Sunday, May 22, 2016

Chet Raymo, "Care of Body and Soul"

"Care of Body and Soul"
by Chet Raymo

"In the 1940s, the Medical Arts Building on McCallie Avenue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was one of the tallest buildings in town. My father would park the green Ford (born in 1936, the same year as me) in the parking lot at back and my mother would whizz me up in the elevator to Doctor Starr's office on the fifth floor. This was at a time when doctors still made house calls for serious afflictions, but for minor ailments my mom insisted on dragging us downtown. The doctor probed my skinny chest with his cold-nosed stethoscope. He prodded my white belly with his rubbery fingers. He peered down my throat with the help of a shiny reflector attached to a strap around his head. "Hmm," he said. Then, "Hmm, hmm." He tilted toward my mother. "He'll be fine in the morning," said Doctor Starr. And I was.

My soul too needed tending. The nuns at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School lined us up two-by-two for the march to the church and every-other-week confession. I stood in line outside the confessional, between Billy Swanson and Carmen Costello, waiting my turn, and wondering what exactly were my sins. I knew that my acute awareness of cute Carmen was fraught with significance, and possibly sin, but I would have had no idea what to confess. A year or two later I would have a name for it: impure thoughts. "Bless me, Father, I have had impure thoughts 4623 times." Except I wouldn't give the exact number. I usually rounded off at five, a nice compromise between "goody-goody" and "depraved."

But in 1945 it was the usual roster of made-up sins we all confessed: disobedient (four times), told lies (twice), selfish (three times), disrespectful to my parents (twice). That seemed about right. I stepped into the box and the little wooden window slid open, and Father Shea said, "Hmm?" And then, after a silence, "Hmm." I rattled off my sins, received my absolution and penance (five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys), and left the box in a state of grace. 

Only to pass cute Carmen going in.

I've never choked on a fish bone or required a Heimlich maneuver. For this I suppose I should credit Saint Blaise, an early Christian martyr whose intercession is counted helpful in matters of the throat. I don't know if it still happens, but when I was a kid, every February 3rd, Saint Blaise's feast day, the kids at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School were trooped to the church to have our throats blessed. We knelt along the altar rail and Father Shea came along with crossed beeswax candles- tied together with a pretty silk ribbon, as I recall- and holding the vee of the candles to our throats, pronounced the magic words that conferred immunity from choking. The candles were not lighted. 

As you will guess, I managed to finagle a place at the altar rail next to Carmen Costello, and behind prayerfully folded hands I watched discreetly as Carmen held up her slim white neck to receive the blessing. Once a month or so, I was lucky enough to be the Mass server- in chaste white surplice- when Carmen came to the rail to receive Communion. Now I could look directly at her as I held the paten under her chin. Eyes closed, she tipped back her head, opened her adorable mouth, and stuck out her tongue to take the Host. 

Once, as Father Shea placed the wafer on her tongue, she suddenly opened her eyes, looking directly into mine. I was so startled, I dropped the paten. Clang! Those tiny crumbs of the body of Jesus dumped into the dust! The nuns and my schoolmates gasped. But Father Shea, bless him, leaned over, picked up the paten, placed it in my hand, and continued along the rail as if nothing had happened. 

I suspect that episode was still in my mind when I wrote the following passage from "In The Falcon's Claw: A Novel of the Year 1000." Aileran, a priest, is giving the Eucharist to his secret love Melisande, in the chapel of the house of Odo, her brutish husband: "I turned from the altar to bring the communion to the master and mistress of the house. Whom should I approach first? Would Odo see and know? Would he rise up from his knees like the God of wrath and strike the chalice from my hands? I placed the host into his hands, into that dark basket of hairy, gnarled fingers. I turned to Melisande."

Corpus Christi, I whispered. She lifted her head and I placed the wafer on her tongue. Her tongue furled back and carried the host into her mouth. She opened her eyes, and for a moment, perhaps only a second, I saw into her soul. I knew then that I was not alone, and that whatever followed was necessary and inevitable.

Quod ore sampsimus, Domine, pura mente capiamus, I murmured: What we have taken with our mouth, O Lord, may we receive with a pure heart.”

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