Archive for Wednesday, September 21, 2011

John Beal: Childhood catastrophes live in communion with church observation

September 21, 2011

Memory is a funny, fickle thing. It’s strange how the faintest suggestion — a few bars from a half-remembered song or the smell of the earth or the sounds of the night — can trigger a trickle, then a flood of memories.

In church over the weekend, I was watching a young man — still in his teens, I think, or barely out of them. He was one of the Eucharistic ministers –—that corps of lay volunteers who administer the bread and wine at communion.

Our practice is that each minister who passes the cup also holds a napkin, which is used to wipe the cup each time a worshipper drinks from it.

Which brings me back to my earlier observation about memory. For it was the way this fellow was holding the napkin that got me to thinking.

I don’t know that there’s any right way or wrong way to hold this napkin, but my recollection is that most folks sort of wrap the napkin around the cup, holding both securely.

This young fellow, however, grasped the napkin by its folded edge, letting it sort of dangle from the cup. And what that got me to thinking about was my own youthful clumsiness.

I couldn’t help but think that if I’d been in that position at that age, I’d have dropped the napkin, and that that would have set in motion a sort of cascading catastrophe; there’s no doubt in my mind that, as I bent over to retrieve the napkin I would have unthinkingly upended the cup, pouring the wine on the floor.

So, I kept my eye on him, and though he did let the napkin flop and dangle a bit, he never dropped it, nor did he spill any of the wine.

I should have been so lucky. I cannot even begin to count the number of times my lack of caution or just plain stupidity caused me all sorts of grief. I don’t, offhand, remember that any of those times were in church, in any way similar to the circumstances in which this young man found himself, but I suspect that was because no one in church was ever foolhardy enough to entrust me with that sort of responsibility.

In my teens I had a knack for putting my foot wrong that seems in retrospect to be almost supernatural. One particular incident stands out, though there are many.

We lived in Roeland Park in those days; one of my friends had some cousins who were farmers down by Louisburg, and these farmers used a mixture of sugar and potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, to blow stumps out of the ground when clearing their fields. My friend was a budding chemist in those days (he later became a chemist, to no one’s surprise, but I digress) and so he mixed up some of this concoction and we set about blowing the dandelion roots out of his yard. We used a trail of black powder as a fuse, just like in the movies.

Finally it came to be my turn to set off the charge. I positioned myself well back from the hole but directly over the black powder trail, struck a match and set it alight. Whoosh! That’s about all I remember. Suffice it to say that I went home that night more or less unscathed, but with no eyebrows or eyelashes.

So you can see why I was a little uneasy when I saw the youngster with the dangling napkin. Fortunately, his coordination — and his luck — proved to be better than mine.

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