April 2, 2012

In Praise of Shallow Praise

(I know I promised a post on the lovely and mysterious Mary of Bethany, but another reflection came to me on my walk to the Poor Clares this morning. I'll get to Mary. Along with Mary Magdalene and the woman with the hemorrhages, she's one of my great models of prayer from the gospels.)

Holy Week always gets me thinking of and grateful for the itinerancy of my Christian life. I think of all the places I've been for Easter Vigils over the years. On my walk to the nuns' this morning I was just reflecting back through all of these and praying for the various communities, places, and parishes. But my attention stopped on one Holy Saturday in particular. It was twenty years ago on April 18, 1992, toward the end of the second semester of my sophomore year of college, and the last Holy Saturday before I became a Catholic.

For his own purposes, God leaves me with a pretty vivid memory of that night. When I think of it, it reminds me how shallow my conversion really was, and how defective my intentions. Not that recalling this should be an occasion for self-pity, even when I notice how shallow and defective it all remains to this day--such is the devil's agenda!--but rather a moment to recall my own poverty and the God who calls us in his love for our souls and not on account of our being worthy or even interesting.

It had been a pretty drunken semester. My girlfriend, who was one of those well-behaved sort of girls, was away in Florence for the semester studying art, and I was thus liberated from her moderating influence. My friends and I were settling into the identity of philosophy majors, and were quite convinced that we were as smart as could be. It was all a lot of fun. Toward the end of the semester, and certainly by Easter, I had more or less decided that I wanted to become a Catholic. Soon I would tell the priest who was on campus two afternoons a week of my decision. He would give me a note of introduction to the local pastor. It was Ascension Thursday when I went. The pastor handed me over to the permanent deacon, who would give me my 'convert instructions' and then baptize me at the end of that summer. Yes, I came into the Church like converts did before the restoration of the catechumenate and the RCIA. Like St. Paul, I was born out of order. But all of that was 'not yet' just a few weeks before on Holy Saturday.

I remember that there were posters around campus listing the various Holy Week services. They were white with the lettering in purple. I studied the notice, but it didn't occur to me to make plans to attend anything. It was not something I 'had to do' yet. This idea I had of becoming a Catholic Christian; it was mostly in my head. It was concepts. It wasn't yet prayer and it certainly wasn't anything related to a praying community. But God was there, calling me. In his self-emptying he wills to make a throne out of even our inadequate ideas of him. That's the mystery of the Cross as it comes to live in our wills. God is willing to die in our defective and incomplete religion in order to deliver us to the pure faith of prayer.

On Holy Saturday night, the Elect were all around me, all over the world, receiving the sacramental initiation for which I also hoped. But I wasn't there praying with them. Even though I had vaingloriously begun to call myself a catechumen, it didn't even occur to me to attend an Easter Vigil. Instead, I was drinking with my friends. I was at a show of campus bands and having a great time. In the moshing I jammed one of my thumbs. I think I probably broke it a little bit. It hurt for a long time. It was well past midnight when the music was over and I found myself alone. I was hungry. So I walked off campus, crossed Route 32, and went to the glorious mess of alternativity that was Abbey House, the cooperative living dormitory. I cooked a hamburger in their kitchen, thinking that it was late enough at night not to be caught in the theft.

By the time I got back to campus and my own dormitory, Smith, it was going on four o'clock. Noticing one of the Holy Week posters on the walk back, I saw again that there was to be a Protestant service at sunrise. Since I was already up, I thought, I may as well go. After all, I was going to be a Christian, and so Easter ought to mean something. Arriving on the grass outside the chapel I met the Protestants. I got to talking with one student I knew because she had once tried to start a relationship by asking me to help her with her linear algebra homework. She was telling me about how she had been dreaming about the Resurrection when her alarm went off and she joked and said something like, 'Get out of the way Jesus, I have to turn off the alarm clock.' I remember thinking that she was corny. When I think of that, I am ashamed.

I sang and prayed with them. When a cup of wine was passed around, I had a hard time holding it because of my injured thumb. It's so funny to think of that twenty years later, when I daily gasp chalices of the Precious Blood without using my thumbs at all, como Dios manda. The back of the worship aid had a stylized image of the women at the tomb with a triple alleluia written below them. I cut it out and put it on my dorm room door.

After the service I didn't stay for the collation that followed. To be honest, I don't remember anything after that. I suppose I went back to my room and went to sleep for a little while, until my friends were ready for that great ritual of hungover grease and caffeine ingestion, the Sunday brunch at Harris refectory.

The Lord calls to us just where we are. He is willing to suffer in our shallow praise and defective intentions in order to save us from them. That's the sublime humility of the Cross, the humble sublimity of his Presence in the Eucharist. His power is revealed in our weakness. In that spirit, I boast of my shallow and defective conversion.

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