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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Patience Potter Had No Virtue–A Very Overrated Value Indeed

If she heard ‘patience is a virtue’ once, she heard it a thousand times, over and over again, repeated by the nuns with a nod in her direction, but her mother, father, and especially her Uncle Harry, always drunk at Easter, who sat her on his lap while he recited the Seven Deadly Sins and the twelve holy virtues ‘of which virtue engendered is the flower’, stumbling between Chaucer,  sins and virtues, and the Church, all the while stroking Patience’s leg and breathing his doggy breath on her neck.

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Patience Potter resented being named for a virtue and resented the nuns for calling her out in front of her Sunday school class.  She hated being in the basement of St. Maurice’s church on warm Spring mornings, hated the nuns for their clackers and rosary beads, hated being asked to read the Catechism aloud, and hated the whole idea of virtue, whatever that was.  It certainly had nothing to do with her, or her Uncle Harry, or her Cousin Mervin, a pimply boy who never washed and was as disgustingly fawning as his father, and certainly not Father Brophy who banged on about sin, redemption, and virtue in the eyes of the Lord, looked certain parishioners straight in the face when he gave his sermons, aiming his message at them about the sins of the flesh and the arrogance of the weak.  There was a lot of twitching and fidgeting in the pews when he started in on sin, so there must have been a lot of it in New Brighton, at least among Catholics, and very little virtue.

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“What exactly is virtue?”, she asked her father who usually had right answers and explained things to her mother and brother about currency, Washington, and debt; and although she could not make heads nor tails of what he said, he always sounded like he knew what he was talking about. 

“Virtue?”, replied Henry Potter, “why that’s a matter of doing the right thing, standing up for what you believe, respect, honor, discipline…courage…”; but he saw that he had lost his audience.  Patience, her brother and sister, looked dully at their father.  He was making no sense, no more than Patience’s dumb question.  Their mother, who was used to Henry’s banging on about whatever came into his head over dinner, took the moment to clear the dishes.  “Well”, Mr. Potter went on, “virtue has to do with goodness.” Again he drew blanks.  “Like giving clothes to the homeless or helping a blind person across the street.”

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Patience was having none of it.  She had asked a simple question and gotten nothing but a tangle of adult words and confusion no different than Father Brophy when he finally got off the subject of sin and returned to doctrinal issues.  “The Holy Trinity”, he said, “is three divine persons in one divinity; or more simply put, a spiritual family with a father, a son, and an invited guest, all seated at the same table, partaking of the same bounteous meal and sharing grace in turn”.  Except when he fulminated on the subject of sin, he was lost in a miasma of confusion and illiterate thinking.  Try as he might, the meaning of the parables escaped him.  The woman at the well, the blind beggar, the wedding at Cana, and toiling in the vineyard all got twisted into an unintelligible narrative with Jesus at the center doing good, trying to convince the unfaithful to come to him, casting out this one or that one, working miracles here and there.  In Father Brophy’s hands, the New Testament was a mess of familiar anecdotes not much different than Uncle Harry’s drunken stories.

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So she realized that she had hit on one of those features of adult life that everyone talked about but no one understood.  Virtue was as fuzzy an idea as goodness or evil, themes that Father Brophy liked almost as much as sin.  They were fuzzy, general ideas that he could talk about without getting caught up in theology or Biblical exegesis.  “Goodness”, he said, “is a virtue, passed on from God the Father to God the Son, spread throughout the land by the Holy Ghost, a shining light of divine glory, a gift, a responsibility, a spiritual given of the blessed and the Holy Mother Church.  ‘Be good, not bad’, said Jesus to the Ephesians, ‘watch what you do, be good and above all faithful to Him and the Word….’”  Mumbo-jumbo.  The Church should be ashamed of itself appointing a man like Father Brophy to St. Maurice Parish.

Her father tried again, “Now, virtue is like a special, higher order goodness, being especially good, never falling off the wagon…”

“Patience may be a virtue”, Patience said when she was twelve, “but I have none of it”, and thanks to doubletalk, mumbo-jumbo, Father Brophy’s garbled homilies; his nuns, and the airless Sunday school basement classroom, she not only turned her back on the Church but wanted nothing to do with homilies, parables, Jesus Christ, and especially goodness.

As happens with many aware, intelligent children, they match silly things and make sense out of them.  One silly thing alone might be given a pass – Father Brophy’s deformed parables or Uncle Harry’s disgusting stories and hairy hands – but the two together meant that if there was such a thing as virtue or goodness, it must be rare indeed.  Uncle Harry was so far from being nice, let alone good, and his son such an ignoramus, and his neighbors Mike Grillo and Petey Burns even worse and uglier, then New Brighton could be no different.  And life being what it is, these precociously wise children can only go on to confirm their first impressions.

There was a danger, of course, that once this nihilistic thought took hold, these children could grow up to be antisocial or immoral; but they had no trouble holding two contradictory notions at the same time.  They knew that they were to live in a world of Father Brophys, Uncle Harrys, and Cousin Mervins – a silly, indifferent, but hilariously predictable world – and a practical, equally predictable world through which they had to navigate.  Had it not been for Father Brophy, the cossetted nuns of St. Maurice, and Uncle Harry, they might have taken the inconsistencies of the world more seriously.  Global warming, war, the glass ceiling, racial injustice and all the other causes over which many fret might have been upsetting and problematic.  But they were as silly as sin, goodness and virtue, unexplainable, always given to muddle and bother; and as such dismissible.  They might not be ha-ha funny, but certainly absurdly funny in their perpetual appearance, dressed in different costumes, staged in a different dialect, but always worth a chuckle.

Patience had a happy life uncomplicated by purpose and posturing – those were other people’s problems.  She sat on the sidelines cheering at marches, demonstrations, and events, not for the cause but for the pageantry.  Everyone loves a parade, and Patience was no different; only given the inadvertent lessons of Father Brophy and Uncle Harry, she enjoyed them even more.

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