A Little Splinter in the Soul

You know the kind of splinter I mean. You are hammering together a homemade bunk-bed or carrying firewood, and it somehow drives itself deep beneath the surface of the skin. It’s a tiny black dot. By contrast, big splinters look like splinters, mean and ugly, but tweezers usually make short work of them. Not so with these little invaders.

They are too small to extract, and too subtle to stop a project in mid-stride. “Later,” you think, “I’ll get it out later.”

But they have a curious way of being forgotten until you wake in the middle of the night with a throbbing, swollen finger, infected and useless. Just a tiny thing, but it can ruin a whole night and the following day into the bargain.

Certain sins are like that. “It’s just a little thing,” you say to yourself, “Later, I’ll deal with it later.”

“It’s just a venial sin,” you think, forgetting that even a venial sin darkens the mind and weakens the will. “It’s really harmless,” you think, “I’m not hurting anybody by it!” It took the death of a friend to teach me just how wrong I was.

Paul and Marie were members of our parish and they were the kind of people who are the heart of any faith community. In their late 30’s, they had five bright and beautiful children and worked hard to make a living on their small dairy farm. The family radiated warmth and strong faith. Quiet people, humble, very much in love with each other after ten years of marriage. They had recently suffered the loss of their only son, the eldest child, Dominic, an exceptional boy who had been a champion swimmer, good student, and devout altar boy. He had died after an excruciating battle against Leukemia. But Paul and Marie possessed the kind of faith that survives such fiery tests.

Marie was a fervent Catholic who since early childhood had prayed the rosary every day of her life. The family rosary was a cornerstone of their daily prayers. Paul was a convert who had embraced the Faith wholeheartedly. “We must praise God in good times and praise God in hard times!” he would often say. Their hearts had been broken by Dominic’s death, but now were mending. The Lord had blessed them not long after with the birth of a baby boy, David.

I admired Paul very much. I think most of the other husbands and fathers in the parish felt as I did, for he was a truly fine man. He was usually a silent person but when he spoke his words were the fruit of some deep perception and oftentimes wisdom. There was something in him that we all loved, though it escaped definition.

It wasn’t exactly that integrity and quiet dignity of his which he never seemed to betray. Nor was it just the fact that he worked very hard to provide for his large and growing family. Nor was it because he was handsome and carried his looks without vanity. No one could describe it really. Perhaps it was his constancy and a solitude of soul which he radiated even in crowds. There was, you felt, a great physical and moral strength. This strength was respected but not feared. His power, exercised gently, contained a mystery. Above all, there was an atmosphere of virtue about him. Paul was good. Of the many good men I have known in my life, it seemed to me that Paul was most like St. Joseph.

I have no doubt that, being human, he had some faults. But they weren’t very visible. I do not wish to idealize him, but for many of us he was an image of Christian manhood, the ideal that we hold up within ourselves of what we should be. Without such ideals we would soon falter and lose hope.

The last time I saw him his children and mine were playing together in the swimming pool at the local recreation center. Paul and I stood neck deep in water making silly conversation about some day “rubber-tubing” across the ocean together. We joked about the dangers. In my last memory of him I can still see him laughing heartily at death.

The following Wednesday was catechism night. There was no Catholic school in our area, and the church building was small, so we rented classrooms at the local high school one evening a week. I don’t know why I felt so “low” that night, but maybe it was because just too many things had gone wrong during the past few weeks. There was an infestation of rats in our house, the foundation was rotting, the basement was flooded and we were broke. I was taking it all rather badly. Most of all I was upset that I was taking it badly. In addition, I had one of those nasty little splinters in a finger of my right hand (my working hand no less) and it was infected. To put it simply, I was resenting my lot in life mightily.

As I drove my children through the school parking lot to drop them off for catechism we passed Paul’s parked car. A flash of resentment boiled through me.