Friday, June 3, 2011

The People You Meet on the Street . . .

I stepped out of the coffee shop at 11:15 and there he was. I had not seen DB in 25 years, since he left a business in which we were both involved. Three hours later, on a Friday when I had so much to do, we were still talking in my office across the street, because we are old friends, and especially because we are both Catholics.

DB was born and raised Jewish, I was a teenage Episcopal altar boy. Then the late 1960s hit us both with their countercultural tsunami of alternative, esoteric spiritual practices mixed with pacifism, environmentalism, feminism, and whateverism. By the time we parted company in the mid-1980s, we had both caught our breaths long enough to question the particular esoteric variant with which we had engaged. By then we both had married cradle Catholics, but neither of us converted in the years to come because of our wife’s faith. Our conversions were personal.

DB told me today that his experience of Catholicism has been flavored by Cursillo and by a LaSalette community. Mine has been shaped by another C, another L: Communion and Liberation. Although we didn’t go there, our politics are probably just as distinct, if not actually opposed. I say this because I have moved to the right of just about everyone I held dear 25 years ago and I gather that DB has not moved with me. Some have tolerated this move of mine better than others. It is less an ideological move than an act of loyalty to the Church and its teachings, without which I’m quite sure I would be lost today.

I am still trying to make sense of meeting DB today. How did it impact me at the moment? What message, if any, were our respective better angels sending us?

There were several points on which we agreed. In our youth, in the heyday of Eastern spirituality in America, of zen and the Sufis and Gurdjieff and Baba Whatwashisname, each of us believed in a sort of gnosticism, through which only the real insiders came to know God. Most of the paths, ways, and cults that grew out of the 1960s—and let’s not forget Jonestown—offered a new and improved discipline, a righter way of thinking and being. I once looked at ordinary folks filing into church on a Sunday morning and thought that I was somehow above them. Now I am one of them.

As I told my old friend, I used to think that the yogi in a cave was the model of enlightenment. Now, I think that honor should go to the 85-year-old man who kneels in the front pew of our church by 6:30 every morning, saying simple prayers that other common people have said for 2,000 years. Second place could easily go to the man with Down syndrome who prays in our parish church on Saturdays from 7 a.m. until the end of 4 p.m. Mass, without stopping for lunch. If it works for the Communion of Saints, how am I so smart that it will not work for me? DB seemed to agree with me, saying that he too had found the remarkable in the ordinary, profound goodness in just plain folks.

As we spoke, several layers of mutual misunderstanding were peeled away. I will not say that we will be fast friends from here on (he lives in another town, in another life), but I can say that I now see him differently than I did 24 hours ago. Over time we build up terrible preconceptions and misunderstandings about each other. Some tattered friendships may need a 25-year-old absence to have any chance of restoration. But when my friend said that the charism of LaSalette is “reconciliation,” I saw an all-encompassing theme for our encounter. My questions to him from then on were invitations to reconciliation, to a mutual reconsidering of false ideas and mis-takes.

Sharing the Catholic faith makes such reconciliation more likely. As we talked, I might not have read every nuance of his recollections and comments, but I could trust that his eyes were focused in the same general direction as mine—not at people, places, and things, but at Something that encompasses all of these. My eyes glazed over a bit when he began talking about Teilhard de Chardin and “ecotheologian” Fr. Tom Berry. But then he might have felt very much the same when I spoke of Fathers Luigi Giussani and Julián Carrón, the founder of CL and his successor. There is this about ecumenism that we should not ever forget. As Catholics—heck, as practicing Christians—we have so much in common. We should not let the duel of charism or ideology turn our gaze away from What Is In Our Midst.

Finally, what struck me about my encounter with DB was how easy it was, how natural and joyful. The circumstances of our parting 25 years ago were vexed; when we said good-bye then, a whole group of people was embroiled in mutual misunderstanding, not the two of us alone. There easily might have been recriminations, at least from me, at our reunion today. But reconciliation was both the theme of the day and its end result. Alone, we might not have arrived at this satisfying conclusion.

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