Saturday, July 9, 2011

Coming Down from the Catskills

As we drove home to eastern Massachusetts Thursday afternoon from the CL Family Vacation in the Catskills, Thad went over his notes in the front seat beside me while in the rear view mirror I watched Carol napping with a catlike contentment and Francesco gazing out the window at the Berkshires, which are to him what the Apennines would be to me. I kept the car on the road with the help of Eva Cassidy and Kate Rusby CDs. It was an hour of fulfillment. I imagined many other such scenes playing out in dozens of cars fanning in the direction of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, as more than 300 participants headed home.

I had attended one CL Vacation before this, the 2009 edition at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, a dreamy first encounter with the Movement on a regional level, one that I remember like a kid would a first visit to a Catholic theme park. Food, song, fellowship, fun! This year’s experience was of another order entirely, another intensity. For me, it began with a long build-up toward my presentation on Walt Whitman Monday evening, which I have already described.

Only then, on Tuesday, did the Vacation truly begin. That’s when the Long Hike was capped off by the arrival of Father Julián Carrón (pictured above) at suppertime. This month the world leader of Communion and Liberation is making a tour of U.S. communities, accompanied by national CL responsible Chris Bacich. Our Northeast Vacation was their first stop.

Here are a few lingering impressions and judgments from the four-day Vacation. 

Many of us had the privilege of being introduced personally to Father Carrón. I’m sure others had the same impression I did when I talked with him briefly over breakfast on Wednesday: His presence is exceptionally warm and his gaze direct. I was aware that this presence and gaze had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Whether I was important or insignificant, whether I said something brilliant or stupid, he would have looked at me this way. In this sense, and it is a sense very real to me, his was the gaze of Christ.

In the Movement, we hear much talk of being a “protagonist.” After I made my presentation on Walt Whitman on Monday evening, a CL veteran told me I was becoming a “real protagonist.” But Father Carrón said something different. He said to us in the assembly on Thursday morning that Christ is the only real protagonist in our lives. All we can do is go to meet Him.

As Catholics, we also hear much talk of “life.” Life is at the heart of our doctrine. Life is central to Catholic ideology. But life, like faith, must be an experience. At the Vacation, I was plunged into a community of over 300 people, a majority of whom came as families. There were adults and children, very old people and unborn ones. As I noted previously, there were at least five children with Down syndrome. This was life—not just life without abortion or contraception (issues that we associate ideologically with life), but life in the faith, a faith lived, proving itself in the human face of this community. This was an indelibly beautiful experience for me, one that no circumstances can shake loose. Here life became a certainty.

My first frizzi was a disappointment. The frizzi is a CL Vacation tradition, a series of final-night parodies of the people and events of the preceding days. Having put my ass very much on the line with my 30 minutes on Walt Whitman, I expected serious fun to be made of me. The presentation was parodied but instead of going after WB the two men who performed the frizzi made fun of WW, especially of Whitman’s homosexuality, a subject I never made explicit. It is true: If Walt Whitman were alive today, he undoubtedly would play Santa Claus in New York’s gay pride parade. But I focused on Whitman’s status as the great American poet and with the help of friends in the Movement, I told the story of his life with recitations from several of his works. Maybe the producers of the frizzi decided to go easy on me, but I was inclined to shout out, “Is that all you got?!” Instead, I just laughed aloud with everyone else. It was great fun.

I think that Father Carrón went easy on us too, when it came time for the Thursday morning assembly. I talked with others who, like me, have been following his School of Community notes from Milan, which have been such a help to us at the local level. In his home SoC, Carrón is not shy about telling people to shut up and sit down. Some of us shuddered to think that he might give us the same treatment. Here, however, at the Hudson Valley Resort, he gave each of us eight or ten people who spoke the same gaze he had given me at the breakfast table, as though each of us had said something brilliant, or stupid.

At that assembly, I spoke about my experience of presenting the Whitman piece, especially of my interactions with national CL leaders before the presentation and of a particular encounter made later, as a result of the presentation. But the moment at the assembly that most stuck with me was when Chris Bacich intervened with a question from his own professional life.

Chris is a high school history teacher, and like most good teachers, he enters the classroom every day with a plan—how he thinks things should go. Things never go this way, there are always surprises, and in these surprises, Chris said, he is aware that the Mystery is speaking to him and others. Yet he continues to plan and he continues to be disappointed when his plans misfire! This seemed to me a very good example of any habit we wish we could break. Our culture tells us to break such habits—through seven steps or twelve, through self-help or therapy or diet or something we do.

Father Carrón brushed this thought aside. The habit, he said, if I understood him correctly, is not important. What is important is our remaining available to the Mystery. We make a plan, then we remember to be open. The plan fails, and again we remember to be available. Again, again, again. This is the journey of faith, a continual prayer for openness, a prayer for the Mystery to penetrate our lives, not to mention our thick skulls.

Because the Incarnation is not just a historical event that came and went 2,000 years ago. It is happening today, in the history classroom. It is happening every time I open my laptop to write another post.


  1. "I was aware that this presence and gaze had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Whether I was important or insignificant, whether I said something brilliant or stupid, he would have looked at me this way"

    If it had nothing to do with you then why did it matter? Sounds like the look of a self-help guru...

  2. Webster: Thank you for documenting the Vacation. I must say I am bothered folks would parody Whitman's sexuality, especially since you didn't even mention it in your presentation. That does not seem to respect his dignity as a human. I would have been very very uncomfortable with this. Your thoughts? Maybe I am misunderstanding what you said...

  3. heh. Sounds like they noticed you avoiding Whitman's sexuality...

  4. Already three interesting comments from friends! Let's start with Vincent.

    Self-help guru? Just the opposite. A self-help guru, at least the ones I've known and followed, want only to entrap or control you. Carron's gaze is free, for the oldest Memor Domini as for the youngest GS student. I felt myself entering the conversation with him filled with my own ego and self-importance and quickly realized that these were irrelevant: I had "nothing to do with it" is what I meant, friend Vincent.

  5. OK, Fred and Allison: Whitman's homosexuality.

    First, Fred, I intended to mention this -- as well as his anti-Catholicism -- but one of the organizers who talked with me beforehand asked whether this was relevant. I agreed that it wasn't relevant to my fundamental judgments about Whitman, which concerned how his humanity expressed itself differently before and after the Civil War (from "Song of the Open Road" to "Prayer of Columbus"). It's my understanding that Don Giussani made reference to Pier Paolo Pasolini. Did he mention the fact that Pasolini liked boys? Was that an "avoidance"?

    Allison: I agree with you. I think the parody would have been better if it had made fun of the event that had occurred (the presentation by me and six friends) instead of pulling Whitman out of the closet and mocking him.

    But the frizzi is an equal-opportunity mockathon, so I guess the sexual preferences of a historical person are as fair game as any. We are living in the 21st century, when sexual preference seems to be as value-neutral as hair color, at least according to the common mentality.

    Should the parodists have represented a different mentality? Perhaps yes.

  6. I guess we have different associations and experiences with "self-help" and in truth I have never met a self professed 'self help guru'. I wouldn't expect them to engage with me. Anyway the way you characterize him disturbs me. Christ did not / would not treat everyone the same. He would be interested in you, see all your goodness and all your faults, and would directly respond to your deepest need. In short you would matter a great deal, you wouldn't just be another ant on the farm receiving the same benevolence as everyone else.

    This is what your description triggers in me. Nothing more.

  7. @Webster: Thanks for responding....

    @Vincent: Hmmm... Father Carron is, in that setting, a public figure. I imagine in a small group setting he would be interested in meeting and learning about each and every person he encounters. This sounds like a description of his overall approach to people to life, as opposed to the way he connects one-on-one.

    I have a dear friend who had some one-on-one time with him in Italy and he was very much interested in hearing the details of her life.

    It would not be unusual for someone to have a public persona and a more nuanced private one.

  8. Webster, I did not "catch the gaze" of Carron (although I tried twice to talk to him), but no matter. What I found at the vacation, from the introduction by Anujeet, through the stupendous concert, to the final assembly which was made fabulously interesting by Carron's responses, was that Christ comes to us in myriad ways, seeking us, answering us, loving us. Your wide-open eyes caught so much of that.
    As for the fritizis well they were surprisingly poor, except for a few impersonations. I think mine was the absolute worst I have ever seen (and not for being spoil sport I hope--I have been parodied at least a half dozen times and every time was funny except for this low-brow one). It might be time to retire the gesture and some of the weary talent who have seen more coherent and incisive days.

  9. @Webster: Thanks for thinking about this. (of course you would...)

    What I was responding to was that NY State, where this vacation took place, just legalized gay marriage, over the strong objections and lobbying efforts of the Catholic Church. I don't know, it seems like exactly the wrong time to be mocking someone's sexuality, whether they are dead or not.

    My hunch is this was an off-the-cuff, hastily organized frizzi and I get that. But again, I would be very very uncomfortable seeing that, or having my sons see that.

  10. Awesome, Suzanne is in the house!!! :-)
    I agree about the impersonations of you and Mr. T, especially as you all but had your arms twisted in knots to make you participate in the first place. Personally, I was dearly hoping Tom Sullivan would impersonate me. I wanted to see that. I really wanted to see that. Maybe next time.

  11. Well, my friend, you have stamina, I give you that! Let's share with everyone, and also treasure closely, that which we heard and saw that converts our hearts! As for the rest...gone.

  12. ah, I was glad to hear the background of your presentation.... it seems to me that frizzis are more like a roast than anything else in American culture: gratuitously unjust. In the frizzis of the Colorado adult vacation, we were treated to a spontaneous German song (from the CL songbook!) by Fr. Meinrad....

  13. @Allison: well I wasn't there, I'm not critiquing Carron, I'm critiquing what Websters appears to say constitutes the gaze of Christ.

  14. I'm an Italian woman from the Philadelphia area School of Community and I always read and hear about your vacations with deep longing. I wish I could be there, but my husband and son are atheists and I don't feel that I can "abandon" them for an entire week. Italian men are very messy! I myself was an agnostic until five years ago. I told our story at the last CL annual meeting, offering testimony of the change that Jesus brought into our lives. True, I'm the only one who became a believer, but we all changed through His love. I posted my witness on my blog. Here is the link: I would love to hear your comments.


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