Fonticulus Fides

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

What’s a lopsided old chair got to do with anything?

At my dining room table, there’s a chair that nobody ever sits on. Well, not unless we’re hosting a birthday party or something and all the other seats are taken. It is a plain wooden kitchen chair, and though it is sturdily made and doesn’t wobble at all, it leans markedly to the left. Upon close inspection, you can see that each of the four legs is different in length, but the angle of each leg’s bottom surface is such that the chair sits evenly, and that’s why it doesn’t wobble.

Who would make such a chair? And why on earth would I keep it at my dining room table?

The chair was made by my great-great-grandfather, Henry Gephardt. It’s well over 125 years old, and Henry made it and its companions without the benefit of any power tools or store-bought pieces. He shaped each of the rungs by hand to taper at the ends, carved a little finial to top each side of the chair back, and I’m sure he made all four of the legs equal at the beginning.

But this chair sat at my great-great-grandparent’s dining room table, serving one of their sons. Four times a day, Henry and his sons would sit at that table to eat (yeah, four times a day. They ran a dairy farm in Wisconsin, so they ate breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper). And four times a day, his son would finish his meal, wipe his mouth on his napkin, and then push away from the table with his left hand, scraping the chair in an arc to give his long legs room to unfold. For years.

Henry’s daughter Agnes had married one of the hired hands – Ernst – and when Henry grew too old to farm properly, Ernst and Agnes took over the operation. They had three strapping sons of their own, Frank, Charles and George. When the original owner of the chair died, Charles was just big enough to start working the farm and sitting at the table with the grown-ups (the younger children were fed beforehand). As Charles grew, he mimicked his uncle’s habit of pushing away from the table with his left hand. And when Charles went away to fight in WWI, George was old enough to take his place and copy the motion yet again.

This wore the chair legs down, little by little, The right front chair leg barely moved, so it’s probably still about the same length as when Henry made the chair. The two left legs swung the farthest distance, so they are much shorter – a good two inches, I think, maybe more.

When George’s son lost the farm back in the 1970s, everything was sold at auction, and my grandmother bid on this chair uncontested. I think she got it for 50 cents. She treasured it because her grandfather made it and her beloved brother Charles sat on it at his last meal ever with the family -- he was killed in France during the war. It came to me when she died in 1998.

I keep it not only because my great-great-grandfather made it, but because it’s ugly and lopsided.

What I mean is, I was staring at that chair one day, wondering why I should keep such a worthless relic when I have other family memorabilia, when I realized that the chair is a metaphor for sin.

Oh, not the "biggy" sins like murder or adultery. Those are easy to spot. The chair is like the sins that really get you. A bit of gossip here, a "harmless little lie" there. A fit of bad temper that is justified by lack of (a) sleep, (b) food, (c) time, (d) appreciation, (e) other. The "little" sins that I barely notice I’m committing.

Just like pushing the chair away from the table after one meal doesn’t show much wear, these sins don’t seem to amount for much. Until you start adding them up. So in the first year or five years or ten years of meals, that chair probably looked pretty much like all the others Henry Gephardt had made. But after 20 years … 30 years…50 years – you can see how much damage is done.

So I keep the chair in my dining room to remind me about this fact. The little sins that I would like to think "don’t count" are actually wearing away at my soul. Maybe they are making it easier for me to sin in other ways. Maybe they are making it easier for me to ignore my duties to my family, my neighbors, my Church, my Lord and Savior. Whatever, the long-term effect is that my soul is becoming distorted and ugly, a far cry from the original design planned by my Maker.

And so, though it takes effort and risks embarrassment and a whole host of other unpleasant emotions, I must take my sins before the Lord, preferably in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and allow Him to help repair the damage done, no matter how miniscule it might seem.



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