy Scout and more like those of a hall monitor or office toady. But none of that would have tempted me to raise my hand against him had we not found ourselves on opposite sides of a matter of Church discipline. About 15 months after my baptism, our associate pastor announced a drastic personnel shake-up. In a year’s time, the religious clergy who’d staffed the place would be out; priests from the diocese would be in. It was generally supposed that the new management would change the spirit of the parish out of all recognition, and in an unwelcome direction.
After the dismissal, the crowd trickled out of the chapel and into the sticky blackness of a monsoon-season evening. Like workers who have been informed of massive layoffs, people huddled for strength in small groups, talking in low voices. Looking back now, I realize that not everyone was entirely sold on the gloom — every cluster had its yea-sayer — but none played the part with as much zest as Don. As I try to reconstruct his appearance, I see a gleam in his eye bright enough to reflect off his teeth, and a bounce in his step worthy of a man on Red Bull. Don was not merely resigned, not simply content to wait and see; the man was jazzed, a reveler among mourners.
And determined to spread the wealth, zealous for converts. Darting from group to group, Don delivered a letter-perfect disquisition on why the change would be for the better, how nobody had anything to worry about. Numbed to dumbness, people stared back through bleary eyes and nodded. Then Don bounded over to me. I don’t believe he actually flashed me a thumb’s-up, but the gesture would have articulated his mood perfectly.
The shock of the news having shorted out my judgment, I found myself wanting, for the first time in many months, to engage Don in what Catholics like to call dialogue. I wanted to make him understand just what it was that so many people feared: that our laid-back, matey little church home would suffer from being stamped by our bishop’s formal, austere, rather authoritarian style. At the time, unfortunately, I had none of those words. The one I did have, and attempted to use as a shorthand, turned out to be the worst possible choice.
“Well, you know, Don, I said. “The bishop is really conservative….”
Don’s face contorted as it had at the mention of Harold and Kumar. “The bishop’s not conservative,” he snapped, cutting me off for the first time in our acquaintance. “The bishop’s orthodox. These people here” — he gestured sweepingly at the parishioners shuffling into the parking lot — “are nothing but a bunch of liberals.”
It was the voice of a man whose faction has prevailed after a long and bitter fight. It suddenly occurred to me that Don wasn’t simply playing the commissar when he plugged the change to people who were emotionally underequipped to resist; he was having a one-man ecclesial tailgate party. In the real world, gloating before fans of the losing team is the kind of thing that can earn a person a punch in the face, I thought, so why should it do any less here? With the reflexes of a three-toed sloth, I am generally pretty useless with my fists, but at that moment I realized that my rapidly mounting rage and my New York cussedness would have sufficed to send Don to the hospital.
Just as I felt my hands trembling from the adrenaline boost, something or someone distracted Don. Suddenly frightened and shamed by my thoughts, I voted for flight over fight. By the time Don turned back, I was buckled into my car and pulling out into the alley.
It was, of course, the right thing to do. An ass-beating in a church parking lot is just a religious war writ small. Worse still for my purposes, inflicting physical pain on Don would only have served to reinforce the self-image he cherished. “All men will hate you because of Me,” he’d surely have quoted as the ER doctors checked him for a deviated septum. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” he’d have said while waving away the prescription for OxyCodone.
It would have been useless to explain to him that he was no martyr, that hating and Jesus had had nothing to do with anything. No man who sees pornography in Harold and Kumar or imposes fellowship like a court order possesses the intellectual framework for understanding that he has earned his ill-use entirely on his own, by acting like a complete box of tools.
What I did do was describe the scene in a piece I wrote that was later quoted in the Arizona Republic. Though I didn’t mention Don’s name, he recognized himself and e-mailed me his complaints about being “quoted out of context by the media.” To his credit, he did not say “liberal media.”
I wish I could say I never spoke to Don again, but that would not, alas, be the truth. About 18 months after our failed dialogue, by which time I’d left the parish, I showed up after Mass one Sunday evening, hoping to catch up with some old friends. Poking my head inside the emptying chapel, I saw some, and went over to say hello. But before I’d gotten out much more than that, I caught sight of Don at my nine o’clock. He’d spotted me, too, and was heading my way at a trot. After some quick good-bye hugs, I hurried for the exit, and managed to knock over a potted poinsetta left over from Christmas, the previous week.
Like a good citizen, I stopped to set it back on its stand. As I did, I heard Don say, “Merry Christmas, Max.”
I glanced up. His eyes were cold, his lip curled. I turned away and made for the door.
Again, I heard him say, “Merry Christmas, Max.” This was charity as a contest of wills, and I decided to take a dive. Spinning back, I spoke my last two words to Don. They were not “Merry Christmas, “Happy Holidays,” or even “Seasons Greetings.” And then, from my right hand, emerged a bird that no one could have mistaken for the Holy Spirit.
So, yes, if you visit Phoenix and inquire in certain circles, you will indeed hear that Max Lindenman is such an ornery sonofabuck that he once flipped a man off for wishing him a Merry Christmas. For all the complicated backstory, it’s true enough to cause me everlasting shame, and also to have made me wary of the Catholic ideal of community. These days, I don’t go to Mass expecting to make friends; instead, I’m happy to eat and run. Spending too much time in the company of people who get on my nerves is a near-occasion of sin. Jesus said we should love our enemies, but I have to believe His words are compatible with the trusim that good fences make good neighbors.