Thursday, November 17, 2016

Those Who Keep The World Turning, Part I

The great mystics have said many enigmatic things over the centuries.  My favorite quote comes from the 7th or 8th century from a North African saint (unfortunately I can't recall his name).  By that time Western Civilization had collapsed, and Islam was subduing once Christian peoples through violent jihad.  The North African saint, a wandering John the Baptist type, baldly declared,  "It is only by my supplications and those of [another holy hermit] that the world has not been destroyed."  In other words, like Sodom and Gomorrah, the world would be spared if only a few righteous men could be found.

I've thought about this quote many times in the past year as four of the best Christians I've known have passed on.  First there was Rosie Vlcek, a spunky nurse who worked with my mom and was a stalwart with 40 Days for Life.  She had a giant heart and an innocent's courage, standing up to injustice in the face of long odds (whether against troubling new workplace rules or social problems).  She died unexpectedly.  God also suddenly took Nancy Curcio.  She had been a religious sister for ten years before entering secular life and teaching at the local Cathedral School.  She later married but was not graced with children.  Nancy helped oversee the 24 hour adoration chapel,  and steeped her life in spiritual reading and private devotions.  Nancy's smile and presence were a testimony to the existence of her Creator.  She had something so few people have.  Jim Germann, who passed a few days ago, once reverently pointed her out to me to say, "Now there is a real Catholic lady."  Then he just smiled and took in the sight of her.  Jim and I did biweekly runs to the Oregon Food Bank for five years for our St. Vincent De Paul chapter before he was sidelined by cancer.  He would lug forty pound bags of rice (against my protestations) even at the age of 90!  Jim was country strong, raised on a farm in the Dakotas, and spent his life stocking groceries.  When I visited him a few weeks ago he came to the door himself, tidily dressed, and his face seemed to glow.  He was half here and half in Heaven, in a strange twilight before becoming one with the Father through the Son.  By contrast, I recently visited an elderly relative who has led a life of greed, selfishness and malice.  He looked and acted like Gollum.  We all die as we have lived.

My late mother, Pamela Loogman, shared many things in common with the other dearly departed.  All of them were without guile; they did not have their own agenda.  They were simple and straightforward in a complex and crooked world. Each of them had to suffer, and often it was their children that rent their hearts.  My Mom suffered through so many things, and like the others, she never lost her joy.  She was kept aloft by "the peace that surpasses all understanding".  As I've thumbed through her photo albums, seeing her grow up on a dairy, surrounded by younger siblings and cousins, I've often thought, "This sweet, hard-working girl has no idea of the sufferings ahead."  But God gave her the grace of a happy childhood and the grace of faith so she could endure and win hearts amidst the cruel dysfunctions to follow.  She grew up wanting to give herself completely as a religious sister, but her mother wouldn't have it.  But she still fulfilled her vocation, living so as to offer herself "as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God" (Romans 12:1) for her children, husband and hospital patients.

My Mom and her parents after graduation from nursing school

As these true Christians have passed on, I've often  wondered at God's plan.  Who will replace them? Is he taking them because he wants to spare them from a coming chastisement?  But I quickly quash that last thought.  Ours will be a long defeat without any great fireworks.  The important point is that Jesus has asked all of us to replace them.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Makings of a Saint?

I took up this apostolate three years ago, on All Saints Day of 2013, though it feels more like seven years ago than three. There have been so many struggles, so much adventure and unexpected encounters that it's hard to fathom that so little time has passed.  In the beginning I grudgingly endured the ministry (why couldn't God have called me to a quiet life of study and writing!?!), but now it's a joy in my life.  By contrast, Chris dove in from the beginning, but he likes to jump into the fire with both feet forward.

In nearly three years of walking, the most intriguing person I've encountered is a fiercly intelligent agnostic with the Space Age name of 'Eon'.  While Eon's parents were back-to-the-earth hippies (hence the unusual name), Eon was like a character out of a science fiction novel.  He's a Man in Black, or maybe a Blade Runner.  In fact, he's a Behavioral Threat Assessment Specialist at the Department of Homeland Security (you can't make this stuff up).  The first thing Eon did upon greeting Chris and I along NE 82nd was to tell us all about our own apostolate, based on his observations (e.g., "So you guys are walking a beat.  This street is your spiritual beat?").  I stood there dumbfounded, pointing a finger as at a spectacle, and said to Chris, "Can you believe this guy?  He's amazing!"  Eon was like a cosmic gumshoe, Dick Tracy but sucking on a vape instead of a cigarette.  He could accurately read people and situations like some of the wise convicts I'd known, and like them, he was a natural psychologist.

Eon also knew more about the Middle Ages than 99% of Catholics.  We talked of traditional Church customs and especially of the mendicant orders and the mysterious figure of St. Francis.  Eon was intrigued by St. Francis because he detested tame religion, a faith that has been seduced by comfort and self-satisfaction.  I remembered Georges Bernanos's denunciations of "bourgeois catholicism" and voiced my support.  He complimented us on our apostolate, saying that he had driven past us on a few occasions before he decided we must be worth talking to.  We hadn't lost our zeal anyway.  For Eon, life was nothing if not a radical commitment.  He talked about his commitment to an austere simplicity, and why he gives his lunch to homeless people or takes them out to eat.  He spoke with the rare combination of radicalism and personal warmth.  I listened with fascination and finally said, "Why you're more Catholic than me!  You'd make a great Christian!"

He was puzzled and so I explained.  I had been reading a book, Pillar of Fire by Karl Stern, the conversion story of a well-known Jewish psychologist.  The book includes a long letter to his brother, an atheist Jew living on a kibbutz in Israel. The brother lives an austere life, communally farming the arid soil of Israel. The brother burns with justice, discipline and a pure life of the mind.  At one point he even pens a later to his psychologist brother while perched on the summit of Mt. Carmel.  Karl replies to his unbelieving brother. "You live, apparently on the basis of an a-religious philosophy, a life which corresponds to what my religion teaches me.  I, on the other hand, live in a [bourgeois] setting" with "a car and life insurance", a professor at Columbia University, no less.  Karl Stern marvels at the paradox, which is now present before us in the person of Eon.  Eon was probably more ascetic than us even though he lacked the religious reasons to be!

After we charitably parted ways, I breathlessly exclaimed to Chris, "Eon doesn't know it, but he is one tiny step from conversion.  He would make a great Christian, maybe even a saint!"  
"Do you really think so?"
"Yes!  He's already more Catholic than the people at your old parish, St. XXXX" (name redacted to protect the guilty).
"Yeah. that's true,"
God's already laid all the groundwork.  Eon's got an eros for truth, a spirit of sacrifice, he's got zeal in spades, and he likes to mix with the poor.  Let's pray he's given the grace of faith.  Maybe one day he'll join us!  He'd be tremendous." And so we prayed that in God's time, Eon would fall on his knees and pray.

Dear readers, please pray for Eon's conversion!