There was only one movie theater in town. It cost a dime to see the matinee on Saturday afternoon. That dime would get you a couple hour’s entertainment; more importantly, it would give you a wealth of vital information that could save your life in sixth grade. Every Saturday the kids from school were there. This was the place where you found out who was going with whom that week if you weren’t in with the crowd that was privy to that kind of information. The cool people sat with their boyfriends and girlfriends. The rest of us sat in groups of the same sex and observed each other’s groups trying to pretend they were not observing the other.
This particular Saturday was a light turnout. “Old Yeller” was showing for two weeks. Most everyone had seen it already, but I missed it. Kit and Donna showed up anyway, just to make out in the back row in the dark.; rumor had it that they had “gone all the way”. Looking back, I think our concept of distance was slightly off, nevertheless they had done something that had put them beyond the boundaries of movie house hand holding and kissing on the lips. Bob and Barbara showed up, and Paul was now with Janie, Kit’s old girl.
I hung around the candy counter trying to look like I was making up my mind what I wanted while I kept an eye on the door to see if another “single person” might show up. There were few things worse than seeing a good, sad movie by yourself unless you wanted to be by yourself. I didn’t, not particularly. Then I saw her. Jackie Burger. She was paying her dime and tip toeing, looking through the smudged glass ticket booth to see who was hanging out in the lobby. She waved. I waved back.
Jackie Burger. Jackie was plainer than generic white sandwich bread. Not ugly by grade school standards, just ordinary. Like most of us were. “Jackie Booger” we called her. Boogers for short. I think the name originated one day at lunch when she was seen picking her nose. She suffered greatly at recess that day for her public offense and the name stuck ever since. She bore it with a blue steel gaze, never lashing out, never crying to the teacher, never running to the recess monitor. I’d seen many others crumble- I’d crumbled – under far less persecution.
Jackie was by herself. I was by myself. So we sat together, more by default than agreement since neither of us had the nerve to come to such an agreement. We sat toward the front because we were there to see the movie. The others sat in the back because they were there for other, more brave activities.
“Old Yeller” did to Jackie what it does to most everyone who sees it. Steely and tough as she was, Boogers started to cry. I wasn’t exactly dry eyed myself. Somehow our arms ended up on the same armrest and neither of us flinched nor made an effort to move. And so we sat, both afraid of looking at each other and both knowing what the other was feeling. Two worlds, parallel, touching, but both afraid of entering the other. We left the theater having shared something about one another that would not allow us to see each other as “Robinson” and “Boogers” again.
Monday morning at school we did not acknowledge one another publicly. We had a wordless agreement that there would be no visible signs of our moment to the casual observer. I did catch her eye, often, and there was a softer, less steely look in it for me that I liked.
At lunch I sat closer to her, but not WITH her. Unfortunately, I sat close enough for Patrick Grady to notice I’d closed some distance between me and Jackie.
“HEY ROBINSON!!! Who was that you were sitting with at “Old Yeller” Saturday, huh?” Patrick shouted across the lunch room. “Wasn’t that you with Boogers?”
I was nailed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I half shouted, with a quiver of fear in my voice at my impending social doom.
“Yeah you do! Robinson and Boogers were holding hands at the movies… I SAW you Robinson!” Patrick announced to the whole lunchroom with a sing song lilt or ridicule in his voice. “Robinson li-ikes Boo-gers… Robinson li-ikes Booo—gers!” he sang. Laughter filled the room.
I exploded from my seat, livid. I screamed, “I DO NOT! I DO NOT! I HATE HER! SHE sat by ME…” I choked and gasped, stumbling for something more convincing. I looked around at the mocking faces, the gaping mouths filled with obscene laughter.
Then I saw Jackie. She sat, still… staring at me. Her steel blue eyes were full of tears.
I bolted from the lunchroom. Tears flowed down my cheeks, tears of helpless anger, but mostly tears of something I did not understand… tears that had more to do with the way Jackie looked at me than with my anger at Patrick’s orchestration of mockery. In my attempt to save myself I knew I had destroyed something precious somehow. I had violated some law within. I had desecrated a holy place I did not know existed until that moment.
I know now that the holiness of relationships is wrought by entrusting our most private and secret places to another. In a relationship there is an altar we erect and upon that altar we offer our sacrifices for the sake of love. The unspoken law of relationships says “You will keep my holy things as your own, and you will guard them with your life, lay it down for them if need be.” But we do not. And over the years since then, I have desecrated several holy places in my life. I have desecrated the altars of the people who loved me. I’ve denied my lovers, I’ve betrayed my friends to save my own skin. I’ve thrown what is holy to the dogs in an unthinking heartbeat, and in premeditated betrayal to feed my ego and gratify my lusts.
I denied Jackie to save my sixth grade respectability, my status, my pride. I’ve betrayed others since then for far less. I don’t need a mob to press me to choose anarchy over love, I just need my own legion of disordered desires. I don’t need thirty pieces of silver to tempt me to deliver a friend to judgment, I’ve fallen down before Satan for the loose change of looking like I know something other people don’t. I don’t need the threat of death to make me a coward, I’ve cut and run to look cool and not be ostracized. I don’t need the threat of the loss of my high status and all I own to put up a false witness, I’ll do it to raise myself up in the eyes of others. I don’t need a garrison of armed opponents to make me lash out in violence and anger, I just need a perceived insult or criticism, even from someone who loves me. In short, as the hymns of Holy Week teach me, I am the Pharisee, I am the disciples, I am the crowd, I am Judas, I am Peter. I nailed Him to the Cross.
Though it is not told, I imagine Jesus looking at Judas as he approached Him in the garden to betray Him. As Judas drew back from his kiss, he opened his eyes to look one last time into the face of Christ. I see Judas and Jesus suspended in a timeless moment, the sounds of rattling armor and the shouting all fading to silence. There was, for that solitary moment, that look. And Judas was swallowed by a darkness deep as death.
When Peter had denied Jesus for the third time, St. Luke says, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter”. Jesus was taken away. Peter went out and wept bitterly. Judas went out and died of remorse by his own hand.
Yes Peter, yes Judas, I understand. I have seen the look of Jesus. And I too went out and wept bitterly because in my weakness I denied everything that was precious to me. I have felt hopelessly lost because I desecrated a holy trust. I have died within because I betrayed my innocent beloved to save myself.
I know the look. It was not “I told you so”…
.It was not “You REALLY blew it this time…”
It was not “You jerk… look how bad you hurt me….”
It was not “I hate you….”
Those are devastating looks. I’ve seen them all. And they hurt because they are true, and we know we deserve them fully.
The look Peter saw, and Judas probably saw too, was the same look I saw in the lunchroom of St. Williams Elementary that day. It was the hardest look of all looks to take, the most devastating because we know we don’t deserve it. It leaves us with no way to redeem ourselves and no illusions about ourselves and where we stand with the one we betrayed. It will kill us, and if we humble ourselves and accept its truth, it will raise us from the dead. It is a fire that will consume us, or it is a flame that will warm us if we open our hearts to its truth.
It was the Gospel in Jackie’s tears and in the eyes of Christ.
It was a look of grace, a wounded Lover, eyes filled with tears, still in love with the one who knows now beyond a doubt how undeserving of that love he really is.
“I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love?...It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God…The power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners…Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret.” (St. Isaac of Syria, Ascetical Homilies 28, Page 141)
“Do not hide Thy face from me, Do not turn Thy servant away in anger… Do not abandon me or forsake me, O God of my salvation.” Ps. 27:8