Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, February 19, 2018

Cody Guarnieri

I spend a lot of time loitering in the halls and pathways of the criminal courts in Connecticut. When I say “a lot of time,” I mean hours each week. I usually have other work with me, trade magazines to skim (I’m that type of lawyer) or, quite often, some phone calls and emails to return. I don’t stand out as an attorney when I’m sitting around those hallways. Sure, I have a suit on, but so do many conscientious criminal defendants in different courthouses for different reasons. I am admittedly on the younger side of the bar and do have a healthy beard and mustache for most of the year. So most other people in the area just ignore me and carry on conversations or other activities around me.

In a courthouse hallway in Connecticut recently, a young man sat next to me. Shortly after that, a middle-aged man sat beside him. While I was reading a trial magazine article, they got to talking. The older man was complaining. He reported that he had been to court each month for most of this year. Most recently, he was charged with reckless driving and he was alleged to have been traveling in excess of 130 miles per hour. It’s not his fault, though, he complained; it is the fact that he drives only the priciest and highest-end cars, capable of breakneck speeds.

guarnieri art pg10The police and state’s attorney were absolutely wrong about him, he proclaimed. They didn’t use radar to track his speed, so the state has no case anyway, he claimed. He was merely following traffic. He was stopped with another car that was let go by officers at the scene without a ticket, clearly a selective prosecution because he was obviously financially well off, he said.

The older man had a lawyer, of course, but his counselor was not up to the significant task of handling such an important matter for such an important client, he explained to the younger man. If the state wanted to take this matter to trial against him, the state should just get to it, because he would never capitulate to having done anything wrong, he boasted.

More than that, if the state’s attorney wanted to force the issue to trial, the state would suffer. This is because, as reported by the older man, he owns a business in Connecticut that employs scores of people. If pressed to the limit in this case, he would simply close the business and relocate the whole operation to Aruba, merely for spite. All of those employees and their families will be fired and reduced to poverty, he claimed. The older man has a house in Aruba, he explained, and doesn’t need to work anyway, given his financial situation. Perhaps he would just retire, sell his house in Connecticut and take his luxury cars and other fine belongings to his Aruba homestead.

While overhearing the older gentleman, I felt nothing for him but loathing and revulsion. I even made a point of telling his attorney, someone I knew, that his client was a real piece of work (which, of course, he knew already).

However, reflecting later on this dialogue — and consulting my primary counselor, my wife — I was reminded of Mark 12:30-31: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. ... Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

In this passage, the Lord does not tell us to love those who love us, or who like us, or whom we can find redeeming qualities in. That would be easy, but being a follower of Christ is not supposed to be easy. As Catholics, we are called to love one another. To love is to will the good of this older man, my neighbor, who is another child of God. And I struggle, but continue to try.

Later in the morning, that older man’s case was called before the judge. His attorney had worked out a resolution in which the reckless driving charge would be reduced to a mere speeding ticket. In exchange, the man would make a $1,000 donation to a charity of his choice.

The judge asked how long the older man would need to afford this sizable donation. The lawyer knew that the man actually was not rich at all, had no high-end cars and no home in Aruba. He may have had a mental health issue or a good imagination, though.

His lawyer explained that, given his very limited income and assets, it would take the man at least six months to get $1,000 together.

Cody Guarnieri is a criminal defense lawyer with a Hartford law firm and is a member of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford.

guarnieri winter 300x275pxIn the wildly popular “Game of Thrones” series on HBO, based on the books by George R. R. Martin, each of the powerful families has an epithet that is particularly meaningful to the tribe, referred to as the family’s “words.” The words of House Stark, the lords and kings of the bleak and barren northern regions of the mythical land of Westeros, are “Winter is coming.” It is a constant reminder, especially in the soft warmth and promise of spring, and in the heat and plenty of summer, that the world is changing and harder times always are approaching. Moreover, the ever-present concept that winter is coming gives the northern families a shared sense of purpose; a united motivation to prepare for tomorrow and the lean days ahead.

I find a parallel between the words of House Stark and one element of the Catholic experience. While the world of Westeros is preparing to weather the storms and scarcity of the coming winter, the followers of Christ are on a perpetual journey in the wilderness.

The wilderness is not unlike the winter the Starks warn of. The wilderness is a place that is uncultivated, uninhabited and largely inhospitable to life. Few can survive in the wilderness for an extended period of time and some have perished in the attempt. But along with the desolation of the wilderness, there is also a sense of cleansing, refocusing and renewal that occurs there. In the wilderness, all of the distractions are stripped from us and only the essential aspects of our existence seem important. 

While the wilderness is a physical place, for sure, it is also a spiritual dimension; a place where one’s spiritual life is tested and hardened. It’s an environment where all of the nonessential baggage can be discarded on the road and one can continue journeying toward what is most important to one’s existence: the grace and love of Christ.

We take part of our journey into the desert together, as members of the body of Christ that is the Church. Throughout the liturgical year, we travel with Christ and his experiences of the wildernesses of his life. Before Jesus’ public ministry began, Israelites were drawn to the message of the coming of the Messiah. That message was not being broadcast by the rich, famous or powerful elite of society, but by a mere voice crying aloud in the wilderness. (Mk 1:3; Jn 1:23) Jesus himself went to the wilderness to fast and have his resolve tested by the devil. (Mt 7:1-11)

Despite our shared journey as the Church, we individually venture into the wilderness on our own occasionally and have our resolve tested. While the devil does not offer to make me king of the world, he does offer to let me sleep in on a Sunday morning when my newborn daughter has been up all night. Or tells me it is much easier to get through a hard day at the office by telling people what they want to hear, instead of telling the whole truth as my job requires. Or makes it hard sometimes to pick up that Bible at night when I’m just wondering, “What is the point of it all?”

The corollary to the Starks’ words that “winter is coming” is that on the other side of winter is spring and the return of easier times of plenty. On the other side of the wilderness is the fertile and lush spiritual life of God’s grace, in eternal abundance. As so many of Jesus’ trickier parables teach us, God’s grace is not offered by a measure of how much one deserves or needs. God’s grace overfills whatever cup it is poured into. When I’m in the wilderness, it is a comfort to think that the wilderness of suffering and grief and doubt is part of the journey. It is in the wilderness that I cast off the unnecessary encumbrances, making room for God’s grace, so that I may emerge lighter and more focused on the journey itself.

Cody Guarnieri is a criminal defense lawyer with a Hartford law firm and is a member of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford.