I grew up on a farm in Connecticut. It wasn’t like one of those high-class places in the movies. No pristine white rail fences, just plain old barbed wire to keep the livestock off the road. The house had sections which pre-dated the American Revolution, but it couldn’t have passed as elegant. It was just comfortable, as well-used farm houses are comfortable.
We shared it with my grandparents. Families used to do that sort of thing. They lived in one part, and we had ours. Visiting them was as easy as walking through a door from our front room into their kitchen, and it was a route I knew well as a child.
My grandparents had what was known as the back room, which had been a bedroom when my father was growing up. The reason for its demotion from bedroom to back room was evident: its location in the northeast corner of the house gave it little protection from howling winter winds, and since insulation was nearly unknown when the house was built, it was pretty darned cold in there. Certainly no place someone would want for a bedroom, if it could be helped.
Its changed status meant that it became a repository for everything that had no other place to be put. It became my treasure-trove. Old pictures, Nana’s unwanted knick-knacks, boxes with forgotten contents, all of it found its final resting place in there.
There were two things in the back room that I came close to coveting. One was an oval-shaped bas-relief carving of the Descent of Christ from the Cross. How such a thing found its way into the possession of a protestant family, I’ll never know. But I loved it, and when I asked my grandmother if I could have it, for some reason she told me that if I was ever ordained I could claim it. I was, and I did, and it hangs in my rectory to this day. The second thing was a book, a very particular book, which had belonged to my great-grandmother. It was a combined Book of Common Prayer (1662 edition) and the Holy Bible (King James Version). Its leather binding was cracked, but not badly. There was an ornate brass cross attached to its front cover. I wanted it very much, and it was given to me. So began my love affair with the formality of Anglican prayers and with the Holy Scriptures.
It seems odd that a ten year old boy would be able to find something of God within cracked leather and yellowed pages, but I did. It was as close as I had to a Real Presence, and my inability to understand all the words emphasized the Mystery I was seeking. There would seem to be little use for “A Table to Find Easter-Day; From the Present Time till the Year 2199 Inclusive,” or for “Forms of Prayer for the Anniversary of the day of the Accession of the Reigning Sovereign,” or even for “A Table of Kindred and Affinity,” although it was fascinating to learn that one’s mother's father's wife may not marry her mother's mother's husband. But for the rest of it, these were my first faltering steps towards Catholic beauty, Catholic order, Catholic truth.
The prayers did it for me. And the words of the Scriptures. I would speak them sotto voce in my room, just because the words sounded so beautiful, even to my ignorant ears. I suppose, by most external points of reference, it was an odd thing for a child to do. Certainly, I had plenty of friends, activities at school, involvement in the local church, duties at home. But my soul had a hungry corner that would not stop its demands until it was satisfied. I had never heard Augustine’s words about the restless heart, but I surely knew what he meant.
One of the wonders of the Catholic faith is that it reaches into such unexpected places and in such extraordinary ways to draw the unsuspecting to itself. Indeed, this is its catholicity. It feeds both farm boy and pope.