Thursday, December 20, 2007

This is for me!

In March of 2006, Fr. Vincent came to give the first ever Fraternity Lent retreat for our small community. I was on ballet driving duty the day of the retreat, so I slipped into the room late, after Fr. Vincent had already been talking for about an hour. I think he was speaking about the movie, Mad Max, when I entered, I am not sure. In any case, the experience was, for me, one of walking into a room where people are discussing a movie I haven't seen. I picked up some familiar words, like "encounter," "drama," "hope," and "event." But when he was finished speaking, I wasn't certain I knew what he'd been talking about. There was a good question about the word "verify" and what we mean when we use it in Communion and Liberation. Father Vincent said something about how it seems almost blasphemous to us that we should test what God tells us, and we wouldn't have the nerve to do it except that God himself tells us to verify what he says: Jesus tells us to "Come and See," and the angels invite us to "Behold," and then there is the most dramatic moment when Jesus tells Thomas to place his hand into the marks of the nails and believe.

Then there was a time for silence and confessions, and I wandered over to the chapel to wait my turn to receive the Sacrament. A young woman was ahead of me in line, and she took twenty minutes of the hour that had been given for confessions. As I was waiting for her to come out, a young man came in. Evidently he didn't notice me because when the young woman came out, he slipped in behind her. Now another twenty minutes were going to be lost! As I was waiting for the young man to finish, two other men came in, both of whom were in the Fraternity and actively involved with CL. My first thought was, 'I should let them go ahead of me. This is their thing. I can always go to confession somewhere else.' I am always letting people go ahead of me; it is habitual for me, and the fact that I thought of letting them go ahead of me didn't surprise me. What did surprise me was the very next thought I had: 'No! This is for me!' Where did that come from? Why did I think that going to confession with this particular priest was "for me"? I was not in the Fraternity, and I would barely admit to being "in" CL. How did I dare to think, 'No! This is for me'?

Well, it was so surprising to me that I decided to follow it to see where it would lead. When the young man came out of the confessional, I did not let anyone go ahead of me. Instead, I marched right up to the door and let myself in.

The confession was a good one, but Fr. Vincent didn't say anything earth-shaking or astonishing. I didn't think that I had received any new insights into my sinfulness. He gave me advice that felt like penance, and penance that felt like advice, but other than that, it didn't feel like an unusual confession. I was left with the astonishing thought I'd had before going into confession.

We were supposed to host the convivenza at our house, after the retreat, but one of my daughters had mono that day, and we didn't want to expose anyone else to it. I brought a cake over to the new party location, stayed for just a short time, and then left to look after my sick daughter. As I was leaving, Fr. Vincent made a point of interrupting his conversation to thank me for bringing plastic bags to the party. That struck me as funny, given all the work that had gone into my cake. But okay, the retreat was over for me.

All of that happened on a Saturday. Then, on Monday morning I woke up with the thought, 'I want to join the Fraternity.' Here was another strange thought for me! My next thought was, 'Really?!' But since my mind didn't seem to care to elaborate or expand on the original thought, after a moment, I said to my husband, "I'm going to join the Fraternity." He was so startled, he didn't know what to say. For years he had been deeply involved with CL while I stayed on the sidelines, baking cakes, showing up late to things, and quibbling. Finally, he came out with, "I'll go get the form for you" and climbed out of bed. So then I said, "It's okay. You don't have to rush. I'm not going to change my mind." And that's how I came to join the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

So then when we heard that Fr. Vincent would be giving a series of parish missions at five churches in Pittsburgh (which is about an hour from where we live) that summer, I very much wanted to see him again and hear him preach. I wanted to know just what it was about him that had started this chain of surprising reactions within me.

I loved the homilies he gave at the various parishes he visited, and I loved the time we spent with him after Mass, when we went out for dinner with him, or out for a picnic with him. As I spent more time with him, it began to make sense to me that he would have opened up a new view of CL for me. The most striking thing about him, or one of the most striking things, was the way in which he paid attention to whomever was in front of him. He really listens to people and really responds to what they say. He also has amazing experiences to relate -- about his childhood, about his vocation, and about his travels. And he never stops talking about Jesus. I remember one time, while listening to him speak, thinking that I wished that I could be a priest, just so that I could have an excuse to talk about Jesus all the time, and nothing else.

Well, during his second-to-last visit to Pittsburgh, I screwed up my courage and told him I would like to ask him for something. He immediately said, "Yes, anything." That made me laugh, because he could have no idea what I would be asking for! So, I told him that I wanted to invite him to our house for dinner. Would that be possible? He said that it was possible, and that we could do it during his next visit to Pittsburgh. I was so excited! I love to cook for the people I care for, and I began planning for this wonderful meal I would serve him. I had several basil plants I had been growing all summer, from seeds. I planned to harvest them and make a monster batch of pesto.

As we got closer to the date, I called Fr. Vincent to see whether he wanted the dinner to be small, just my family, or whether he wanted me to invite anyone else from the community. He told me to invite everyone, because he never wants to say no to Jesus. So, we put the word out and made a plan for everyone to go first to Mass at the parish where he would be preaching and then come for lunch at our house afterwards (dinner would be too late). The week leading up to the lunch, I made many preparations, including baking a massive cake on that Friday evening -- one that could serve all the people who would be coming. Then two of my friends came with me on Saturday evening to attend the vigil Mass at the parish where Fr. Vincent would be preaching.

Well, during the homily, Fr. Vincent revealed that Pope Benedict XVI had called for a day of prayer and penance, to be observed on the following day, Sunday, to pray for peace in the Middle East. He explained why this fact was particularly significant to him, because he would be moving, within the week, to Bethlehem in Israel to begin a new missionary work in the Left Bank. He told everyone in the church that he would be fasting during the next day, and he asked us to join him. As my friends and I were leaving the church, I went to embrace him, and then I asked him if this meant that he wouldn't be eating any of my cake. How kindly he told me no, that he would be eating nothing but bread and water during the next day!

What a blow! As we climbed back into the car, I felt stunned. It took me a while to find my key and another long while to figure out how to get it into the ignition. I found it very difficult even to process this new information. It was very good to have my friends there with me. I think that all three of us were completely flummoxed. As we drove home, I kept thinking of ways in which the cake could be salvaged. My mind simply couldn't wrap itself around the idea that we would not be having our feast together. The conversation turned to questions of etiquette, even the theological nuances of fasting. On the way, we stopped to buy fifteen loaves of my favorite bread and a case of bottled water. Then I dropped one friend off at her home, and while I was dropping the other one at her place, the first friend told her husband what had happened. The husband called my husband, and by the time I had returned home, my husband had all the details, such as they were. So, shortly after I arrived home, I heard his verdict -- of course the feast was off. Though I'd had more time to process all that had happened, I still had not come to that conclusion, and so this "final word" on my feast struck me as unjust. But, as the two men reasoned, if the pope had said to pray and fast on that day, then there was really no choice. It seemed to me that I had been planning and anticipating my party since well before the pope had capriciously chosen the same date for this observation. One friend, a young woman who was staying with us at the time, pointed out that the Church never asks us to fast on a Sunday...But then my husband said, if the pope wants to, he doesn't have to follow any such rule. I listened to the back and forth and had nothing to contribute. All I really wanted to do was cry and write protest letters to the Vatican.

After everyone went to bed, I was able to finally have my good cry. The thing that disturbed me most was how upset I was about the whole thing. Was I just the Great Gatsby, living for the thrill of throwing big parties, and doing it all for the wrong reasons? Why was I so unable to bend my will to the will of the pope? Why was this so hard for me? I even stayed up late to watch the movie version of The Great Gatsby, to try to find an answer. That was a wise move, because after viewing the film, I felt certain that I am not the Great Gatsby. Then, at four in the morning, I finally came to a moment of clarity: the whole point of this party is to show love to Fr. Vincent. If this is the way he wants to be loved, then this is how we will love him, by eating bread and water with him. That thought brought me enough peace to finally stop crying and get a little sleep.

In the morning, I revised my menu. Of course, the bulk of what I would offer would be those fifteen loaves of bread and the case of bottled water. But since children and the elderly and anyone whose health is fragile are not obliged to fast, I would offer some other foods as well -- peanut butter and cheese to go with the bread, a small bowl of pasta with a little pesto on it, and some milk and juice. Then my friend's husband called to tell my husband that they had gone online and discovered that the pope had called for "prayer and penance" and had never mentioned "fasting." They said that it was wrong to force all these other people to fast, when the pope had never called for it. Thus, we should go ahead with the feast as planned! Now it was my turn to say no, that I would only be serving bread and water plus some other foods for those who can't fast, and explained the conclusion I'd come to at four in the morning -- that the party is in Fr. Vincent's honor and this would be the way we could love him. My stubbornness caused a heated dispute that was only resolved (or at least ended) when I reminded everyone involved that it was my party.

So, the guests arrived, and some of them grumbled. They were accustomed to being feasted at my house, and this very different experience wasn't nearly so pleasant. But when I asked Fr. Vincent to come into the dining room to bless the food, he was delighted to see what was on the table. And then, because there was no food to exclaim over, we all crowded into the living room, where Fr. Vincent regaled us with his stories and listened to ours.

I still remember all the things we talked about and how important each thing was for my life. One of his stories ended with the beautiful line, "Christ comes through assholes like us." Another conversation ended with the observation that in order to convert others, we must be willing to go to their living rooms. One sad story concluded with the observation that unless we let Christ embrace all of ourselves, we can get lost and discouraged and fall away.

We sent him on his way to Israel that afternoon with a loaf of bread tucked under each arm. I remember feeling frustrated as I watched him go -- I had wanted to do something for him, to give him a gift, and yet again, he had given me everything, so much more than I even knew I needed.

What did he give? He brought with him, everywhere I have ever met him, the presence of Christ. It is true that Christ comes through schmucks like us (I can't bring myself to use his colorful language except when directly quoting him!), but for me to be able to see this fact, I first had to see Christ in this one very exceptional priest, who made this fact so undeniably evident to me that I couldn't ignore it. It is not just that he embodied Christ for me -- even more importantly, he saw Christ in all the ordinary people around me, so that by following his gaze, I could see Who he was seeing! And this is why I joined the Fraternity and why I give myself to it with my whole heart.

1 comment:

clairity said...

A beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."