Catholicism is soooo countercultural. On the day that the world unwraps the presents and then packs all the decorations away for another year, declaring Christmas to be OVER, Catholics unwrap the presents and then trot off to Mass to declare to the world that Christmas has finally BEGUN. I have to admit, the world’s fierce determination to institutionalize the insane commercialization of the holiday, and then toss the whole thing out with the empty boxes and used wrapping paper on the 26th is pretty discouraging; I long to live in a world where my neighbors understand why I answer the question, “Did you have a good Christmas?” with a hearty “I’m still having a good Christmas!”
I noticed my across-the-street neighbor, Ridley Munridley, out in his yard on Christmas morning assembling the bicycle he had purchased for his son and heir, Ridley Munridley, Jr. At least, I thought he was assembling the bicycle. When I saw him out there again on the 26th, and on the 27th, and then again today, I realized two things: that he gets a lot more time off around Christmas than I do, and that he had merely been attempting to assemble the bike – and still was attempting. I decided to mosey on across the street to see if I could help. Not that I know anything about the assembly of bicycles, or the assembly of anything, but my moral support skills are phenomenal.
So I moseyed. Ridley, good neighbor that he is, waved a welcome at me and motioned to me to come and sit with him on his front steps where he was puzzling over the instruction manual. I noticed a little figure in the bushes; it appeared to be the sad little owner of the bike, Ridley, Jr., spying on his dad’s progress, or lack thereof.
“A very good morning to you!” Ridley greeted me affably. “I hope you’ve brought your bicycle assembly skills with you!” he laughed heartily. I apologized for my deficiency in that area, but offered to perhaps read the instructions to him as he worked if he thought that might be of any help.
“Why, thank you!” Ridley enthused. “Ridley Junior is reading at a 3rd-grade level, and he was helping with that on Christmas morning, but he became distracted and wandered off.” I glanced at the boy in the bushes; he looked more like he had become dejected and wandered off.
“So,” my neighbor continued, “I’ve got all the parts out of the box and ready to go – let’s get going!”
And all the pieces were certainly there, all thirty-three of them, strewn across Ridley’s walkway, the crank arm, the rear sprocket, the seat-post binder bolt, the chainstay, and the front fork, to name but five. He had tentatively connected eight of them; the rest lay waiting for assembly.
Ridley stared intently at the instructions in the manual. “Okay,” he said, “It is recommended that the threads and all moving parts in the parts package be lubricated prior to installation” – I did that. “Turn the fork of the bicycle to face forward. Note that “forward” means that the wheel mounting slots are in the furthest forward position. So the wheel axle will be in front of the fork when assembled.” “Hmm…” Ridley hesitated. “The fork of the bicycle – let me see that illustration again.” I held the instruction manual so that he could check the drawing. “‘Forward’ means that the wheel mounting slots are in the furthest forward position” he muttered to himself. “‘The wheel axle will be in front of the fork’ – that’s where I went wrong yesterday…. Okay, now “Check the stem clamp bolts to make sure they are properly tightened” – is that these, or those?” he wondered aloud.
I glanced at the illustration as Ridley held up the handlebars he had assembled. Something just didn’t look right, and he agreed with me on that.
“Where do you think I went wrong?” he asked.
Channeling my inner feminine genius, I made a suggestion. “Look, Ridley, there’s a toll-free number here on the back of the instruction manual. Have you called them? I’m sure they could walk you through this!”
Ridley stared at me as if I had suggested betraying atomic secrets to the Soviets. “There’s no need to panic, Renée. I’ve got this. The instructions are quite clear – we just need to work our way through them in a calm and orderly manner!”
“Just trying to help,” I mumbled.
“Well, you can help,” he retorted, “by reading me the next paragraph in the manual!”
“You must determine if your handlebar mounting is a quill stem or a threadless stem” I read in what I hoped was a calm and orderly manner. “A quill stem is a handlebar assembly that has a wedge-shaped part at the bottom of the stem that is inserted into the fork steer tube. Loosen the center bolt enough so that the wedge and stem can slide into the fork steer tube.”
“Loosen the center bolt?” Ridley mumbled. “What center bolt?”
“Maybe your handlebar mounting is a threadless stem,” I whispered.
“Maybe…” he agreed. “Maybe,” he declared as he lay the handlebars on the ground, “we should assemble some other parts first, and then come back to this.”
I heard a monumental sigh issue forth from the depths of the bushes, but I was not about to argue. “Which part did you want to work on?” I asked.
“What looks easy?” Ridley asked me.
I flipped through the manual, but all the parts in need of assembly seemed to involve different options – the handlebar mounting could be either a threadless or a quill stem, the saddle assembly involved either a bolted seat clamp or a quick-release seat clamp, and the manual likewise informed me that there were two types of front wheel hubs, nutted or quick release. We’d have to figure all that out first. All those options were accompanied by stern warnings that improper assembly could result in irreparable damage and/or loss of bicycle control resulting in injury, or death, or both. Merry Christmas, Ridley Jr.
“Maybe we could work on the pedals,” I suggested hesitantly, reasoning that the two of us together should be able to distinguish the right pedal from the left. And we were, even managing to attach the right-hand pedal to the chainwheel side crank arm with a right-hand thread, only to discover that Ridley was going to need a 15mm narrow open-ended wrench to tighten the pedal into place, a wrench he didn’t have and would have to borrow from someone – certainly not from me. I hammer nails into the wall with the heel of my shoe, because I don’t own a wrench….
Our near success emboldened my neighbor. “You see,” Ridley began pontificating, “the people who wrote this manual did so in the most straightforward and easiest-to-understand manner possible. They WANT us to succeed in the assembly. It should NOT be necessary to call them and force them to walk us through this. If we just go about this in a logical and well-reasoned manner, we will be able to assemble this bike on our own. That’s why the bike comes with an instruction manual!”
I couldn’t resist. “Then why does the instruction manual come with a toll-free number to the ‘Quick Assembly Hotline’?”
“That’s for losers,” Ridley growled. “Let’s find something else easy that we can work on. Hand me that manual.”
Ridley flipped from page to page, apparently disheartened by the intricacies of the braking system and the derailleur gears. Ridley has a Ph.D. in International Comparative Economic Systematology, but the bike assembly seemed to be more than he could handle. “Are you sure this bike even has derailleur gears?” I asked, but Ridley was deep in contemplation. “My left or their left??” I heard him mumbling.
I caught a glimpse of little Ridley’s face; he looked about ready to fall out of the bushes in despair. I lost it.
“Call the number, Ridley!” I sputtered. “Look! Read the back of the manual – ‘Our friendly and knowledgeable operators are standing by to help you assemble your new bicycle in no-time-flat!’ Call the number!!”
A little face protruded from the bushes. “Call the number, Dad! Call the number!”
Ridley stared at me as if he were Winston Churchill and I had snatched his cigar right out of his mouth. He sat fuming as I plowed ahead.
“It seems to me that we’ve had this discussion before,” I reminded him. He responded with a blank look. “Remember, we talked about the perspicuity of Scripture?” Ridley and his wife are Evangelicals, and they’ve been trying to convince me that anybody can read the Bible and understand what God wants them to know about salvation and the Christian life. “You told me that everything we need to know is laid out there in Scripture; all we have to do is read the Word and ask God to illuminate our minds.”
Ridley sat up very straight. “I stand by that!” he assured me.
“Yet,” I continued, “you have to admit that you, and your neighbor next door, and the folks across the street, and the people around the block are all following the same Instruction Manual, and yet you’ve all assembled your theological “bicycles” quite differently.”
“You’re talking about the non-essentials,” Ridley assured me dismissively.
“Non-essentials??” I asked him, “like – what must I do to be saved?? Because you, and our Methodist neighbor, and our Pentecostal neighbor, and our Lutheran neighbor all give different answers to that Question of all Questions: you have to believe and be baptized; you don’t have to be baptized – all you have to do is believe; you were baptized as an infant, so you’re okay; your infant baptism doesn’t count for anything – you’ve got to be rebaptized; you must speak in tongues or you don’t have the “Spirit of Christ” and can’t be saved; you must persevere to the end or you won’t be saved; you WILL persevere to the end – otherwise you were never saved to begin with…. Sure, the Manufacturer meant what He said when He wrote the Instruction Manual, but many of the directions are open to interpretation. He compensated for that by training His managers Himself – those men knew what He meant to say and they “entrusted those things to faithful men” who can now interpret the Manual according to His intention! The only way to know for sure what was meant is to consult with the staff trained by the management of the company!”
Ridley stared at me as if I’d had one too many butter-rum jelly beans in the run-up to New Year’s Eve, but I was undaunted.
“I realize that many people manage to get their bicycles assembled all by themselves, but which is more complicated, Ridley – the assembly of a kid’s bike, or the ins and outs of justification, predestination and eschatology?? You can’t with a straight face tell me that anybody can just pick up the Manual and figure it out without assistance! That’s why there’s a toll-free number, Ridley – that’s why Jesus established the teaching authority of the Church!”
Ridley shook his head and shrugged. “We’ll just have to agree to disagree on that,” he grumbled. “Looks like it’s going to rain,” he noted, and he was right – in central Virginia the closest we get to a white Christmas is freezing rain. He thanked me for my efforts and assured me that he and Ridley, Jr. would take it from there. I knew I had overstayed my welcome, and took that as my cue to leave. As I walked back across the street, I turned and saw little Ridley helping his dad collect the thirty-three pieces from the walkway and carry them up onto the porch. Still no working bike. So close, and yet so far….
Maybe tomorrow, little Ridley. Maybe tomorrow.
On the memorial of the Holy Innocents
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: Shimano Deore XT Schaltwerk hinten (am Mountainbike) by C. Corleis/Wikimedia Commons
Winston Churchill 1941 photo by Yousuf Karsh/Wikimedia Commons
en: Jelly Belly en: jelly beans by Brandon Dilbeck/Wikimedia Commons