Dona Nobis Pacem

Update: My friend Mary texted yesterday, after finally managing to get some sleep, to say that a neighbor had let them know their whole neighborhood is still standing after the fires that tore through Louisville and Superior two days ago. She and her family will go today to assess their situation, but her initial report was, “Such relief, and sadness that not everyone gets to feel relieved.”

In the TV series M*A*S*H, which I once watched as endlessly as I now do SpongeBob — only it was a touch more cerebral — one of the least flashy characters was Father Mulcahy, whose other names were a combination of John, Patrick and Francis, but not always in the same order. While the writers couldn’t always settle on the character’s name, although eventually they reached consensus that he went by Francis, what they did gift him were all the best scenes in the show.

Probably in the original book, which I never made it through because it was so poorly written, and the movie, which I’m supposed to like and admire Robert Altman films but I just never have, as played by Rene Auberjonois, and in the first couple of episodes, played by an actor named George Morgan, the MASH company chaplain was a far different fellow who was known as “Dago Red.”

But someone was sensible enough to let actor William Christopher bring such a sense of quiet decency to the role that this priest in a camp of infidels, who never tried to change a one of them, became the show’s simple moral anchor. Which resulted in this supporting character getting many of the show’s most memorable scenes and lines.

In one of my favorite episodes, it’s Christmas at the MASH unit, and no one is feeling it, especially Father Mulcahy, who in a letter to his sister laments about how useless his job is while he is surrounded by doctors and nurses saving lives. But the camp sets him straight, as they all gather to celebrate a meager Christmas far away from home, when Hawkeye tells him before the assembly that he doesn’t realize just how much his basic decency means to all of them.

Then, as a gift to their chaplain, they sing “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Hawkeye offers to translate this to the priest, but Father Mulcahy, ignoring the joke, says, “No need. I say it every night: Give us peace.”

I have been thinking about this ever since Lynn and I caught a 60 Minutes interview a few weeks ago. Leslie Stahl interviewed the comedian Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show and a native of South Africa, where as a child he was considered “illegal” because he was the product of a union between a black woman and a white man.

During the course of the interview, Mr. Noah matter-of-factly told Ms. Stahl that the United States of America is an angry place. He wasn’t passing judgment, just noting what he, as a foreigner, has observed. He didn’t even expound on this, particularly, and really I suppose he didn’t have to.

I am part of Angry America. Sometimes I like to think I’m not, but since I have spent the last week fulminating uselessly at Mother Nature and a number of assorted weather services that all promised me snow, I think I need to come to terms with this.

Every day since Dec. 24 we here in Gunnison have been promised inches of snow. We did get about three to start, but snain quickly turned that into a layer of ice that has taken me off my bike (discretion the better part of valor and all that), followed by little tiny whiffs of snow crystals that treacherously hid the ice and did little else.

In the meantime Crested Butte, barely up the road, was blessed/tasked with an average of one foot of snow per day. They are over eight feet since Christmas Eve, and here in the southern latitudes — where we’re supposed to plummet well into negative numbers tonight (that part the weather services will get right) — we can still see grass poking through the snow.

Which would be a stupid thing to get worked up over, particularly since I have so little control or say over the matter, except that it stems from fear of future existence as well as serving as a convenient point of anger management for the last few years, when so many things I just expected to be normal and codified got upended. As one not-small example, I assumed our democracy was inviolate, and it has been heart-wrenching to me to see it cavalierly tossed aside for what seems only to be personal gain for the smallest of minds.

But yesterday along came Tim Mooney, a real man of the cloth rather than the one William Christopher played on TV. Actually, Mr. Mooney is no longer a man of the cloth but the owner of an art gallery in Buena Vista, just over the hills to our east.

He provided the cover art for the January-February issue of Colorado Central, which then entitled him to the first inside page of the magazine to tell us about himself. Along the way, he introduced me to Thomas Merton, who Wikipedia tells me was “an American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion.” [Who knows where those links will take you, or even if they will.]

Mr. Mooney quoted Brother Merton, whom I’ve just learned was a “keen proponent of interfaith understanding.” So as Mr. Mooney quoted to me and I now quote to you, Brother Merton once wrote: “Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings.”

Having just read that yesterday, I haven’t cogitated on it much, but at least we did get maybe an inch or even two of snow early this morning. What it initially made me realize is: I don’t always have to go big.

I don’t have to pine for World Peace, which seems to me always a major impossibility no matter how much Star Trek I watch (where there’s always plenty to fight about even in our Utopian future) or nothing. On this and so many other issues, I can think globally but act locally.

I can make peace about me, and not about people who are doing things I don’t like. I can choose, as Brother Merton urges in a gift provided by artist/theologian Tim Mooney, to see my moments of despair as points of renewal. Personally. What can I, myself, do that will improve the Earth? Or even just my own state of mind?

So here, on this day of renewal, according to the calendar we all choose to follow, I guess I’m setting this as a resolution. We all know how resolutions go, but no matter how soon they go by the wayside, they are attempts to improve our lot in life through our own actions.

Even if it only makes me quit grumbling about the imperfection of weather services — even if that’s just for a day — if I could start to look at my moments of despair as places to begin anew, it might bring me a small minute of peace.

As Father Mulcahy noted in closing the letter to his sister, “It doesn’t matter if you’re needed or not. The trick, I guess, is to just keep moving.”

It’s a New Year, y’awl. I hope we can collectively grant each other a little peace.

I could not find a decent Youtube clip of the M*A*S*H episode, so here is a lovely rendition put together in 2020 by students from Portland State University.

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