Keeping My Brother — Exp. Not Nec. but a +

Keeping My Brother — Exp. Not Nec. but a + April 14, 2016


When I first saw the guy groping his way down the aisle with his eyes fixed on the carpet, I thought he was blind. Then, after he settled gingerly into the pew in front of mine, I smelled the truth: he was blitzed. He exhaled a bouquet of domestic beer – the kind you can buy cheap by the case when you want to self-medicate.

Drunks at Mass have always been a rarity in our parish. The single specimen I can recall was a Navajo who’d somehow gotten marooned in the Valley after hitchhiking down from Chinle or Shiprock. His clothes were as grimy as his grasp of liturgical niceties was shaky, but we saw Christ in his face and welcomed him until he spazzed out and threw a bottle of 7-Up at someone during the Our Father. Never, not even to the money changers in the Temple, had Jesus been so rude, so the drunk was helped to find the door. As far as I know, he never again showed his face.

This new drunk didn’t look like a derelict. He looked like a douchebag. Under two days’ growth of stubble, his face bore the clean lineaments and faint smirk I could picture on a college-aged Greg Kinnear or Dan Quayle. The faces of his peers having sprouted Chetnik beards, idealistic dew having pooled in their eyes, this squirt looked like the ghost of 2008. So help me, I thought I spotted blond highlights painted into his hair. The sight of him made me nostalgic.

As the service wore on, he proved not to be obstreperous. He even sat and stood at more or less the prescribed times. But Chekhov’s warning about a gun onstage applies equally well to a drunk at Mass – you expect him to go off sooner or later. So I kept an eye on him. As the celebrant began the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and we all stood to pray that the Lord would accept the sacrifice at his hands, for the praise and glory of His name, I suddenly knew when the bang would come. Taking no heed of his objectively unfit state, the drunk would go up to receive.

Normally, such a thing wouldn’t concern me. I’m not an EMHC – protecting Christ’s Body from riffraff is not my job. I despise busybodies as a general rule. This new call-out culture, where violators are denounced before the collective and subject to its frantic and arbitrary version of justice, is noxious. If it elevates ritual murder to the status of a thing anytime soon, I won’t be a bit surprised.

But I had enjoyed my surveillance over the drunk. It had infused me with a sense of purpose – one I felt newly qualified to fulfill. After running my second marathon, I started training for the Ironman triathlon, and ever since have been experiencing somewhat of a second puberty. Without gaining much actual bulk, my torso has transformed itself from a cylinder to an inverted pyramid. Even my face has become less of a rectangle and more of a square. When I shaved my head as a foil to water resistance, I had to admit that the effect was a darned sight closer to Hando from Romper Stomper than Caillou.

People – or at any rate, men – treat me in a way they have never treated me before. One day in the laundry room, a guy who towered over me by several inches apologized when I reached past him to check whether a particular dryer held my clothes. Several times when I looked – or seemed to be looking – at a man for more than a second or two, the man waved or smiled. The smiles were not smiles of derision; they were the preemptive gestures of surrender that gunslingers in B movies demand when they tell a stranger, “Smile when you say that.”

Once, when I was running through Papago Park in the bike lane, some cyclist tossed off a snotty remark as he pedaled past. My tart response was a five-word sentence containing two f-bombs. The man stopped, turned around…and pedaled off without uttering another word.

So as the drunk and I unfolded our kneelers, it occurred to me that as long as a Neanderthal appearance conveyed authority, that authority might as well be put to worthy use. If the drunk stood up, I’d lay a hand on his shoulder and whisper something avuncular along the lines of Whoa, there, pardner. You don’t want to go mixin’ Mr. Anheuser and Mr. Busch with Mr. Jesus, now, do you? Just you rest easy in the saddle for now.

But just before the elevation of the Host, the drunk rose on wobbly legs and tottered across two aisles to the opposite end of the chapel, where he found a spot somewhere outside my line of sight. I saw him again when he went up to receive. On his way back, he bestowed a lurching bear hug on a woman about his own age. Whether they knew each other or whether she was responding to a stranger’s need for Christian compassion I couldn’t tell.

Though relieved, in a way, that the drunk was out of my jurisdiction, I couldn’t quite let his case drop. After the dismissal, I saw him sitting alone in an empty pew and decided to find out once and for all what had brought him to Mass in such a sorry state. Sliding into the pew behind him, I tried to think of a proper introduction.

Before I could find the words, he turned around and gave me a leer. “What do you want?” He asked. I noted he didn’t sound the slightest bit deferential.

Feeling flustered and hoping it didn’t show, I said that anyone who came to Mass three sheets to the wind was either a bum or someone in the grip of a serious spiritual crisis, and added that he didn’t look like a bum.

“Wow,” he said, with what sounded awfully like a sneer. “That’s really insightful. As a matter of fact, everything’s going to shit – school, for one. And my girlfriend just broke up with me. This is my love. And I’m wondering, ‘Do I let her go’, ‘Do I make it hard for her’?”

I told him I knew a thing or two about breakups and advised him to conduct himself in a way that would not cost him any self-respect five years down the road. Just as I realized how preachy I was sounding, he cut me off, saying, “I just want to be a man of God.”

“Well,” I said. “God’s not picky.”

That he seemed to like. Grinning, he offered his hand, and I took it. We introduced ourselves, and before long a friend of his arrived to collect him.

As I left them, I reflected on just how hard it is to be your brother’s keeper, even for a few seconds. Even if I manage not to turn back into a blob after the Ironman, it might help to bone up on pastoral strategies that don’t involve brute force. People grow beer muscles, and Peter did not get to be pope for his swashbuckling, after all.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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