Tuesday, January 24, 2012
THIS, YOUR SERVANT
Late last week I found myself engaging in a bit of a rant on the phone with my friend, Rita. “For heaven’s sake, do they not realize I do this for free! For fun, yes, but also for free! Do they not realize I have a life? I have errands, I have to try to make some kind of rudimentary living, I have a family and friends, I have no companion, no helpmeet, no time to myself…I cherish my readers but I am not in their employ for heaven’s sake!”
“Actually,” Rita interjected as I stopped to catch my breath, "you are in their employ.Your life is not your life; it’s God’s. You never get to not be 'on duty'”…
I had to put down my coffee cup I burst into such peals of laughter. For the second she said it, I knew she was absolutely right, and that a vicious strain of Phariseeism (a subject on which I posted, no less, Monday) had crept into and taken hold of my thinking.
What prompted my outburst was that Last week Word on Fire re-posted a piece called “A Bomb Exploding Our Hypocrisy” (which, if you want to follow the somewhat scattered meanderings below, you might want to read if you haven't already). The good Fr. Barron and his crew often ask permission to re-post a piece of mine, and though I always joyfully grant it, I seldom even look at the piece to see how it’s been presented or received. Responding (or not) to comments is a whole other, extra bloc of energy/discernment/work that I’ve already gone through on my own blog at that point, in addition to the eight or ten hours it's taken to reflect upon and write a piece like that in the first place. (I don't get paid by Word on Fire, in case you're wondering).
Now to be a servant, let's establish, does not mean to be an amoeba, or an automaton, or a puppet. I really can’t engage in every discussion, and because I do take this so seriously, every single comment, e-mail, remark etc. means a process of discernment, however short. Do I engage, or do I let it go? And if I do engage, at what length and what depth and what’s my motive? (Side issue: I’ve also had a few experiences where people, married men in particular, want to make me their soul-mate. We’re dealing with the internet where we don’t know and can’t see the person with whom we’re interacting. So I also have to be somewhat mindful of my status as a single (however ancient) woman with no advocate, no protector).
It also takes a huge amount of psychic energy to absorb attack without attacking back. I feel it in my body, which aches; I feel it in my spirit, which grows weary. I have found that there are many, many people (I always picture them, perhaps unfairly, at their desk at work where they are earning a nice salary and benefits) who want to argue for the sake of arguing. I’ll write, “Oh the trees were so beautiful this morning with the sun glinting through gold and russet!” and a certain kind of person will say “Unh, excuse me, sun doesn’t ‘glint,’ it shines,” or “The proper term, according to the encyclical Color in Terrorem by Pope Sylvester XXVIII is maroon, not russet.” I’ve learned that if I can’t respond without anger to such people, which I often can’t, it’s better not to respond at all, or to wait.
Anyway, re the WOF re-posting, a couple of people wrote to say, “Oh have you seen what they’re saying about you over at Word on Fire? A puritanical streak seems to have crept into the discussion”…Now last week my mother, who has Alzheimer’s and is an a home back in New Hampshire had taken a fall and a turn for the worse and was in the process of being moved downstairs to another room so I was concerned, and upset, and on the phone quite a bit with my brother Geordie. I’ve had some physical problems (albeit minor) myself. I was still absorbing the negative energy of having even attended the Mass in question and having been exposed to the what to me was as dark a kind of energy as if a priest had from the pulpit started advocating birth control and promiscuity, and all the dark energy that grows up around that. Someone had written me privately on FB, for example, saying, "I know you think the parishioners are hypocritical but what will people think about the people who advocate the Theology of the Body and educate their children at home?" And I was like "Hunh? I wasn’t saying the parishioners were hypocritical, I was saying they were already the most well-behaved, most modestly-dressed people ever, which made it extra sadder that the priest was haranguing them."
Part of the beauty of being a convert, or the kind of convert I am, the point being, is that I literally have no idea who or what the Theology of the Body people (for example) even are or are about. I had no idea, though have gathered since, that people who attend Latin Mass (it was a Latin Mass, btw) attend for the very reason that they more or less subscribe to the approach of this priest. I just thought Latin Mass was for people who had a warm affection and reverence for the old liturgy. I went to that Mass the same way I go to every Mass, which is basically, Oh how lovely, I will get to be close to Christ.
And that is also how and why I write this blog. As I’ve said many times, I am not a theologian. I’m not affiliated with any movement, faction, ideology, group within the Church and I’m not against any movement, faction, ideology, group within the Church (though there are some things I respond to with way more ardor than others). I love the Church and I love Christ and I am trying to grope my way through to me the deepest questions of existence and to share the joy, struggles, suffering, discoveries, adventures, experience, strength, beauty, and hope I find along the way. If others are also trying to grope their way, that’s the conversation I’m most interested and equipped to engage in.
I was certainly in no shape at that point to get involved in a discussion about "puritanism," however, so my response to the news of a discussion at WOF was basically, “Well, that is sad, I’m not even going to go there. I can’t even read that stuff.” And of course some anonymous commenter immediately asked, "If you can't be bothered to read the comments on WOF, why are you bothering to post on the site in the first place? I think the 'puritanical' element you're dismissing would welcome a dialogue with you."
Feeling quite proud that I managed to refrain from saying "That may well be but I would not remotely welcome a dialogue with them," I instead replied, “Actually I don’t post on Word on Fire: they ask permission from time to time and I happily, gratefully grant it,” and left it at that.
Which was an entirely legitimate response EXCEPT—don’t worry, I haven’t completely lost the thread or my mind—as Rita reminded me, it has to come from the place of total humility. It has to come from a place not of “I’m not your employee,” but from the place of “I appreciate and am in sympathy with your concern, but I simply do not have the wherewithal, time, energy or capacity to engage in any further discussion on the subject at the moment.”
I do have the wherewithal now, and I can say that I pondered long and deeply before writing anything that is remotely critical of a priest. But just as we would be called to take note of a priest who, as I hypothesized, were advocating promiscuity, I think we are also allowed, if not bound, to call attention to a priest who is advocating a hatred of and fear of the body. As Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, “[P]erhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly [defining it]. But I know it when I see it.” And there was something so wrong, so far in error, so not Catholic (which I can’t define, but know when I see) about this homily that the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
That is why I mentioned it. And the only reason, as I made abundantly clear, that I also mentioned the priest’s weight (for which I was also criticized, even though I also said I said "Let’s pray for him"; even though I also said, "That priest is all of us"—including, obviously, me; even though I also said "that priest is everyone," meaning we all tend to stuff our longing for sex and love somehow) was because he did another thing that is not Catholic. He preached what he clearly did not practice. We don’t lay heavy burdens upon people without lifting a finger to lighten them. We don’t purport to take the mote out of our neighbor’s eye before we take the mote out of our own eye. That we so seldom hear priests doing any such thing, just as we seldom hear priest advocating a hatred of the body--in fact, in my fifteen years as a Catholic, I had never heard a homily with the thrust and tone of this one--makes the exception stand out all the more.
Still and all, when I was examining my conscience last Saturday before going to Confession, I went through a checklist and one of the things was speaking irreverently of a priest. So just in case I could have made my point without mentioning his weight, and just in case my whole orientation of heart toward this precious child of God/man of the cloth was any less respectful, compassionate, loving and desirous of his spiritual well-being than it should have been, I confessed speaking irreverently of a priest.
All of which might seem much ado about nothing, and the Lord knows I'm sure you're not interested in my Confession, but I bring it up at all to underscore that to me this is all a matter of life and death. As G.K. Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man, "[W]hile [Catholicism] is local enough for poetry and larger than any other philosophy, it is also a challenge and a fight. While it is deliberately broadened to embrace every aspect of truth, it is still stiffly embattled against every mode of error. It gets every kind of man to fight for it, it gets every kind of weapon to fight with, it widens its knowledge of the things that are fought for and against with every art of curiosity or sympathy; but it never forgets that it is fighting. It proclaims peace on earth and never forgets why there was war in heaven."
Walking home, I thought about a line from Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis: “Agapē is the love that, in Mother Teresa’s words, enable a person to let herself be 'eaten up by others' as a living Eucharistic sacrifice—Christ’s in me and mine in his.” I realized part of what I wanted to do when I started this blog was to show people that you can be a vital, questing, interested, funny person of the world and still be a devout Catholic; that that is what it means to be a devout Catholic. I wanted to share my joy of Christ. I also wanted, I see now, something for myself: a foothold, a like-minded circle of "friends." To a certain extent, that has happened, but what has also happened is that I get to be attacked. I get to have a lot of readers who don’t get my taste in books, music, or art, who don’t laugh at my jokes, and who no matter how much I give, are poised like jackals to nitpick and attack for not giving them more. I get to put myself on the line and have anonymous snipers take potshots. And what I see more and more is that is always what we get. It is what Christ got. I don’t get to have a soulmate. Mother Teresa did not get to have a soulmate. She got Christopher Hitchens.
What I can never forget is that no-one ends up on a more or less Catholic blog by accident. The people who truly aren’t interested wouldn’t bother even to leave a hate comment. The people whose hearts aren’t hemorrhaging--with loneliness, with fear, with the desire to do better, with a sense of mission--wouldn't bother to argue any point, no matter how tangential.
"They were like sheep without a shepherd"…Do you love me? Feed my lambs. Do you love me? Feed my lambs…Do you love me?....Feed my sheep…
Sunday I went to 8 o’clock Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown L.A. Presiding was Fr. Angel Castro. And Fr. Castro gave the most beautiful homily: about growing up, about fear. He told about when he was a young priest he’d been sent to a convalescent home of some sort and the blood, the sickness didn’t bother him; but the smell did, terribly. “I don’t really belong here,” he went and told his superiors. “I could be of a lot more service somewhere else” (sound familiar?) But of course they had him stay, and of course the experience helped him to mature, and of course, as he said, he would be the first to acknowledge that more maturing lies ahead.
“Much needs to grow,” he wound up, pointing to his own heart, “starting with this, your servant.” It was exactly what I needed to hear, and how I needed to hear it, and I would have walked to the ends of the earth for him, for Christ. Now that’s Catholic.
So let’s continue our journey, realizing we see as yet, through a glass, darkly. And remembering that much needs to grow—starting with this, your servant.