This is the sixth installment of A Deacon’s Diary. In the fifth installment, strange dreams kept waking Steve up.
She said to me: You’re the one who’ll come and put the coins on the eyes of the dead.
It was almost the darkest day of the year. I was in the middle of an intense conversation with an old friend I hadn’t seen in eight or nine years in a restaurant we used to frequent in college two decades ago. The last time we’d had a long dinner I was in novitiate, the earliest stage of Jesuit training: life had changed in the last nine years and certainly in the past twenty.
It was an apt setting: one of 2021’s darkest evenings in late mid-December, sitting, retelling old stories and remembering ghosts. We even ordered our favorite dishes from twenty years ago: scallops served on black linguini, some salads, and a fish entrée. We each commented on how little and how much the other had changed. Twenty years ago, we were both know-it-all honors students who sat around and discussed philosophy and wrote poetry, mostly in all-night Greek diners in parts of the city with history and cheap rents. We dreamed of doctoral studies and professorships and authenticity.
Nowadays, my old friend worked for a corporation as a vice president, had two children, a partner and was building a house in the suburbs near better schools. She told me that she hadn’t written poetry since an old teacher of ours had died young. I remembered Tom sitting in those diners with us.
We were seated outside on a patio under a tent, so we began the meal as we always did: we poured some of a drink out on the ground in memory of all that had come before.
I was, well, myself still.
The restaurant was full of nostalgia: invisible, yet unmistakable. And we spoke about our college days and all the people we used to know. I kept up with some of them often and others less so. Some of the people I’d bet on twenty years ago weren’t around anymore. Twenty years is a long time and distance is a reality as paths diverge. They converge again, too: some people were unexpectedly, durably present. Her comment surprised me: putting coins on the eyes of the dead.
We spoke of someone who’d once been a good friend. He lived in our building. It began over a chess game that went until three or four in the morning. I lost the game. Now, however, the friendship had grown thin and mostly memories remained. It’d been four years since we’d spoken, even though we’d walked adjacent paths for more than twenty.
She was surprised I’d kept in touch with someone else, sporadic as it had been. Now I was accompanying him in some difficulty. Maybe it had always been that way – I bailed him out of some trouble with ResLife when we were undergraduates. We drank together sometimes in grad school. Cheap whiskeys. I saw him recently again during the summer, passing through the city where he now lived. His great-big bear hug of a greeting on a hot and humid day was almost a sacrament–one of brotherly affection, of unexpected and meandering friendship.
It was late and I grappled with how to reply. The year was dying and her comment fit the narratives we had been rehearsing, remembering, the ghosts whose names we were recollecting.
I suppose that’s why I’ll be a priest after all, I said. It somehow seems proper that I might accompany the people we know until that last moment, whether metaphoric or actual. Whether the death is the ending of a friendship or God’s conclusion of a life.
Christmas had seemed ordinary this year, although it was the first time I had spent it with family since before the pandemic. It was blissfully as I expected, despite a new pastor in my family’s parish, despite masks in church, despite the church having been repainted while I was away. Time had passed, things had changed. But the ordinary was recommencing. Old and new came together.
I was different, despite insisting to myself that I was entirely the same.
I found myself back in the pews of churches. I rarely vested and deaconed. I just sat in the pews in the various cities I passed through among families I grew up with and Jesuits who taught me. I felt an illusion of continuity, of constancy. It had been two years and I could tell myself that not much had changed. I could embrace nostalgia and leave the coins for the dead in my pockets, unspent.
I walked up and down the corridors of a Jesuit community I love–one of my favorite places, perhaps because it was the first Jesuit house I ever saw. I noted how little things changed and I took the same photos of architectural details that I snap whenever I’m there: an attempt to prove to myself that it was invariable.
There were some exceptions. I was (at least) a little different. Diaconate ordination had happened, what I did was different.
I deaconed for our community in Milwaukee, the first time much of my old community had seen me in the role.
I deaconed one day when a priest friend and I met to celebrate Mass before going out for dinner, just him and I. When I lived there, we would often meet for Mass in that chapel. This time it was the same, but not quite, as I handled the vessels and found that I needed to improvise a deacon’s stole with a safety pin. (Truly a deacon’s best friend.)
The days after the feast of Christmas were prayerful. White, sometimes gold, liturgical vestments reminded us that days were becoming less dark, that the Light, the Christ had indeed arrived. Historically, in time. Gradually, in our hearts, too. All point to His final arrival at the end of time.
Marking the arrival of Christ during the days of Christmas I found myself with a lot of in-between spaces: light and darkness, dryness and dampness, connection, disconnection, and reconnection, memories and change. I toggled between them as I traveled and saw old friends, brothers, family, and places I used to live.
Nostalgia was a way of honoring what had passed, while perhaps also denying that anything had changed.
I thought about death and the dead as the new year was about to arrive. I thought about the priest as one who stands at the intersection on the paths of the journey, pointing the way to new life and light in the imitation of Jesus, putting coins on the eyes of the dead. Priestly ordination was drawing closer in time–diaconate was its in-between.
On another dark evening, colder than the last, I stood on the roof of our community. Two Jesuit friends and I were smoking cigars and talking about life—past, present, and future. We laughed for what seemed like a long time. We smoked, the ember light from the ends of the cigars enough light for our chat, against the dim and dark backdrop of an empty campus, a snow-covered quadrangle, and the towers, spires, and shadow-buildings of the city around us.
It was the new year. I shivered and felt the ice of the roof through my shoes. My cigar burned, but unevenly and tried to go out. It wasn’t the first such night: I was doing what I always did in a place I used to live.
You’re the one who’ll come and put the coins on the eyes of the dead, my friend had said. So far, though, I’d mostly kept them in my pocket by insisting that little had changed. My attention was on the people in front of me, even while memories of places and ghosts of friends stood by. The ends of the cigars were glowing, live sparks as ever. We laughed and shivered, as we always did on such nights. Let the dead bury their dead (Matthew 8:22), I thought. I was more interested in the living. Memories, like the dead, reached out for their coin, their closure. Even as I remembered, I wasn’t prepared for the finality the coins represented. It was a new year and life’s wholesome uncertainties beckoned.