Sunrise over city

Sunrise over city

Monday, July 20, 2015

Which Kingdom Will You Choose?

For the past week I've been haunted by an encounter I had on the streets with a sixty year old, homeless black man. I've encountered him in the past, and in each case he's greeted my smile with an icy reception.  But this time he extended a long, beckoning finger as he sat on a parking curb, and so I happily crouched down to hear what he had to say.  He began with a long story about how he had lost his dog, a miniature Pinscher, and was now looking to kill the people responsible.  He talked about his gun (I doubt he actually had one), and then talked about other people with whom he was angry.  He was fascinated with violence and drank hatred like water.  He wouldn't give me his name; not even a fake one.  I was relieved when he began to talk abut his shoes and other items.  Finally he asked if I had a credit card or money.  I lied and said "No."  He looked at me in disgust and replied,  "Then what good are you?"  I touched the Jesus Caritas heart/cross and said, "Friendship, prayer."   He sneered and said he didn't like "white people", and then transitioned into a rant against the police.  He ended the conversation abruptly with a demand, "Get out of here.  Go on!" After I had walked fifty yards I glanced over my shoulder and was surprised that he had gathered his things amidst the cool shade and was walking away in the 100 degree heat.  He didn't want to remain in that spot.  It was now tainted by his ugly words, even if it was a cool quiet spot.

I stopped to watch him pass out of sight.  He was tall with a broad form, and wore black from his do-rag to shoes.  He looked like a great shadow passing though the land.  As I prayed I began to guess how he had come to be the man he was.  A broken home.  Abuse and neglect by one or both parents.  Physical abuse by the older boys, perhaps sexual abuse by a neighbor or relative.  Early drug use and petty criminality.  Racial discrimination.  High school drop-out. Juvenile hall.  Abuse of women.  Creeping depression.  Alienation from the workforce.  More intense drug and alcohol abuse.  Multiple stints in jail and prison.  Anxiety.  Increasing isolation.  Permanent homelessness.

I have known many men and women who have tread a similar path, but they have held onto their humor and compassion.  They have suffered greatly--at first by another's hand, and then later mostly through their own sins.  But this man was different.  He was burned up, consumed with rage.  He seemed keenly aware of his imposing presence; perhaps his power and might had always been his trump card, his refuge in life, but it had only left him increasingly isolated and now his strength had faded with age and substance abuse.

A Similar Life


I once knew another homeless black man who doubtless had a similar upbringing and adulthood, but chose gentleness and patience in his later years.  He was a slight man and could never have been tempted to rely on his physical prowess and presence.  In fact, he was the most fragile and forgettable creature imaginable.  Twenty-three years ago I was chained to him on a prison bus when I was shipped from one county jail to another.  It was only a ninety minute bus ride but I couldn't overcome a fierce drowsiness, and fell asleep right onto his shoulder.  Although I didn't know it at the time, it was God's grace that put me to sleep that day.  I had begun to fancy myself as better than the other inmates, and resented being chained to an old "wino".  I thought I was brighter, had committed more sophisticated crimes, and most of all, was more physically impressive and tough.  My personal gospel was strength and toughness in body and mind.  You see, I wasn't that different from the first man--the raging one.  But then I fell asleep like a baby on the little man.  When I awoke with a start, a gritty convict on the other side snorted and looked at me with amused contempt.  Real tough guy, sleeping on an old wino.  I looked at the small man and he politely gazed ahead with a peaceful smile.  Apparently a shoulder was a small thing to offer, and he was glad to give it if I needed a nap.  Every other man on the chain bus would have given me a rude awakening if I had dozed on them.  I watched the little man closely after that, trying to understand what made him tick.  I also wondered at the mysterious bout of sleepiness.  Maybe he wasn't so pathetic after all, and maybe I wasn't so tough.

Which Kingdom Do We Inhabit?


As we pass through life we are lured by two different kingdoms: the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Hell.  The first kingdom is the home for those who ultimately hunger after peace, compassion, faith, wonder, simplicity, and self-giving love; the other kingdom is the permanent dwelling place of malice, lust, self-assertion, self-protection and ultimately, perfect despair.  Some of us begin life in healthy families that reflect the kingdom of Heaven, and then we discover the power of wrath and the triumph of lust, and have a conversion (of sorts) to evil.  Other people begin life in a mad antechamber of hell, and follow the light of grace into Heaven.  There are rare people like the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux, who began in a heavenly family and remain there until a holy death, and there are those who are born into malice and disorder and drink it up until their death.

Most of us don't fully belong to either kingdom.  Holy people, those who have conformed their will to Christ, are rare, and so are those who put on the mind of devils.  Most of us resist being converted one way or the other: we accept a little faith but with a counter-dose of self-assertion; we move forward to love but with a reserve of self-protection; we enjoy peace and then yearn after the thrill latent in filthy things.  We know we don't want the wages of hell--that's obvious enough--but we don't really want Heaven either.  What we really want is a third kingdom: the glory of man, the kingdom of Now (so long as we don't have to get old or sick).  That kingdom, the Kingdom of Man, was once "nasty, brutish and short" (according to Hobbes, a 17th century philosopher), but with radical advances in medicine, hygiene, infrastructure, food production and distribution, mass production of cheap goods of all kinds, it's become increasingly more attractive. Now progressives in my neighborhood even have cartoonish bumper stickers that proclaim, "Life is good".  In past centuries people could only say in thanksgiving, "God is good", and there was nothing cartoonish about it.

Once when I was in wealthy Marin County outside of San Francisco, I was given a supernatural glimpse of the ascendant Kingdom of Man.  The sun was shining in early May as noon approached.  Everything had a subtle gleam: tank tops and yoga pants, the well-manicured sidewalks and bike paths, the shining faces of the young women, and the youthful confidence of the men.  Even the toys of the baby boomers sparkled: motorhomes, convertibles, Harleys and European racing bicycles.  But behind the gleam there was nothing; it was a mirage because it lacked the "one thing necessary".  There wasn't an ounce of real faith amongst the passers-by, and the life-giving presence of Christ was not wanted there.  The scene had appeared so glorious and promising--so different from the streets that our two homeless men had known--but it was actually an occasion of sorrow.  In fact, there was more glory in the humble heart of the old "wino", a petty thief who had suffered much, and had finally lost all conceit.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Holiness and Evangelization Proceed Along the Same Path: Part II

Several months after my conversion I attended a political theory workshop at the University of Michigan.  Professors and doctoral students would circulate their work amongst the group, and we would gather and discuss the papers.  Somehow the topic of the Immaculate Conception was raised, and the professors began to bat it around with amused indifference. I quickly became disconcerted as the discussion was shot through with errors.  The professors had assumed the Immaculate Conception referred to the birth of Jesus rather than the birth of Mary, along with a few other mistakes.  I intervened and subsequently learned two things from the exchange.  Firstly, that most educated secularists know very little about the Christian faith--whether points of dogma or even the heart of the faith.  Secondly, they view the faith as a mere artifact or historical curiosity, and a tedious one at that (unless sexuality or demons are discussed).  We may as well have been discussing ancient Babylonian gods and their temple rites.

It's worth reflecting on this episode because it captures the state of mind of many of the unchurched and lukewarm in the post-Christian West.  We are faced with evangelizing men and women who are apathetic and who are ignorant, and worst of all, they don't know that they are ignorant.  We can only overcome this lethargy by the grace of God, but what are the means to channel this grace?

One of the four attributes of God is beauty, and beauty has a way of cutting through our apathy and ignorance.  It overcomes lethargy because it's effects are rousing and unshakable; beauty simply commands our attention.  Beauty also overcomes ignorance because it reveals something--a truth is presented--while at the same time beauty resists being argued away.  Beauty just is, and it can't be denied.  In the novel The Idiot, Dostoevsky has the holy title character declare, "Beauty will save the world", and beauty has certainly brought many into the Church.  I quietly sing Gregorian chant in parts of my walk, and Patrick, a fellow who plans on joining the apostolate, likes the idea of reciting poetry in his bohemian neighborhood.  We would do well to restore and revivify Catholic art and architecture, reverent liturgies, processions, sacred music, poetry, prose and even some religious habits.


A large procession begins after Mass at the Sacra Liturgica conference in New York.
NY street-goers were very respectful and many were deeply moved.


But there is something even more unshakable than beauty, and that is holiness--the presence of God dwelling in and acting through one of his saints.  Blessed Charles de Foucauld had a way of radiating the presence of God while saying Holy Mass.  Many years after his death, officers and soldiers remembered with animation the way he said Mass--even though his chapel was like a "hovel".

Marshall Lyautey colorfully described his chapel as follows: "a miserable corridor with rush-covered columns.  For its altar, a plank!  For decoration it had a calico panel with a picture of Christ, and tin candlesticks!  Our feet were in the sand. Well!  I have never heard Mass said as Fr. de Foucauld said his.  I believed myself in the Thebaid [amongst the great desert Fathers].  It is one of the greatest impressions of my life."

Another soldier recalled, "What a Mass!  If you were never at his mass you don't know what Mass is.  When he said the Domine non sum dignus ['Lord I am not worthy...'] it was in such a tone that you wanted to weep with him."


Holy monks of the Thebaid


Blessed Charles, by the grace of God, was evangelizing at Holy Mass simply through his transparent holiness.  Just as beauty cannot be argued away, neither can peace and charity.  The soldiers and officers were often rough, coarse men--skeptical of the power of Christian virtues--but then they were struck with awe when they encountered the living peace and charity of Blessed Charles.  Many men who have lived their lives in the grip of the devil have been stopped in their tracks by the peace and love of Christ, shining through his saints.


Brother Juniper tames the tyrant in The Flowers of St. Francis

Holiness is the most potent force in the world, and what can convert tyrants and dissolute soldiers can also seize the souls of professors and distracted young men and women.  The true power of our religion isn't in talented people, strategies, massaging our message, improving our means of communication, but in holiness---for it is the power of God! If God is with us, who can be against us?  Our evangelization efforts will succeed to the extent that we conform our wills to Christ, and become a living witness.  It is really that simple.

St. Peter Chrysologus has a beautiful description of the path to holiness (Sermon 108):

Keep burning continually the sweet smelling incense of prayer.  Take up the sword of the Spirit.  Let your heart be an altar.  Then, with full confidence in God, present your body for sacrifice.  God desires not death, but faith; God thirsts not for blood, but for self-surrender; God is appeased not by slaughter, but by the offering of your free will.