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The End of Wisdom


The first story I read in the folder of my old short stories was titled "The End of Wisdom." I'm not certain when it was written but suspect it's from my undergraduate days. Certain narrative elements made me remember circumstances in my own experience that very likely were only a few years behind me. It was a tale of a boy's observation of parishioners at Catholic mass, contrasting his familiarity with an early Sunday morning service centered on children with his exposure to behaviors of adult attendees at a later service. Until the very end of the story, the reader shares the boy's perspective. Noel wakes on a Sunday morning to learn that his family have overslept; he and his mother have missed the nine o'clock "Children's Mass" and will have to attend the regular 12:00 service at St. Andrew's, a service he has never been to.


Noel thinks about the nine o'clock mass, realizing "it wasn't really piety that made him love" it. "It was sitting in special pews right up at the front of the church, next to Harry Seefeldt and Roger Shamus, who had both made their first communion with him. It was listening to Father Hubert talking especially to them, and not so much to the adults. It was singing from the children's hymnbook the songs they had practiced in church school every Wednesday before their First Communion Day." I'm not sure who Noel's friends are based on, though I had Catholic friends as a child, but immediately I conjure up the interior of St. Patrick's church, the one my family (except for my Presbyterian father) attended, and the experience of making my First Communion and regular attendance at the 9:15 Children's mass presided over by Father Roy Chrissy. Clearly, I'm drawing on familiar Sunday morning and Wednesday afternoon activities I experienced until well into my teens. Father Hubert draws strongly on my memories of Father Crissy: "Noel always thought that Father Hubert and God were very much alike; he could tell because Father always understood what they were saying in the Bible and he could always explain it so well to the children. Noel sometimes thought religion was really just being good and church was feeling good."


The adult mass is a troubling experience for Noel. Parishioners are preoccupied and distracted by the people around them: a young couple flirty and silly, an older couple grumpy and argumentative, a fat woman in their row impolite and surly, two teen boys sneaking out of the church before the mass starts, a single woman uncomfortable to find herself sitting in a pew near the only black man in the church. (One sign of the age of this story is that the black man is referred to as a negro, as my mother was adamant that we politely call such people.) The mass is presided over by Father Tiebolt, an older, less congenial, more remote priest than Father Hubert, who conducts the service somewhat disinterestedly. People are rude on the way to take communion and eager to leave before the mass has fully ended.


At the end of the story Noel's mother explains to his Catholic father why Noel came home unhappy. She encourages her husband to watch the people at the five o'clock mass and "think about how they look to a child just feeling the full majesty of the church." She remembers Father Hubert a week earlier preaching the line from Psalms: "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" and asks, "What is it when you don't fear, when you don't seem to care? Because that's what he saw." The story ends with the suggestion that mother and son both know "simultaneously and separately that nothing either of them said could bring back everything that had been lost that morning."


The story strikes me as rather moralistic or propagandistic, essentially arguing over proper behavior at church service while also suggesting how parishioners might become disenchanted or disengaged from religious practice and possibly from religion itself. I'm not sure when I wrote this, but I did stop attending Catholic services in my teens, later struggled to get involved again after marriage in a Catholic service, but ultimately stepped away from religion altogether. I sense a nostalgia here for the kind of involvement I had with the church in childhood; it influenced my moral and philosophical leanings for much of my early adult life by what it taught, though I would argue that honesty and empathy and compassion and kindness are all things we can practice without being dominated by doctrine.


So, I'm left to wonder: is "The End of Wisdom" urging a more considerate, conscientious commitment to practicing religion or is it justifying my own disengagement from it?

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