Silence

The lady orchestrating the morning’s events cracked the first joke, the loud and obnoxious type.  This was to be expected of Kevin’s Confirmation coordinator.  She would need to enervate children and sponsors alike from their  agnostic and mostly private social habits.  Her goal now was to inspire candidates and their sponsor to talk openly about their faith among strangers, people who like Pat and me possessed little desire to regurgitate age-old religion lessons from grammar school or weep blood.

Yet if that’s what it took to get us out of there by twelve, then so be it.  Frankly, I was feeling a little teary-eyed myself after the previous night’s combination basketball match and Nazi Zombie game-a-thon.  I yawned loudly, stirring lukewarm coffee while searching for our designated table, labeled Yellow with yellow marker.  On white paper too.  Wonderful.

Pat just rolled his eyes.  Our cousin Kathleen, his candidate, dragged him to their table across the room.  Kevin simply sat down and stared out at the snow falling outside the window, no doubt anxious to begin plowing when we returned home . . . if we returned home.  Mom had suggested the chance of snowfall the night before, but the flakes fell thick and fast, nearly covering the nearby lawns in seconds.  The roads alone still resisted the assault of ice, but as the temperatures continued to drop they too would be overwhelmed.  The aspect of bunking overnight at the kids’ elementary school with a crazed Confirmation teacher did not excite me in the least.  Still as far as Saturday night’s go, I’ve had worse.

Swarming around Ms. Rachel buzzed the hyper, overly-enthusiastic giggles of past year’s confirmants — three girls and two boys — all wearing brightly colored t-shirts which I learned later corresponded with the various table labels.  Team yellow was led by a relaxed kid in a sunshine polo, who introduced himself as Mark.  The other two kids likewise appeared bored but emotionally stable individuals, their personalities easily overshadowed by the last two girls who introduced themselves in song.

“Hi, my name is Crystal and I’m in love with God . . .”

10:00AM  Half-an-hour into the retreat and already I found myself clock-gazing.   Around the table we began introducing ourselves to the other candidates, mostly girls.  And their mothers.  I shoot Kevin a sympathetic grin but he ignores me.  I hear him murmuring Ford F150 and ‘sucky GMC plows’ and ignore him.  Pre-arranged questions in sealed envelopes are passed around as a means to break the ice.  The girls and their sponsors seemed hesitant to talk but nevertheless kind and down-to-earth.  Betty likes the beach.  Julie paints and runs track.  At an adjacent table, I caught Pat rolling his eyes.  Afterward he admitted that one of his neighbor’s wrote love songs to Jesus.

“I just didn’t know what to say to that . . .” he said.  “I just nodded and tried not to laugh.”

Of late, I treat most religious discussions with a fair bit of cynicism.  Though my religious faith remains unshaken, my faith in the religious wavers.  Most sermons — especially those outside mass — come off as fake and though not entirely dishonest, still very much lacking in honesty like a sales pitch for spray-on hair.  Too many people seem to have too many answers, flooding classrooms and auditoriums with words and not enough actions.  Singing songs and playing Bible games feels like ample carnival fair but cannot replace honest discussion.  Frankly, I’d be satisfied if Ms. Rachel removed the press-on nails, toned down her voice several decibels, and spoke simply, quietly: “This stuff makes sense to me.  These teachings have helped me become a better person.  Give me a few hours of your time and perhaps you’ll find something worthwhile as well.”

Instead we played games.  Name two gifts of the Holy Spirit.  What does the bishop carry with him during the ceremony?  Name two Sacraments of Initiation.

Admittedly it was interesting and fun to tease Kevin a bit.  Particularly around the girls at our table.  After announcing his favorite animal was a cheetah, there was only so much I could do.  Next Junior Youth Brigade herded Yellow and Purple tables into an adjacent room for a short video on Silence, why it’s so important, why we have so many distractions in our lives, and why does not God take up more of that time.  They threw candy at us beforehand to contrast with sudden and long silences dispersed throughout the program.  Stacks of paper were passed around for notes.  Yeah, right.

Outside the snow continued to fall, now covering the sidewalks and collecting lightly on the roadways.  Words flashed on the screen, much too fast for Kevin and his dyslexia to catch.  Pen in hand, we played tick-tack-toe until someone turns on the lights.

When we returned to our tables, I grabbed myself another cup of coffee while the second group including Pat and Kathleen left the room.  I gave them a hearty thumps-up as they shuffled outside.  Returning to our seats we began another Powerpoint presentation on faith and began discussing God as the whisper or God as the storm.  ‘How did you feel after watching the film?  Do we live our lives looking for the divine in silence or through iPods and television?’

Personally, I felt the conversation a little one-sided (In a large Irish Catholic family, silence are bad omens and often follow shattered porcelain or report cards.) not to mention a little condescending but shrugged it off with a few well-practiced answers from my Jesuit days.  No one wanted to discuss anything anyway.  These silent discussion about, well . . .  silence grew louder as conversations bubbled over into Christmas Lists, video games, and the snow ball fights.  By 11:30 we were all anxious to leave.  Even Ms. Rachel’s color-coded minions seemed a little less enthusiastic, abandoning the Powerpoint for their phones.  Tetris themes were heard over the intercom.  Pat returned from the media room and rolled his eyes for the twelfth time that morning.

As noon rolled around, we were quickly dismissed, eager to test my Explorer on the slippery slush of the highway.  The entire parking lot was an arctic tundra, cold, icy, beautiful.   I looked out at the falling snow, white fields and frosted trees, like an eraser in a cartoon expunging the scenery: blanketing all color, all grime, all noise.  It was probably the most religious experience I had all day.  Quickly, reverently and noisily we piled into the car and drove back home.  Laughing all the way.

Mom was making cookies.  It was snowing.  And Bing belted out the hits on the radio.  Life was good.