Weightlifting for Catholics

Harry suddenly wanted to find God. His confessor, a renegade Dominican priest, had problems of his own

It was what—a society of ambulatory good works? Eagan considered what they did, leaving books lying around in public places, benevolently flaky. Someone he knew had picked up a John Grisham hardcover at Union Station. Someone else scored that thick Barbara Kingsolver about missionaries in Africa—something with "wood" in the title. You were supposed to read and return the favor, drop a book in a public place like a bread crumb for the next hungry bird. When Eagan went into a stall in the men's room at Cinema Arts, there it was, waiting for him on the toilet-paper dispenser: The Confessions of Saint Augustine. As if somehow they knew he was having a problem sleeping, which he didn't deny. He was having some difficulty getting to sleep, and this just might do the trick. A page and a half of Augustine and he'd be sawing wood.

After leaving the theater, he sat down on a bench in the mall. He couldn't remember the name of the movie he'd just seen, or the actors' names. Then he couldn't remember what the film was about, which bothered him. Something about gamblers and fast cars, about people's ugly hidden habits. The female lead with the inflated lips was Jennifer something—he'd put money on it. He refused to look back at the marquee for the name of the film. He had no explainable basis for his resentment of the movie business, but there it was.

Harry Eagan was fifty-five years old and kept a two-column ledger. In the negative column, his knees cracked when he walked, loud as two drums. In the positive column, he could see well enough to pluck the hair that grew out of his left earlobe every so often. His children were grown and mostly gone. He had stuck with it, done his fatherly duty, which had involved certain competitive workplace behaviors he preferred not to dwell on. His sexual fantasies bored him, which was either a relief or one more thing to worry about, depending. His wife, however, was in several respects still a handful.

Cathy had plans. She was agitating for them to leave the suburbs of northern Virginia and buy a bed-and-breakfast in New England. Then what? he'd wanted to know. Then we beguile our discerning guests, she explained. Evidently beguilement was a two-way street, but Eagan preferred the solitude of his own dark alley.

As he walked to the car, his knees cracked like firecrackers. The Poisonwood Bible. That was the name of the Kingsolver book. He hadn't read it, though Cathy had. He had the idea that it was a book read by more women than men. That was one more way things were different now. Men and women read different books. Maybe that was a good thing. He had no fixed opinion on the subject, not because he hadn't thought about it but because he mistrusted his instincts, which usually took him in the same wrong direction.

At home, in the garage, under the overhead glow, he read a few sentences of the Confessions. They distressed him. It was like being tapped on the shoulder—congratulations, you did it, you distracted yourself with such success that you forgot what you were about. In the sixth grade he had been a member of the Future Priests' Club. Not that he'd ever had a vocation, but he did have a hunger, and eyes to see how the world burned with God in it. He remembered the blaze of shook foil, but as if the story had happened to someone else.

Cathy was out playing Bunko. Bunko. He had no definite opinion about his wife's game of choice either. He went to bed and slept instantly, as though he'd just ridden his bicycle twenty miles—something he thought about doing but had not yet actually done. At three he woke. Cathy lay like a mystery continent next to him in the bed. Asleep, she smelled like herself, like his all-time favorite: raisin bread.

He surrendered to the idea that came: drink some bourbon on cracked ice while reading Saint Augustine. He made himself a nest downstairs. Along with Maker's Mark, crackers were in the nest, and leftover sausage. But instead of putting him to sleep, the book woke him up. God. He had forgotten. It was like a fever, that longing for God. With fever came thirst. By the fourth page Eagan was parched. How could he have forgotten?

Pain. The shame of sin. The longing to be clean. It was still in him, all of it, secret and heavy. He was an animal with a tail that would not stop swinging.

On the train into Washington the next morning he was bleary, too tired to forget what he had read. He took a long lunch with his door closed, Dorothea keeping intruders at bay. He went back to Augustine. Every sentence hammered the same nail: Wake up. On the train home he napped to forestall second thoughts about the conversation he felt fated to conduct with Cathy.

Which happened while they ate. A casserole. Thin wavy noodles were involved, and a Thai-like sauce. Cathy still liked cooking. He still liked eating.

"I think I'm Catholic again," he told her.

She waited for the punch line.

"I'm hungry for God," he said. "Again. Like I used to be." He would have been more precise, more specific, but he was stumped for vocabulary.

His wife shook her head. "Did you get a chance to look at that B-and-B for sale in Ogunquit? It's on the coast of Maine, in the south. I sent you the URL at work."

"I don't want a bed-and-breakfast, Cathy. I want God."

Cathy was good at ignoring ignorable things. She was five years younger than he, and the one in the family who rode a bike—outdoors, in all weather. She was still more blonde than not. "Classy" was what men called her, whereas women said "classic"—Cathy Brindle-Eagan was a classic beauty. Neither judgment was exactly right. You had to live with her to appreciate the small structural flaws, a kind of visual imbalance that could still make him queasy with desire. At fifty-five Eagan saw his wife better than he had at twenty-five, and acknowledged his luck.

"You didn't sleep last night again, did you? I think you should call the doctor, Harry. This insomnia is wearing you down. You're too young to wear down."

Too young to wear me down was what he heard, though that was unfair. A man who wanted God back ought to be fair.

"I slept fine."

"You left your mess on the desk in the den."

"I'm taking tomorrow off."

"How come?"

"Going to church."

She nodded as if that didn't surprise her in the least, never mind the fact that he hadn't been to mass in how many years?

At nine the next morning he was sitting in a middle pew at Saint Mary of Abundant Grace, waiting to be visited by God but not surprised when He didn't show. Eagan had never liked this prosperous suburban church, especially now, when the parking lot filled up every Sunday with SUVs and minivans and luxury sedans. He saw something martial in the way so many scrubbed families filed in to mass as if to an outing to the mall. At communion they consumed the body of Christ as if it were on sale and they knew a bargain when they felt one disintegrate on their tongue. Unfair? Okay, he'd be unfair. He and Cathy had brought the kids to mass here for years. They hadn't wanted their kids to grow up and become video clods, and the kids hadn't. But Saint Mary's had never been Eagan's church. His was darker, allowing a person to appreciate such light as made its way in. In Eagan's church a mass was always going on, the same one and only sacrament perpetually looping, full of grace. The trick was showing up.

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