Saturday, August 5, 2017

God Is Strange And Funny

At the inaugural mass of the Sacred Liturgy Conference, I was overcome with a sweet zeal to evangelize the streets, especially amongst the most neglected.  I felt I had to begin as soon as possible, starting with the streets of Medford in the downtown park.  The desire was so pure and otherworldly, that it was a taste of the Holy Charity that St. Francis reverently spoke of.  Or perhaps it was like the call of the priests who joined the foreign missions.  Yet I never did walk the streets of Medford, nor was it God's plan that I do so.  Then when I returned from the conference I brought back bed bugs with me. Then I vomited a gallon of water and bile from my bad stomach.  For the next three weeks I hardly evangelized as I battled acid reflux (made worse by two GI surgeries from ten years ago) and various family commitments.

What a strange series of events.  Jesus had incited me with a holy invitation to walk after him, and then took it away. What a tease!  I suppose he did the same to the Little Flower and many other saints, kindling a passion for the missions and then inviting them to find His peace at home.  Perhaps that's why the Little Flower is always smiling, a jokester like her Heavenly Father.  Whenever I see her statue in The Grotto chapel I have to suppress laughs, and the thought of her always makes me smile.

St. Therese was not syrupy and sentimental, but very funny.

The unpredictability of God, and the myriad ways in which he humbles us and reworks us should elicit our humor.  From our perspective--with our limited knowledge--God is often bizarre.  He has unlimited power, and yet stays out of sight letting our mad world run it's course.  He lets the "good and the great" (politicians, academics, scientists, artists, celebrities, financiers, tech tycoons) defame Him and his holy ways, and yet He preserves His silence.  He prefers to work through nobodies, and even the most wretched.  The Twelve Apostles were essentially regular guys except John, whose brilliance was obscured by his youth.  Only the Apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul, was the greatest student of the greatest rabbi (Gamaliel).  I have written here and here how God used an ex-con drug dealer and a drunk to "school me" in my spiritual life.  God is strange like that.

The saints are strange because they are conformed to Christ.  Recently there has been a movement to emphasize the ordinariness of the saints.  That is to be expected in a democratic age where all distinctions are leveled out.  But the saints are not ordinary, and in Heaven they will be glorified far beyond us, and yet they will be our intimate brothers and sisters.  The saints were extraordinary because they felt naked without their cross, because they recoiled from praise, because they were gratified by criticism and trials.  That is about the furthest thing from ordinary!  St. Crispin of Viterbo, a holy Capuchin brother, thanked God for a cranky nun who always abused him with words.  Everyone else in Orvieto and beyond revered him, including popes and bishops, but he wanted none of that.  He would say of the nun, "Praise God that there is one woman in Orvieto who knows me and treats me as I deserve."

The saints didn't mind being humiliated, and the first Franciscans even sought out opportunities to be humiliated.  Saints are mindful of their faults and often play them up and keep their weakness ever before them.  By contrast, we go through life like it is a job interview.  We hide and downplay our weaknesses, and perhaps even lie about them.  Meanwhile, we exaggerate our strengths and talents and present ourselves as competent and in-charge.  But that's no way to get anywhere in the spiritual life, and it's a farce to our God who sees right through us.  It is better to be forthright and laugh about our child-like dependence on God.  We are dependent, whether we know it or not!

My favorite Jesuit, Fr. Hugh Thwaites SJ was once crossing the Channel on a boat with priests to lead a retreat.  It was time to turn in for the night, and Fr. Thwaites went one way and the priests went another.  Two of the priests took to joking about Fr. Thwaites in their cabin, and the ribbing went on for over an hour.  They mimicked his lilting voice, and joked about his mannerisms and the way he'd spent large sums of money to give out rosaries in grungy Brixton.  Unbeknownst to the priests, Father Thwaites lay in his own cabin just to the back of their cabin, serenely listening to every word.  The following morning Fr. Thwaites's cabin-mate tore into the two priests and they went shame-faced to confession with the one they had mocked (though they mostly mocked in good humor).  Fr. Thwaites listened to the confessions with perfect disinterest and remarked, "Well, I suppose I am a bit silly."

Fr. Thwaites SJ, a silly soldier for Christ

Recently someone whom I respect but have never met characterized me in conversation as "The guy who made his own habit".  Ouch!  It was a wry remark, and who knows if it was intended as a criticism.  My immediate reaction was to defend the tunic we wear because it is not a habit and it is indispensable to the ministry.  We only mix in the worst places and can talk to prostitutes any hour of the day because we are obviously not participants in whatever criminal activity is around us. It is not a habit, but a uniform solely for evangelization.  It simply announces who we are: a public sign of the Church and an apostle of Christ's love. Once my zeal cooled I came to see the remark as funny and useful.  It is ridiculous to make a tunic and wear it about town.  Once at Drinks With Dominicans (Theology On Tap), I gave a short speech about the apostolate, hoping to recruit other men. When I held up my tunic Fr. Stephen Maria Lopez OP jumped in his seat with his eyes in dismay.  The tunic seemed longer than it actually is since it wasn't worn across my large frame, and Fr. Lopez saw it as an imitation "habit".  Fr. Kelber, the prior at Holy Rosary, immediately placed his hand on Fr. Lopez's hand and gave a quick shake of the head for him not to interfere.  I've since wondered at the immediate conviction of Fr. Kelber, especially since he would be the first priest to stop laymen from confusing clerical roles.  It had to be a work of grace.  In any event, I now joke about myself as "the guy who made his own habit."

We have fun on the streets in our ridiculous way.  I recently pulled a prank on some "beautiful people" who were being a bit too cute about our rolling cooler with the "Free Drinks" sign.  They sat in their car waiting for the light to turn, and kept interrupting my conversation with Sheila, an emaciated meth addict.  Sheila was telling me about the Morning Offering prayer that she and her friend Joe make, while the "beautiful people" mock-pleaded, "Can I have a free drink?  Can I have a free drink?" Finally I said, "You don't need any of our drinks, you're all dressed up and in an air-conditioned car."  They whined, "Oh c'mon, c'mon" clearly feeling superior to us fools in tunics.  Then I flatly declared "Are you going to The Grotto for a wedding." They turned white in shock, stammering, "How did you know that?  How could you know that?"  I triumphantly bellowed, "Because I'm a PROPHET brother!"  Then they sped off, still in dismay.  God had shaken them up and given them something to think about. He was having a bit of fun with them.  Obviously I'm not a prophet, but I only made an educated guess based on seeing other "beautiful people" at The Grotto setting up for a wedding.

Later in the day we walked into Burgerville to get some food for us and our homeless friends.  A young cashier stood at the back counter with her manager, and gave us an icky look of disapproval.  She said, "I'll let YOU, wait on THEM."  The middle-aged female manager came up to the counter, weathered beyond her years, probably once homeless or an addict.  I cheerfully stepped forward and asked, "Do you serve freaks here?"  She laughed, and replied, "I hope so.  Half my employees are freaks."  The young cashier looked non-plussed with her pink hair and skin covered in tattoos.

Perhaps my favorite moment at the Sacred Liturgy Conference was sitting at a table with Meagan and Marie Barzen shortly before it was time to drive back to Portland.  We all surrendered to infectious laughter, marveling at what pathetic lives God has given us, yet He has left us so greatly blessed.  We each spend our precious free time amongst the most miserable people around: women going into Planned Parenthood, amidst homeless and prostitutes, sometimes in abandoned drug houses.  Yet we are exactly where we should be.  It is bizarre, and the bizarre often makes us laugh, especially when it is accompanied by a deep realization that we stand on solid ground.  We have joy because we are in Christ, and nothing else matters save our own cooperation with the Father's plan.

No comments:

Post a Comment