Guest Columnist

Father Leonard Peterson

They run alongside the road on nearly every highway we travel. They climb the slopes and small hillsides, and for the most part they are rather ugly. They are just as much a scar on the landscape as a gash on a human forearm. I speak of “sound barriers.”

I realize that these mammoth monstrosities probably make life less noisy for the unfortunate homeowners trapped by highway expansion. Their homes hug the shoulders of our concrete rivers of connection. But those walls certainly do not help the look of the land. On introspection, I believe they say something about us. Apparently, we vote for the practical over the ascetic as much as we can.

That character trait is not always condemnable. I would prefer my functioning bathroom to an elaborate medieval washbasin any time. But what these roadway ramparts provide by blocking sound is only worthy of faint praise. They will not let us see what is beside and around us as we travel. They can be a metaphor for an unfulfilled Christian life.

Take, for example, the rapidly expanding distance we have created by our texting and Blackberry use. I know these devices offer a benefit now and then. But are we not slowly eliminating face-to-face encounter, with its welcome nuance of voice and facial expression?

This distance is akin to that sad phenomenon of suburban living that places our neighbors at just enough distance from us that interaction takes more effort than it ever did in times past. Expanded property lines between McMansions factor into the discussion too. No literal walls exist here, if you’ll overlook expensive vinyl fences, but walls there are.

All of this separation, never conceived in the urban neighborhoods of previous generations, can lead us to an isolation that is hardly splendid. It can create insensitivity to others’ needs and frustrate a spirit of practical charity. Consider the message that our so-called “gated communities” send to the outside world. It’s something like: “We don’t want you here, or if we relent, it’s on our terms.”

We Christians are always asked to look from side to side as we make our pilgrim way home to heaven. In fact, if we ignore our neighbor, we preclude admission to the happy version of the next life. Building spiritual barriers between ourselves based on skin pigment, nationality, bank account or faith for the sake of avoiding self-donation and a smooth ride through life is to take a trip to nowhere.

I believe such unspoken elements lurk behind most clashes between the culture and Catholicism. The so-called “abortion debate” would be no such thing if the field were cleared of prejudice, anti-clericalism, materialism and a much misunderstood definition of true freedom.

The same holds for the definition of marriage and the perils of premarital sex; twisted the business ethics that ultimately triggered the current economic downturn; and the cheapening of children as disposable items.

This coming November will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. How we cheered when we saw those TV pictures! Somehow we knew that a barrier is not the same thing as a support wall.

I doubt that Penndot will be tearing down their bland roadside structures so recently erected and largely accepted. But upon reflection, there is a certain sadness here and, for me, little room for cheer. Better to take the noise out of our cars and trucks rather than turn our roads into alleys of separation.

Father Peterson is pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Hatfield.