If the past is always on my mind, and the things I should have said and done still haunt me, then it may be time to give the past its due and get on the road again.
“When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put childish ways aside.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)
As a child of the 1960s and that chaotic decade’s sounds of social revolution, I spent much of my past life disparaging country music. In the days of hard rock and heavy metal, I made up my mind without ever really being exposed to it that country music is simply not cool. In fact, I ridiculed it in a Christmas post a few years back.
I wrote that in the 1980s there was a sort of urban legend that if you play AC/DC records backwards, you will hear satanic messages. I never tried it, but the legend prevailed throughout the 1980s. So what happens if you play Country Western music backwards? Your wife comes home; your dog comes back; and you remember where you left your truck!
But like Saint Paul did in my quote from First Corinthians atop this post, I have, for the most part, put childish ways aside. The evidence for that is nowhere more striking than in the music that now moves me. I have been watching some of the fundraising concerts on PBS TV this Christmas season. The long interludes of donation pitches aside, the music is outstanding.
I’ll never tire of the PBS classic “Black & White Concert” with Roy Orbison or the concert with Blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa and his ensemble of brilliant musicians performing at Carnegie Hall. If you missed this, you must tune in if only to see and hear Joe Bonamassa’s near superhuman guitar and cello duet.
But my favorite of the PBS concerts still makes a small part of the Rock generation in me sneer in shame. I’m not sure I want to openly admit it, but The Highwaymen made my face hurt. It’s because I could not suppress a smile for two solid hours as I listened to Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and the great Willie Nelson. Good Lord, what has happened to me? The Highwaymen completely ruined my disdain for country.
Over Christmas this year, PBS replayed their 1990s concert. I wrote about it once before in a 2016 pre-election post. Once again this Christmas The Highwaymen have found a captive and captivated audience in my prison cell.
I have been unable to stop my mind’s relentless replay of Johnny Cash. For days, the music in my mind alternated between “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Of the latter, at least, I can relate. And who could have ever imagined a duet with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson? In the days of my youth, I would have sneered at the thought, but I loved it.
There will never be another Willie Nelson. His music relives the loves and losses of life in a way that calls to an otherwise endangered species in this troubled time: the hearts and souls of men. After listening to his haunting song – “You Are Always on My Mind” – I adopted it for a New Year’s resolution about…
LIVING IN THE PAST
Like so many of the people who write to me, I tend to get stuck in some of the events of the past – events that today I can do nothing to change except to atone and make amends. The need to do so is usually the only reason they haunt me. Or I can do neither of those and just beat myself up over the past and the people in my heart and mind who still dwell there.
I live in a place that holds 1,300 men – about 75 percent of them under thirty – where the most available emotions are anger and regret. They cast everything here under a dark cloud that is always looming and stirring overhead. The explosive eruptions of emotionally fragile young men characterize all day every day.
If you’re a Star Trek fan then you will know what I mean when I say that being in prison is like living among Klingons. They are ready to throw down at every slight, and their anger is never a reaction to the issue of the moment. It is just a part of the baggage they lug around with them wherever they go.
One of my problems with anger is that I am almost infinitely patient with these guys. They rarely ever see me angry, but on those few occasions when it shows, I have learned that it can be destructive in far more ways than just breaking someone’s nose. Here is a recent story that brought my anger to the surface.
You have hopefully read our most recent guest post, “Against a Brick Wall: A Young Man’s Survival in Prison” by my friend, Joseph L. One day just before Christmas I became very angry with Joseph, and I let him know it. Days later my anger was long gone but Joseph was still brooding and cautious around me.
I asked him why it is that everyone around me here can be angry almost all the time, but if I express anger it always seems catastrophic. Joseph responded with an eye-opener: “Because it’s you,” he said. “You’re everyone’s cornerstone and you aren’t supposed to get angry. It made me feel awful,” Joseph said. And, of course, what Joseph said made ME feel awful!
As Joseph would also say, “We’re cool now,” but I have learned something dark about myself. I am quick to want to atone and make amends when I become aware that I have hurt someone else, but when others have trespassed against me, I am not so quick to allow them to atone. I can let a trespass resonate for years, and I do not like what I have learned. Willie Nelson sang so beautifully about “the things I should have said and done.”
If someone is always on your mind generating negative thoughts, and the things you should have said and done still haunt you, then join me in a resolution to transform the hurts of the past into the prayers of the present. It’s time to give the past some perspective and get on the road again. This one paragraph incorporates two of Willie’s most popular songs.
So here is some perspective that recently caused me to surrender a trespass from the past. I wrote about this in a 2011 post, but in an awesome book, Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast, author, Father James Valladares captured the account with this stinging introduction:
“Fr. Gordon MacRae very truthfully states: ‘Trusting too much can harm your reputation. Not trusting enough can harm your soul.’ His story corroborates that candid assertion:
‘I arrived at St. Bernard Parish in Keene, New Hampshire, on June 15, 1983. I was told by our diocesan personnel director at the time that I was going to a positive and worry-free assignment after a difficult year in a very troubled parish. But as was typical for my diocese then – and perhaps for many others – there seemed to be no limit to how out-of-touch the Chancery Office could be.
I arrived to learn that the pastor had been charged with driving while intoxicated and was awaiting my arrival so he could leave for his third attempt at residential treatment for alcoholism. My heart went out to this man who struggled so much with his fragile humanity while his superiors seemed oblivious to it.
I was also there to replace another priest who was bitterly leaving the priesthood after three years at that parish, but decided to stay on to help me until the pastor returned. He was angry and disillusioned, and not exactly a source of fraternal support.
The parish was immense, for New Hampshire at least. It had over 2000 families, provided round-the-clock pastoral care for a regional hospital and trauma unit, three nursing homes, a college campus, a regional Catholic school, a huge Catholic cemetery, and a second church fifteen miles away. I arrived to learn that I was essentially alone.
In that summer of 1983, there was a lot going on in my own life, too. Just weeks before I arrived at the parish, my father died suddenly at the age of 52. I had literally gone from presiding over his funeral Mass, and caring for my family, to packing and moving to a new parish 100 miles away.
Two weeks after I arrived and got settled, my sister and her family drove up from the Boston area to visit me. We still had some unfinished details over the death of our father, and two months earlier my sister gave birth to her second child. I had the privilege of baptizing her in my new parish.
While my brother-in-law unpacked some of my boxes of books that he brought with him, my sister and I took my two nieces for a stroll down Keene, New Hampshire’s picturesque Main Street. It was a beautiful summer day, and we had lots to discuss while I pushed a stroller down the busy street.
By the middle of the following week, the rectory phone started ringing. First it was a priest in a neighboring parish. ‘I just wanted to give you a head’s up,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard from two people that you have a secret wife and kids.’ I laughed, at first, but by the end of the week I wasn’t laughing anymore. Then the parish council president called. ‘We don’t need another scandal,’ he said. ‘People are calling me with a rumor that you’ve fathered two children.’
By then, I was furious. We were able to backtrack who said what to whom and when, and learned that the ugly rumor began with that innocent Sunday afternoon walk with my sister and nieces. And ground zero of the rumor was one parishioner, Geraldine (long since forgotten, no longer with us, and not her real name) who also happened to be out on Main Street that afternoon.
Geraldine jumped to a conclusion and then jumped on the telephone. It was like a virus that spread from person to person, growing and mutating along the way. Poor Geraldine had no intention that her bit of gossip would spread like a wildfire, but it did. It spread everywhere.” (Hope Springs Eternal in the Priestly Breast, p. 117-119).
THE DAY OF ATONEMENT
The problem with the story above was not just how Geraldine interpreted that Sunday afternoon stroll downtown. And it was not just her decision to place a few phone calls that would start the fake news in motion. The problem was that Keene, NH, like too many communities, had too many people all-too-ready to hear, believe, and spread any gossip that disparages a priest.
Once such a thing takes root and spreads, it forms a life of its own. An untrue rumor can be repeated so much, and spread so far, that the truth doesn’t stand a chance. The truth has a steep uphill climb once everyone else hears only one side of a story.
Actually, this is exactly what happened in the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. SNAP and the news media spread one story with such ferocity that the truth ends up swatted away like a pesky fly. But there’s even more to this story, however.
Nearly a dozen years later someone else in that community accused me falsely. It was from that same place and that same Summer. Ryan MacDonald wrote about this, with photos of the “crime scene” in “Justice and a Priest’s Right of Defense in the Diocese of Manchester, NH.”
For years I have been haunted by the coincidence, wondering whether the roots of Geraldine’s gossip spread long and far with deep tentacles, raising questions about me and predisposing others toward forming a set of beliefs that eventually morphed into a moral panic.
As the truth unfolded, Geraldine could take none of it back. She could not retrieve even one of the wisps of gossip cast into the wind to travel indiscriminately. That’s the real harm of gossip. Its purveyors can never stem, or even know, its tide.
But another source of harm, and I cannot evade it, was my anger with Geraldine. In the account from the book, Hope Springs Eternal above, Father Valladares quoted me as saying that this event is “long since forgotten.” Well, it wasn’t. I just stopped thinking about it.
But my anger with poor Geraldine lingered, and like all such things, it became part of the resonance of my life that I believe very much affected hers, at least on a spiritual level. As I reflected late at night alone about anger and my discussion with my friend, Joseph, my mind landed on this story about Geraldine.
Though she left this life in God’s friendship many years ago, I felt as though I had a moment of real and meaningful connection with her. I said the words aloud as a prayer in the dark: “Geraldine, I forgive you, and I pray that you come to know the fullness of God’s Presence.”
A great weight was lifted from me, and, I felt, from Geraldine as well. Those were “the things I should have said and done” back then. Better late than never. I’m on the road again, even if I’m still singing the Folsom Prison Blues.