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Keeping in touch with God, and old classmates, takes effort

      I recently attended my 50-year high school class re as a member of the class of 1972 from New Albany High School. From the moment I opened the door to the VFW Post Home and stepped in, I knew this was a mistake.

      I recognized no one. Who were all these old people? Intellectually you know that everyone ages, including yourself, and that decay and deterioration of the body is an inevitable part of that process. But in your mind’s eye, you still see Cindy as that 18-year-old girl and Steve as that healthy swimmer of the individual medley.

      That mind’s eye view of your classmates is compounded by the fact that you haven’t seen Cindy and Steve (and they haven’t seen you) in literally a half-century. So when you are suddenly thrust upon them, the shock of current reality is sharp.

      In anticipation of such unrecognizability, the team that organized this evening soiree provided each person with a lanyard bearing their name and senior high school photograph. This was certainly a smart move, but one of the unintended consequences of the lanyard was that people approached you, reached for your lanyard, peered at it, and said either, “Hey, I know you!” or “Sorry, don’t know you.”

      But let’s say that the lanyard did make you recognizable; any subsequent conversation between the two of you was taxed by the noise. Music from the DJ was blaring and constant, causing everyone not to talk with one another, but to shout at one another. Being old farts, no one could hear what the other said. Consequently, the interaction between you and the person you had not seen in decades was reduced to nods of the head and polite responses of “right” or “yeah.”

      Consequently, my wife and I bailed after an hour. It was all too frustrating.

      Shortly after arriving home from the re, I had some time to kill, about 30 minutes, before attending a school meeting. So I decided to drive about a quarter of a mile down the road to Marytown, a friary of the Franciscans Conventuals.

      The moment I stepped into the basilica-style building, I recognized all the Catholic iconography: six candles on the high altar, images of Mary and other saints, choir stalls of the friars, the side chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, the racks of candles burning before statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The odor of burning candles and incense filled the room. The murmur of prayers being offered up by old and young women alike, by old men, and by younger men making a pit stop to the place just to wedge in a prayer during their work day, resonated in the space.

      All the “stuff” there comforted me. We are comfortable with the familiar and wary of the askew.

      What I want to suggest, though, is that in regards to Catholicism, the “stuff” goes beyond making us comfortable. The “stuff” contains meaning. All that “stuff” points to, and helps us relate to, God.

      At the class re, the music (even if it had been playing at lower decibels) was meant to bring back warm fuzzy memories within us. But how many times can one hear Stealers Wheel sing “Stuck in the Middle with You,” and not say, “Enough already!” Whereas, at Marytown, the odor of incense and burning candles takes me beyond myself. Bring on more!

      Nostalgia goes only so far. The longing for youth, the what-might-have-been, and vigor cripples our notion of what lies in store. What does Scripture say? “Do not say: ‘How is it that former times were better than these?’ For it is not out of wisdom that you ask about this.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

      Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pooh-poohing class res. All I’m doing is trying to understand how these two different events, occurring so close together, complement – or differ – from one another.

      While at the re I saw for the first time since my wedding in December, 1976 the person who was the best man at the wedding. We tried talking to one another, but because of the noise, we quickly surrendered. Instead, we had a nice phone conversation a week later and caught up on one another’s lives.

      That’s what the “stuff” does. The candles, the incense, the statues and icons keep us in touch with God.

     

      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. He is an oblate of Saint Meinrad Archabbey. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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