Uncle Walt keeps the gate

By Heidi Shott

My Uncle Walt died last Tuesday, just a few weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. An extremely pious Roman Catholic, he considered my father’s older sister, Alene, his wife until the day he passed on – 32 years after she left a short note and skipped out of the house like a school girl.

He was a goofy kind of guy, but I always liked him. He played the guitar and sang; he wore moccasins; he liked to play catch. He was a terrible driver. He liked to swim in the lakes in our part of central New York and appreciated my mother’s willingness to swim with him when no one else would. He used Grecian Formula on his gray hair and everybody knew it.

But his outstanding characteristic was his profound devotion to the Church. He made his daughters say the rosary every night. As a small child I remember staying overnight at their house and reading comic books while they fingered their beads and murmured the prayers over and over. It was both extremely exotic (they were the only Catholics in our extended clan) and extremely boring. It seemed to last for hours and hours as I lay flopped on their living room davenport, as Aunt Alene always called the sofa, listening to the cadence of their voices and watching my two older cousins glance at their watches and one another.

Uncle Walt was exceedingly frail when I saw him last at my father’s funeral in 2000. As we sat with our baked ham and potato salad after Dad’s informal service on the side lawn of the family farm, Uncle Walt told me how he drove each Sunday to Syracuse (at least an hour’s drive) to hear the Latin mass. The thought of an 85 year-old Uncle Walt driving on the New York State Thruway was truly terrifying.

He died on Tuesday, the day Pope Benedict XVI released his statement which contends, in part, that Protestant denominations are no more than “Christian communities.” This reiteration of the “Dominus Iesus” declaration of 2000 and the news last week about the lifting of restrictions for the Latin mass may very well have been too much of a good thing for the old guy. He must have died a happy man. Things were finally swinging his way!

No one else in our family was religious, including another uncle who was an American Baptist minister. The rest of us were Protestants merely because we weren’t Catholic or Jewish or Zen Buddhist. So it’s funny that my most enduring childhood memory of spending time with Uncle Walt and Aunt Alene is of those Sundays when they dragged me to Mass and I had to sit alone while they went up for Communion. It was my first experience of exclusion.

“You’re part of our family for everything else. You can wear hand-me-downs from your cousins. You can drink milk from the special Mary Poppins cup. You can fall asleep on our laps after you’ve run around in the backyard and we’ll stoke the damp hair off your hot forehead. But at Mass on Sundays you can’t approach, much less partake of the body of Jesus. Nope, sorry. Not allowed. Stay in your seat and be a good girl. We’ll be right back.”

It seems we Christians…of virtually every stripe…are very good at being gatekeepers of Jesus. When we humans attempt, through sophisticated theological debate or literal scriptural interpretation or the occasional lively claim of divine revelation, to have the corner on the Jesus market, it scares me. I’ve been there and can’t forget the sucky way it made me feel. Implicit in the act of keeping the gate is the notion that the keeper has access to information and power and knowledge and secret handshakes that the rest of us don’t.

I’ve always been tickled by the practice – started in Mormon youth groups, I recall – of determining one’s actions by asking the question, “What would Jesus do?”

Here’s my answer: “I don’t know! I’m not Jesus!”

As a parent of two young teenagers, I’m beginning to realize there’s a day in the not-so-distant future when they are going to shake our hands and say (I hope), “thank you, lovely parents.” Then they will walk out that door. When confronted with the inevitable choices life will bring their way, I hope to God they don’t ask, “What would my Mom do?” I want them to do the right thing because it’s what they know they should do. I want them to remember how we’ve taught them to live and to how we’ve taught them to treat the people they encounter. If they have to pause to ask the question, then I fear for the answer.

Jesus, that savvy teacher, left us such good, simple instructions. If we heed them well and faithfully, we shouldn’t have to stop and think.

There has been a lot of interesting talk about open communion in these parts and I understand (most of) the conversation and appreciate the arguments on both sides. The recent posts reminded me of my college roommate reading aloud a letter from an old boyfriend who was an agnostic and fairly cynical about Christian faith. He wrote that he was attending an Episcopal Church and that he liked the ritual. He “relished” walking up the aisle and taking Communion.

“Eeeuuuwww,” we both said when she read that part. “That’s creepy.”

But now I’m not so sure. Maybe the mysterious act of taking communion was the start of something for that young man. Maybe, as the songwriter Bruce Cockburn sang a few years later, “spirits open to the thrust of grace.” Who am I to say?

But then again, maybe being shut off from something mysterious and holy, something I didn’t understand when I was seven or eight, maybe that fed my yearning for the things of God. Maybe I’m still pondering these things decades later because they weren’t just handed to me. Does it matter how the gift is given? Does it matter how it is received?

But not everyone is an asker of questions. God gifts some people with the different propensities. Some people are like my Uncle Walt whose passion for the Blessed Mother and the Roman Catholic Church was all consuming. His need to keep that gate in place was as clear to him as breathing.

What does the question-asker do with an Uncle Walt?

Seven years ago, at my father’s funeral, I balanced a chinet plate on my lap and listened to him tell me about the Nocturnal Adoration Society. The next day I prayed he wouldn’t kill anyone while driving to the Latin mass in Syracuse.

Then today, I sent some flowers.

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