Here’s another chapter of the ill-fated autobiography, going up in bits and pieces in no particular order.
Chapter 3 ~ Of all things for a mere infant ~
Dilexi iustitiam et odivi iniquitatem propterea morior in exilio, that is, I loved justice and hated iniquity: for that I die in exile. That was the epitaph on the tomb of the much loved and much hated Bishop of Rome, Pope Saint Gregory VII. The anniversary of his death was the day I was conceived in original sin, the same as my father before me, all the way back to Adam. That anniversary of Gregory VII in 1959 was nine months to the day of when I popped out of the womb the normal way in late February of 1960, a Thursday, mid-afternoon, 3:32 p.m., giving little extra pain to my mother, or so she says. I asked.
1960 was a unique year. The baby boomer generation had just come to an end. A radical change was about to take place. I didn’t belong to the crowd that would ram through changes like power plays of contempt against God and neighbor. I didn’t belong to the crowd that didn’t have a sense of what things were like before the changes came. I witnessed them happening, which was to have a most profound effect on my perspective, pre-disposing me to that which is most radical, neither to the left or right, neither conservative nor liberal, but simply wanting to be one with Him who is truth. The Lord is who He is, and does not define Himself as midway between political descriptions, for both may be to the right or left of Him at any given time. You can’t get more radical than being rooted in Him who is reality.
At the time, I, of course, didn’t know anything, outside of the fact that it would have been bitterly cold on the trip home from the neo-natal unit. In years to come, I remember there always being a couple of weeks in February when the temperatures were something like twenty two below zero on the Fahrenheit scale at the warmest part of the day, with the colder temps reaching down to thirty, forty and, on most nights, precisely fifty two below zero, once even seventy four below with a wind chill of a hundred and four below. It was a hundred and four degrees above when, years later, I was to head off for the seminary. North-central Minnesota gets all four seasons in a manner most extreme, centered in the middle of the continent as it is. As I write this, I’m happy to be in a slightly less extreme environment as a hermit in this little rain forest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But we will get to the extreme spiritual environment in which a hermit might find himself toward the end of this autobiography, please God.
The ride back to our home on ninth avenue North would have only been a couple of minutes driving since we lived close to Saint Cloud City Hospital. I would later get to know that sprawling institution towering above the cliff-like banks of the Mississippi river as a young patient. At least as a baby, I never complained, not ever, it seems, for mom told me that I was always but always a quiet baby, making hardly a peep. I guess I was just saving up for later. Hermits are always troublemakers.
* * *
My baptism was on Sunday, March 13, two and a half weeks after I was born, an unusual delay for a Catholic baptism back in those days. The problem, I think, is that my parents were already “church hopping”. I’m always in favor of people finding a parish which is faithful to the faith. Not all parishes, mind you, were superb before the Vatican Council. Not all were so faithful after either. March 13 wasn’t a feast day, except that a certain Father Rory was martyred on that day in Cordoba, Spain.
I was baptized George, my dad’s name. Mom wanted David, that great Jewish King. David, Hebrew for Beloved, became my middle name. I’m just conjecturing here, but I think my mom, Ann, by name, meaning “merciful one” in Hebrew, had a Semitic side to her Polish ancestry. She would use Yiddish words now and again, usually when I was getting myself into trouble. At any rate, I was never even once called either George or David until I entered the seminary. Everyone called me by the nickname Jord, short for Jordan, a name used in its fullness when emotions ran high, whether for good or bad. In some dialects of some languages, Jord is wrongly used for the name George. But Jordan is Hebrew. It means to fall precipitously, much like the River Jordan precipitously falls from the top of Mount Hermon, through the Golan, Galilee, and down and down again into that ever so dead Dead Sea, well over eleven thousand feet below, all in about one hundred miles. Jordan, falling precipitously. What a name! It certainly fits me altogether. In my life, I’ve certainly been both a physical and spiritual clutz (there’s that Yiddish again!). But I suppose it’s good to know what happened to us all in the precipitous fall of original sin so that we might with all the more reality, with all the more humble thanksgiving, look to the salvation of Him who fell again and again and yet again under the weight of the cross, redeeming us from that sin.
Dad’s ancestry is from the border of Scotland and England – which side I’m not sure – though it is certain that Germany saw centuries of his side of the family. I sometimes tell people what George and Byers mean. George is Greek for one who shovels the ground. Jesus gave this job description, if you will, to His Father, γεωργός (Jn 15,1). I love that. Byers is an archaic term of the Northern British Isles for one who dwells near a cattle shed, a byer. Put the two together, and it’s inescapable that my name is Manure Shoveler, an earthy name to be sure, reminiscent of the name Adam, who is one who shovels the ground, the adamah, by way of vocation from God. Not a bad name all told, especially if you throw in David, which would make me the Beloved Manure Shoveler! Yikes!
* * *
After I was born, we lived at our tiny house on Ninth Avenue North for a year and a half before moving to a larger house further up on the North side of town, next to the airport. Dad felt at home near the airport, having crop-dusted in bi-planes since he was a teenager, and right through World War II and the Korean conflict. Ninth avenue was a major artery in and out of the city, and moving, even if only one street over, made it easier to raise a family safely.
It wasn’t long after that when dad was re-elected yet again as the mayor of Saint Cloud, a hamlet of some 48,000 people. He started his political career as soon as he returned (in 1954) from flying corsairs for the U.S.M.C. in Guam, the Philippines, Japan, China and Korea. I remember the day of his reelection. He had a sign on top of his new car, asking people to vote for him, and they did. He was so very happy, wanting me to try to read the sign. I told him what it said – Vote Byers for Mayor! – not because I could read, but because I heard him say what was written there some minutes previously. He congratulated me for being so smart and, silly me, I took pride in my deception. Yet, I knew the sting of conscience even then.
The old house on ninth avenue, which I had only known for the first eighteen months of life, deserves a mention, since I once shocked this same sister with my rather good memory about that house. When she recalled to me where we had previously lived, I, without further ado, launched into my many memories of the crib, of what had been hanging above the crib, of family members who would hover over me, making silly noises, of what the room looked like with the big bay window, of how fancy the ranch style doors were, which led into the dining room and kitchen to the back and left of the crib, and what the back yard with the little wooden patio and grass and the types of trees and bushes growing there looked like. I was taken aback that she was so very astounded at my memory, exclaiming again and again that it just wasn’t possible for a mere four year old to remember anything when they were only one and a half years old. Except for me, I guess. I still remember those times as clearly as I did when I was four years old. My memories of my early childhood, even before two years of age, are quite extensive.
Just to say, my father is a step-father to my two older sisters, who are ten and twelve years older than myself. My mom married again when her first husband was killed in a military plane crash. Also, just to say, my full brother is only a year and a half older than myself. We looked quite alike early on, but not so much any more. This will become important later on in life.
While I think I could go on for some hundreds of pages on these first few years, I’ll just pick out a few significant incidents, not the least of which landed me a severe warning from a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church some forty years later.
* * *
The Cardinal, one of the more academic and brilliant Cardinals of this past century (and still alive as I write this) warned me that I was mightily responsible before our Lord for everything in my priesthood, and that I, more than others, will owe Him, Jesus, an explanation for the graces given to me at such an early age, and so I had better not do anything wrong, ever. He was adamant about this, really quite severe. Yikes!
I have, of course, done many and terrible things in my life, that which, as is the case with all of us, has manifested the reason for the horrific torture and death of the Son of God. But what made this Cardinal so agitated was my first recollection of being called to the priesthood, which he, unsolicited, had asked about. I guess he was expecting something about a certain yearning to serve the Lord in my teenage years (which is also true). But instead, I told him about a particular Sunday, during Mass, when I was but two and half years old, in 1962, early in the Summer, on a particularly hot morning, as I recall. I’m guessing that it was the feast of the birthday of Saint John the Baptist, which was on a Sunday that year. I would later take Saint John as one of two Confirmation names that I was anomalously allowed, the other being Saint John the Evangelist.
Anyway, the parish church on the North side of town was always jammed for Sunday Mass back in those years. If you were late, you had to stand in the back and along the side aisles. We were always just in time or a minute late, and so were often spread out all over the church. The job of the ushers was actually to usher late comers into this or that empty space here and there in the church, almost physically sliding people down the pews in order to make room. Imagine that! But on this Sunday, we had arrived a little ahead of time, and so were seated together in what was the second to the last pew in back of the church, on the left side of the center aisle. The line up, beginning from the aisle, was, if I remember correctly, my oldest half-sister, then my mom, then me, my brother, my father and finally my other half-sister.
I was standing tippy toe on the kneeler, holding on for dear life to the top of the pew in front of me, just able to look over the top of the pew between the shoulders of those sitting in front of me. It was during the homily, so everyone was sitting down and I was able to see up into the sanctuary at the other end of the Church. I think this was the very first time that I had been brave enough to do such gymnastics. One misstep and I would have been crumpled up in a heap under the pew. That would later happen to me a number of times. As I’ve said, I’m a bit clutzy.
As I was peering up into the sanctuary, it happened, just like that. I beheld not anything I could see, but there was definitely Someone, as in God Himself, utterly majestic, with such radiance, however invisible, uncontainable by the universe, divine, and yet so very friendly, beckoning to me, taking me, drawing me to Himself. I was overwhelmed. I shut my eyes. Would this Someone go away if I shut my eyes? No, He was still there! That’s how I’ve remembered this gesture of the Most High from that day onward, throughout all the years of my life, even if I would later fall into that which would bring me to find myself on my knees before Him in a confessional. It’s all just as real and happening now as it was then. God’s love is ever so simple, ever so gentle, and thus able to shine even amidst what some might think is an unprepared psychological outlook of a such an infant. Any later developed psychology on my part could not add to or subtract from or change in any way that love which I experienced. Love does that. Love can be noticed whatever is going on in our lives. Love doesn’t change even if we do. God is love. He is always wanting to draw us into His presence, squeezing us tight. A majestic love.
I knew what He expected of me, that I was to be there, up in the sanctuary, at the altar, that that was what I was going to be about for the rest of my life. I was to be with that Someone. I didn’t know what the word “God” meant as a vocabulary word, but I did know this Someone, and this Someone knew little, tiny me. But I did not feel insignificant in the least. He loved me and does so still, even though I’ve often taken a misstep, crumpled up in a heap of useless humanity in my sin. He is good and kind. If anyone is religious, that is, giving back to God what is His due, that is, our worship, our love, it is because we are not objectified by the Lord — just another one of the trillions of people who have existed — but are loved personally by Him. Having a sense of this has us rush to Him, and has us want to share with others this greatest love in our lives.
During this experience, I vividly remember that the priest, just having finished the Gospel, was being helped down the steps of the ad orientem high altar (ripped out just a few years later in the mid-1960s) by his deacon and sub-deacon. Half way down those marble steps, he took off his chasuble and maniple in a most clumsy fashion — really having a hard time of it — giving these to them, and then gripping the corner of the altar to balance himself. They helped him the rest of the way down the steps where he then proceeded to the pulpit. This taking off of the vestments for preaching is most proper for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, though it is rarely done, even in that Use. But, as I say, it was unusually hot that Sunday morning. The new form of Mass would not be current for some years to come.
Of all things for a mere infant, and while basking in the love of God for me, I felt compassion for this priest because of his being a priest, and I knew that this was part of that to which God was calling me: solidarity with priests. I didn’t know that priest in the least at my two and a half years of age. He could have been a saint. It’s just that before such a love of God, anyone whomsoever is called by our Lord to be with Him up in the sanctuary needed compassion and understanding, for we are all just so absolutely nothing before God, though we are so very much loved by Him. This is what was also very much part of my own first understanding of the intervention of God in our world so tainted with original sin. There was no looking down on this priest. Just the opposite. It was awesome that he could be there at all. That’s where this Someone, God Himself was in all His majesty and love for us. That is the way I felt about my own call to be where he was, up in the sanctuary, in the service of this most awesome Someone. How unworthy, nothing we are. But how good God is.
This vocation to be “up in the sanctuary” had nothing to do with elitism. Distances meant nothing. This Majestic Someone, God, was calling me, however far away I was in the very back of the church. I could have been outside for that matter. As I say, I had the sense that the very universe could not contain him. He could reach out to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Serving Him “up in the sanctuary” did not mean leaving anyone behind.
I feel quite ashamed and do heartily apologize for making this seem all too complex for a tiny little boy. This was not at all about discursive reasoning. It was a simple understanding of the way things are with Him who is love. I could go on and on describing what went on with this manifestation of totally undeserved love, not because it was complex, reasoned out, a mind game, but rather precisely because it was so simple, far reaching, all encompassing. Anyone who has experienced being drawn to that Charity who is Truth knows the possibility. Love and truth, together, as a Person, as a Someone. This was about being called to be in an active, loving reverence of Him who loves us so much that He wants us to be with Him. Everything made sense in that reality which alone is so very real.
Does any of this make me oh-so-special? Gaghh! No! Double-gaghh! Blech! The Lord just gets what He wants, when He wants, as the sovereign Lord of History. I failed Him too many times to count. But He still gets what He wants. He’s very patient.
* * *
Not long after this, my older sister began to teach us how to say our night prayers, just before going to bed. My brother and I were in our pajamas. The two of them would kneel alongside my bed. I tried kneeling for about three seconds, but couldn’t resist disappearing under the bed, since its frame was so high, and since I often used the space below this high bed as a kind of military fort during the day. I didn’t know anything about the Church Militant theologically, but the sense that we were at war with whatever was evil seemed to come naturally to me. Praying from a military perspective was the way to go.
My sister, exasperated, would drag me out and plonk me on the top of the bed. They would then make the Sign of the Cross. I tried to do the same. I did it all wrong for a number of days, but then I calmed down when I figured out it was a tracing of the cross that was on the wall of the bedroom, not that I knew what that was all about, though that image was also mysterious, sacred, about Someone who loved me, to whom my heart and soul were tied.
Even if got myself all tangled up in a knot with my first attempts to make the sign of the cross, I was, however, very good at folding my hands. It just seemed like a prayer in itself, like a way to open up communications with heaven. Folding my hands for prayer was to take notice that heaven was looking down upon little me, which was totally cool. My sister would go through a litany of intercessions for everyone in the family and anyone she could think of that was sick, especially grandma and grandpa on her side of the family. We would pray for an end to the war in Vietnam. If they forgot to add this, I learned to add it myself. Learning to pray like this was so easy, since I knew the Someone to whom we were praying already. He loved me, us, so, of course we were praying! We do it all the time anyway, don’t we, lifting up our minds and hearts and souls to Him, anytime, anywhere? We can, you know. He gives us the wherewithal to do this. We don’t have to be good at it; we just need to do it, taking His lead.
Post-script: Little kids have an enormous capacity for prayer. Teach your kids how to pray, always by your own example. Don’t be ashamed to let them know that you are proud to share with them the greatest love of our life. They will catch on immediately.
Also: Don’t hesitate to encourage vocations. There is no such thing as too young.