What Did You Come Out To See?

What Did You Come Out To See? December 17, 2019

The lady who gives us rides to church used to live in France. She came here to study more than a decade ago– about the same time I did. Now she lives nearby us, because she can’t afford to live back in France; Steubenville is the cheapest place to live in the world, or so she tells me.

It certainly feels cheap.

She is the one who once said, “When I came here, I missed beauty so much it physically hurt,” and I knew just what she meant.

What did you go out to the desert to see? 

This past Sunday, she had arranged to take us to evening Mass and then shopping. I don’t like to shop on Sundays, but Sunday is the day we have a ride– and there was a one-day sale at Ollie’s, with discounts on things we needed. We are not as poor as we once were, but we’re poor enough to need to pinch pennies. We had to go shopping on Sunday.  First, we went to Mass.

Mass was Mass, eternally beautiful but no more aesthetic to the physical eye than usual. The priest read the Gaudete Sunday gospel in his awkward soft pink vestment– not “rose,” which is a different shade, but a pastel even softer. It seemed slightly comical, considering that some translations of Gaudete Sunday’s gospel have Christ asking “what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft garments?”

The man dressed in soft garments preached a good homily, and consecrated the Eucharist, and fed us all on the Bread of Life. We sang “O Come, Divine Messiah.”

When I came outside, my friend from France had met a lady from Germany.

This lady had also come to Steubenville to study, and gotten trapped here. It’s the cheapest place in the world to live, so she couldn’t see her way back to Europe. She lives near my neighborhood as the friend from France does, but she doesn’t have a car– perhaps not even an American driver’s license. She walks up to Mass and back down to where she lives every day, in a teal coat, her head wrapped in a teal scarf, her backpack protected from rain with a bright teal tarp.

She has been doing this since Rosie was a baby.

What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft garments? Men dressed in soft garments are found in palaces. 

The lady from Germany was about to walk a mile to Wendy’s for supper, in the cold rain of a Steubenville December. Michael offered to wait in the Adoration chapel, since my friend’s car was small– that way, my friend could take the lady to Wendy’s and then drive back to church to collect him, and then she would take us three Pezzulos to do our shopping.

My friend joyfully agreed.

“It reminds me of a folktale by Jean de la Fontaine,” she said.

“Tell it to me!” I started to demand. I love folktales of all kinds. I studied mythology a bit in undergraduate, at Otterbein University near Columbus, thirteen years ago before I fell into the Steubenville vortex. I came here with an idiotic notion that I would study philosophy and win souls for Christ with my logical reasoning, and perhaps be a bioethicist in a big city hospital.

That seems like an eternity ago.

The two ladies from Europe started chatting about how cheap it was to live here, and how they managed to get trapped here because it was too expensive to leave.  And I chimed in on that as well, because the same thing happen to me.

The same thing happens to a lot of people in this town. We all come here to learn about God, and we have a certain notion about how it works out– and then it doesn’t. We are all of us stranded in this cold limbo, in the twilight of this smoggy climate where sun filters gray-violet through clouds by day and the clouds reflect street lamps red-violet by night. Some of us like it here. Some of us puzzle at the dialect and the culture. Some of us wonder why everyone is so often rude and angry, and why people who are supposed to be good Catholics don’t act the way they should.  Some of us long for beauty so much that it physically hurts.

Maybe this is not just a fact about life in the Ohio Valley.  Maybe this is the human condition.

Then why did you go out?  To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

As we drove, I went over my mental list. I have a long list of things I’m going to do if I ever inherit a fortune; I meditate on it on cold days. I’ll move to Pittsburgh, of course. I won’t buy a mansion, but I will treat myself to a 1920s foursquare of about 2000 square feet, with central air, convenient to Schenley Park. I’ll sponsor a laundromat here in downtown Steubenville, with the washers and dryers paid for in advance by a big donation from me every month. I’ll pay someone whatever it takes to open a grocery store that takes EBT next to the laundromat as well, so that all those poor people who depend on the Friendship Room for nutritious food will have another chance to get some. I’ll demolish some abandoned buildings near the Friendship Room and put in a really nice park with a garden designed specifically for good smells– the Ohio river smells like tin and rubber, and the stench permeates the whole city when the wind is right.

I didn’t know how bad a poor town in the rust belt could smell, before I came here. I don’t think I’d ever heard of a “food desert,” a part of a city where it’s very difficult to buy groceries if you’re poor. I had no idea what a burden it is to have no way to do laundry, no transportation to take you a mile in the rain, nothing to do for fun, nothing beautiful to look at or listen to or smell for months on end. I couldn’t even imagine not being well-to-do enough to be able to turn down a sale on Sunday.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me. 

““What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out?  To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

I have met many people who called themselves prophets, since I came out to this place. Many of them have been proven to be false since I got here. I can’t say that I’ve met John the Baptist. But my eyes were open, and I became poor, and I had the Good News proclaimed to me, and now I’m trying to tell you.

We dropped the lady from Germany off at Wendy’s.

Bon apetit,” said the lady from France.

I added to my mental list that if I ever got rich, I would buy the lady from Germany American driving lessons, and a car.

“What was the fable you were talking about?” I asked.

“I’m trying to think what it is in English,” she said apologetically. “Le Loup, Le Chevre, et Le Chou.”

I remembered that one: the riddle of the man who has to transport himself, a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage across the river, without any passenger eating other passenger, in a boat only big enough to carry three at once. The answer is that he has to take his time, and think carefully, and make several trips.

We drove back to church, through  the rain, with Christmas lights blazing on either side.

When I was dropped off at the dormitory thirteen years ago, I was told, “I hope this place can do something for you, because we give up.”

I have not been back to Columbus in eleven years; not spoken to my mother in eight; not seen most of my family, and I don’t expect to see them again. But if I do, I would like to tell them all the things I learned when I came to this soggy desert, to learn about God.

None of it was what I expected to learn.


(Image via Pixabay)





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