But most of my work was backstage. Maybe one reason I've never been queasy about the grubby work of politics, the mechanics of running campaigns and making laws, is that I spent so many of my early days behind the altar screen, where mystery is rooted in the mundane, where faith and duty are one, where my father's prayers were my cues. Agios o Theos. . . . Get the candles. Wisdom, let us attend. . . . Lanterns and cross for the Gospel. No one who is bound by carnal desires is worthy to approach. . . . Light up the censer and line up the other boys. The doors, the doors . . . Read the creed. Our Father . . . Heat the water for Holy Communion. O Lord, who blesses those who bless thee . . . Cut the bread.
Behind the screen, I learned to stay composed in the presence of power and was swayed by the illusion of indispensability. After all, the miracle of transubstantiation couldn't happen that Sunday if I forgot to boil water on the hot plate in the room off the altar. Altar boys are as much like young operatives as little monks. We serve the priest so he can save everyone else, doing the little things that need to be done. Sometimes I got lost in the details, lost sight of the spiritual essence of the service we were producing, but I hoped that doing the right things in the right place at the right time would help do some good and save some souls, including my own, even when I was just doing my job.
All this was also preparation for what I would eventually do --but not in the way I imagined. I assumed I would be a priest before I knew what it meant. That's what my father did, and my grandfather, and my godfather, and my uncle, and all their friends. When I recall summer barbecues, I see them lounging in plastic-webbed lawn chairs, highballs in hand, wearing the hot-weather uniform --short-sleeved black dress shirts with detachable cleric's collars that flopped to the side when the top button was unfastened. By night's end, even our backyard became a kind of church. Smoldering briquettes and burnt-orange cigar butts served up the social equivalent of candlelight and earthy incense as my dad and his buddies sipped Greek brandy and sang Byzantine hymns.
As soon as I could talk, I knew how to answer the question of what I would be. At home, I would preside at play liturgies with a towel draped over my shoulders, or sneak through piles of books in my dad's office to suck on the sweet metallic stem of his pipe while tapping out a pretend sermon on his typewriter. When my father was finishing his doctorate in theology, I added a twist, telling dinner guests I would be "a priest and a theologian," relishing the weight of the big word as it rolled off my seven-year-old tongue. Everyone smiled at my use of a word I didn't really understand, while I basked in the attention that was my reward for carrying on a family tradition.
But sometimes an expectation nurtured through childhood can come undone in a single moment. In 1974, when I was thirteen, my final eighth-grade assignment was a paper on a potential career. As expected, I wrote on being a priest and brought home my A. But that autumn, after we moved from New York to Cleveland, I started high school, and it hit me. I was sitting in homeroom one morning shortly before eight, thinking about nothing in particular, when the idea that I wasn't meant to be a priest, that I wouldn't bear the family legacy into the next generation, revealed itself with an intensity others must feel when called to the priesthood. I hadn't lost my faith, just my vocation, but I knew the decision was final. I was growing up and growing away from the only future I had allowed myself to imagine. Now if only I could tell my father, and my grandfather. When asked about my future, I started to slip around the questions until they stopped. I didn't know yet what I wanted --just what I didn't want, and that whatever career I chose had to be worthy.
© 1999 by George Stephanopoulos. Published by permission of the publisher, Little Brown.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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