Old letters with used stamps are displayed at the Van Dieten Postzegelveilingen in Capelle aan den IJssel, Netherlands, on 27 September, 2008.
(Koen van Weel/AFP via Getty Images)
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared in the pages of Chapter House on 18 September2020, and has been lightly edited for time references.
Death teaches us that we are no mere mortals.
By Larry Chapp
Late last summer I received in the mail something quite extraordinary and unexpected.
A man I had known in seminary passed away and left me $1000 in his will. I left seminary before being ordained a priest, and I had not seen or spoken to Bob since 1986 so to say I was gobsmacked is an understatement. There was a letter that accompanied the cheque from an elderly lady friend of his who was the executor of his small estate. The letter explained that Bob wanted me to have a little something since he had never forgotten our friendship when we were in the seminary together and was appreciative of the many kindnesses I had showed him.
He had never married, had no living relatives, and was by her account a lonely man who had been sustained in life by the memory of the friends of his youth and wanted to leave each one of them a little token of gratitude.
The backstory to all of this is that my friend (Bob Wick) and I could not have been more different. As a seminarian I was a young, skinny, nerdy, intellectual kid, with a penchant for hyper-conservative diatribes wherein my tongue became a weaponized razor blade that left the mark of Zorro on anyone who dared espouse what I deemed to be heresy.
Lacking maturity and the mellowing influence that only worldly experience can give, I used my academic gifts to plow the road for orthodoxy in a manner that would have made Torquemada blush. I was to be “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” which made sense in my case only if Melchizedek was a jerk.
Looking back now I can honestly say that in reality I was just a pinched-up little prick who needed a punch in the face and a girlfriend, preferably in that order.
Bob on the other hand, was what we called back then a “delayed vocation” since he was well into his thirties before entering the seminary after spending time in the Air Force. He was also morbidly obese, easily tipping the scales at 400 pounds, and a theological liberal of the “I dissent from everything that came before Vatican II” kind of guy. He became famous in the seminary for his oft-repeated observation that it seemed to him, based on their governing style, that all newly appointed bishops must have been sent off to “asshole finishing school” before taking charge of their dioceses.
Bob was never ordained, either.
Strangely, perhaps, we became friends. I saw something in Bob that I admired—call it “perseverance” or “strength of character”—since his corpulent frame had cost him his air force career and had caused him to be rejected by numerous dioceses who saw his weight as a liability. More than that, he was an authentic man, without guile, and had an uncanny ability to see through pretense that gave his demeanor and speech a bracing honesty.
We shared a certain bawdy and earthy sense of humor and a love for Maryland crab soup, but what he saw in me I haven’t a clue.
In reality, I think it boiled down to something quite simple. Namely, I never once brought up the issue of his weight, (even as he downed his third cheese steak), never once made a joke about it, and never once insinuated that he wasn’t fit to be a priest because of it.
I may have been an immature little toad, but I always seemed to enjoy the company of misfits. Bob was one, and I suppose I was too. I did have the wits even then to understand that among misfits, the deepest pain is caused by the most casual verbal cruelties.
One soon learns that the community of misfits includes us all.
C.S. Lewis somewhere reminds us that when we meet another human being we are never encountering a “mere mortal.” We are encountering an immortal being whose eternal destiny is shaped in the here and now by the broad nexus of our relationships with each other. I love that.
It is my firm conviction that there are no “accidental” people in our lives. God places them in our pathway for a reason. That cheque in the mail last summer drove the point home to me with great force. Alone and lonely in his old age, Bob was sustained emotionally by those encounters of long ago.
That is a truth both comforting and sobering.
Scripture says that God will not crush the “bruised reed.” Neither should we. Christians must be misfits for the misfits as we seek to find the good in everyone we meet. That sounds trite. It isn’t. It is hard as hell.
Larry Chapp, PhD taught theology at DeSales University for 19 years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
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