Father Dan Begin and I never talked about William Blake, the English Romantic poet, which may sound pretentious, but we were two old English majors who enjoyed hauling out our tattered copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature on occasion. T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” would make an appearance in Father Dan’s Epiphany sermons, and he enjoyed reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” during the Easter season. So we probably could have talked about Blake. We just never got around to it.
Two lines keep bubbling up from my superficial acquaintanceship with Blake. One is this post’s title: Father Dan was nothing if not exuberant, and his exuberance created beauty everywhere among both plants and animals. The other line is “Damn braces. Bless relaxes.” You brace yourself against being damned, or even criticized, while blessing and acceptance put you at ease. Father Dan never condemned people. He could damn wars and racism, for sure, but not people. He chose them instead. He blessed them. He was unshockable. In a religion known for its rules, recriminations, and binding strictures, Father Dan pursued other priorities.
“My job,” he would say, “is to lead people to freedom.”
After St. Cecilia closed, Father Dan spent a few years at another urban parish, St. Philomena in East Cleveland. Soon after he started there, he told me this story.
One day, after celebrating Mass and attending meetings at St. Phil’s, he decided to take a stroll around the neighborhood. He was, uncharacteristically, wearing his priest’s collar.
A mail truck pulled up next to him, and the carrier leaned out his door and asked, “Are you the priest at that church?”
“Not the priest, but a priest. I just started here,” Father Dan answered.
“Father,” the driver said, “I’ve been out of the church for a long time. I haven’t gone to Mass or had the sacraments for years, and I don’t know how to get back into it.”
Father Dan replied, “Well, do you want to get out of the truck, or do you want me to get in?”
The man hopped out of the truck, and Father Dan gave him absolution on the sidewalk. “There you go,” he said. “Now you can come back to church whenever you want.” Hugs were no doubt exchanged.
The mail carrier kept on laughing as he climbed back into his truck. Shaking his head, he said, “I didn’t know it was that simple! That was all I needed.”
“I didn’t tell him, of course, that he didn’t even need that,” Father Dan told me. “He could have come back to church any time. All I did was show him what was possible.”