20 September 2008

Wednesday, Part Two

Here's the rest of what I've got. If you like it, you might enjoy another post about Ruth I wrote last January.

Each Wednesday, the new seminarians take a hiatus from class and go out into the local community to get involved in some form of service; this is referred to by the formation faculty as “field education”. I’ve been assigned to a group called the Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly, whose mission is visit isolated, homebound, or otherwise neglected elderly. Today is my first day on the assignment. After morning prayer and breakfast, I get in the car to drive down from the far northern Chicago suburbs, to the North Side, where I am to meet up with my program coordinator who will then introduce me to the first of the elders I am to visit regularly over this year.

Traffic has me in its clutches for an hour and twenty minutes. Inside my head, I rail at the drivers alone behind the wheel of each of the hundreds of cars obstructing my way, and then rail at myself for being one of them. Our lack of options does not absolve my conscience. Overhead, the sky is clear and solid. As I approach downtown, massive clouds hang low and thick over Lake Michigan, a snowbank corralled by the imposing skyline. Memories of the approach to Denver from the east drift along before me. Checking myself, the vista regains its immediacy. Say what you will about the Midwest and its paucity of grand scenery, but the vaulty sky reveals itself here in ways not glimpsed elsewhere. The crags and preposterous bluffs of the Cumulus Range are more precious for their precarity.

Stiff and cranky, I make my way into the central office of the Little Brothers, just inside the Loop. A National Geographic on the table occupies me as I wait for Seth, my program coordinator.

A perfunctory “You have a car?” jolts me from my world of burning sands and barefoot Bedouin guides.

We grab a few flowers from the cooler in the kitchen and throw them in the paper bag he’s got with him. On the way to our first visit, I learn a little about Seth in the awkwardly close quarters of the front seat of my vehicle. Having met him only moments before, we proceed to have somewhat of a disembodied conversation as I negotiate the traffic and pump the clutch. He’s a skinny guy, built pretty much like I am, and not much older. His arms swing through a long arc in time to his undulating gait. Three-day scruff grows in patches, and tones of enlightened foreign policy and human interest seep through his voice, the sort that would do well against a backdrop of ambient city noise or a hammer dulcimer on NPR.

“So, you like working with the … ah … old folks, huh?” I make a mental note to come up with better slang as I await the inevitable rejoinder: “Dude, ‘wrinkly hags’ is not the preferred nomenclature.” It doesn’t come.

He ended up with the Little Brothers after wandering a bit, getting ordained out in California from a school well known for its willingness (as he described it) to confer orders on pretty much anyone. As I stare down five years of post-graduate preparation for the priesthood, I teeter woozily at the edge of the chasm that runs roughly halfway between my passenger and me.

Seth’s not a Chicago native but has adapted well to the city life, with which I am not overly familiar. He recently moved after getting jumped by eight kids outside his apartment on his way to the corner ice cream stand one evening. He maced one.

“You maced him?”

“Yeah, I carry it all the time, now. I swear by it.”

This obviously isn’t terribly remarkable to him. I have to prompt him to get the facts that he doesn’t consider worth mentioning.

It turns out he had to use the mace another time on the ‘L’.

“A crackhead got in my face, yelling and screaming at me. I tried the apologetic back-down, telling how I didn’t know what I did to offend him, but that didn’t seem to work, so I got up and started screaming back at him.”


“That didn’t work either. I sized this guy up, and he wasn’t that big, but who wants to roll around on the floor of the ‘L’ with a crackhead? So I maced him.”

More chuckles.

“Did you just leave him there?”

“Well, mace doesn’t really knock you out. I moved back in the train a couple of cars and hoped he wouldn’t come after me. A few minutes later, I saw him coming—is this Addison? Uh, take a left here—so yeah, I headed to the back of the train. I grabbed a bottle on the way. You never know. He was definitely coming after me. There’s a bottle in his hand. I had nowhere to go ‘cuz the train was moving, so we just … stand off, you could say.”

Seth hints at to some of the tactical maneuvering of two bottle-wielders in a stalemate, neither willing to risk losing his one element of defense in a bold projectile offensive. He ended up jumping through the doors of the train just as they closed, implying a studied familiarity with their timing. His adversary pounded them in frustration, screaming with sunken-eyed ferocity as the train rumbled, hotshoes arcing, from the platform.

We make our way to an apartment building run by the Chicago Housing Authority just a few blocks from the lake in one of the nicer parts of downtown. Seth is new to the job, too, and so we’ll both be meeting these folks for the first time. Ruth comes to the door with a smile on her face. That is good; you never know what’s on the other side of that door the first time you knock. The fear of a really difficult encounter subsides as we take in the d├ęcor—every horizontal surface is crowded with trinkets and fleamarket baubles. Around her neck are necklaces of every conceivable variety, obscuring the pins, buttons, and ribbons on her blouse. Her wiry hair is pinned up close to her head and twin folds of skin hang from her neck like they did on my grandma; there was a day when I would sit on her lap and play with them until she got tired of it. I never did. They were so soft and parallel. We only saw her once a year when I was young.

Ruth is sweet and chatty, so she is well into her life story by the time we have been there fifteen minutes. She doesn't offered us a seat as there is nowhere that isn't already covered with stuffed animals. She tells us of how she grew up in an orphanage, made her way to Florida working for a wealthy family as a nanny, then went west to Texas and up through Oklahoma and Fort Gibson where she met a soldier who never wanted kids but got her pregnant every time he was home on leave to visit his young wife. She couldn’t support them on the money she earned from waiting tables so she gave them up for adoption when he didn’t come back from the war, and was reunited with them both in her old age.

Later I found out that he had not died in the war, but simply left her; yet that was not how she told it, and therefore not how I remember it. I believe that it’s not how she remembers it, either.

As the years sweep by in her story, the circumference of her life gradually shrinks in on itself until it scarcely reaches beyond the walls of her little apartment, like the interplanetary wanderings of a comet that has slowed to a tight orbit around the star that would eventually swallow it up. All the kitsch is the last sentimental remnant of a more widely distributed existence; age and weakness had served to concentrate whatever freedom remained to her and bind it to her tightly, and so she had populated these few square yards with the things that could still please her.

And slowly it dawns on me, as it probably dawned on her at some point in the past, that she is preparing for herself a small army of attendants and well-wishers to see her on her way when at last the time came for her to lie on her bed, never to get up again, and let this life of hers dwindle to vanishing.

We leave her the flowers. I’d lucked out. Ruth is a peach.

08 September 2008

Wednesday, Part One

My first year in seminary, I would travel into the city each Wednesday for what we call "field education," referred to in a bygone day as "apostolate," to carry out some form of service in the local community. It certainly had value as service, but I experienced it as a healthy way to keep our feet on the ground and make sure we don't get too stir-crazy going to classes all week long. It's a good balance to our academic and spiritual formation. The following was one of a couple different stories I wrote about one Wednesday in particular; seminary starting again reminded me of them and I thought I'd post them to get me off the hook from coming up with something original the first week of classes.

Enjoy! I'll post the next one in a little while.


Among the many things I’ve noticed as I’ve grown older is how infrequently I laugh. There was a time in my life when it was rare that I did not find myself doubled up over some foolishness, especially when in the company of those further along on the march – which, happily, seemed like just about everyone. The world was new and fresh enough to my youthful perspective that the slightest hint of a jaded or cynical outlook caught me off guard. When in the sixth grade, I would sputter and choke at eighth graders’ open defiance of authority. When in high school, the thought of the college student’s lackadaisical life, pompous and derisive of this or that professor, or class, or author was comical in its unfamiliarity. When home from college over the summer, working with blue collar tradesmen, the descriptions of their home lives, the relationships with their bosses and wives, their life-philosophies did not measure up with what I thought was appropriate for men of that age, and so, bewildered, laughter was all I could come up with. At the risk of sounding a little too philosophical, laughter was how wonder at people’s loss of a sense of meaning found its way to the surface. Not that I was aware of it then. Thankfully, my instinctual response was more disarming than anything.

Though there seemed to be no shortage of such opportunities to ignite my seemingly boundless mirth, these days encounters like these are more depressing than anything–not only because of their monotonous frequency, but because I sense the possibility for their settling into my own life. When I find myself genuinely laughing, as I did when a bit younger and more susceptible to the absurd, it’s refreshing. The dross is, from some hidden surface, buffed away and the luster is freed from beneath.

This week has been one of much laughter.

Breakfast has been with a handful of seminarians who have all by chance ended up around the same table each morning. A rich eruption of guffaws would boom through the subdued atmosphere of the refectory as it took its first meal of the day, like a lab reaction that had gone haywire. Echoing across the glassy smoothness of the nearby lake, a groggy heron or two was sent squawking into the air, flapping resentfully.

Mornings are always more likely times for mirth. At morning prayer, the chants were intoned by Drew, a late vocation who had spent ten years as a Chicago cop. The formal, Hebraic poetry acquired a new grandeur as it was recited in his South side accent. My insides twisted up as unusally forceful snorts and splutters clutched at me.

At breakfast today, the man of the hour was Ben, a seminarian from the upper peninsula of Michigan. Ben has the same inexhaustible storytelling ability as the sort possessed by my relatives of eastern Wisconsin, and the same accent. Bright eyes burned attentively above a thick, brown beard with streaks of clay and a round belly they call the Milwaukee Goiter. It’s common knowledge that the remote surroundings of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula attract many remarkable types; Ben has a number of stories of the unique individuals that inhabit that place. Among them, Otto, a neighbor of his, occupies a notable place. Otto has a number of exploits to his name, but of importance to us is the Day Otto Fed His Garden.

Otto is quite the outdoorsman, and outdoorsmen of this part of the country pride themselves upon their ability to keep in check animal populations that, without salutary and benevolent management, would multiply themselves with such ferocity that entire ecosystems would be no doubt rapidly annihilated in the ensuing feeding frenzy. This particular day, Otto has been plucking carp (commonly regarded as a pest) from the native waters at a pace commensurate with a woodsman of his skill and experience; that is to say, the water level of the lake in question is dropping at a noticeable rate in proportion to the loss of carp volume. With a reckless abandon matched only by stunt drivers and soldiers who’ve lost the will to live, Otto continues his haul with no regard for what he’s going to do with all these massive fish, flopping pathetically in the bed of his pickup. This is not important to Otto; he is a man of principle. The delicate balance of nature must be maintained, however dire the consequences might be.

Soon, Otto tires. Even sinewy woodsmen like Otto tire! He is, of course, a man of principle; it will not do simply to let these fish lie. They must serve their purpose in the circle of life: how, he cannot say. He is but nature’s humble servant; she will reveal her inscrutable purposes in her own good time. For now, the carp come home with Otto.

His ‘82 Chevy rumbles into the housing development, laden with prey. Carp are no good to eat though they can grow to be quite large fish. Surveying his lot, admiring his massive flower and vegetable garden with satisfaction as he muses over the problem of the carp, something is triggered … Blurry connections begin to form in his head.

As the earthy reek of fish guts mingled with two-stroke exhaust slowly permeates the neighborhood, one by one people come to their doors to investigate the persistent source of their discomfort. Very quickly do they learn it. For from not far down the street comes the sound of a small engine laboring under a heavy load, and the sight of Otto loading carp into his ten-horsepower chipper/shredder. Ragged, meaty fish parts chunk out the chute into a wheelbarrow. Fish too large for the hopper are cut to size with a chainsaw. And Otto, clad in running shorts, aglow with the vision of eight foot vines heavy with produce, calls out over the throb of the machine with all the certainty of a prophet:

“It might smell like fish now, but in a few weeks you’ll be smellin’ my roses!”

05 September 2008

Restabilization Complete

I have some ideas about the humane treatment of animals and human dignity that might get posted within the next week or so. As things have settled down, retreats are over, school is starting up, the life of the mind will resume its regularly scheduled program.

Check back in a week or so, and peruse the review of St. Margaret Mary's autobiography in the meanwhile.

The Desk Chair Review of Books, Continued

The Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary

I'll just come right out and say it: this book is disturbing. I'm not sure how else to sum up the reaction I have to this autobiography, though it is "offensive to pious ears" (as the theological notes would put it). Allow me to qualify this assessment: "disturbing" can be said in many ways. It is certainly disturbing on the level of spectacle; the saint performs some outrageous penances to overcome her sensitive nature, one of which was struck from the record as unfit to mention. Yet her story also stirs up something in me that justly accuses me of complacency, of coldness to the love of God and the unfathomable desire of the Sacred Heart to unite humanity to itself. I believe Margaret Mary is a saint and is now enjoying the fruits of reward tilled by a lifetime of confusion and suffering that perpetually conformed her to her suffering savior, but part of me wants to hold back from completely ratifying it as worthy of general consumption. Perhaps Pope St. Gregory the Great's adage applies here:
Those things are ours that we love in others, even if we cannot imitate them, and what is loved in ourselves becomes the possession of those who love it. Therefore, let the envious consider the power of charity, which gives us credit for the results of another person's work, without any effort on our part.
This "bond of charity," perhaps, is what one must keep in mind when hearing St. Margaret Mary describe the suffering she endured (and sought) in her all-consuming pursuit of perfection at the hands of her Lord.

Now, that being said, in the judgment of the Church, this woman is the recipient of private visitations that have been ratified by popes. My concern here is articulated best by a short piece on self-love by then Cardinal Ratzinger in a little book I highly recommend: The Yes of Jesus Christ. The relevant excerpt:
Man—every man and woman—is called to salvation. He is willed and loved by God, and his highest task is to respond to this love. He must not hate what God loves. He must not destroy what is destined for eternity. To be called to the love of God is to have a vocation for happiness. To become happy is a ‘duty’ that is just as human and natural as it is supernatural. When Jesus talks of self-denial, of losing one’s own life and so on, he is showing the way of proper self-affirmation (‘self-love’), something that always demands opening oneself, transcending oneself. But this necessity of going beyond oneself, of leaving oneself behind, does not exclude genuine self-affirmation. Quite the contrary: it is the way of finding oneself and ‘loving’ oneself. When forty years ago I read for the first time Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest the last words of this suffering soul made an indelible impression on me: it is not difficult to hate oneself; the grace of all graces would however be to love oneself as a member of the Body of Christ...

The realism of this statement is obvious. There are many people who live in conflict with themselves. This aversion to oneself, this inability to accept oneself and to be reconciled with oneself, is far removed from that self-denial that the Lord wants. Those who cannot stand themselves cannot love their neighbor. They cannot accept themselves ‘as themselves’ because they are against themselves and are bitter as a result, and the very foundation of their life makes them incapable of loving.
What I wanted to convey was that the kind of egoism Ratzinger rightly condemns ought never to seek justification in the lives of saints like St. Margaret Mary. Read her story, but imitate her only out of love of the Lord and not hatred of self.