One day when I was a boy I was riding in the car with my father, in the countryside north of Carbondale, Pennsylvania, when we came to an open crossroads at the top of a high hill.
“They call this intersection The Four Corners of Life,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “Can you guess why?”
I looked out of the windows left and right and back, and saw a church and a cemetery on two of the corners, and a couple of buildings which I couldn’t identify on the others.
“Well, I can guess, but you’d better tell me.”
“That building over here,” he said, “used to be a small hospital, and this over here is a beer garden.” That’s what we called bars in that part of the world. “So you’re born in the hospital, you get married in church, and you get buried in the cemetery.”
“What about the beer garden?”
“That,” said my father, with his humorous understatement, “is where some guys go after they get married and before they get put in the ground. The Four Corners of Life!”
My father was a good man and a devout Catholic, not above visiting the Pine Cafe on a Sunday afternoon, owned and operated by his old friend Joe with the Italian accent. He took me with him sometimes, as you could do then without fear of anything indecent, and I’d play shuffleboard or Skee-Ball, snacking on red-dyed pistachio nuts which Joe provided free of charge.
My father has been gone these twenty-six years, the Pine Cafe is no more, and the Four Corners of Life might be remembered by a few old-timers; I think I can still find the intersection. But that place came to my mind this evening when I went to Mass in a rural village in Nova Scotia.
I like the people in that old place of fishing boats and lobster traps; they’re a lot like the coal miners of my youth. They bear no resentment against the Church, and have little use for modern ideologies.
But they have been ravaged by modernity all the same. The church was filled with people who really wanted to be there; almost all of them older than I am, and I’m not young. The priest is newly ordained: his hair is white and he breathes heavily and he clearly has seen the other side of seventy.
He preached a fine sermon, and before Mass he addressed the people directly, telling them that the diocese of Antigonish has no ordinands this year, and not one young man in the seminary. It will be at least seven years before a man from the diocese will minister as priest to his people.
No children, no priests. No healthy habits of manhood, no priests; no vocations to the married life, no priests. But my mind returned to the jest my father told.
The whole point of the jest is that the places were sites, if not of the cross, then of a crux, a crossroads, the point when something changes forever, or where you tread near to mystery. And this is true in a jocular way even of the beer garden, I suppose.
It occurred to me that the young people in that diocese never approach anything mysterious at all. They have no experience of the holy.
Sure, the liturgy ought to be beautiful and the prayers reverent, and they aren’t. But I ask further, “What chance does the ordinary person have to encounter mystery?” And I think of the hospital, the wedding in the church, and the cemetery.
The human body is the holiest creature that man bears about with him: he will experience as holy his entry into life, his power of making new life, and his leaving life behind, or he will experience nothing holy at all.
He may experience these things in the moment, or by memory, contemplation, or anticipation, but if the temple of the Holy Spirit is to him a machine for procuring pleasures, if marriage means an extravaganza and not an essential change in physical being, and if death is stowed away in a sanitary waste-management institution – if even the cemetery is more like a food chain with mass produced hamburgers, over one billion served – then it is hard to imagine how we can turn his heart toward the church.
And that’s what our opponents have done. They have set about sacrilege. The last thing that any Planned Parenthood huckster wants is that young men and young women should believe that their bodies, in their capacity to bring into being a new image of the eternal God, are holy. It’s the last thing that teachers want when they splay out the organs as machines, with all the reverence due to pistons and crankshafts.
Brides and grooms throw a big party not as if they were going to cross the threshold into fully sexual giving and receiving; the party is for themselves. That’s what we do. Children are “choices,” like suits, or a new swimming pool, or a trip to Cancun; or they are the choices you don’t make, because Cancun is more fun than a baby squalling in the night.
But all is not lost – we still have the beer garden. Well, no, we don’t have that either, nothing like the Pine Cafe. What would be the Four Corners, now? A burger joint, a consolidated district school squatting on the land like a mutant beetle, a faceless steel and glass prism where people make money, and a casino.
The Four Corners: fat, stupid, harried, and grim, unrelieved by contact with the soil or the sea, or by man’s heritage of poetry and song. Thence come our brothers and sisters to whom we must bring the Good News.
More building to be done; slow, patient building, the building up of human souls. No way around it.