No, I’m not returning home from the bars. That was my dad’s time to be in our family Catholic church. Catholic churches years ago would be open all day and all night and folks would volunteer to be in the church at all times. “24/7” as we’d say today.
My dad was never a lucky man so if there was a parish lottery to determine your time slot then I understand how he got saddled with that time. But he was vigilant about his obligation. He never spoke of it but us kids could not help but think of it going to bed on Thursday nights. My dad rarely got sick but there were occasions when I needed to sub for him. (Couldn’t Jesus survive just one hour without a visitor?)
As a grade school student, I would walk the dank, dark cold four blocks to our parish church. Even at that young age, I was sure that purgatory was a future thing that I would easily bypass because of this ungodly gesture for a Godly reason. I walked up the steep steps to the entrance of our church. I see the previous unlucky man’s back and I’m sure that he’s grateful that relief has come to relieve him of his 2:00-3:00 a.m. slot. He smiles at me, says nothing and leaves me alone.
The dank is now gone but not the dark. The church is shaped like a cross with four large sections. I sit where Jesus’ feet probably would have been. Now what? 58 minutes left to honor my father’s pledge but hardly a personal devotion for someone of 10 years. (“Let’s see how many “Stations of the Cross” there are really?” as if I didn’t already know having served them every Friday during Lent. “How many lights are not on right now?” “Does blinking a lot keep you awake longer?” Numerous questions enter my young mind as I discover it only took two minutes to ask and answer all of them. So, now what?
“Perpetual Devotion” is what it was called when Catholic churches had no reason to lock up after daily Mass. Non stop (and we thought cable news – all the time – was something radically new!). Darkness. I never dared to leave the pew because there could be someone else in the church. “Wait? What if my dad split this loser lottery time with someone else? Then I could leave earlier!” Nope. There is no one else in the church for these 54 remaining minutes. I have to stay awake because, at 10 years old, the judgmental consequences could be on my celestial permanent record. (Truly, in those days we believed in a heavenly “permanent record.”)
“Hi God, hi Jesus and of course, hi Mary. It’s Joe and it’s my job to honor my dad’s obligation to be with you all for a long, long time.” (50 minutes, only.) “I have school tomorrow and probably will not remember any of this until I feel tired around noontime. Are you three even awake to hear me now?
It only took one sound. One creepy, creaking sound to make me alert and ready. “Oh, it’s just a sound,” I’d say to myself while glancing at the watch I just glanced at thirty seconds ago. “I wonder why the priests aren’t here? I wouldn’t need to be here if they did this all day. Isn’t that their job?” (Questions from a 10 year old that I could easily answer right now.)
I don’t know when, but it did happen. Out of nowhere it just happened. Time was forgotten. Creepy, creaking sounds continued but I knew that I was safe. It was peaceful. It was just the four of us for awhile. I finally figured out that I didn’t need to ask any more dumb questions and I was praying that the three would not answer any of them outloud. It was just a spacious silence in that cavernous, empty temple of God. It was just silence in darkness. It was just silence in darkness during a godly hour that God provided for my dad. I felt a contentment that was a new feeling for me. It was just me in this church. I was in charge keeping the vigil. No one else was here to help me. It was just me and the three of them hiding somewhere.
Just in case the three didn’t know it, I tell them, “My dad wasn’t able to be here tonight so I’m subbing for him.”
The back door swings open and in walks Joe Smith (real name) with a loud, “Good morning!” (He must have been an early riser.) “You’re Walt’s son, aren’t you? How are you?” “Fine,” I reply as I realize my peace was abruptly interrupted. 58 minutes it was a chore but now it was kinda fun. I can’t wait to return home for a few hours of sleep walking back here again for school.
I walk home, still dank and dark. I honored my dad’s obligation. It may not have meant much to my 10 years but I knew that it meant a lot to him.