I was sitting on a train heading to New York City as the sun gently rose on an eager Boston morning. My eyelids were drooping, yawns were frequent, yet I was happy as a clam; reading my book in the quiet car, excited for three and a half hours of peace. A few minutes into the trip, we made our first stop and a nice woman sat next to me. I describe her as “nice” for a few reasons: 1) she smiles and nods as she asks to sit next to me; and 2) she is wearing a hat. I have found in life that a great majority of adult female hat wearers are warm and friendly. So, quite unscientifically, I was pleased to be sharing my morning travels to New York with a smiling patron of haberdasheries.
As I began to crease the binding of my book once again, with few cares in the world, a sharp, fruity and metallic smell entered my immediate atmosphere. It sent chills up my nostrils and began a slow, uninvited descent into my lungs. Whatever it was, it was borderline intolerable, and a smell that could not be unsmelled. My nose took notice and a few more peripheral smellings confirmed my hypothesis: The nice hat lady enjoys supporting her local perfumery – and may in fact be far too generous with her application of perfume.
Seconds felt like minutes, and minutes felt like hours as I felt my nasal cavity burning and my lungs crying for relief, yearning for a whiff of nontoxic air.
“Oh God, I don’t know how much I can take of this,” I thought. “My perfect trip with a window view and good book is being sabotaged by a putrid smell that reminds me of the combination of melted rubber and mangoes.”
I was so mad at her. “Why this smell? Why so much? Why next to me?” I exclaimed silently. If only I had had negative experiences with women wearing hats, then things would’ve never gotten this far. I couldn’t help but feel this great disdain for her and disgust for her perfume choice.
And then, in a rapid turn of events, the quiet car was suddenly not so quiet. Unfortunately, I too became a contributor to the Amtrak air. You see, the night before I had eaten a delicious Mexican meal of enchiladas, guacamole, chips, salsa, rice and yes, you guessed it, beans… and suddenly, “friendly, window seat book guy” was accountable for his own brand of smell — this one less metallic, more organic, locally sourced, yet putrid, to put it kindly.
And so, we both sat equally miserable next to each other, with our competing smells dueling for their share of a poorly ventilated train car. Passersby winced, conductors ducked, and “book guy” and “hat lady” politely sat in (near) silence, as the quiet car was now just “mostly quiet” and not terribly crowded by the time we arrived in New York.
If you have made it through to this point in the post, you are likely wondering what in the world is the Catholic lesson hidden in this good old-fashioned flatulence fable? To me, it is in these strange and simple stories that the Bible is most potent. After 20 years of Catholic schooling, an aunt as a nun, a godfather who is a priest, my life is most fully lived through the grace-filled lens of the Catholic imagination.
“Do not judge, or you too shall be judged.”
I know Matthew chapter 7 definitely applied to this Matt (me) on my journey to New York City — yet I doubt at the time, an evangelist from 2,000 years ago thought his writings would be reflected upon in such a smelly scene. However, it is the beauty and timelessness, applicability and sensibility, of our religious tradition that allows the learning of a lesson in such an otherwise mundane throwaway moment. Integrating the wisdom of the Catholic Church experience with the minutia of one’s life is so critical to the deepening of one’s faith — that, and contributing to the canon of new evangelists with one’s own verse: Matt 1:1 — “Thou shall not eat beans before long train rides.”