By Denise Trull
There is a peculiar quality in most of the men I truly admire which has always astounded me a bit, or more than a bit. It’s just this: an unexplainable tolerance and acceptance of the dangerous. No matter how "domesticated" they may seem to be most of the time, it’s right there underneath.
It's the sort of thing you witness as a mother of many boys when you make your way up a darkened path and crest the hill on your first parent visit night at Scout Summer Camp, only to find this obscenely large conflagration passing itself off as a campfire -- surrounded by boys in various states of feral splendor. Matted hair, dirt smudged faces, and wildly ecstatic eyes -- playing a game of "Will it Burn?" It is horrifying the first time you witness it, only because the person hurling the largest cardboard box into the flames might be none other than your own husband egged on by the cheers. You want to step in and stop it, like any mom on earth would do, but you back away slowly clutching the rosary in your pocket, knowing that there is some kind of weird necessity to this behavior and you need to just let it be.
This acceptance of danger comes part and parcel with triumphant joy. Men get it somehow. They pass it down to boys. They see nothing wrong with it. And it is in the men I love and admire most.
They throw babies in the air to great heights as you stifle a scream, they let kids jump off the garage roof into the pool (while you are off grocery shopping). You may come home to a brawl in progress on the living room floor while your husband calmly reads his book and looks on, at times with a real vested interest, placing wagers as to who the victor will be. Men insult each other and call it affection. Men shoot off firecrackers with reckless abandon and ask quite innocently, "What?" when you hysterically wonder if they have lost their minds.
Men exist quite comfortably with the fact that danger must be only half caged -- that at any minute it might escape. They, of course, will protect their own if it comes to it, and fiercely, but they are never surprised that danger cannot be wholly contained and controlled. I am always surprised how they can simply live with it and still be so at ease. I never am. I wish to domesticate danger and eliminate it -- or at best keep it at bay.
I was thinking these thoughts in a most unlikely place one evening. I was watching the altar boys prepare the sanctuary for the coming Mass. At my church, if you fit in the surplice and it doesn't drag on the floor, you can serve. And nothing against the Novus Ordo, which I do love and which also has it duties, ten to one all these itty bitty altar boys prefer serving the Latin Mass once they have had a bit of a taste. Why? Well, because there is so much for them to do -- dangerous things that involve fire and coals, handling glass cruets their mothers would never let them touch at home, standing next to each other with heavy brass candlesticks, trusted by a grown up priest that they won't light each other on fire as you, the mom, mutter to yourself between Hail Marys, "Madness. Sheer madness." But you let it go on as you know you must.
You watch them marching down the aisle with a processional cross four times their size and setting their faces like flint as they keep that altar step in their sights. They learn to bow and to weave and to stay out of the way when needed. They are trusted, and even more, expected to do their part. They are told to go light those very tall candles on the altar and no one goes with them to help -- though I strongly suspect the Pastor is watching from the door to assure all is okay. Being a guy as well as a priest, however, I wonder if he is back there highly amused by their huffing, puffing efforts. They soldier on as you look on through your fingers from your pew, just willing that wick to catch fire for them and seeing their proud smile when it does. The priest expects them to try -- to go do it -- and they do. The mom in me wants to run up and help but I learned my lesson on the basketball court: mothers never go down there even if their son is lying on the floor injured. Danger is expected. Coddling is absolutely not.
Handling danger is a boy's way of knowing he is needed, that he is vital to the situation.
In the Mass, this knowledge is more precious, it seems to me. This eternal, immortal act is unfolding upon that altar and these little bitty boys are a vital part of the offering. Their actions matter to the attainment of a sacrifice being offered as 'right and just.' It is Jesus allowing them to be part of the danger -- the danger of a God Man loving us beyond measure. They aren't just allowed to be up there with a condescending pat on the head. They are invited into the danger. They shake the bells that tell us God is here, lifted up before us, at once on calvary's hill and on the altar right now, at this very minute. They hold a golden paten under the chin of every face lifted up to be fed the Bread of Angels. To protect Jesus if He falls. They are trusted with this duty. Itty bitty boys. And they rise to face the danger. They grow into the mystery if they serve a while. They realize their part and they get better and better at it. Handling fire. Pouring wine. Ringing bells. Kneeling with a candle and not letting it sway. Things their mom might never let them do at home, but even she grows warmly proud when she sees them succeed on the altar of God. They can see it on her face. Another man trusted them to do this manly thing and they are proud that they are needed for so wonderful a duty.
Guys and danger. They will always assume it is there. They will flirt with it, invite it in, face it if need be. They know it will never be fully caged. Even the fierce heart of a dangerously loving God asks them to approach and serve Him. They jump at the chance.
It’s a beautiful thing.