Billy wasn't a Catholic, even though he grew up with a ghastly crucifix on the wall. His father had no religion. His mother was a substitute organist for several churches around town. She took Billy with her whenever she played, taught him to play a little, too. She said she was going to join a church as soon as she decided which one was right.
She never did decide. She did develop a terrific hankering for a crucifix, though. And she bought one from a Santa Fe gift shop during a trip the little family made out West during the Great Depression. Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.
And the crucifix went up on the wall of Billy Pilgrim.
Yesterday, I wrote about crucifixes in my life. For Billy, they don't really represent anything, except his mother's taste in souvenirs from gift shops. Billy wasn't raised in a religious home. Billy's mom goes to church to make money. That's it. There's no soul searching involved.
When I was a teenager, I was well on my way to becoming a lapsed Catholic. On Sunday mornings, instead of going to Mass, I went to McDonald's for breakfast. If I did go to Church, I sat in the pew and fell asleep. A cradle Catholic, I had grown sort of immune to the movement of grace in my life.
It was the pipe organ that brought me back. I took nine years of piano lessons when I was young. Although I wasn't a gifted musician, I was a hard worker. I could play well. About the time that I entered college, my home church lost an organist, and my parish priest--a kind, benevolent dictator of a man--basically told me that I was going to be the church's new organist. The next Saturday night, I was sitting in the choir loft, playing the organ.
Somehow, my priest knew that it was exactly what I needed. (It also didn't hurt that he paid me very well. Back then, it was all under-the-table. No taxes and W-2s. Just handfuls of twenty dollar bills, which I promptly spent on things like new clothes, gas for my car, and, occasionally, alcohol.) Gradually, though, I started paying attention to what was going on during Mass. Listening to the readings and homilies. I started appreciating Christ's message of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, friending the friendless. It started to sink in.
Over thirty years later, I'm still sitting at the same organ every Saturday night, and I still enjoy it.
It's not an exciting conversion story, like Saint Paul's. I wasn't blinded by God or cast into a cave with hungry lions. It happened gradually, like peeling away the layers of an onion, if I may borrow the metaphor from Shrek.
Tonight, Saint Marty is grateful for pipe organs.