Near Occasions

I don’t travel well. I usually schlep a carry-on, hat, cellphone, ticket, passport, pen, and book with me wherever I go and whichever form of transportation I take. Add a cappuccino, and I start juggling like a Chinese acrobat. I have to think strategically, especially when trying to avoid setting anything on the floor in the Men’s Room. By the time I get to my destination, I am exhausted.

That’s what happened this Thanksgiving holiday. The return trip on New Jersey Transit from out of town involved one mishap after another. The train was so packed that people stood in the aisle. The man next to me listened to Spanish commercials on his cellphone (I think he was deaf), and a woman across the aisle called all of her relatives and spoke to them in Dominican Spanish, which has no breaks in it whatsoever. If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume all Dominicans were pearl divers.

Then there was the young couple in the seat in front of me doing things to each other that I dared not watch but, of course, watched. I leave the details to your imagination. When we pulled into Penn Station at 34th Street, I waited for the herd of people to mount the stairs before getting out and heading for the subway. Once in, I sought the 1 train uptown to Columbus Circle at 59th Street. My plan was to get off there and walk to Fordham University at Lincoln Center, where I would take the inter-campus shuttle to the Bronx.

However, all signs pointed to the 1 train downtown. After many attempts to locate the right platform, I found the stairs uptown, but they were closed for construction. I had to take the elevator. The line for the elevator was ridiculously long, and I saw someone eating a bagel with cream cheese as she waited her turn. She had Frida Kahlo eyebrows and mustache. Now, I abide by a few basic principles in life. One of them is that if you have a mustache, you should not eat cream cheese in public. I don’t care if you are a male, female, or anything in-between. Eat cream cheese in the privacy of your Ikea-furnished kitchenette.

I got onto the 1 train uptown. When the doors closed after several false starts, the conductor announced that we were on an express train whose next stop was 79th Street. Anybody who wanted to go south would have to get off at 79th, cross over to the opposite platform, and take the southbound train. Since I wanted Columbus Circle at 59th Street, this was exactly what I did, not without grumbling and cursing.

It felt great to get into the fresh air of Columbus Circle and Central Park. I made my way down 60th Street (not whistling but almost), went to Fordham’s main entrance on Columbus Avenue, and discovered that the university was closed. Of course it was. I had miscalculated. Students drive the inter-campus shuttle, and, since they were on Thanksgiving break, there was no service. I convinced the security guard to let me use the men’s room, being careful not to set anything down, and then left the building. Then I had to go back to the subway for the D train to the Bronx. There’s just no escaping fate.

On my way, I went into St. Paul the Apostle church. I had spent the weekend recharging my phone. Why not me? I found a few people in line for confession prior to the 5:00 pm Mass. I joined them. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that there is a line in the old prayer text read during confession that refers to the “near occasions of sin.” The priest brought it up. “Yes, that’s exactly right!” I told him. I had endured a barrage of near occasions, from the ride on Jersey transit to the 1 train to my frustration over the closed university.

All of these moments could have gotten ugly. Indeed, in my own mind they did get ugly. And I could have acted on them with a snide comment, a shove to somebody’s back, or yelling at the conductor who saw fit to yell at us passengers.

That’s the thing about sin and why the church distinguishes venial from mortal sin. These little, venial sins add up. They gather weight like snow on a canvas awning until the awning rips under their collective weight. Yet, how much does a snowflake weigh? How near can I get before the occasion becomes a reality? Near occasions are hard to avoid, and they are everywhere.

Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Feature image by John Rocha from pexels; subway photo by Fancycrave from pexels. Note to self: I thought of a name for a German-Japanese conglomerate: “Fuchs Sake.” The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance


  1. Mortification my man. Wear underware made of horsehair. Put in each shoe a small pebble. Practice the phrase lo ciento, repeat it tas a mantra to yourself numerous times, utilize it when appropriate or innappropriate, say it with gusto and passion to whom it would be relevant. The Spanish language is loaded with humility. Furthermore do not look at the speck in your neighbors eye in this case the cream cheese on your neighbors mouth from witholding ” have a nice day” from yours.

  2. Welcome home, Robert! Travel? I relate. Some time ago, I was completing an advanced degree and teaching for a university in Los Angeles. During the six years I taught and completed my degree, I commuted from our community in the desert to Los Angeles four days a week. At that time, the commute was 3.5 to 4 hours each way. In addition, I was the university supervisor for school psychologists completing internships from Ventura to San Diego. The things we do! Many nights, returning home to the desert, I would put on the cd that had Pomp and Circumstance so that I would be able to imagine the day of my graduation:). Now, I’m not interested in driving to a market:)

    Anyway, I was thinking that you took a pilgrimage this holiday. Christine Valters Paintner talks about pilgrimages, great and small; inner and outer. What came to mind was her suggestions, because you passed through all of them: Expect to be uncomfortable and be alert to gifts of surprise during the discomfort, be attentive to the divine, patiently:).

    Wow! What a pilgrimage! Just thinking about taking a trip in an urban environment is exciting, but out of the box for a rural desert dweller. No trains, rare bus, more tractors and trucks; along with coyotes and road runners:)
    Good week to everyone!

    1. I don’t know how you did that job without going postal. I would have. You have tremendous grit. For my part, I never thought of my Thanksgiving travel as a pilgrimage, but you’re right. Now that I think about it, my whole life has been one…So, that’s what they mean…

      1. Yes, my life too.
        Just to be clear and honest…I don’t know about grit, but every opportunity and break I got came by way of the Communidad de Guadalupe, a community of migrant farm workers and Purepechas whom I served as a bilingual primary teacher, special education teacher, pastoral counselor, finally as family psychologist.

        My dear friends are the source of everything I have received of value. It was their example of love, compassion, courage, and hard, hard work that inspired and taught me.

        The time I mentioned in my post was time away from serving our community because, wait for it: I received a full doctoral fellowship in exchange for teaching at the university for 6 years. Also, I received that fellowship when I was 50 years old, a nobody from a poor, remote rural area. Talk about surprises of grace during our pilgrimage through life.

        I apologize for monopolizing the conversation and will not continue to do so-the near occasions of…

        1. Thank you for the post. I have been in enough small villages in Central America to know what you are talking about regarding poor communities and faith. And I understand your comment about values. But I still think moving through all those teaching positions and then becoming a psychologist takes, well, grit…

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