I almost didn’t see him because it was snowing so hard. He was standing on the side of the road, all hunched up, his back to the wind. I backed up until I was abreast of him. He was so caked with snow I could hardly recognize him. I rolled down the window.
Where you heading, Verne?
Get in, I’m heading that way.
He brushed the snow off his coveralls and got in. I could see his lips moving. There was a rosary hanging out of his mitten. That was my first clue that Verne was praying, but I wasn’t surprised. Folks around Trapper Creek always said that he prayed a lot as he walked along, waiting on the graciousness of others to get him where he was going.
Everybody knew Verne. He was the guy who, with his own calloused hands, built the trail up the south fork of Montana Creek to its headwaters at the falls. Many tourists and locals alike still trek its course today despite the danger of grizzlies, hardly realizing, of course, the effort and dedication of the man who hacked this trail out of the bush.
I stopped at his cabin one day and asked him if he would take me along on one of his trail construction trips.
Sure, if you can handle a pick and a shovel.
So I drove him to the trailhead and we spent the better part of a day hiking and hacking our way along the last hundred yards of the trail to a point where we could hear water pouring down over the rocks up ahead. We sat down on a log for a rest. I dug out some moose jerky and candy and a bottle of water from my backpack. We ate and talked for a while.
Verne, you pray a lot?
What do you pray about?
For my eternal salvation.
You think it’s in jeopardy, Verne?
Yeah. For sure. Big time. I did some dumb stuff back in Ohio when I was young. That’s why I ask for God’s mercy.
You’ve been praying over that a long time?
I began to suspect that this might be the reason Verne never approached the table of the Eucharist for Holy Communion. This had always surprised me a little — he said the rosary constantly and came to church, but never did he approach the sacred table. I guess he felt that church was an obligation but Communion was...something else. One does not receive Communion lightly or carelessly. Never would he dare come and take the Lord in hand at Communion, and week after week he sat in his chosen pew, back row, end seat, head bowed, praying the rosary.
We sat on the log for a while.
Verne, did you ever ask God’s forgiveness over that stuff?
Thousands of times over.
So you think God is just waiting to nail you for stuff you did a long time ago as a kid and for which you have forever been deeply sorry?
He’s got to be paid, doesn’t He?
Well, no, it’s not exactly like that, Verne. If you say you’re sorry, God forgives you. Forgiveness is His name.
Simple as that?
Simple as that.
So I can go to Communion next Sunday?
But how about the confession thing? When do I do that?
Just did it. You’ve been sitting on this log going to confession.
Well, I’ll be doggoned, he said, and he started to weep.
We headed off down the trail. I was carrying the pick and shovel but I don’t think Verne was carrying any weight at all, finally.
Nice trail you’ve built here, Verne.
Next Sunday, of course, he shows up in church. That would have been a normal choice for him. At Communion time he walked up the aisle to the sanctuary with everybody else.
The Body of Christ, Verne.
Amen, he says, and he winks, can you imagine?
LeRoy Clementich, C.S.C., has for many years been the estimable flying priest of Alaska, where he graced thousands of souls with his patience and humor. He received the national Lumen Christi work as a priest.