Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The path to sainthood

Today is the feast day of (among other people) St. Thomas More, the patron saint of my master’s thesis. I’m not thinking much about martyrdom today, nor, despite the fact that Ireland always reminds me of the tragedy of Church division, about unity. Instead, remembering his prayer scroll that he read from the Tower of London as he awaited execution, I am thinking about the ultimate vocation of the Christian: Love.

Those who are the most holy, from what I can tell, do not get there by trying to be holy. They most certainly do not get there by hammering out whatever imperfections linger with them, nor by striving to be better people. The holiest people I’ve met, at any rate, radiate not perfection but love. Love for God and for ones brother does, after all, sum up the law and the prophets, and we are able to love only because he has first loved us, as John reminds us in his first epistle. The path to sainthood, as it turns out, is a path of receiving the love of God.

I don’t have a clear idea of why that seems to come easier to some folks than to others, how I (for example) could have tried to follow Christ for decades without a sense that he loved me. I don’t know how much love (and then sainthood by extension) is a gift we receive passively or actively (the middle voice, as a friend once speculated). But I do know that a call to holiness, a call to sainthood, is a call to receive God’s lavish Grace.

On that note, on the feast of the good St. Thomas More, I will end with the poem the saint read 475 years ago today as he watched John Fisher marched to the scaffold where he would follow two weeks later. We are called like More not as much to martyrdom as to love; in the light of love, martyrdom almost becomes incidental.
Rede distinctely
pray deuoutly
syghe depely
suffer pacyently
meke youe lowly
giue no sentenc hastely
speke but rathe and that truly
preuent youre spech discretely
do all your dedes in charytye
temtacyon resyst strongly
breke his heade shortly
wepe bytterly
haue compassion tenderly
do good workes busyly
loue perseuerently
loue hertely
loue faythfully
loue god all only
and all other for hym charitably
loue in aduersytye
loue in prosperyty
thinke alway of loue for loue ys non other but god hymselfe. Thus to loue bringeth the louer to loue without ende.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

And there was a great calm...

There're Graces strewn like wildflowers that turn
Their gatherer into a child, and all
The grubby roadside violets, she will learn,
Have clutched the very hands that let them fall.
And Grace has wrapped around like ocean foam
That's deeper, fuller, older than Despair, and in
That vastness even sorrow finds a home
In depths extending deeper than the sin.
Be still, my soul, for Home is larger than
Your restlessness. Be still, for Peace is deeper
Than your tears. The runner and the sleeper
Never leave the place where they began;
For we the restless wander to the stars,
Surprised to find our roots extend that far.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Irish work ethic

“Is this a good time?” I asked when I arrived at the priory. It was indeed the time we had arranged for me to come help preparing the apartment upstairs for the arrival of guests the next day, but I’m always a bit self-conscious about being on time in Ireland.

“Yes, it’s a perfect time,” Fr Padraic said as he welcomed me inside. “I was just about to smoke a cigarette; would you like to join me in the back?” Since he had been a bit overwhelmed with the amount of work that needed to happen that day (thus my offer to help), I assumed it would be a quick break.

I had yet to learn about the Irish work ethic.

Fr Padraic smoked a cigarette as he checked on the plumbing work being done out back. Then he invited me back inside for tea.

Ready for the mountain of tasks for the day, he went to the office to put some finishing touches on his dissertation he was about to get bound. Then he smoked another cigarette.

Dissertation in hand, we walked to the binders, only to discover upon arrival that the title page had a smudge. We returned to the priory to print out another title page. Then he smoked another cigarette.

We returned to the binders with the new page in hand, and stopped at a department store on the way back to pick up a dresser. Tired from carrying the load, he checked on the plumbers again, smoking another cigarette amid his amicable Irish banter with the laborers. Then we went to a cafe for tea and biscuits.

Then he smoked another cigarette, musing over the great amount of work we had already accomplished, and how much help I had been.

Finally, sometime after noon we got to the main task of the day and walked to Tesco to buy dishes and cutlery for the apartment. Now that I finally had a task that felt useful, I began washing the newly purchased dishes and cleaning out the mysterious collection of entirely random objects that had accumulated in the unused kitchen. Before I had got very far, Fr Padraic interrupted me for lunch. It was a light lunch, but included gin-and-tonic and more cigarettes.

Fortunately after lunch I managed to work quickly enough to finish the kitchen and help Fr Padraic select some curtains online for one of the bedrooms. Then it was time for another cigarette.

As the day waned, we walked to the store to buy the curtains. Upon our return, Fr Padraic bumped into some people he knew and invited them in for tea. By the time that was over, thoroughly exhausted from the day’s tasks, Fr Padraic thanked me for my invaluable help and escorted me to the door. “What a lot of work we’ve got done today!” he exclaimed with all sincerity as I left the priory.

Of course, jokes about the work day with Fr Padraic aside, I know that Ireland has had more than its fair share of brutalizing labor inflicted upon it over the years, so I do not actually intend to imply that the Irish are lazy. From what I can tell, the Irish seem to work as hard as they need to (though there are many places where the Irish and Americans would quibble over the definition of “need”), but no more than that. If they don’t need to work as hard, they don’t; and when they can relax (and enjoy a cigarette), they absolutely do.

It may look lazy to an American entrepreneur, but there is something profoundly healing to me about a work ethic that strives for nothing more than the day’s tasks, that does not try to get 25 hours out of a day nor would work the full 24. Pitfalls of the Irish economy aside for now, there is much for me to learn from it.

“Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray, and ask nothing more. “Give us this day our daily tasks,” the Irish might also pray, and expect nothing more. Fr. Padraic accomplished what his Tuesday demanded, and nothing more. I’m sure he went to bed feeling content... after he smoked another cigarette.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side

Every time I hear Psalm 124, I think of Lawrence.

I can almost count on one hand the number of times I saw him. The first was toward the end of my junior year of college when I was twenty one. I was on my way to a coffee shop, and he was sitting on the street with a cardboard box asking for money. On an impulse I asked him if he was hungry. The next hour involved chicken wings with ranch dressing, stories of his struggle with AIDS and loneliness, and plans to share a ride to church in the morning.

The next day involved picking him up in the parking lot where he was sleeping, letting him borrow my jacket when I noticed the wet man shivering in the air-conditioned church, telling him he could keep it since it fit so well, and promising to pray for him over the summer when I said goodbye. I left campus days later and spent the summer in Europe where my family was living. It rained a lot that summer, and I prayed for Lawrence every time it did.

The third time I saw him was my first Sunday back on campus my senior year of college. When the pastor invited us to greet those sitting near us, I turned around to see the cleanly-shaven, beaming face of Lawrence behind me, and I wept with joy and surprise. All summer as I had been offering prayers I didn’t expect to be heard, folks at my church had been helping Lawrence get off the streets.

“I would be remiss,” he told the Sunday school the next week, the week he also told me would be his last week at the large, middle-class, white, Evangelical church where he would never feel that he belonged, “if I did not sing you a song.” His eyes looked into the distance as if he were seeing God himself, and he sang in his clear, rich, gospel voice:
If it had not been
For the Lord on my side
Tell me where would I
Where would I be...
The last time I saw Lawrence was in my second year after graduation. I happened to be walking down the street near my old alma mater, and saw a man sitting on the street with a cardboard box. “No!” I almost shouted when I recognized him, tears welling up in me to see my lesson in answered prayer overturned so quickly. Lawrence’s optimistic promises that he would be off the streets soon rang hollow in my jaded ears, for I knew that while prayer was powerful, drug addiction was as well.

Every time I hear Psalm 124, I remember the whole story as one event: my young idealism, Lawrence’s loneliness, my gifts of raincoat and hopeless prayers, the church’s aid, the light in Lawrence’s beaming face, the joy of his song, and the cold power of cynicism when I saw him for the last time.

And when Psalm 124 came up again in Monday's evening prayers, I started to realize one of the reasons the Church has been praying through the Psalms over the centuries (or rather the millennia, I suppose, since praying the Psalms had been a Jewish tradition from before the time of Christ). In the body of the Church—the Church throughout the world and the Church throughout history—each desperate cry and joyful celebration in the Psalms exists together simultaneously, just as Lawrence’s entire story exists in my memory of that psalm. Thus even when we are joyful, we pray the words of those who are despairing; even when we despair, we pray the words of those who celebrate God’s salvation.

And on Monday evening, even though I don’t know if Lawrence is even alive anymore or whether he got off the streets again like he had promised me when I last saw him four years ago, I prayed “Blessed be the Lord who did not give us a prey to their teeth! Our life, like a bird, has escaped from the snare of the fowler.” In the Church, I know that the words are being fulfilled.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The gospel we profess

Today in the Divine Office, in my prayers before heading out to navigate the interesting world of Irish Sunday mornings, I read this:
God our Father,
we rejoice in the faith that draws us together,
aware that selfishness can drive us apart.
Let your encouragement be our constant strength.
Keep us one in the love that has sealed our lives,
help us to live as one family
the gospel we profess.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Hear us Lord, between the lovely charismatic and hurt Protestants who will greet me warmly as they declare the impossibility of being Catholic and Christian in Ireland, between the dry but faithful Catholics who will mumble their way through a mass they do not understand, between the late mornings of the hung-over Saturday night revelers who will not be joining me at either church this morning. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Home from the soaring

In my first trip to Ireland two years ago, I brought Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours with me to read on the plane. I find Rilke a surprisingly translatable poet, and the poems set an inquiringly meditative tone for a trip that proved to be every bit as much a pilgrimage as it was an intensive Latin boot camp.

I’m headed to Ireland again today on a graduation trip with my sister, enjoying some of my old haunts and exploring new ones before I move to the Midwest and she to east Asia. We booked the tickets six months ago before we knew about either excursion, and thus we booked a longer vacation than we would have had we been aware of the intensity of this summer. I have been tricked into enjoying a long vacation, as it turns out; I have been tricked into receiving some grace.

Anyway, as I head off for nearly five weeks in Ireland, I wish I had my copy of Rilke’s Book of Hours to read again as I return (I gave my copy to my friend Paul as a celebation present last year). But as I posted one of the poems in this blog two years ago, I can at least use that one as my sending off. The words are appropriate differently than they were then.
I come home from the soaring
in which I lost myself.
I was song, and the
refrain which is God
is still roaring in my ears.

Now I am still
and plain:
no more words.

To the others I was like a wind:
I made them shake.
I’d gone very far, as far as the angels,
and high, where light things into nothing.

But deep in the darkness is God…

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sinister brilliance

Last month when I was in Venice, I happened upon a small stationary store and went inside looking for envelopes. The clerk apologized that he did not have the size I was looking for, but suggested as an alternative that he as an artist would be able to draw my body in his small studio around the corner. I wondered if my request had been lost in translation, but the nature of his alternative translated quite clearly.

“Oh,” he said sympathetically as I struggled to come up with a pleasant way to turn him down, “I see you are shy.” He sounded like he felt genuinely sorry for me.

Shy, I thought. Is that what they call it now?

Evidently any self-respecting, confident woman would take off her clothes for any stranger off the street who asks. Evidently it is only the “shy” ones who would hesitate.

Something strange has happened to our culture. There is a startling reversal that had my college friends protesting the objectification of women by staging skits wherein they present themselves as sex objects. There is a peculiar inversion that had the American lit class for whom I graded reading a short story that portrays prostitution as an act of power that allows women to rise above the slavery of marriage. There is a downright eerie scheme that I watched allow an American authority figure to exploit a vulnerable Muslim friend of mine last year and champion himself as her liberator for doing so.

Seriously folks, it’s brilliant. If we could trace this reversal to a single person, he would be a genius—a sinister, conniving mastermind. If someone can convince a woman that her freedom is found in treating herself like a cheap commodity, that her power is found in being exploited, that those who consume her like a fine wine (or a cheap beer) are her champions, then he would be a more cunning scoundrel than I could ever be.

It is times like these that I would love to write a satire on our culture, and then am saddened to realize I can’t. Our culture is already its own satire; some mastermind out there already beat me to it.