I never expected to meet Mike Finnegan again. That name belonged to a character from the annals of my long-ago childhood, dim and yet vaguely pleasant. Mike was part of my brother’s posse; that nameless rabble of 8th grade boys who move as one through life, jostling and scuffling as they go. They would rumble through our living room every once in a while on their way to forage in the kitchen before soccer practice. Mike and his brother Pat always slightly emerged from the pack because they were identical, square bodied, copper-headed twins from a large Irish family. They were loud, with tremendous laughs, and you held on to the cherished knick-knacks on your table when they crashed past. I do remember it was Mike who took upon himself the personal vocation of perfecting the patience and perseverance of Sister Rosella, the 8th grade teacher. It was an established fact that Mike would get her to heaven one day all by himself and he became quite creative at the art of testing her like gold is tested in fire – he considered it a kind of hobby. He would sing loudly off key – on purpose – at the school Mass in the morning (God forgive me, it made me laugh. And, truth be told, if Sister Rosella was here now she would admit the same). He never had his school tie, his shirt was always pulled out and his sweater unraveling. His hair was a curly mass of tangled orange, and whether he would have matching socks each morning was a matter of debate among the faculty. His shoes lived on a prayer. His homework actually DID look like the dog had gotten to it; his green eyes always looked as if they were plotting mischief. That’s what I remember about Mike Finnegan.
So, I was a bit flummoxed to be sitting down at a table talking to this white-haired, jolly man, who was just as flummoxed as me. He was the director of the cemetery grounds where my Dad and Mom were to be buried. My sisters and I were there to make arrangements and we all felt a bit raw-hearted, awkward and out of our depth. We had never done this before. But here, in the flesh, was good old Mike Finnegan from the old neighborhood, and he was genuinely overjoyed to see us again. It brought a sense of the familiar to my heart, and I felt suddenly less out to sea, because Mike Finnegan knew us and he knew my Mom and Dad in their prime. That made all the difference.
Mike was to give me a real jewel of a memory that day. One I would never have suspected coming from him. It was about my mom. Turns out he just loved her, and for the smallest, seemingly insignificant reason. The way she cut sandwiches. My mother was the consummate Victorian. She was polite, always looked neat and tidy, she always had matching socks, and spoke in a lilting French Canadian accent. She always made you sit down for meals. There was always a place mat, cloth napkin, and china plate, with a tall glass of milk standing sentinel. Well, Mike was to experience my mother this way one afternoon. He had wandered into the kitchen with my brother, and this petite Victorian lady all of five feet made big, square, tossled Mike Finnegan sit down at the table and she poured him a glass of milk and fixed him a bologna sandwich with cheese, cut it into little triangles as was her wont, arranged chips all around the triangles and placed it before his surprised eyes.
My mom, as prim and proper as she was, always had an affinity for the Mike Finnegans of this world. Maybe because she had a wicked little sense of humor under that proper Victorian exterior and had herself perfected the art of the practical joke. (My father would quite happily attest to this fact). But Mike Finnegan? He was overwhelmed by those triangles. He waxed poetic about it for ten minutes. “Your Mom! What a gal! No one would have ever trusted me with a china plate in my life back then! And a napkin, in the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday. It blew me away how great she was. And the sandwich was cut in triangles…for ME”. There were actual tears in this sentimental Irishman’s eyes. My mom didn’t see him as a crashing, messy boy but as someone to feed and love and please with the joy of little bologna triangles entrusted to him on her china plate. It was second nature to her. She lived to notice people like Mike and to think of ways to give them particular and personal joy. She gave Mike Finnegan, who perhaps found himself sometimes unseen in a pack of Finnegans, the pleasant feeling of his own individual worth. He soaked it in like dew; and let it be recorded that he never once broke one of her plates.
My mom was a lover. She bore the sign of a lover’s authenticity. She watched. Any true lover worth their salt is a watcher. They spend their lives looking at people – hearing what they say, watching what they do, remembering what makes them laugh, their favorite color, their favorite flavor of marmalade, a book they hold dear, a song that makes them dance in place, when they need company, when they do not. It is a subtle and seemingly effortless gazing – hardly noticed by anyone around them. But rest assured, the lovers watch and hear everything. And the magical thing about being a watcher is that their eyes are always busy looking outward and not inward at themselves. It is a full-time job getting to know another human being, and the lovers of this world happily work overtime. They find great joy in the gazing, which eventually expresses itself in personalized gifts that seal the love. The beloved always leaves their presence knowing he has been seen and delighted in for his very self. Can there be anything more God-like than this kind of love?
I have spent the last several weeks traveling through the Rocky Mountains with a lover of this sort as I devoured a delightful biography of Father Peter De Smet, S.J. written by a fellow Jesuit, Fr. E. Laveille. Oddly enough, I thought of my mom when reading about him. And just as she had this deep and mysterious affinity to the unlikely Mike Finnegan, Father De Smet, a learned, disciplined Belgian Jesuit was to find his own best beloved in the American Indians – and one might say with all confidence he was born for such an affinity as this.
Peter De Smet was, as his older brother says, “endowed with a strong and vigorous constitution; he was hardy, adventurous, and indifferent to danger.” He loved games, the more violent and dangerous the better. He would hop from one moving boat to the other in the canals by his home in Dendermonde, Belgium. He fell in the water once and was almost killed, but the next day he did it again! His father would exclaim, “God preserve him! He will either be a soldier or a great traveler; he will never remain at home.” Peter would be that traveler sent on mission by the God he loved deeply and longed to serve. He joined the Jesuit order and began to tame the wilder side of his heart with his innate determination. He learned to pray and listen for the voice of God. He learned the faith and how to teach it to others; he treasured and found strength in the customs and traditions of the Church. In short, he grew up. But the restless wanderer with the adventurous spirit was to always be there underneath. Perhaps it was this spirit that stirred when he first learned about the Indians over in North America. He felt an immediate and mysterious urge to go to them and signed on as a missionary. Little did he know that he was about to meet his own people – those who would understand his heart in every way and who would be completely understood by him in return.
The minute he met his first tribe of Indians, he was smitten. He began to reveal himself as a “watcher” in his delightful letters home to his family. Of course, being quite selfless, he didn’t mention the hardships and the initial culture shock he encountered. The sweltering summers, the plague of mosquitoes, the long travels through dense forests and on dangerous rivers, the overwhelming homesickness for his family. The Indians were initially so ‘other’ as to be a shock to the system of this cultured Belgian. One particular story he relates to his brother is a delightful account of how his enchantment with the Indians overcame this initial physical shock. He had just landed in an Indian village and was escorted to the tent of the Chief and his princess, she being quite proud of her cooking and able to honor the Black Robe with it. He wished to honor her in return:
She then presented me with a roughly cut wooden plate which had a thin film of old grease on it…and served me on it a dish that was disgusting in appearance, cooked by herself. I was hungry I admit; but my stomach revolted at the sight of the mysterious stew. I said to myself, ‘No airs now, you are not in Belgium, begin your apprenticeship. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ I took a spoonful of the mess and found it delicious. It was a fricassee of buffalo tongue, mixed with bear’s grease and the flour of wild sweet potatoes. I evinced my appreciation of the princess’s hospitality by rubbing my stomach as a sign of satisfaction and returned the plate to her much cleaner than when she gave it to me!
Though Father De Smet began his missionary journey in Missouri and Kansas, he was soon to meet the tribe that was to be his best beloved: the Flathead Indians. A delegation of three arrived at the St. Louis mission, having traveled thousands of miles with one goal in mind: to find the Black Robes and convince them to return to their home in the Northwest. Father De Smet, admiring their persistent courage, immediately got permission to go back with the Flatheads. He journeyed over the plains, through the Badlands, across the Rockies, and after nine, long months was at last surrounded by the joyous exuberance of the Flathead tribe. They soon revealed themselves as “honest, obedient to their chiefs, cleanly in their huts and personal habits, and held lying in abhorrence. Polygamy was almost unknown among them. The women were excellent wives and mothers, and so celebrated for their fidelity that the contrary failing was a rare exception.” Fr. De Smet was amazed to find a people so ready to receive the Gospel. They were eager for anything he could tell them about the Great Spirit Jesus of whom they had heard. He longed to feed their receptive hearts immediately, so deeply moved was he that these people had such a longing for his faith and its rituals and were willing to open their hearts to him in trust. A deep bond of mutual love was forged in those first months. In his own moving words he wrote:
I drew up a set of rules for the religious exercises. One of the chiefs immediately brought me a bell, and that first evening it called the Indians to assemble around my tent. After a short instruction, night prayers were said. Before retiring they sang in admirable harmony three hymns in praise of the Great Spirit of their own composition. No words can express how deeply I was touched. The great chief was up every morning at daybreak. He would mount his horse and make the tour of the camp, crying to his people: ‘Come, courage, my children! Tell Him you love Him and ask Him to make you charitable! Courage, the sun is rising. Come, bathe in the river. Be at our Father’s tent at the sound of the bell. Be still, open your ears to hear, and your hearts to retain the words he will speak to you.
Fr. De Smet eventually realized that he needed help to set up a mission worthy of his new friends. So, amid embraces and tearful farewells, he took leave of the Flatheads promising over and over to return, and with a heavy heart he traveled back to Missouri, and then on to Belgium to find more young priests who might join him in his work. He chose wisely – watchers like himself. One Jesuit priest named Nicolas Point, who was born in Ardenne, France, signed on eagerly. Fr. Point was an architect and an artist. He took to these Indian men and women instantly. He often followed them around just to enjoy their company as they navigated ordinary life. He went on Buffalo hunts with Fr. De Smet and the men and drew them riding and hunting in action; he watched the women cook and learned the recipes, he drew the children playing and joined them in their games. He would show them the drawings and they would be happily surprised at what he had seen and captured.
They felt his delight. They in turn eagerly came to his tent each morning fascinated by the rituals he performed at the Mass. The highlight of the hunts were the evenings by his tent singing night prayers together with beautiful hymns he and his fellow missionaries had written specifically for the Flathead’s voices. These hymns would also be sung at Eucharistic processions, which were the delight of the Indians, especially during their favorite feast of Christmas. I was able to see some of Fr. Point’s drawings in an exhibit once, and they are filled with detail and humor and vitality – drawn by a man completely in love with his subject matter.
Fr. De Smet and his fellow Jesuits were lovers and watchers. And just as my own mother connected so wonderfully with Mike Finnegan, he knew his Indians and they knew him in such an intimate way. He delighted them with his wit, humor, strength, and loyalty. They fell in love with the beauty of his faith and wanted it as their own. He understood their love of the hunt, their wandering, their restless energy, for he was one like them. His love for them was alive with delighted gazing. Reading his life, I hear one word: watch! Watch more carefully the people around you, the ones God has chosen for you to see by His providence. They might not be anything like you on the outside, but you will know them as surely as my mom and Peter De Smet knew Mike Finnegan and the Flathead Indians. See them, hear them, delight in them as individuals. Give them the beautiful gift of experiencing your personal love for them – even if it is as small as triangle sandwiches on a china plate. If we each did this for even one person, how well we would know the joy of loving as Jesus loves, and transform the world into, “Something beautiful for God.”
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.