Tag Archives: sin

Of Hotdogs, Baseball, and Going to Hell

16 Nov

yankee715
For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.
~ Gaudium et Spes

Winter is setting in, so here’s a baseball story to conjure up a springlike vibe.

It’s about my dad, Phil, and a buddy of his – Morty was his name, I’m pretty sure. They’d grown up as neighborhood pals in East Orange, New Jersey, and one fine Friday morning they played hooky together and caught a Yankees game in New York. It was an excursion that affected my father deeply. I know this because I heard the story from him several times before he died.

The details are a bit fuzzy now, but here’s the gist.

Judging from my dad’s birth date, I’m guessing the escapade took place sometime in the late 1940s. Baseball was king back then, and the immortals were real people, not just faces on trading cards. For example, fans would’ve still been mourning the passing of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth at that time (Gehrig! and Ruth!), and Joe DiMaggio himself would still be playing for the Yanks several more years – probably Morty and dad even got to see him.

Anyway, baseball was not only great entertainment for my father’s circle, but also a great leveler, bridging multiple cultural and social divides – like religion for instance. My dad came from solid Calvinist stock and a long line of serious Masons. Morty, on the other hand, was Irish, and Catholic to the core. They were both too young at the time to have adopted wholesale religious prejudice, I suppose, but it didn’t matter in any case: They were both nuts for baseball, and that was way more important to them than trifling ecclesial matters.

I’ve no recollection if there was something special going on that occasioned their conspiracy – a doubleheader, perhaps? – or if it was simply the anticipation of a forbidden pleasure. In any case, Phil and Morty ostensibly left their homes for school that morning, but then detoured to the train depot to catch a commuter into Penn Station. Once there, they took the subway up to the Bronx, and beelined their way through the crowds to the “House that Ruth Built.” A couple of Jersey boys buying tickets to a school-day ball game probably raised a couple eyebrows, but apparently nobody seriously challenged them. They made their way up to the cheap seats, and settled in to enjoy the main event.

My father’s family was dirt poor – grandpa worked the night shift at a beer bottling plant – but somehow my dad had scrounged up enough money for some eats on top of his train far83TD3OZA2MhkbfG.vDsgbge and the game ticket. The way dad described it, he and Morty took full advantage of their furtive outing: The Yankees down below working their magic on the field, and up in the stadium, the two truants living large and hailing vendors for hotdogs and Cracker Jack.

This is where my father would get real serious as he painted the scene for me: He and Morty, basking in the sun in their baseball paradise, focusing on the game, mustard-laden frankfurters at the ready. Morty takes a bite of his, then stops, mid-chew.

“What’s wrong?” my dad asked.

“Oh, no,” came Morty’s reply, his mouth forming words around the hotdog chunk. “I forgot!”

“Forgot what?”

Morty, pale and wide-eyed, could hardly reply. “It’s Lent; it’s Friday,” he managed to croak out. “I’m going to hell.”

So, that’s the story pretty much; dad never mentioned what happened next – you know, like did Morty spit out the hotdog? Did he and dad stay to the end of the game? And how did Morty navigate the moral minefields he must’ve faced at home and church back in East Orange?

Nope, none of that. Whenever dad told the story, it always ended abruptly with his friend’s somber self-assessment – and no hedging either. It was never Morty saying, “I think I’m going to hell,” but always the bare declaration stated absolutely deadpan: “I’m going to hell.” It’s as if my father wanted to avoid detracting from Morty’s very real spiritual crisis at that crucial moment – as if, for dad, Morty’s words stood apart somehow and required no additional comment.

Fair enough – I respect my dad’s reticence, whatever its origin. Nonetheless, there’s some good fodder there for insights and reflection. Here’s three observations that I can’t pass up, along with a word about scrupulosity.

  1. Accidental transgressions are not really sins. Morty was off on that point, despite his evidently sound moral formation otherwise. If that bite of hotdog on a Lenten Friday really was accidental, then Morty wasn’t culpable in any way – it was an oversight, not an intentional flouting of the abstinence rule, and so hardly a sin. If anything, he was guilty of a wee bit of intemperance that day, and maybe some imprudence as well – probably it wasn’t a good idea to spend a Friday in Lent at the ballpark. And, of course, there’s the deception and lying that undoubtedly facilitated Morty and dad even being at Yankees stadium that school day. If there was any sin to speak of, it involved playing hooky in the first place rather than the snack.
  2. Hell is a good motivator. As every second-grader preparing for confession can tell you, there’s imperfect contrition and perfect contrition. The imperfect kind is when we’re sorry for our sins because we don’t want to go to hell, whereas perfect contrition is sorrow for sin out of love for God alone. Obviously, perfect contrition is preferred, but imperfect contrition is good enough – God will take what he can get from us. And Morty? We know he wasn’t in danger of frying for biting down on the illicit ballpark frank, but he didn’t know that at the time. All he knew was that he violated a serious Lenten discipline, and he feared the consequences. Hell, in other words, was a reality to Morty, and he sure as hell didn’t want to go there.
  3. Moral struggle can be an admirable badge of faith. The first time my father told me his hooky story he was still a Protestant, although he related it to me at least a couple times more after he became a Catholic. Morty had clearly made an impression on my dad that bygone spring day – his young chum who goofed and wrongfully feared for his soul. Yet, consider: No one was present to hold Morty accountable for his lapse – what did Morty care about what Phil the Protestant thought? Besides, they were already playing hookey together, and so dad wasn’t likely to snitch on his Catholic friend for the forbidden Lenten hotdog. No, Morty’s sincere moral anguish revealed his true character and the strength of his convictions that day. It was a demonstration of authentic faith. It was a moment of grace.

1024px-Fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustinAnd, finally, scrupulosity, the “habit of imagining sin where none exists, or grave sin where the matter is venial,” according to Fr. Hardon. Sure, Morty required some correction with regards to his grasp of sin, conscience, and the role of the will, but let’s not be hasty. These days, when there’s so much moral confusion, not to mention widespread rationalization for all kinds of evil, it’s probably not a bad idea to err on the scrupulous side of things – a perspective that St. Augustine seems to endorse:

While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call “light”: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap.

And hotdogs? They can also add up, although one was enough for Morty – and, vicariously, for my dad as well. Thanks for your witness, Morty, wherever you are, and I pray that your conscience was long ago assuaged.

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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

What Should’ve Been My Most Embarrassing Moment

8 Dec

When people ask me, or indeed anybody else, “Why did you join the Church of Rome?” the first essential answer, if it is partly an elliptical answer, is, “To get rid of my sins” (G.K. Chesterton).

Cecilia was working on something for school. “Papa,” she asked, “what was your most embarrassing moment?”

What, I have to choose just one?

Let’s see, there’s the time I lost my passport in England while traveling with a group from my high school. I had hid it so well in my Brighton hotel room that I couldn’t locate it by the time we were leaving for London. While all my friends toured Buckingham Palace, I was navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth of the U.S. Embassy in order to procure replacement credentials.

embarrassedAnd speaking of high school, how about the time my friend Johnny and I were co-emcees for a musical variety show. We had worked up some clever patter and repartee, and the first two performances went off without a hitch. For the third and final performance, we got a bit cocky and decided to change up some of the jokes — you know, for our fans who were coming to see us for a third straight night.

Yup. Great idea — except, under the lights and before that packed auditorium, I completely blanked on the new punchlines. Gone, *poof*, nada. Later, after my complete implosion and frozen silence onstage, the show’s director chided us: Don’t. Make. Last. Minute. Changes — as if he needed to tell us that.

The episode I finally settled on for Cecilia’s school assignment, however, was one she already knew well — a story that will be passed on as a part of Becker family lore for generations to come. It concerns a job interview — no, actually, it wasn’t even the interview. It was my initial encounter with the person who would conduct the interview.

I had just started nursing school, and I decided to get some experience in a healthcare environment, so I applied for a job in a nursing home. I was terribly nervous about this first foray into the healthcare arena, and when the HR director appeared to usher me into her office, I fumbled: “Hi, I’m Jennifer,” said I, hand outstretched. “You must be Rick.”

And these, of course, are just the ones I can remember — or at least they’re the ones I’m willing to relate. The funny thing is that my first confession didn’t occur to me at all. You’d think that would’ve been plenty embarrassing, seeing as how it included a couple decades’ worth of screw-ups and sin.

It was Holy Saturday. I took the ‘L’ to the Loop and walked a few blocks west on Madison to St. Peter’s. Served by Franciscans, St. Peter’s is one of Chicago’s penitential hotspots, with confessionals manned seemingly around the clock, from dawn to dusk.

For this first confession prior to my reception in the Church at the Easter Vigil, I’d made an appointment with Fr. Robert, the pastor at the time. St. Peter’s in the Loop is a mighty busy place, and no doubt Fr. Robert was an extremely busy man, but he put me at eaconfessionse and made me feel like he didn’t have anything else to do but hear the first confession of a twenty-something convert.

Was I anxious? Sure. Unsettled? Definitely. But embarrassed? Oddly, no. In fact, far from it — more like: Relieved; unburdened; free. Father heard me out, gave me some words of encouragement, and then asked me if I knew my Act of Contrition. Know it? I’d only been practicing it daily for weeks.

And then he put his hand on my head and gave me absolution. Perhaps you’ve had this feeling before, but I felt a physical weight lift from my shoulders that day — a real, physical weight. I’ll never forget it

Yesterday, my second-grader made her first confession. I watched Kath waiting in the long line for Monsignor, our (her) beloved pastor. As she stood there, no signs of shame — as she went in, no hesitancy. And when she came out a few minutes later? No blush, no embarrassment, no drooped head, eyes cast down. Her head was up and she was looking around, a smirk transfixed where you’d perhaps expect a frown.

I’ve seen that smirk before — the same smirk that all seven-year-olds seem to display after receiving the Sacrament of Penance for the first time. Do they practice that smirk in school and CCD?

Regardless, it’s a sign that something went right. No embarrassment. Instead, simple grace. And satisfaction.

What a relief.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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