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Monday, November 23 2015 09:29

One of the writers most on my mind these days is Oliver Sacks.  And that’s not just because this memorable doctor expects to die within the coming year. His readers are sadly aware that he has metastatic cancer.

I have been thinking about a recent opinion article written for the New York Times. In it Sacks tells how the Jewish Sabbath played a vital part in his early life.

Among the several factors that influenced him were the following:

The Orthodox tradition; the Sabbath differing from the other days of the week; shops closed; the synagogue always full; old medieval prayers and music; people mingling after services; family visits.

These were part of a meaningful cycle for the Jewish people. With some differences, they still speak for large numbers for whom the traditions hold.

 These reminiscences evoke similar experiences in my own boyhood. Though not the same as those of the Jewish faithful, they echo them in various ways.

Both of my parents were committed Catholics. My father had grown up in Holyoke, Massachusetts where two of his uncles were priests.

My mother was born in Peabody, in a family fairly strongly focused on the church. Her father, at age 12, had come from Ireland to Boston with his two younger brothers.

 Both of my parents graduated from Catholic colleges. They were well educated in their faith, and it would guide and sustain them throughout their lives.

For them, Sunday was always different from the other days of the week.  Mass attendance was a non-negotiable obligation, as it was for all the Catholic families that we knew.

The church attended by my parents was usually filled with worshippers of all ages.   My sisters and brothers and I were expected to be attentive and respectful.

This was not always easy. The Mass was in Latin, and the priest’s back was usually turned to us. Some churches were famous for their music, but the congregation rarely joined in.

Coming out of Mass on Sunday mornings, we encountered boys selling the Sunday papers. It was a time for greeting our neighbors and friends, and sharing the latest news.

Sunday was a day of rest; no routine work; no shopping. In any case, civil laws did not allow most stores to be open.

On Sunday afternoons, my parents often packed us into the car and took us to see our relatives. That usually meant my grandmother and aunt, who lived in Peabody. We children loved both of them and were glad for these visits.

These Sunday rhythms helped to form us in our faith. My parents approach still strikes me as admirable. Our early religious education maintained remarkable power in the lives of my siblings and me.

But the familiar parish where we attended Mass no longer exists.  The church, once so crowded, no longer had enough parishioners to sustain it.  The building has been demolished.

Driving by the sites one cannot find a single sign of the parish that was. The faith is not dead, but the old rhythms of life have disappointed. Many Catholics have broken with the traditions we took for granted

As for Oliver Sacks, he broke with his original Judaism in late boyhood. That happened in large part because of his mother’s fierce rejection of her son’s homosexuality.  (His account of her verbal blast at him is shocking.)

However, judging by his essay, the values in his tradition remain vital to him. In a final paragraph he writes:

“I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”