Wednesday, October 5, 2011

In Case You Thought I Was a Saint . . .

I am reading two books just now, one devotional, one a guilty pleasure. Each book came to my attention through a news article, one 33 years ago, the other this Sunday, via the New York Times Book Review.

I know something about cults and a bit more about scotch, so when I read the Times review of The Great Leader, the new novel by Jim Harrison (left), about an alcoholic state policeman who hunts a sketchy cult leader, I bought the Kindle edition on impulse.

A different sort of impulse came over me almost exactly 33 years ago when I read of the death of Pope John Paul I and was struck by a single detail: The Pope, having reigned 33 days, had died in bed, with a copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis on his chest. As I have written before, I went straight to Borders that late September day and bought a copy of the 1955/1976 Doubleday edition of The Imitation, a modern version based on the English translation made by Richard Whitford around the year 1530, edited by Harold C. Gardiner, SJ.

I guess it shows that there are different kinds of impulses.

Today, then, just like yesterday and the day before—after reading passages of The Imitation at Eucharistic Adoration and finding myself drawn into a pleasantly contemplative state—I raced home at dinner time to rip recklessly from one riotous, self-indulgent Harrison paragraph to another. Ordinarily, since I’m usually up by 4:30 am, I fall easily asleep with a book in my hand by 9 pm. The past two nights, I was staring at my Kindle until well past 10.

Simon Sunderson (the first name of Harrison’s antihero is seldom used) is a 65-year-old reprobate divorcé who peeps through his venetian blinds at his scantily clad teenage neighbor as she lounges on her bed. This he does both before and after picking up the scent of Dwight, the cult leader, who is accused of bedding teen and preteen girls.

I’m sure this juxtaposition of peeping Tom and curious dick is meant ironically. I’m sure there are other messages here, as well. But until something happens one-third of the way through the narrative, The Great Leader reads like a stand-up comedy routine by George Carlin at the waning end of his NC-17 career. It is all stream of consciousness, and the stream is polluted. A brief sample that may meet PG-13 standards (you be the judge):

“Near Marion’s retreat shack in the woods [Marion is a male] a half mile from any other dwelling there was a fine, if small, brook trout creek that began a mile upstream in a large spring and beaver pond. He and Marion had shoved a twenty-foot tamarack pole in the spring and hadn’t reached bottom. Marion said that this was what was sacred about the particulars of the natural world. Sunderson said that some ancient Greeks believed that the gods lived in springs and Marion said, ‘Why not?’ Marion’s intelligence was peculiar. One evening the month before they had been surfing through the satellite channels after watching the Detroit Lions lose their thirteenth in a row and happened onto a program called Celebrity Medical Nightmares. Further on there was a soft-core porn channel playing Super Ninja Bikini Babes, and Marion remarked that in our culture both men and women were working toward enormous breasts, men by bench-pressing and women by surgery. He wondered what this meant and Sunderson was at a loss.”

So am I, at a loss. There is a lot of loose thought, Sunderson’s, about religion in The Great Leader, as he veers from consideration of cults and churches to other matters like sex and alcohol and culture and sports and stuff. It is all stirred together in a stew that makes me flinch when I am not guffawing.

This experience, and the contrast with devotional reading of The Imitation, has put me back in mind of the book that tipped my balance and sent me to RCIA and the arms of the Catholic Church. In My Life with the Saints by Fr. James Martin (left), the Jesuit writer tells an early story from the life of the founder of his order, St. Ignatius (Iñigo) of Loyola:

“Confined to his bed, Iñigo asked a relative for some books. All she could offer was pious reading, which he took grumpily and grudgingly. To his great surprise, the soldier found himself attracted to the lives of the saints and began thinking, If St. Francis or St. Dominic could do such-and-such, maybe I could do great things. He also noticed that after thinking about doing great deeds for God, he was left with a feeling of peace—what he termed ‘consolation.’ On the other hand, after imagining success as a soldier or impressing a particular woman, though he was initially filled with great enthusiasm, he would later be left feeling ‘dry.’”

Oddly, I find The Imitation resembles The Great Leader in an important way. It too is a stream of consciousness. Even the shortest sections wander from their starting point in a fashion that used to drive me crazy in the day when I thought that, in order to be truly holy or enlightened or just smart, I needed to memorize every bullet point in what I read. Even in this short paragraph, there is a day’s worth of memorization, or material to contemplate, and it is still not clear to me, 33 years later, how such passages ever get absorbed into my being:

“8. That Much Familiarity Is to be Avoided

“Open not your heart to every person, but only to him who is wise, discreet, and reverent. Go seldom among strangers; neither flatter the rich nor bear yourself as an equal among the great. Keep company with the humble and the simple in heart, who are devout and of good deportment, and treat with them of things that may edify and strengthen your soul. Be not familiar with any woman [Thomas lived in a monastic community], but commend all good women to God. Desire to be familiar only with God and with His angels; have a care to avoid the familiarity of man as much as you can. Charity is to be had toward all; familiarity is not expedient.

“Sometimes it happens that an unknown person, whose good reputation commended him much, does not appeal to us when afterwards we meet him. We think sometimes to please others by our presence, but we displease them instead by all the evil manners and evil conditions they see and will consider in us.”

I do not know if one ever truly absorbs a work like The Imitation of Christ, but the analogy with a stream makes sense to me. It seems to me that I am a rock in that stream, a sharp-edged amalgam of stuff over which these waters flow—not just of Thomas à Kempis but of other readings of the Word, in and outside church. The hope is that if I remain submerged in the stream long enough, my rough edges will be worked off and I will be a stone God might like to pick up and perhaps send skipping along the surface of the stream.

This thought leaves me anything but dry.

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