I took a walk recently on Grove Street, a much trafficked thoroughfare not far from where I live. It was a beautiful late afternoon. Every so often, kids dashed across the street, artfully dodging the cars. I was thinking about a phrase used by the physicist who had discovered the earliest traces of the big bang, the bang from whence all of this came. He is quoted as saying that he felt as if he saw the “signature of God.”
Newsweek ran a photo of what the physicist saw, or at least a likeness to it, and it looked to me like a bunch of layered and colorful wisps. Fascinating, though, that we have mastered the technology to look back that far, billions of years. The article mentioned how tantalizingly close science is to grasping the originating event of the universe.
I continued walking and saw Al and Ida ahead of me, the sunlight playing on their backs as they passed beneath the trees. I have seen them walking many times. They are in their 60s and are like young lovers: They walk hand in hand, and wave if they see anyone they know. Al and Ida are very friendly, warm people who impress me as being very much in love. I can see it in their faces and can tell from, well, how they walk. At Mass, they sit in front of the Basilica Sacrament and are as attractive as anything in the church.
I continued thinking about creation, long-ago beginnings. Mr. Hollender drove by and waved. He’s owned the pharmacy a bit farther down on Grove Street for many years. I was amazed when he told me he remembered my parents, who moved from here years ago. He asks for them frequently.
In his block is a newspaper store that has had many owners over the years. When I was a kid, it was owned by Ruth and Al, a Jewish couple who were like surrogate grandparents to all sorts of kids. Al smoked fat cigars and wore a white apron. I think of him every time I smell a cigar. Ruth had dyed blond hair and favored brightly colored bedroom slippers. They, too, seemed very much in love.
I turned the corner and headed for a luncheonette called Twins Corner that’s owned by twin sisters, Louise and Peggy. I stop there frequently and kid about not being able to tell them apart. One wears lipstick that always matches the shade of her sweaters; the other does not seem as interested in color coordination. The luncheonette is a short walk from a large hospital, and a number of hospital workers are usually seated at tables, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
Newspapers are arranged at a table near the front door, and the twins don’t mind if you take one to read, so long as you put it back. That afternoon, most of the papers carried the story of the discovery about the beginnings of the universe. The Donahue show was on the television, which is on a shelf above the counter so everyone can see. Some people can look at the TV and carry on a conversation with the person across from them at the same time. I find that interesting, that there are those who can do several things at once without seeming to miss a beat or an important piece of cosmic or local news.
I took my place at the counter and asked what the specials were. Louise asked me to guess and I guessed right. I scanned the paper and looked for the article on the handwriting of God. The paper reported that the physicist was elated with the discovery, calling it the Rosetta Stone of modern physics.
It was strange, maybe wondrously so, to read that article in such a setting. Words and laughter floated easily amidst the carcinogens, the luncheonette smells and the “oohs” and “ahhhs” of the audience on Donahue. Louise wore orange lipstick and an orange sweater. A heavyset guy with one finger missing cooked the dinner. I don’t know what happened to his finger. He was hired after his young predecessor broke in one night and stole some things, including a framed series of “first dollars” gathered on the opening day of the luncheonette. He wasn’t fired, he just never came back the next morning or the morning after, and no one has seen him since. I liked him . . . there was a friendliness to him. I suspect his desperation stemmed from a drug habit. Louise and Peggy felt for him, too, and decided not to press charges.
I finished reading the paper and paid for my dinner, bid farewell to everyone, and headed home. To get there I have to cross the train tracks of the New Jersey transit, the “artery” that connects this area and others with Hoboken, a city on the Hudson that is the feeder city for Manhattan, across the river. I like trains and am glad that I live near enough to hear their whistles.
When I reached home, kids were playing in the lot and I sat on the steps of the rectory to watch them. One of the kids had a remote operating car, the kind that comes with an antenna. He zoomed that car all over the parking lot with dizzying speed and soon had a small crowd of admirers, eager to try the thing out.
By then, Al and Ida were home, perhaps sitting down to eat. The twins were still serving their customers, the man with no finger cooking up the orders. And the fellow who stole the money—I could only guess at this whereabouts.
I don’t know if the world will be a better place if that originating event is somehow deciphered. I sort of doubt it. Yet I wonder about the significance of what I see, what I hear and smell, what I remember. I cannot believe that the handwriting of God is all that old, and in need for billions to see it. Besides, how would one interpret it? What could it possibly say? Would it be any more eloquent or revelatory than a friendly hello, a walk with one you love on a street, the forgiving of a desperate and loving young man? Would it draw us any closer to ourselves or to each other?
I think that God writes straight, right here, with crooked lines, matching lipstick and missing fingers.
I once tried to teach my nephew some basics about grammar. He was only 7 and sat next to me as I explained the various components of English. After about half an hour, he found it all terribly frustrating and ran off to play with his friends. I soon heard a cascade of nouns, verbs, indirect objects, gerunds fill the late afternoon air, pleasantly diced with laughter.
He firmly possessed all that so frustrated him and delighted in its use. Perhaps the analysis would come later in his life; till then, he would use language to draw closer to others, to ask questions about himself, his world, the world of others. God provides enough innate words for any one of us to speak and love from wherever we may find ourselves. The grammar of God need not be parsed; it was created to be spoken.
Bernard Lonergan wrote, in Method in Theology, how long it took for pronouns to “evolve,” suggesting that such a change came about through cultures encountering each other and realizing a need to address the other as “thou.” No less important was the ensuing change of consciousness that evolved an “I.” Language, social location, human consciousness and the evolution of language constitute a long, dynamic and interrelated process. Situations, both personal and immense, draw us toward a need to need new words, new ways of speaking, seeing, being with one another.
I have a photograph of my father taken 30 years ago. He is sitting in a chair in the backyard of the house where we lived. Taken in the late ‘60s, it captures a time in his life that is worthy of note. Having raised seven children, he’d come home every day after work and enjoy, in the summer months, a cigarette. He would smoke it after dinner, sitting in the lawn chair.
I don’t know what mused through his heart as he smoked that cigarette and sat, seeing or perhaps finding some peace. What I see in the photographs is a far younger man than the man I know and love now, and a straight and tall wisp of cigarette smoke trails evenly towards the heavens. In these days of increasingly fantastic symbolic configurations of cosmic beginnings, I rest assured that I am somehow a living part of his heart and always will be. That means more to me that the origins of the universe, yet it has, I think, something to do with it.
In light of these musings, falling in love is no less miraculous than deciphering that ancient blast, a blast of which Al is trying to find the right words for what he presently feels as he speaks with love to Ida. For such spoken words are the most recent manifestations of that long-ago bang, a remnant of which is probably tainted with a bit of my dad’s nicotine, the heartfelt love of Al, the prayers of tomorrow’s Mass.
God spoke but once, and we are living in time when we feel pressure to enhance our grammar a bit. I can smell it. I can feel it. I can see it. I have a picture, a walk, a luncheonette and a street to prove it.
When this essay was published, Jeff Behrens was a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark and an instructor at Caldwell College.