The Dynamics of Faith

Liam McKiernan parked his van across from St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church. It was a cold Wednesday afternoon. With school closed for Christmas vacation, the street was deserted. He said to Charlie, “Wait here. I’ll be back.” Charlie stood on the passenger seat and rocked on his paws eagerly, his tongue flapping on his lower jaw. The instant Liam reached for the door handle, Charlie readied himself to leap. “No, stay.” Charlie wagged his tail and barked, like, Let’s go. After he’d adopted him, Liam read that beagles were loyal, merry, and gentle, but hard to train. “Sit,” he said. “Don’t make me regret saving your ass.” Charlie licked his chops and sat. Liam reached into his pocket and dug out a treat. “Here.” He extended a pinkish, dog-bone-shape cookie. Charlie tried to snag it, but Liam closed his fist. “What do you do first?” Charlie raised a paw and placed it in Liam’s other hand. “Good man.” He gave Charlie the cookie. “I’ll be fifteen, twenty minutes. Take a nap.” Charlie lay on the seat with his head up, like a sphinx.

Inside the church, Liam removed his flat cap and the short pencil he kept behind his right ear. He dipped two fingers in the holy water urn, read the marriage banns for December 1974, taped to the wall beside it, didn’t recognize any names, crossed himself, then stepped through the swinging door. He saw five old women and two old guys, far away from one another, kneeling in pews. Most concentrated on their rosary beads. The others gazed at the altar and the brightly tiled mosaic of Christ behind it.

Liam sat in the last row. The twelve stained-glass stations-of-the-cross windows dimmed the daylight. He hadn’t been to Mass in months. With Jesus staring at him he felt obligated to kneel. He scanned the statues of the saints and the Virgin Mary, the tall gold crucifix beside the altar, the bejeweled gold tabernacle, the pulpit, the apostles painted on the gold ceiling above Christ. None of it lifted his spirit. Nothing elevated him to the dream state beyond the tangible world and the ineffable. He rose from his knees, slid onto the bench, and opened the paperback his son Tim had given him. “An early Christmas present,” he’d written inside the cover. “Don’t accept what the author says, just think about it.” Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich. Liam read the bio on the back cover. Leading theologian, taught at Harvard. He must have had something on the ball. He flipped to a page on which he’d underlined a passage and reread it silently, his lips moving.

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