Like Sparks Through the Stubble

December 30, 2013

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. . . they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.
— Wisdom 3:1,7, used in the Roman Catholic funeral liturgy

holi13badge-snowflakeIt was his voice that told us, over our school’s public address system, that President Kennedy had been shot and gravely wounded. A little while later he stood in front of us in the auditorium to tell us that the president had died. The Reverend Robert C. Gribbin was an imposing figure to me then, tall, straight of bearing, swift of stride as he moved through the halls of Bishop McDevitt High School. When I saw him in 2012 for the first time in going on fifty years, he seemed diminished neither in stature nor in sensibility. And he remembered me. He was my school principal from the time I was in ninth grade until I finished eleventh grade, and when he was reassigned to parish ministry at the beginning of my senior year, I missed him terribly.

I was a well-behaved student. In my four years of high school I got detention once for pinning a Kleenex on my head for Friday Mass instead of a genuine chapel veil. (Mother Francoise watched from the balcony as we entered the auditorium. She was strict about proper attire.) My homeroom was the home ec suite, and the next time I couldn’t find my chapel veil, I used sewing shears from the box beside the pencil sharpener to cut a snowflake pattern into the Kleenex. I don’t think I fooled her.

Another time, Mother reprimanded me for failing to greet the band director as I passed him in the hallway. (He was walking toward me as I was on my way to the bathroom, only the two of us in the deserted halls during a class. I pretended to be reading a bulletin board.) I was angry with him, I explained, because he had failed in an obligation to the music educators’ association, skipping an important meeting in favor of teaching his private students that day. As a result, my cousin and I were disqualified from participating in district orchestra, a turn of events that left me heartbroken. She let me off with a lecture about courtesy. And I think she probably gave the band director a good talking to as well.

Thus I had little reason to have direct contact with the principal. Yet he so influenced me and my classmates that we invited him to speak at our graduation.

Father, now Monsignor, Gribbin died last week. He was 90 years old but still performing pastoral acts. He was preparing for the Christmas liturgies, had visited the sick, heard confessions in advance of the vigil services. Then he had a stroke, and was gone by Christmas morning. His funeral was today, and I was there. How could I not be?

The homilist took his theme from the Gospel text, Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes. Monsignor Gribbin, who described himself as “a simple parish priest,” strove to be poor in spirit, pure in heart, to thirst for righteousness, to make peace. He was a man of courage, and a man of peace, and we can honor his memory by striving for those qualities in ourselves.

Those thoughts called to mind the message Monsignor Gribbin delivered to the Bishop McDevitt Crusaders Class of 1965 on our graduation day. I can’t quote it verbatim, but I can give the gist of it, carried in my heart these nearly five decades. We were called, as Christians, to a crusade to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, to call everyone to righteousness and work for justice. This would not be easy, and would require sacrifice, because our efforts would ever be thwarted by those who would feel diminished by lifting others up. But if we persevered, we would be victorious. He saw us standing on a hill, weary, lifting our hands to heaven. “The sun is shining on a shield,” he said. “The shield belongs to a Crusader, and the sun belongs to God.”

It was my great privilege to be able to tell Monsignor Gribbin how much those words had meant to me, how I carried them in my heart even when “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days, . . . down the arches of the years. . . .”

“Down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind, and in the mist of tears,” he said, finishing the lines from Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.”

I had approached him at the table where he had just finished his meal after the funeral of another simple parish priest who had served well the Class of 1965. As I sat down beside him, he called me by name, asked after my current circumstances. I told him how my faith had evolved down the arches of the years, from a childish embrace of myth and magic, through the loneliness of unbelief, to a deeper understanding of my own spirituality and an acceptance of the contradictions and uncertainties we all must live with this side of the Kingdom.

After the Mass I followed the funeral procession away from the church toward the conglomeration of cemeteries about a mile down the road. It was quite cold, and I had more than an hour to go before I got home. I couldn’t see the green canopy that usually marks an open grave. I didn’t know how far down the lane I’d have to drive, how far I’d have to walk to the burial site. With cold symptoms building behind my eyes and something like a fever rising, I pulled to the side of the road and let others go on ahead.

I was stopped across from a farmer’s field, harvested weeks ago and now an expanse of broken stalks and sticks. A weak sun was shining forth, and oh yes, there were sparks among the stubble. I breathed a prayer of thanksgiving that I had known this man, this humble servant of the Lord. And then I drove home, ready to take up the shield again tomorrow.

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