The warm wind blew through the seaside bar on the warm Ash Wednesday morning. Palm trees gently swayed as a young college student sat next to an older gentleman. The man, an Episcopal priest, began talking to student. The student, intent on drinking as much as he could in as quickly as he could, listened — but only about halfway. He had memories to obliterate.
The priest began to speak anyway:
“It’s Ash Wednesday. You know, ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ I spent the morning dusting and Lord knows, I enough dust in my condo. And I have a couple of cremated pets on the shelf in urns. So I have some ashes. If you’d like to talk about my mortality, well that’s another matter. I could fill your ear about it. But would you really care? Sure, I had brush with death. But you don’t care. I mean really, you can’t get to my age without nearly dying once or twice. A drunk can weave into your lane. A tornado can hit your house. You can get stuck on a disabled cruise in the Gulf and have to eat onion sandwiches. And if you have experienced combat, death becomes a daily foxhole companion.”
“No, I’m not going to bore you with my story. Because you don’t want to hear it. Oh, you do? OK, it’s cancer and I’ve nearly drowned. Big whoop. Both just made life a little clearer. I’d like to think the cancer was a pair of glasses. Nearly drowning was my progressive lenses: I can now see up close better than I could before.”
“Ah, to be young and bullet-proof. Remember those days? That’s right, you probably still do feel bulletproof.”
The college student glared at the priest, who continued to talk anyway.
“I always feel sorry for teenagers who experience death first hand. They’re robbed of their shield of protection. If I hadn’t been naive at that age, I might not have tried new things. No, instead, I would have been in the fetal position until I was at least 40. ”
“Hang on a second, “Bartender, could I have another iced tea?”
“I gave up the drink a long time ago. I could see using it as a crutch during the bad times. And I had a pretty bad time for a while. I chose the Lord to lift me up instead. And do I mind if you smoke? Yes. You know those things will kill you. And me. And the bartender.”
The bartender interrupted the priest’s monolog. “Father, you want anything from the kitchen?”
“Yeah, Fred. Get me some oysters. And make it a double order. My friend here looks hungry.”
The kid looked at the man in cutoffs and a black shirt with collar but didn’t say anything.
“You might wonder why I am here in Paradise instead of somewhere more Hellish. Well, son, people need ministering everywhere. God put me here. And you seem to need some ministering.”
The priest’s tan revealed he had been “here” for a long time.
“Today is Ash Wednesday, son. You only have a brief time on this earth. No one knows for sure — and isn’t that a good thing? Can you imagine how freaked out if you knew when you were going to die? God did us a big favor on that one. But do God a favor. Treat each moment like the gift that it is. Obviously something is bothering you or you wouldn’t have red eyes and be drinking so heavily.”
The college student mumbled a few words under his breath.
The seaside priest acknowledged him and continued, “Yes, that is a tragedy. A terrible one. Life can be cruel. Yes, I know that it seems like God can be cruel, too. But you can’t go down that road. You’ll drive yourself crazy.”
Dark clouds built on the horizon, making the green water even more vibrant from the contrast. A distant rumble of thunder announced the coming storm.
“We’re OK here, son. It’s fun to watch the lightning dance across the Gulf.”
“Believe me, I haven’t always been a man of the cloth. I suffered a tragedy much like yours. I lost everything in a sailing accident. An accident that was my fault, by the way. The last time I saw the woman I loved was as she drowned. So, yes, I understand your feeling about God being cruel. I understand what it is like to be eaten up by guilt.”
The bartender brought the two orders of fried oysters as Jimmy Buffet’s “Death of an Unpopular Poet” played on the jukebox.
“God isn’t cruel. I personally think He is good. But I’m not going to get overly religious on you today. I’m just going to be here. My cancer? You want to hear about my cancer? Three doctors missed it. Should be dead. But I’m not. I’m here for a reason. Maybe it was to buy you oysters.”
The college kid looked at the priest and smiled.
“When Christina drowned, my heart drowned, too. Never could love another woman. Why? There’d never be another woman like her. So I became a man of the cloth. The bad things in life shape us, son. Like rocks in a rushing stream. They smooth out the rough edges and may us shine. My accident pushed me in a new direction.”
The storm’s wind blew sand into the air. The priest watched the horizon, looking for waterspouts.
“The Gulf is a temperamental lady. I used to sail her all the time and never knew what mood she would be in. I screwed up and sailed us into a storm. Spend a week on a life raft after our boat sank. A passing shower and my ability to catch fish helped me survive. I’m still suffering from skin cancers from the sunburn I received. When the Coast Guard found me, I vowed to live the rest of my life to make up for my sin. I had to learn to ask for forgiveness for Christina’s death. You will learn, that too.”
The boy began to cry and spoke. ”I didn’t mean to cause the accident. I didn’t mean for her to die.”
“I know, son. I know. You have a heavy burden on your heart.”
The priest walked over to an ashtray and dipped his finger in the cigar ashes.
“Sorry, these will have to do.”
He wiped them on the boy’s forehead and began to pray:
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
The seaside priest put his arm around the young man and held him tight. “I know you didn’t mean to cause the wreck that killed my granddaughter. You are forgiven by me and by God.”
A ray of sunshine broke through the dark clouds. A calm fell across the water as the storm subsided. And on that Ash Wednesday, the seaside priest and the college student found peace by a once turbulent sea.