Meet Old Cal, the philosopher

By on September 1, 2008

I FIRST MET Old Cal in the kitchen of the parish hall where he was brewing a cup of tea. He wore baggy pants and suspenders over a plaid shirt. His lined face featured an immaculately combed grey beard that fell like a sparkling waterfall.

His name was Calvin, though everyone knew him simply as Old Cal. He was the resident hermit. Literally. No one knows for certain just when he moved into the organ loft at All Saints Church. The custodian said he suspected something about six years ago when an old chair and a well-worn reading lamp suddenly went missing. And no one knows to this day just how he managed to get a queen size box spring and mattress way up there between those 16-foot pipes.

Cal told me, on one of my visits to his space among the organ pipes, that it took him well over a year to find a space that was big enough. Most churches, he told me, have organ lofts that are literally packed full of the wood and medal pipes without much room to move around. He said that he settled on All Saints because it was an unusually large loft in anticipation of an unusually huge pipe organ. The church ran out of money and enthusiasm. Old Cal just moved in, without permission and without objection.

And so, here he was in the kitchen, making a cup of tea with a tea bag that had clearly been used and dried and used again. As he bent over the cup, the point of his flowing beard seemed to reach down into the cup, much like an antique stir stick.

Old Cal apologized for being in the kitchen. “My kettle broke,” he said matter-of-factly. “I didn’t mean to be a bother.” We talked for the next hour about tea, theology, parish life, kittens and liturgical tradition.

I left that kitchen a changed man. You see, when I first spotted Old Cal, I dismissed him as some homeless bloke who somehow found his way into the church. My first inclination was to shoo him out of there or, at minimum, to question by what authority he was standing at that kitchen counter as though he owned the place. At first sight, I had dismissed him as being insignificant. We tend to do that with some people, don’t we? Until we hear them speak, or discover that they hold some advanced degree, or that they have a prestigious job.

It’s been a few years since that initial encounter with Old Cal. I’ve learned a few things about bias and bigotry since then.

Over the years I have developed a great deal of respect for Old Cal. He has become my best friend, my personal philosopher, a fountain of wisdom, and a great theologian. He also makes an impeccable cup of tea.

He pretty much stays out of sight, not wanting to create a stir or be a bother. He also makes it a point of vacating the loft well before the organist hits his first note. He slept in one Sunday morning and was deafened when the organist launched into a fugue. He said it scared the prayer right out of him.

In subsequent issues, I will share some of those conversations with Old Cal that I have had over the years: What he has to say about Anglicanism (“it’s a Christian lifestyle”), tradition (“cling to it at your peril”), and the pipe organ (“that’s when technology first invaded the church”).

Keith Knight is editor of the Anglican Journal.

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