24 February 2016

The Love

"Bless the Lord, oh my soul, all my being bless His Holy Name" (Ps. 103).

In the bitter winter of 2000, I met a tired monk in velcro-strapped shoes. He intimidated without meaning to do so. He led a retreat of a bunch of know-nothing college boys. No one wanted to be with him face-to-face. It was too much, too intense. We all kept to ourselves, playing cards and platitudes.

He mentioned something in a talk about a ramshackle house in Ephesus he never had the chance to visit, thousands of miles away, where Mary supposedly lived after the Paschal Mystery. It so happened that I had visited that place in Turkey after I graduated from high school. That little stone structure a lifetime away gave me my in, and we discussed it and he loved it, and his heart was mine, and my heart was his ever since. He wrote on some scrap of paper a Greek prayer to her. I didn't know what I was doing; I don't know what I am doing.

I wrote him a letter that winter in front of the fireplace at my home in Kentucky, telling him how much his words meant and all else. I never expected a response. The response I received was sixteen years ago, sixteen years of love, sixteen years of direction and tears and laughter and wonder.

I wanted to be him, and so with terrible difficulty I entered the monastery. But it wasn't right. That's not who I was meant to be. I left and resumed my teaching, always with a large portion of my heart tied up in him. The deepest flattery isn't to be someone else; the deepest flattery is to fall in love and be held, and to be given meaning from there and expand to the horizon. He was my horizon.

Abbot Patrick Barry in later life
A few years ago I visited him at the monastery in England where he made is vows and made his life. He was waning. I knew then - or I thought I did - that it would be the last encounter I would have with him in this life. The tears were warm and bountiful. I told him I never experienced love like I did with and for him (he was 83 when I met him). He consoled me, that if his entire experience in St. Louis was meant to meet me, then it was worth it. What a wonderful conclusion. What a wonderful end - walk away.

And so I did walk away, and my heart was left in that place on a rug or a counter or a driveway.

And now he is dead. He has let loose the frail structure of his once-mighty body in order to embark on the greatest trek. His life spanned nearly a century, a century of people and places and experiences. I was a blip on the radar screen of his vast experience but his presence to me was the totality of my heart. And I don't regret it. I don't regret a moment of it. The old man who is now waiting to be buried was and is the absolute love of my life. He left his earthly cares, I hope, gratified and full.

And I am left as a heartbroken son, a struggling teacher who found more meaning in that one man than in all my experiences before combined. I long to be with him, but since I can't, I'm left with some mysterious charge to cast out into the deep, to be for others what and who he was to me. But it's too soon, this task. In my missing him, perhaps I'll live into that challenge.

When I call, answer me, O God of justice. 

28 June 2015

The Church

The credibility of the Catholic Church in America is in crisis. This is nothing new. In the mid-90s, flocks of Catholics left for the emotionally appealing alternative of evangelical Christianity. It suited them, with the direct sermons and uplifting music and videos. The Church here had little to entice them back: architecture was reduced to the simplified and the homilies were, largely, pointless. Still, some of the devout clung on, hoping for something in addition to the Eucharist to feed them.

Then came the fallout of 2002, when the devout were forced to deal with the horrors of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. It seemed impossible to believe at first, until the number of cases grew and the number of dioceses involved expanded. One wondered how he could remain in the fold. Hypocrisy seemed to be the norm rather than the exception. Many felt betrayed, others beleaguered; a great number stopped attending altogether. The lawyers fed the bishops with lines to appease the courts and insurance companies, but no lines were provided to appease the remaining faithful.

Then came terror, natural disasters, political disasters and all else. Catholic individuals did tremendous acts to bind the wounds from every side. But the disenfranchisement continued. The voice of the Church as a whole in this country continued to dwindle in relevance. A few bishops made headlines in their convictions, but were swept away under the great tide of the time.

We now live in an age that has little concern for what the Catholic Church in America has to say - about anything. And I don't find the age at fault. I find the Church, as an institution, at fault. It did nothing for itself in the double-speak of its hierarchy. It did nothing for itself in the mind-numbing verbosity of its statements. It did nothing for itself in the handling of the abuse crisis. It did nothing for itself in reaching out, in teaching, in catechizing, a generation of Catholics who, without anything else worth holding onto, only showed up for the Big Moments, the baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.

Homosexual marriage is now legal in this country, to the great consternation of the devout. Bishops will retaliate, offer statements of protest, etc., but no one will care. And no one cares not because the Church doesn't have something to offer, but precisely because the Church is suffocating under the weight of its own apparent and subtle crises.

Then why don't I leave this mess? Why not, instead, immerse myself into the great mess of society-at-large? It is tempting. Especially now, when the spiral is so varnished and alluring. I resist not because of any bishop or structure - or even where I work. I resist because the nature of the Church, despite the slack-jawed folks who speak for it (myself included), is a refuge for the sinner. It's built for the sinner. And so it's home.

Any other place in this world is a shoddy thing. 

20 June 2014

The Porch

The sight and deep smell of the pines greeted me at the campsite in Georgia. I drove down from a home visit in Louisville. The air was damp but not hot. I set up my tent and other things and plopped in a chair for the better part of forty-eight hours and read, ate, dozed, swigged some Yuengling and stared above at the canopy and beyond at the lake. In that time I don't think I spoke more than fifty words aloud, but words were swirling around me and memories, stories and friendships. I was alone but I was not lonely. The campsite was a stopover en route to Milledgeville, Georgia. I was driving down to see Flannery O'Connor.

I called it a pilgrimage. It was a road trip, a wacky idea to satiate a wacky preoccupation with a woman who died fifty years ago. I was off to set foot on her property, poke around the farmhouse and sit on the screened-in porch. I was off to take in the peacocks, smell the country, stand on the front brick steps. I was off to take flowers to her grave, the apex of the pilgrimage, to be near the flat stone marking her physical remains and share a few stories of my own with her.

Getting off the interstate southeast of Atlanta, I was immersed at once into her stories: the farms and woods along the country highway, a woman smacking the hell out of her husband as he veered the old pickup truck ahead of me; it was altogether familiar, that foreign place.

T.S. Eliot was right: "...the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

The closer I got to Milledgeville, the more worried I was that this was a fool's errand. Why come all this way? What's the point? Won't it ruin what you have worked out in your mind about her? Turn back! The anxiety increased until I passed through the intersection of one Friendship Lane. It was almost too hilarious to notice the point of it. I shuddered. Buckle up. "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." I continued forward.

I arrived too early. Andalusia didn't open for visitors until ten, so I did a haphazard drive through town. I stopped in her church, a little brick structure made from the remains of an old hotel. It had all the signs of a Catholic place but was understated as if it didn't want to draw too much attention. Most of the votive candles remained unlit. The windows were clear glass, perhaps to calm the wild imaginations of suspicious Protestant passersby. This is where she went to Mass nearly everyday.

I went down the street and ventured into the visitor's center, where the lady running the place was quick to point out that Sherman, in his crazed firestorm through the South, spared the town thanks to the begging and pleading of its inhabitants (he had already torched Atlanta so what was the point, they argued - he agreed but burned down government buildings for good measure). When I told her why I was there, she said she thought the peachicks had just hatched at Andalusia. Perfect timing.

I drove up the humble lane to the farm and caught sight of the house. "There it is!" I said aloud to no one. I parked in the grass behind the place and wandered around. I had my phone out like an idiot, taking pictures right and left as if amnesia was imminent. I didn't want to risk it. A woman emerged from the porch and greeted me. "You must be a pilgrim," she said. I am, how can you tell? "Pilgrims always approach the house differently, with reverence. Take your time. Stay as long as you want. The peafowl are over there." I wasn't ready to go into the house.
Sure enough. Everything looked right. Trees were where I imagined them. The peafowl were the right colors; the peacock with the appropriate level of arrogant indifference. I began to meditate. The smells of wet grass and magnolia wafted. I closed my eyes. A voice pierced through the sky announcing that Gina, your car is ready in automotive. Wal-Mart is just beyond the property line. Ha.

I crossed the threshold and to my left was Flannery's bedroom with desk and typewriter. It was sudden. I thought it would be in the back or upstairs or somewhere that required a procession to get to, a kind of hitherto shalt thou come but no further. My eyes filled. Like so many before, I looked in and imagined her writing then stopping, clapping her hands and laughing hysterically at something she came up with in a character or letter. I looked in and thought of the suffering she endured.

I asked if I could sit on the porch for awhile to think about her. Of course, the lady said. Take your time. Annie Dillard made the point somewhere to spend the day: you can't take it with you. So I did and I rocked in a white chair along a row of empty white chairs.

After awhile it seemed right to leave. I said my goodbyes to the ladies working in the back of the house and drove down the street to Wal-Mart to pick up some flowers. Her grave was easy enough to find in the little cemetery in town. No marker at the entrance with flashing lights directing the visitor. I put the flowers on her grave, said a few words and went back to the car parked under a small shade tree. I stopped. Go back! You came all this way: go back. I went back and sat on a concrete slab at the foot of her stone. I spoke aloud for a bit. I thanked her for her friendship. I told her about working with my seniors on some of her stories and spiritual writings. I told her what about her made me laugh and think and wonder and believe. I told her I love her. I cried, even.

And that was it. I made a left and headed to Macon. Pilgrimage complete. 

Sometime stop by here and pay me a visit. I would like to fit your face to your search.
- Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being, 485.

Flannery O’Connor and a peacock.

10 July 2013

The Road

The red dust crisscrossed its way over a crumbled road leading to Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor. The cloudless sky provided no refuge for the traveler. She was sick, terribly sick. Her mother met me at the front door and explained her daughter was in her period of writing and so could not be disturbed. I sat on the porch swing and waited, anxiously, hearing the siren call of the peafowl about the farm.

The tired door swung open with a creak and out came, first with metal limbs, the simple frame of the writer. She looked at me and, with a drawl I daresay few could decipher, told me not to swing so hard, that the springs attached to the ceiling were worn. I sprung to my feet and greeted her with extended hand. She delicately shook it, winced, and we sat down.

Flannery O’Connor died before the Second Vatican Council ended. I was born nearly twenty years after it concluded. We never met. I was introduced to her writing some time ago by a well-intentioned professor who hoped we’d find some avant-garde slant in her writing. I didn’t care about that. I was immersed in her characters and soon became immersed in her person. I devoured every letter she wrote, every fragment of a conversation and experience, hoping to find a a near soul mate. And so I did.

I’ve written many papers about her, read innumerable biographies and accounts of her and, of course, have cast myself headlong into her stories. She was the centerpiece of my graduate studies, though I didn’t know how obvious my flirtations had become. At the end of my trying oral exam, a professor said, “Don’t you see what you’re doing here? Your whole career and studies have been focused on grace.” It was a lightning bolt , a clear and profound reference to Flannery, whose writing spoke nothing of grace, and the wreckage we can so easily become.

Today, a great many issues are at the fore: marriage, human rights, healthcare and all else. As the occasional follower of such things, I can hardly make sense of any of it. I know what the Catholic bishops of this country proclaim, in their reams and reams of explanation and defense; I think I know what the anti-Catholic culture teaches in its committed reams and reams of argument to the contrary. It all flies up in the whirling wind while the red dirt swirls beneath.

I wonder what Flannery would think of the current state of things. I am in no position to force words into her mouth – she was famously chagrined at any such attempt – but I think she’d find the whole thing sort of comic, a kind of tragic setting for an engrossing story.

What’s engrossing is our vaulted notion that we have the right and wherewithal to define – and if need be, redefine – what is. That is, to define and redefine and re-describe the swirling red dust and the peacocks parading proudly. I suspect, in all humility, that she would balk at such contentious debate today. She would balk because the precise point is being missed in all this dust-kicking, that is, that we belong to God and our machinations to disprove this through any and all complicated and sad items remains: she read the great Doctors not because they bolstered piety (she was repulsed by piety) but because they spoke the truth to the human condition, timeless, irrespective of the polis and the power, that our hearts are restless till they rest in You. The atheist clacks and calls, be she would stand, braces and all, resolute.

Finally, I suspect on a limb, that she would find our contemporary hysteria not much different than what was going on in her own tumultuous, Southern day, beyond the particulars, that we belong to one that does not bend with the age, and grace opens our eyes to this, and our noses and brains and all other senses, and the many characters she wrote about and the many still characters she wrote to, were all based on this fundamental premise: the love of God will take no equal. We can only fall in.

27 May 2013

The Misfit

"'She would have been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."'

The old lady fell helpless, limp, in a pool of her own blood. I don't know what possessed Flannery O'Connor to write such a story, but it's one that haunts me and one I thought about as I struggled through the gestures of a graduation ceremony that featured far too many talking heads. I thought of that dusty, humid road and the existential chaos that ensued in the tale, and then fell asleep. I was prodded to wake when a well-intentioned colleague wanted to share a witticism, then fell quickly back to sleep, resuming that country road.

So another school year ends and I yawn, not because I'm worn out, but because I'm getting older and the routines and liturgies of my early career fail to captivate: I drift elsewhere, to the meanderings and complexities of friendships and acquaintances. Like anything fluid, these veins rush headlong against boulders, dashing and spraying mist aside every conceivable hurdle. It is a strange juxtaposition to have this rushing current hurling against an arid, abandoned road, but nevertheless it's the setting in which I find myself.

Like the old woman in O'Connor's story, I have resigned myself to the pine-encrusted way that is haunted by The Misfit. He is, of course, any one of us: the one whose shocking ability to read human nature equals his shocking inability to fit in to it. Crime results and blood and loss of life, but also a certain kind of imperceptible gain, a gain that consistently remains ahead of language. The old woman, after all, in her self-absorption throughout the travails of her life, suddenly became real and genuine in her final moments. She was real only because she saw the threat of her imminent demise and The Misfit saw in her what she was capable of, and for a tragic reason, she could only manifest it in the end. She would have been a good woman, he says, as he cleans the barrel and reprimands one of his gang that "It's no real pleasure in life."

This strange association buries deep. The same river of complicated relationships meets the sun-baked road upon which The Misfit finds me.

11 November 2012

The Pilgrimage

My Dad picked me up from the waist so that my feet rested on the pew in front of us. It was a crowded church. I don't remember what was going on in the Mass, but the choir started singing and the organ swelled and the voices raised above the rafters and I started crying, but not in the same way a toddler cries for want of something. I remember crying and my Dad leaning to my ear asking what was wrong and I said, nothing's wrong. He asked, why are you crying? I said, because it's so beautiful. That was the earliest memory of my life.

Last night I sat on a hard pew with some friends who gathered to say goodbye to a professor who taught us all some philosophy and who taught us how to be passionate about it, about the human person. He taught us that philosophy ought not be relegated to the abstract and constructed; that the earliest philosophers were ultimately concerned with the human being and what he believed, desired and suffered. His class was a hot air balloon ride above so much contemporary philosophical dust-kicking.

I returned yesterday from a pilgrimage with ten of my senior boys who were all searching for something. We had a few discussions and a number of silent hours. I fixated on the trees. The red and white oaks were starting to shirk their wares and I slowed down as I trampled their remnants. The sky was a piercing, eye-colored blue; the lake next to me was as still as any body of water I ever saw. We walked away from that, along country roads toward some organized destination that only represented, at best, a kind of symbol for what we all were seeking. Imperceptibly, of course, the chorus emerged: Inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te. Our hearts are restless - our entire and past and future selves - until we rest in you.

The homilist knew the dead professor since both were teenagers. He talked over a packed place of grace and intellect and accomplishment. He talked of memories and regret and hope. I sat there, clinging to the pew before me, riddled with an intense refusal to let the tears fall, the tears that had so easily surfaced in my early childhood. I wanted to rationalize it all, make sense of it all. I proceeded through the Communion line, kissed my hand and touched the coffin.The tears fell.

My life has been a nonstop effort of abandoning faith for the sake of some market option, some intellectual prowess that remains isolated and hopeless. It is, of course, completely and entirely counter to my earliest memory, before I knew what faith meant, what friendship meant. Last night, and in the two days preceding, there crept into the depth of my cold heart a remembrance of what was and what is.

The hound of heaven is, in the end, the love of my life. All other attempts have been met with nothing but futility and a desire, from childhood, to escape the lofty reaches of the pew ahead of me.

22 October 2012

The Waiting

He sat in the shade of a tree and waited. The road up to this point curved imperceptibly through the vast swath of memories, experiences, gains and losses, hugging tightly along mountain vistas and in the deep darkness of humid valleys. He decided to stay put until he found the answer, some solution to the problem of suffering, of dissatisfaction. The sun faded beneath the horizon and he meditated.

I was teaching Buddhism the other day and as I tried to explain the concept of dukkha, I found myself sliding down a slope of analogy. A few days before I had driven home from visiting an old friend and found myself in a kind of sadness at leaving his company. Similar feelings abound in almost any departure of mine from anyone I hold dear. I told the students that had Buddha been in the car, he might have reminded me of the impermanence of all things, including the good and life-giving things. I had to catch myself and pull back.

Gautama is, of course, not the only one to come to such conclusions. I can think of Stobaeus and Heraclitus in their own places coming to similar insights; I can think of Boethius being thwacked by Lady Philosophy to similar ends. The reason we encounter unhappiness isn't because some temporal good or relationship has been taken away, but because we ascribe to that temporality some definite, lasting meaning for which it is not equipped.

The tragedy of my history of friendships runs thus: I either fling myself into them with such reckless abandon that they are destroyed or I keep myself at such a distance as to be basically unaffected. Rarely do they take any form, via media. 

I am, of course, getting too old for this. I am too old for this.

Perhaps the sailor's most dreaded state is not the maelstrom but the doldrums, those impassible lengths of complete and suffocating stillness. No amount of frenzy on deck will stir the slagging sails; one must, in such instances, conserve energy at all costs. Resources wear thin, as do nerves and wherewithal. It is hard to hold to hope in such moments.

The instinct is to sit at the base of a tree and wait. It is to walk away from those encounters that are as vaulting as they are devastating, to find some middle way spoken of by the ancient ones. Perhaps. But one thing seems certain: I cannot go on living in the frame of being as a hapless twenty-something. I sit, then, at the base of a tree and wait. Bring on insight, old age, whatever. Mine, o thou lord of life, send my roots rain.