The Words of the Reverends Moffitt
Ego te absolvoÖ
September 19, 1998
Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.
I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
As it is in many Latin American countries, it is a custom among some observant Catholics in Argentina to cross themselves whenever they pass a church of their faith. However, they are traveling walking, bus, train, car they cross themselves as they rumble past. Just the act of watching people do that makes me feel a little more protected, as it must do even more so for those who make the sign.
Itís a fleeting, discreet movement, which though it takes place in a public setting, is not at all a public moment. Up, down, left, right, kiss the back of the thumb.
Öin nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.
Iím not Catholic and donít need to be, I think, to feel that my fellow passengers make the sign of the cross for as many reasons as there are people doing it. Maybe deeply held conviction or a parochial school autonomic reflex, or a momentary reconnect with eternity in a life that is otherwise temporal, secular and self-absorbed nobody knows. In the darkened back seats of the Avenida Maipú bus at 1:00 AM, itís one of the rare human acts utterly without political motivation. A handshake with the unseen God and the faith that He is there to reciprocate.
I spend between two and three hours a day on mass transit to and from the office. Itís a complicated trip from the backwaters of the suburbs, hitting the whole sampler of urban public conveyance: bus, train, subway and walking. At times itís the commute from hell, but it gives me a lot of time to read and watch faces so I mostly forgive it. Te absolvo.
Among the faces is a dark-haired, woman on the subway, early 30ish, office worker by her clothes, but not management. A book has her full attention. Her head tilts forward to reveal an area of thinning hair on top near the back that is evolving into a strikingly noticeable bald spot on an otherwise attractive head, face and body. Men expect to lose their hair. How hard it must be for a woman.
A man who shares my subway ride almost daily (inbound, third car from the end so as to be right by the exit when it stops), has a red birthmark around his eye. It is his further misfortune that the blemish is not dark enough to be an obvious birthmark, which people would notice and then studiously ignore and make no comment about. Itís just red enough to resemble the result of a run-in with a door a week ago. I know itís permanent because Iíve seen it for months, but it looks enough like a minor accident so that even strangers who sit next to him say, "Ooo, I see the missus clobbered you a good one." I see him getting this a lot and whatever he thinks, itís probably way past what did I do to deserve this.
When I round the corner of the stairs heading for the lower level of Retiro Station every morning at 7:21 there are one or two or three young boys asleep on the bare floor next to the wall in this unheated passageway. Sheltered from the wind, but not the cold, the boys have their sweatshirts and dirty jackets pulled as far over their heads as they can get them. What is most jarring is that these are young children, eight, maybe twelve years old and they live at Retiro station. They are still asleep at that hour, and commuters hurrying past set food down beside them. But itís all snack cakes and cookies, coffeebreak crap, bullshit food at the Twinkies end of the nutrition spectrum.
No matter how many times you see them, itís not something a person can get used to. And this is nothing. Iíve seen thousands more doorway children ("gaminos") in Colombia and Mexico. Zillions in Brazil, where cast-off children live downtown, begging and stealing or selling their bodies. A mini-scandal erupted in São Paulo a couple years ago when it was revealed that a businessmanís organization had hired people to go through the alleys at night and kill the street children to thin their numbers.
When blessing-counting time rolls around, as it does for all of us now and then, a millisecond on the street is all most of us need to dredge up a sincere there but for the grace of God. Itís so easy to find a reason to make the sign of the cross.
Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis tuis, perducat te ad vitam aeternam.
May Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to everlasting life.
My observation is that one or two per bus or train car, and every fourth or fifth taxi driver, will do the sign of the cross. When I first came to Buenos Aires I noticed it, but it took a few weeks for me to associate it with passing a church. There is one spot on my train commute, near the horse track, where I still havenít been able to locate the church. People swirl their hands across their foreheads and chests as we zip past what looks to me like a small string of establishments that includes a fitness center and a bar. Maybe itís on the other side of the block. Maybe it used to be there.
Iím sitting on a crowded late night bus from the train station, the final leg of my homeward commute. I never met a third world country (or "emerging nation" as we like to call ourselves) where the buses arenít packed solid all the time. The reason is hardly rocket science. Most canít afford a car. Itís related to why you always see so many young people passionately kissing on the park benches, in the grass, leaning against lamp posts on the corner. No car, you live with your parents; this is the only place youíve got. Itís here or abstinence. Weíre talking extreme heavy passion under the statue of the liberator, José de San Martín. It can be quite an aesthetic experience for the passer-by.
The bus is coming up on a small cathedral and Iím playing a game I invented where I try to predict who of those around me will make the sacred gesture. Iím nearly always wrong. I think Iíve guessed right maybe one time, and that was a nun, so it really doesnít count. It isnít always the little old lady or the man put on the social margins by his physical deformity. Often itís the hunky young turk fast-tracking at the firm and the virile secretary who pay homage to the custom. I have yet to see the cross made by a couple, a man and woman together, for whatever reason.
Standing in front of me on the last bus of the night is a red-haired man in his 20s. Lean and strong, he hasnít shaved in four, maybe five days. On his arm is a tattoo of what looks like an oak tree with a big grinning skull imbedded in the trunk. A snake crawls out one of the eye sockets. As we pass under a street lamp, a beam of light skims across the manís bare arm. Itís not an oak tree; itís a naked woman. Boy am I tired.
He scowls through eyes dark and twisted. He looks over at me in my hoity-toity suit and wimpass tie, registering angry confusion. He keeps looking at me and I stare back at him way too long. Iím fascinated and I realize Iím not breaking eye contact as the rules call for. What do I think Iím doing? Larry, are you nuts? You have five children to think of. I look away, but he doesnít, not for a long time. Iím dead meat.
I would like to say that in the moment of our contact I could sense, in his dark recesses, a tiny spark of original humanity, something in there a compassionate man could reach out to and connect with, given enough time.. A beautiful thought, and it would be so very Bing Crosby wouldnít it? Like in the classic "Going My Way," jaunty Father OíMalley in black clericals and a straw boater turns a hardened street gang into St. Dominicís choir. Maybe God was speaking to my heart at that moment. Iím now looking for the humanity in my knuckle-dragging brother, and for the Bing Crosby in me, but itís a tough sell either way. What would Father OíMalley say to him? Hi there, I see your motherís a troglodyte?
The problem is, there doesnít seem to be anybody human at home. Not even remotely so. To the very core of his bottom corpuscle, he looks like Central Castingís alienated postal worker, Arlo Guthrieís "biggest, meanest, mother-raper of them all."
Then it hits me. Iím so totally wrong about people that this guy will probably defy all odds and cross himself when we pass the church. Heís probably a future saint, on his way to donate a kidney. What heíll probably do is cross himself. And then after that, heíll come over and kill me for looking at him too long becauseÖwell, because this is Argentina.
Iím nearly ready to bet the ranch on it. We pass the church. He doesnít.
But I do.
I have to say there is something foundationally powerful in the Catholic tradition. Something there for me. I admire theirÖI donít know exactly whatÖthe faith they place in faith?
I remember an old woman in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1973, advancing the last hundred meters toward the basilica doors on her bare knees. She inched forward a foot or two at a time along a path of sharp stones that cut her legs. She wrung her hands and cried and cried and cried, wailing loudly, fervently. Whatever had broken her heart, the stones had nothing to do with it.
Two small daughters or granddaughters placed a scarf on the ground for her to crawl over. As she passed, they retrieved it and brought it around in front for her to pass over again. The scarf and the hem of her dress quickly became streaked with blood.
She made the sign of the cross.
Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvatÖ
Our Lord Jesus Christ absolve youÖ
I was a hitchhiker just out of communication grad school, a "mochilero" with a backpack and jeans. I felt self-conscious and a little embarrassed but I stopped and watched her anyway. Other people were passing by like this happens every day. I think I may have promised myself that as payment for my intrusion, I would remember what I was seeing. Someday I would tell somebody about this and maybe it would help them.
As it turns out, I am the one helped. My beliefs and life and the teachings of the past 24 years liberate me to be as fully one with any earnest attempt to touch God, in any faith, as my own maturity will allow. My God tells me that before itís over, everyone of us will be that old woman at least one time. If I want it to be my course, and risk the risk, and set my heart ablaze daily, and toil in the vineyards of the Lord and be about my Fatherís business, then I can be her lighted candle. I am free to be all faiths, to make all Gods my God, all people my people. I am unificationist. I make the sign of the cross.
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