Sunday, May 6, 2007

"For I am fearfully and wonderfully made"

This quote from Psalm 137 appears twice in James Martin's "My Life with the Saints." Grace builds upon nature, he says, paraphrasing Aquinas. All of us find our vocations in following what "God awakens primarily through our desires." (383) We do what we do best when it is that and only that which we can do best, to be our best, for ourselves and those around us. I read this combination of memoir and biography this morning on a quiet Sunday, interrupted by nails being driven from the omnipresent construction down the street, unloading groceries, and hearing from upstairs Niall's squeaks of glee at a presumably Dodger-driven score. At least it wasn't the omnipresent mouse in the pantry for once.

I think of how little I get to do what I once might have called "spiritual reading." Reading Fr. Martin's book, I was taken for a few hours into a series of encounters that he uses to link his own spiritual journey with that of various holy people, canonized or not, over the course of a life that seems to have been roughly contemporary to mine. I find that when an author's life parallels my own chronology -- not that this happens much-- I tend to pay closer attention. He grew up outside Philly, went to Wharton (the famed business college at Penn) and then worked a few years for GE in some corporate drone coveted position he soon found did not meet his dreams of whatever vague ideas he thought Wall Street would bring his twenty-something life to fulfill. He started thinking about a change, happened upon the last few minutes of a PBS documentary on Thomas Merton one night while sitting on a dreary beige couch, and two years later entered the Jesuits. A sign of how rare this is nowadays when he was one of two novices that year in his province.

His straightforward account articulated well for me what I had noticed but never really comprehended during my college years at Loyola Marymount among the few Jesuits that once in a while I met or had for teachers. Their practicality, matter-of-fact levelheadedness, and simple commitment to as some redneck comedian's slogan goes, 'get it done.' No dramatic piety, no papist skulduggery, no flowing cassocks or overwrought flair. Fr. Martin tells of 17 different men and women whose lives inspired him, not in some saccharine moment of divine inspiration or even Joycean epiphany, but through hard-won truths eked out in a prison ministry, a Nairobi assignment, a Kingston ghetto, the Cabrini-Green projects, a philosophy class, a wish to find a better toy than Sea Monkeys or a swimming Tony the Tiger, or-- I found this particularly poignant-- his own frustration at not being able to go for a PhD and become a full-time biblical scholar due to a physical limitation he developed during his studies that prevents him from typing more than half an hour daily.

Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, along with Fr. Pedro Arrupe, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and the Ugandan Martyrs, gain from Fr. Martin's energy; the more familiar saints such as Mary, Joseph, Joan of Arc, or Peter come off less engagingly, dulled as they may be by familiarity. It's a sign of the Church that Day and Merton may speak most powerfully to us while the Vatican treats their less-than-conventional pre-conversion hijinks cautiously and prefers to downplay their canonization prospects. I also note that Day and Merton's dissolute lives seem practically the norm for those of us of a later generation of that century. This may mean we need Ss. Tom & Dorothy now more than ever. Reading this also reminds me to finally open up my twenty-year-old copy of "The Long Loneliness," check out the more recent Paul Elie's book on Merton, Day, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy "The Life You Save" (although it got mixed reviews) and to get the "Intimate Merton" anthology of published and unpublished journals. Amidst bestsellers like "The Da Vinci Code," "The Celestine Prophecy," "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," and the hundred million readers of Paolo Coelho (unfathomable appeal judging from an admittedly scattershot New Yorker profile by Larissa MacFarquhar, whose articles I used to like in the now extinct "Lingua Franca") perhaps wisdom has retreated behind the covers of less garish appeals for our time and money. Still, I guess New Age folderol's better than following the antics of Paris and Brittany and speaks to our longing for meaning and comfort.

We use the term hagiography today as a pejorative, unless we're traditionalists, theologians, and/or medievalists. But Martin reminds me in his carefully composed thoughts the true root of religion: to "re-bind" us to what we know deep down has been severed and demands healing. Johannes Baptist Metz, a German theologian, reflects: "All too easily we live alienated from the truth of our being. The threatening nothingness of our poor infinity and infinite poverty drives us here and there among the distractions of everyday cares." (qtd. 246-7) Like any of us, this Jesuit has his moments of what Ignatius of Loyola defined as "dryness," and one of the best chapters here explores how the first Jesuit himself learned to distinguish what led the heart away from peace and what drew the spirit towards consolation. The "discernment" at the core of the Jesuit form of contemplation within action, of the Spiritual Exercises' "composition of place" that stimulates the imagination so the seeker can more fully experience the whole sensory array of encountering the holy beyond intellectual comprehension or affective appreciation is conveyed well.

Martin, near the end, paraphrases Merton. The "false self" is what we present to the world, what we think will please others. The "true self" is who we are before God. How to be a saint? Sanctity is discovering our reality within, what we are called to be-- the derivation of "vocation," after all. Merton: "For me to be a saint means to be myself." (387)

After typing this above, Layne came home to find in my holy stupor that I had neglected to unpack a bag of eggs, meat, and veggies that obviously needed my attention more than this rarified set of musings did, for the mundane nature of my chosen vocation of the life of Martha and not Mary. Niall, meanwhile, lamented with wailing and gnashing of teeth his own Job-like fate as a witness to the indifference of the gods as the Dodgers slumped into a non-Jesuit form of detachment from earthly cares. For the Jesuits, "indifference" is a virtue, to be led as the Spirit wishes. For a few other elite men, paid salaries that would feed half the twenty thousand Jesuits and forty thousand Calcuttians, their disdain for justifying their own reward from Mammon-- and those of us who pay their keep at Chavez Ravine by slavish attendance-- consigns them to if not the lowest circle of the inferno than at least a longer distance from the race for the NL West pennant. Dante's first circle, for the comparatively less culpable fornicators like Paolo and Francesca, found our lovers-- "that day we no longer read" as they dropped their romance of Lancelot and put contemplation into action. Canto V saw its season ticket holders chasing a pennant too, perpetually ahead of them, whipping in the breeze.

Faith in fate, when so much seems out of our hands as our feet race about towards a goal that ever recedes, is no easier for Mother Teresa than me, I found to some surprise. Apparently after a "locution," hearing the voice of God on a train in 1946 that moved her to leave the convent walls for a life in Calcutta's slums, she suffered fifty years of darkness, estrangment from God, unsure that there was even such a source. Which makes her determination more admirable, hidden as her own "dark night of the soul" apparently has been until a recent biographer unveiled it.

The cover of this book I found particularly well chosen to illustrate the humanity and everyday weaknesses of people we easily place on pedestals and lacquer as icons. John Nava's tapestries (woven in Bruges, the medieval center of such artistry) of the "Communion of the Saints" decorate the walls of our downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. I have only seen them twice, during breaks in thanksgiving from jury duty across the street cattycorner from the courthouse. The images I have reproduced of a couple of the panels fail to do justice to their immense scale and intimate nuance. But they, like no other iconography I've seen, convey what saints must look like. Hard as it is to conceive, they are familiar, without nimbus. Poised, their gaze fixed on the center altar and a Presence that we cannot verify, nonetheless they in their composed peace show us where to look. And, Martin and Nava remind us, they who contemplate the beatific vision look just like us.

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