Why on earth?

Harry Drabik

I avoid mention of religious practice. The reason is fairly simple. Believers often show a “Why on earth is he here” expression while non-believers look as if I just lost 100 IQ points. I suppose this comes naturally to someone neither devout nor hostile to belief. This being one of the times of year (Christmas and Easter) when ostensible Christians (the C & E variety) come out of hiding I thought it a good time to own a part of belief I find has living value. Set aside the material success of Western Culture. Look instead at its intellectual and personal freedom. The West with Judeo Christian roots is almost alone practicing the values it is so often condemned for abusing. I am, however and thankfully, going to skip going down that route to take another.

Despite seriously weak belief I attend Mass as a reminder. Knowing it easier to stay home, I roust myself out because the opportunity to consider views (especially ones I’m not onboard with) is worth effort. It reminds me of a two thousand plus year history of belief. So far, unless they’ve been hiding it from me, not one thing in Gospel has told me to do anything I’d feel ashamed of. Moral or philosophical reminders are not a bad thing, but I have a more direct personal reason for attendance; Helen.

My grandmother Helen was five feet of typical central European woman. This means she was devout with a bold and capital D. Earlier in my life I found her devotion puzzling. It is clearer to me now. Her belief played a big part in the journey of her life. Something gave her the strength to leave from behind enemy lines in WWI and take a less than year old child into the unknown. She spoke no German or French. Even after decades in the US her English was shaky. And yet, she carried on in the belief she’d demonstrate all through later life that her God was kind, saving, and would subtly attend her needs. Helen (in the family known as Busha) prayed her way across Europe during war, across the Atlantic, and across the eastern half of the US to Chicago. Her travel took month on month. Consider the task of safely negotiating a route around the trenches of WW I and then having to decide the best way to the US. She could go north to Scandinavia or west toward a channel port in France or England. She had a child. They both needed to eat and sleep. Was rail her best way to the ocean? Would her savings last? Faced with more unknowns than knows she and an infant son made their way through war zones. Escaping robber and injury they reached the ocean. A great many Hail Mary’s later they reached New York (where there was little help for impoverished newcomers who couldn’t speak the language) to then face travel across half the US. 

There had to be difficulties along the way. A rail no longer operated. A ship was booked full or had departed. An alternate port had to be used. A poor woman alone with a child did not find easy going. Helen made each part of her the trip putting one foot ahead of the other and repeating the Hail Mary. Hers was not holiday travel. It was a life journey and she tackled it as such. Until her death Helen was thankful; a fact of her life she showed through Devotion. Whether I saw it or was able to recognize it at, her faith was a lively fact that lead eventually to my life.

We are, these days, culturally proud of strong, edgy women. I could say that of Helen; strong and edgy, but without the attitude and anger currently attached to strong edges. Five feet tall, in sturdy black shoes and heavy tan-brown hose Helen left the house to shop with her black purse and babushka. She did not try to impress, but what she’d done was real and not a contemporary dramatized form where strong and edgy favors trashiness over respectability.

When I say strong I don’t mean in the pretend sense where a woman tames a dragon and then flies it around on a blue screen. I mean a woman feared by the local butcher who knows better than try to put one over on her. Helen who knew her cuts and quality of meats the way some of us know aps. And she was modern, very much so I’d say, in recycling. Nothing was wasted. If God gave it she used it. Helen did not throw away. She used, reused, and recycled. That was her life. As a child this interested me as much as her power, which also impressed like nothing else. Strength was Helen catching my twelve year old cousin up to no good and taking him by the ear for an across-the-room toss. He broke glass. Not with his body, his screech did the shattering. He developed an acute awareness (Grandma Radar) and never again fooled around when grandma was in the vicinity. Helen’s strength and severity did not stop him from growing up to be a jerk. That was his accomplishment, but she may have prevented him becoming a bigger jerk, if even a little.

Helen was strong other ways. When missionary religions came to her door she politely let them in and sat them down. This allowed time to get to the kitchen for a broom. Helen and her broom then chased her visitors down the street fast as they could manage with her pursuing to the end of the block. She didn’t take her religion to their door. As Helen saw it they asked for what they got. For a little while most Sundays I’m reminded of a faith and family past. Tradition can be a constructive bond. I approve. In that I’m unlike French leader Macron. He rejects tradition saying he’s never seen French art of culture. But then, his view is globalist. Presumably he prefers Paris to look like some other place. Where, I wonder, and why on earth?