The Feast of Saint Charles:
An Ironic Advent Meditation by Joe Martyn Ricke
My father died on a cold gloomy Advent day like this; well, this day exactly, senior year.
It was cold and gloomy in New York anyway, and that's where I was that morning.
He was in Houston. He had a heart attack in his car. I guess it was hot and gloomy.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
I had just worked out a new bluesy arrangement of "O Come O Come Emmanuel." The Advent song to end all Advent songs. A way of tuning one's soul (by which I mean my whole being, including my body, of which I am fond) to the ideas, the meanings, and the specific stance (or bend or bent) of Advent.
I had always loved minor keys.
I didn't know why then, though.
I know now.
And death's dark shadows put to flight
Or maybe I just think I know now.
Perhaps in some culture somewhere,
Mars for example, or Iowa,
the minor key is not the hearing aid for sorrow, loss, and lament.
But in New York, in my senior year of college, reading Auden in the gathering gloom, it made sense.
I used to be in a church with a song leader named Fred. Fred would complain about any song written in a minor key, even if it was chosen by the pastor. Fred "had the victory," he said, so he thought that the minor key was a kind of blasphemy.
We mourn in lonely exile here.
My last note to Dad contained some “clippings” as he called them of our game the night before--
Ricke had 18 points and 14 rebounds.
I grew up reading and rereading the faded clippings of his forty point games in Houston.
And sitting in his lap reading the sports pages.
That's probably when I began my spiritual practice of remembering useless facts.
Under the influence of Auden, another kind of father, I had just written him a rather formal and pretentious poem called “Father Christmas”--
If you are keeping track, that's two rather formal and pretentious poems I wrote under Auden's influence that December.
It was going to be my father's Christmas present, but he never read it. It's at home on my fridge.
Somewhere I still have the piece of paper on which my friend had written Joe, call home.
My words scrawled under it, during the phone call, you're too big to die daddy.
And he was. He really was.
He was like a god to me.
Like a god now in my memory.
A loud god. A messy god. A very present god in time of trouble.
A god who didn’t ask me to take every little thing on faith. Who hugged and held me like it mattered. And, as I said, shared the sports pages.
Saint Charles brought life and light and a certain wry, slightly inebriated smile to everyone who knew him.
His father had died before Charles was a teenager, so he became a bit of a wild one. He didn't teach me how to gamble, but I'm sure he would have if I asked. He doesn't know it, but I got pretty good at poker and blackjack in college anyway. Once won $20 from the rest of the basketball team on a long Saturday morning.
I flew home to Houston and, a few days later, was giving his funeral sermon. I don't remember much of what I said. I know I said he loved dogs, which was true. And family. Whatever I said, I'm sure my words meant, "you're too big to die."
Charles fought the big one, in both Europe and Asia. He was wounded twice, I mean in the war. I know for a fact he was wounded many more times than that. I'll bet I was responsible for some of those wounds. I know my mom was. I know a hell of a lot more about wounds now than I did when he told me about his.
Not to mention the time Noel hooked him in the shoulder once with one of those nasty three-pronged fishing hooks. That was on the jetty at Padre Island. Dad laughed. Loudly. Probably as good a way of any as dealing with pain. Noel was ten. And still alive. Another wound.
O Come Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
He could laugh about things, that's for sure. That was his standard liturgical response to most things. Who knows what he saw in the Pacific and in Italy during the war? I know he piloted amphibious landing craft in several invasions.
It's not really much of a guess to say that he had seen enough horrors for one lifetime. Given the alternatives, a fish hook in the shoulder was funny.
Although he spent most of his time in a little town with his family, being as domestic as he could stand to be, he got that look in his blue eyes when he got on the road. Especially somewhere big and open and wild.
He'd pull over and stop if it was amazing enough. And remind us all to be amazed. Well, I think he just said, lookee lookee.
Driving in the mountains on our infamous vacation to Colorado (mom was drunk for most of it), he'd like to drive as close to the edge as possible. There was a little dam outside of our hometown we called "the waterfall." He used to like to drive over it while we screamed in the back seat.
Speaking of the driving close to the edge, he got married three times. To the same woman. Eudora Juanita Thompson, as extravagant and wild and worth looking at as her name. My mother.
He couldn't sing a lick, but that didn't stop him from doing the "Streets of Laredo" or "I've Got Spurs that Jingle Jangle Jingle" ("now ain't you glad yer single," he would emphasize when Mom was in the car).
Really, though, he didn't sing a lot. Usually only when driving a boat down near Rio Hondo. Or driving fast in his '65 Mustang down Rio Rico Road, headed towards Mexico. When Mom or Missy weren't around, he might sing his dirty sailor songs from the Navy for a line or two. Then blush and shut up.
This year, this Advent, every Advent, December 7 shall be his feast day. A day of remembrance. The feast of Saint Charles. Let there be barbecue. And Border Buttermilk.
This saint taught me the important stuff. This is the saint who taught me how to tie my ties. Or, more truthfully, who tied my ties most of the time.
I can feel him standing close to me. Hear him breathing heavily.
I thought that was a strange sound then, but I just wasn't used to large human beings breathing close to my body. Now I miss it.
I learned to love and care, whatever little I learned, by watching this giant, gentle man, this reluctant warrior, nurture and mother four children for years when Nita was, for all practical purposes, out of commission.
I learned to pray at mass by listening to him, sometimes sitting in his lap or just stuck up against him close enough to smell the aftershave and cigarettes.
He would be saying the words, and I would be making sounds I didn't understand. It was Latin anyway, but I figured out that the way to pray was just to make sounds that sound sort of like words but have a meaning you don't know yet. While snuggling with your dad.
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel
Now I’m thinking, who the hell really knows? Who really understands? Maybe we don't want to understand. Maybe we want something more. Maybe language isn't enough.
and close the path to misery
This is one of my clearest early memories, probably from the same year Noel was born.
I'm maybe four, sitting next to Dad in the pew at Our Lady of Sorrows (yep, that was the name of our church; Second Baptist was already taken).
I'm warm and happy mumbling my holy sounds and feeling very close to my God and to Saint Charles whom I can hear mumbling beside me.
and give us victory o'er the grave
A Prayer for the Feast of Saint Charles.
Dear Eternal Being of Power and Love, if so you are, thank you for the life and witness and sacrifice and amazement at this world's wild beauty, not to mention the mysterious mumbling noises, of your creature Charles Ricke, who by his flawed, wounded, and slightly inebriated soul (I mean his whole being, including his body of which he was rather fond), brought life and light to the gloom. And who points us, as we gather together mumbling at your altar, towards the mystery of power and love, if so it is, which we will celebrate this Christmas season.