The big gift of small problems


Quid hoc ad aeternitatem
Quid hoc ad aeternitatem, as old Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Used to mumble when faced with the usual parade of travail,
What does it matter in the light of eternity? And yet, and yet,
With total respect for eternity, don't you love your problems,
The smallness of them, the salt and roar of them, considering
The alternative? The blizzards of bills I can never pay in toto,
The surly son, the dismissive daughter, the wet shabby house,
The battered car, the shivering pains, the grim brooding debts,
The dark thread of fear that I might not have been a good dad,
The feeling sometimes that maybe there was a better husband
For my wife if only she had hung in the contest a little longer,
And the ones that haunt me every minute of the blessed week,
The health and joy of our kids, and the fragility of their future;
But there are great moments when I realise that all the muddle
Is so very much better than aeternitatem. Could it be that what
Keeps us awake at night are the greatest gifts we can ever get?
Just thinking. Because soon enough, as real time is accounted,
We'll be muttering Latin with Bernard, and what we will want
More than anything, even there, in the incomprehensible Light,
Is to be in a chair late at night, frightened, rocking a sick child.

Her hands on the shoulder of my coat
I am pretty sure but not totally sure that Mass in this town is at eleven,
So I shamble across the street from the motel and arrive neurotic early,
I hate to slide into Mass late and croak the door and get the death stare
From the old ladies, what is it about a head scarf that makes you mean,
And I wait for the crowd but only six people wander in and one leaves,
A man with a huge cowboy hat who kisses a woman and then basically
Runs down the aisle grinning, what in heaven's name is the story there,
But just then the lanky priest emerges and says in nomine Patris et Filii
Et Spiritus Sancti
, and I realise this is a Latin Mass — the old Tridentine
Rite in which I was soaked as a boy. The old tongue is a physical shock.
I can feel the language like my mum's hands on the shoulder of my coat.
For an instant that no instrument will ever measure I am in the pew with
My dad sitting by the aisle because he will soon help with the collection,
And my three brothers, the oldest surly and tall and handsome and bored,
And my wry wild lone sister who will incredibly someday become a nun,
And my mum, in the pew behind us because Mass was so crowded today,
Her hands on the shoulder of my coat. Maybe they were there to keep me
From punching a younger brother, or maybe she was slipping me a dollar,
Or perhaps we tell each other that we love each other without words more
Easily than we do with words. Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. I bet you a buck
My mum was sitting in the pew behind us because none of us kids wanted
To sit closer and make room for her, we were all our own selfish republics
Then, adamant about what the world owed us. Nobis quoque peccatoribus.
The tall priest this morning sings occasionally but I long ago lost my Latin.
Domine non sum dignus — well, that line I know too well: I am not worthy.
And ite missa est, the last words, the Mass is over. The other five attendees
Genuflect and vanish but I sit there a long while with her hands on my coat.
My brothers jostle for space and one nearly crushes my dad's hat. My sister
Is the only one of us who turns to see where mum is. My dad gives us coins.
Eventually the thin priest leans out of the sacristy and gives me the fish eye.
I hope to find my mum waiting outside the church but when I open the door
The first thing I see is the guy with the cowboy hat kissing the woman again,
Which feels like exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment, as usual. 

PoetBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland.


Topic tags: Brian Doyle, Portland, latin mass, Quid hoc ad aeternitatem, Her hands on the shoulder of my coat



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Existing comments

Written by an American in America about a local experience but does it not testify to the universality of Catholic culture. We have all experienced the same mass in similar churches with similar priests and surroundings. This was a reassuring piece of description. Despite all the turmoil of recent years we are still the same church; a mix of obvious humanity united by the love for an ever present divinity.

terry oberg | 19 January 2010  

Thank you so much for publishing these. Brian Doyle and I must be related!

Jonathan Shaw | 19 January 2010  

Thank you so much Brian. My mother died 4 years ago: old, stroked-out, dementing. But she is always that beautiful, holy, young lady who always loved Mass, had us sit at the front together so we would not be too distracted ...she, my sister and me. Teaching us of Jesus by gentle touch and smile.

Eugene | 19 January 2010  

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