“One thing I would say about my brother…. My most vivid memories of him, in our childhood, all fill me with poignant compunction at the thought of my own pride and hard-heartedness, and his natural humility and love.
“I suppose it is usual for elder brothers, when they are still children, to feel themselves demeaned by the company of a brother four or five years younger, whom they regard as a baby and whom they tend to patronise and look down upon. So when Russ and I and Bill made huts in the woods out of boards and tar -paper which we collected around the foundations of the many cheap houses which the speculators were now putting up, as fast as they could, all over [———], we severely prohibited [———] and Russ’s little brother Tommy and their friends from coming anywhere near us. And if they did try to come and get into our hut, or even to look at it, we would chase them away with stones.
“When I think now of that part of my childhood, the picture I get of my brother [———] is this: standing in a field, about a hundred yards away from the clump of sumachs where we have build our hut, is this little perplexed five-year-old kid in short pants and a kind of a leather jacket, standing quite still, with his arms hanging down at his sides, and gazing in our direction, afraid to come any nearer on account of the stones, as insulted as he is saddened, and his eyes full of indignation and sorrow. And yet he does not go away. We shout at him to get out of there, to beat it, and go home, and wing a couple of more rocks in that direction, and he does not go away. We tell him to play in some other place. He does not move.
“And there he stands, not sobbing, not crying, but angry and unhappy and offended and tremendously sad. And yet he is fascinated by what we are doing, nailing shingles all over our new hut. And his tremendous desire to be with us and to do what we are doing will not permit him to go away. The law written in his nature says that he must be with his elder brother, and do what he is doing: and he cannot understand why this law of love is being so wildly and unjustly violated in his case.
“Many times it was like that. And in a sense, this terrible situation is the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us for the purely arbitrary reason that we simply do not want it.… Perhaps the inner motive is that the fact of being loved disinterestedly reminds us that we all need love from others, and depend upon the charity of others to carry on our own lives. And we refuse love, and reject society, in so far as it seems…to imply some obscure kind of humiliation.”
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
When I converted to Catholicism, a few months before my 21st birthday, after a life spent in various forms of agnostic philosophic deism and anti-deism and anti-Christianity and anti-Catholicism, I had to confess my sins to a priest. On the one hand, I had spent quite a lot of time in my life to that point being offended at the notion that I ever sinned, on the grounds that if I didn’t accept someone else’s notion of right and wrong I couldn’t be held accountable for it.
Well the story of my conversion is a long one and I won’t tell it here, but I eventually, after three months of preparation and inventory and list-making, considered myself ready to confess the sins of my life to a priest. I went to the Opus Dei center where I had gotten into the habit of going on Fridays with a friend who was also not Catholic, and who was also raised to be hostile to Catholicism. How the two of us started going to an Opus Dei center on Fridays after class is another story as well.
This Friday I had scheduled a meeting with the priest, a Mexican named Father Victor, who ended up going back to Mexico not long after, about an hour before the meditation was to begin.
I made him late to the meditation. I had spent so much time making sure I would remember as many of my sins as I could, that I was able carefully to recite sin after sin for over an hour until I had to stop and make a general categorical confession. Here is a part of that hour, which will forever remain as fresh in my mind as it was that evening, and make my heart tremble like it does after I’ve drunk one of those absurdly large small coffees from Starbucks:
The brown-skinned man sat in an armchair in the sitting room, in spite of the long black cassock that fell to his ankles resembling no one so much as Antonio Banderas. His fingertips were pressed together in front of his pursed lips as he stared ahead.
I was kneeling and tracing with my eyes the patterns of the rug.
“I have sinned against my brother. I have been cruel to him for no reason. All he ever wanted from me was love, and I thought I was better than he and I relentlessly and cruelly rejected his love and endeavored to stop others from loving him.” I could not stop to keep the tears that had welled up in my eyes from falling then any more than I can now as I write this.
“When his friends would come over, when we were young, our mutual friends, I would show them his face in the pictures above the mantel and say hateful things about him, calculated to make them despise him. I wanted them to love me instead of him.
“Our parents were divorced and we lived with our mother. That is, we lived in her house and she lived at the bars. Birthdays, Christmas, celebrations we used to have now meant nothing, came and went unacknowledged, had it not been for him. He got a job and bought me birthday presents, Christmas presents.
“When I went to college he was so proud of me. He would tell his friends about the work I was doing, my travels: Rome, Paris, London, Vienna, Munich. My work on ancient texts, papyri, manuscripts. When I shook their hands I was surprised to find that they already admired me somehow: he had endeavored to make them love me.
“But I was cold to him. I criticized him relentlessly. His sincerity never found a way in.
I paused. Father Victor was still.
“Then it was too late. He stopped taking life seriously. He stopped having serious conversations. He closed his heart that he had opened to me and to our mother and our father and to everyone else who had despised his love with indifference.”
Years later, not long ago, in fact, I was golfing with a man who is like a father to me. In fact he is very like my own father, but he has been like a father for years since I spent so much time in his house growing up, after the divorce and my father had his new wife and his new kids and all over again with the little things, except this time with girls instead of boys.
We were on the golf course and I don’t know why but I mentioned ———. I remarked that I can’t talk to him about anything serious anymore. That every conversation which becomes serious, which calls upon us to give an account for the philosophical presuppositions which our actions proclaim, is diverted into flippancy.
“Do you love him?” he asked me.
We were on the seventh green. There was a threesome with carts waiting to tee off behind us. They were playing faster than we were and we were walking. I stood there; it was my shot, but I stood there and I couldn’t say anything.
Why couldn’t I just say yes? Did I really not love my brother? I couldn’t say yes. I looked up at the clear sky. Nothing but blue, like the blue that Evagrius says heaven is. A perfect day for golf.
Finally, I took my shot. I made an impossibly long putt across the side of a green-plateau. I don’t know why, but it went in. “I don’t know,” I said. I couldn’t say yes, couldn’t say no.
“When’s the last time you told him?”
I couldn’t remember. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe you should.”
On the eighth hole I made par. I had a good tee shot, a bad iron, chipped onto the green, and one-putted. It made the whole round for me. I am a terrible golfer, but I have become good at keeping my peace and not thinking about any stroke but the one I am taking right now. It really made the round for me.
I hacked my way through the last hole and we left. ——— dropped me off at my brother’s house, where my wife and kids were, where we were staying.
When I saw my brother that day the first thing I did was hug him.
“I love you,” I said.