I believe that God lives in Chicago.
This I know not because the Bible tells me so, but because of an unexpected encounter in the Windy City.
My girlfriend and I, visiting friends in Chicago, went to Sunday morning Mass in a local cathedral. I remember nothing atypical about the Mass, but during the ceremony, my mind wandered. I began thinking about a friend.
Something percolated in my chest and welling up to my throat: I started to cry. And once I started, I could not stop. The congregation was standing, listening to the priest, but I had to sit. My girlfriend scoured her purse for a tissue, and I sat clamping my hand over my mouth, because I wanted to sob.
My friend’s name was Christopher. He was a bright, blond youth with a sharp intellect and a personality brimming with charisma. But because he suffered from depression and alcoholism, he had, only a few years prior, taken his own life. He was 21 years old.
Chris was my only friend in my teenage years. I loved him. He was my prince.
C.S. Lewis wrote of being “surprised by joy”: there, in a Chicago cathedral, I was surprised by grief. Like a blow to the back of the head, it suddenly struck me that my beautiful friend was gone, and I would never see him again. I cried when Chris died, but not like this.
I managed to compose myself, anticipating the sign of peace, when congregants turn to people around them, shake hands and say “Peace be with you.”
Turning, I saw only two people behind me: a frail, elderly woman and what I took to be her middle-aged son. She was thin, he was heavy. I imagined that this man took his dear mother every Sunday to Mass.
I took the man’s hand. “Peace be with you,” I said.
He looked into my eyes with earnest concern and said, “May God give you comfort in your sorrow.”
That, of course, made me cry anew. Even the simple acknowledgment of my pain – and it was sorrow, and it was mine – meant the world to me. I was too overcome even to tell the man that God had already given me comfort, through him.
I was baptized as a Catholic. I was an altar boy. I had felt the presence of God, but for the first time, I felt God’s intercession. Born and reared in New England, I hadn’t expected it to come in the Midwest.
Leaving the cathedral that day, I was reminded of the Bible story of Mary visiting the tomb of Jesus, only to meet an angel in disguise, who asks, “Woman, why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Those who look for God in their lives could look in Chicago, but I would submit that God is much closer: not among the dead but among the living, among those who would comfort a stranger.
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