He was the guy my parents wanted me to marry.
Or at least, that’s how it came across. We’d see him every Sunday, sitting in the front pew of the church, praying before mass. My parents and I always arrived early, but he would always be there earlier. I’d watch as he’d finish his prayers, always allowing time to spare to help set up the sanctuary and light the candles. Then, on his way back to the rear of the church, where he served as an usher and greeter, he’d walk past us and look at my parents, but never at me, and smile and say a quick hello.
His name was Aaron, and he and I were both in our twenties at the time. I had just graduated from college and was starting my career, and internally, fighting a crisis of faith as I tried to re-discover my Catholicism. My parents and I had just recently split from the parish where I’d spent my formative years, now driving an hour to this new parish, in search of a more orthodox Catholicism. And it had left me feeling lost, and betrayed, and angry. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever really, truly been a Catholic, and I was even less sure that I wanted to remain one. So far, I hadn’t seen much of the Catholic Church that I liked.
My parents had transformed. They were in love with this new-found faith that reminded my mother of her days as a child, when she used to pray the rosary and offer prayers in Latin. My father was inspired by the priest at this new parish, who spoke clearly about church teachings and truths, and who took great pride in being a priest. Coming from a parish that was completely controlled by women, my father responded to this man of God with admiration, and finally found the spiritual leader he’d been needing. But me, I was lost. I looked around this new parish and I saw nothing that looked familiar let alone, made me feel like I belonged. The kneelers, the crucifix, the gold chalices, the rosaries in the pews, the prayers we said, the incense, even the albs and vestments, so much of it was unfamiliar to me, even though I’d supposedly grown up “Catholic”. And to add to the foreignness of it all, not another soul in that parish of two-hundred families was a young, single person in their twenties like me.
Except for Aaron.
Of course, it didn’t take long for my parents (and others) to put two-and-two together. Now completely immersed in this new, yet old, version of Catholicism, they wanted the same for their daughter, and that meant finding me a “good, Catholic man”. Hints were dropped, even a “Young Catholic Singles” group was started at our parish, membership of two, Aaron and me. He and I would chat, but his interest in being more than friends was nominal and was compounded by his shyness. It was clear we had nothing in common, other than our faith, and I knew that getting to know him better would completely blow my cover. He truly was a “good, Catholic man”, which meant he was too good for me.
We remained friendly. As time went on, he’d make eye contact and give me a smile. At one point, another young, single man began attending our church, increasing the membership of our singles group to three. He was a drifter, riding into town on his motorcycle, full of charisma, and living in a local campground. He came to mass every Sunday too, and charmed the old ladies and seemed to have an eye on me. He called me one day, suggested we go horseback riding, and I took him up on the offer, and he gave me directions of where to meet him. But those were the days before cell phones and internet, and I got his directions mixed-up, and ended up not being able to find the riding stables and so, returned home. A few days later, I shared this story with Aaron, and I asked him point blank what he thought of this new guy in town. In uncharacteristic cynicism, Aaron told me he didn’t think too highly of him and suggested that I keep my distance. I took Aaron’s advice and a few weeks later, the drifter left town, never to be seen again.
I kept going to that church with my parents, and gradually my love of Catholicism grew as I educated myself about the church and learned more about the faith. But as much as I learned from books, I learned also by observing Aaron and his devotion to the mass. Once, after noticing that he had been absent for a series of Sundays, I asked about his whereabouts, knowing he would never miss mass without serious reasons. It was then that I learned that Aaron had been accepted into the seminary. Suddenly, it all made sense. He wanted to be a priest. Of course! How did I not see that?
A few months passed and one Sunday, Aaron was back, sitting in the front pew, saying his prayers. He didn’t want to chat, but his smile remained. I learned later that he’d left the seminary, but he would not share the reason, other than to say it was not the place for him and that he did not fit in. I always saw him differently after that. I always saw him as the priest he could’ve been.
Shortly after, I met my husband. Much to my parents’ dismay, he wasn’t Catholic, but he was a good man, but not too good for me. We married, moved 500 miles away, and for fifteen years, I didn’t see or talk to Aaron again.
Five years ago, we moved our family back to Kentucky, back to my hometown. The church I’d grown up in, the one my family had left twenty years earlier, had a new pastor now, and had changed for the better, so no longer did we have to drive an hour to mass, to Aaron’s church. Our new routine was established as we settled into our homeschooling, homesteading lifestyle, and part of that routine included my weekly trip to the local grocery store on Saturday mornings, while my husband and kids stayed home and cleaned house. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the week, these mornings away from “mom life”, when I can take my time shopping, and visit our local library to write, and enjoy peaceful, uninterrupted time.
And it was on one of those Saturday mornings a couple of years ago that I was pushing my cart through the meat department and noticed a middle-aged man dressed completely in black. “He looks like a priest”, I thought to myself, although I knew that priests don’t hand out free samples of cheese dip and crackers at grocery stores. As I approached, he turned toward me and began to offer me a free sample when we both recognized each other. It was Aaron.
Time had not been kind to him. He’d gained a lot of weight. His hair had thinned and turned grey and his color did not look good. He was working what seemed to be a low-income job, and he commented that he had to travel a lot now, going to various groceries around the region, pushing free samples of processed food products, hoping to earn a bit of commission from his sales. Often, when I’d see him, his mother, who’d been widowed shortly before I first met Aaron, would be with him, sitting next to his food kiosk, smiling at customers. Except for his short time in the seminary, Aaron had always lived with her, taking it upon himself to be her caregiver after his father had died, and she came to work with him to pass the time. We never spoke long, he still had a sense of shyness about him when we were together, but his meek smile would never fail, and I began to look forward to these short chats as I went about my Saturday morning shopping. The last time we spoke, two weeks ago, he asked about my boys, my parents, and we spoke longer than we had in years. He said he was going to drop by sometime to visit my parents and I encouraged him to do so. For the first time, he didn’t seem shy or in a hurry.
Last Saturday, I again saw Aaron. However, this time, we were not in a grocery store. This time, I was back in the church where we’d met, sitting in the pew where my parents and I had sat years ago, only this time, I was alone. And as always, Aaron was in the front of the church, close to the sanctuary, but this time, he was closer to Jesus than he’d ever been. Aaron had died that previous Thursday. Just before he collapsed, he’d been helping the priest prepare for daily mass, and was standing in the sacristy, chatting and smiling as always, when a blood clot suddenly broke free and went straight to his lungs.
I sat in that pew last Saturday and I looked at Aaron lying in his coffin, rosary wrapped around his fingers. I looked at his mother, who remained silent, stoic, solid. I thought about how life is stranger than fiction, how the further I move away from certain things or certain people, God keeps putting them in my path. I wondered why, after so many years, God had put Aaron back in my path. It was too strange to be coincidence.
When the Gospel was read at Aaron’s funeral mass, it was the Gospel from Matthew, the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…, blessed are the meek…, blessed are the clean of heart….”. The deacon reading it got choked up and had to pause. I knew what he was thinking. What we were all thinking. Those beatitudes described Aaron perfectly. He was all of them.
I found myself wondering what would have been. What would have been if I’d shown more interest in Aaron those many years ago? What would have been if I’d taken my parents advice? What would have been had he become a priest? Did either of us, Aaron or myself, fulfill God’s will for our lives, or did we just find ourselves living a lesser version of it, still good, but not all that it could have been? Did we allow ourselves to get sidelined by a world that whispered in our ears, “You are not good enough”?
Today, on this Saturday, I resumed my normal Saturday routine. I pushed my grocery cart through the aisles and filled it with enough staples to get my family and myself through the coming week. I missed that smile that I once looked for, but I found consolation in knowing Aaron is smiling at me now from heaven. By all reports, he was as close to a saint on earth as they get, even if his life didn’t turn out necessarily the way he, or even God, may have intended. Finally, for Aaron, God’s will can be done, without the interference of this broken world, and without all the lies and insecurities that we too often allow to get in God’s way. Now, Aaron will now have the beautiful life that he always deserved.
Eternal rest, grant him, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon him.
May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed,
Through the mercy of God,
Rest in peace. Amen.