Vital Signs


“He was a wicked man, but the Lord forgave him.”  One fine spring day in my sophomore year of college, I joined my paternal grandmother on her more-or-less daily walk from her house out to the cemetery of my parent’s hometown in Eastern North Carolina.  This was her characteristically pointed and Christian evaluation of a man whose tomb rose at the edge of the yard; far more monumental than the others, it was decorated on all four sides with Masonic symbols and inscribed with third-rate (or so I thought then—I was a sophomore, after all) verse.  My grandmother’s particular judgment was pronounced as she pointed to some words carved in the stone above all the verbal and pictographic arcana: “O Lord, be merciful to me, a poor sinner.”

My grandmother was deeply, devotedly Protestant, and I had been reared in an Anglo-Catholic rectory, but, by then, I had become a Catholic simpliciter.  I remember thinking that it was all a bit rich for my taste, this juxtaposition of strange ritual references with the simplicity of an act of contrition.  Then I had a little flash of intuition: Maybe this is the way Protestants feel when confronted with Roman liturgy or devotion.  I was soon to have confirmation of this insight.  Later in the week, I dragged a moderately curious male cousin to Mass in the town’s small Catholic...

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