Saturday, December 27, 2014

Word for the Day: John

Today, the Catholic Church honors St. John, son of Zebedee, brother of James (Santiago), a fisherman who followed Christ. John was present at some of the most important moments of Jesus’s life, passion, and resurrection, and like another of my literary heroes, Norman Maclean, John wrote two great books late in life: his Gospel and the Book of Revelation. John gives hope to the unpublished sexagenarian Christian writer.

But that’s not what prompts me to write about John today. Instead, I want to share a brief story from my early years with Gulliver the Guru, a story not included in the excerpts posted above. This story demonstrates two widely divergent truths about Gulliver, which I hope to make clear by the time I’m “done” with my book, if I ever am. These paired truths are, in fact, the big wow of my life.

First truth: Gulliver was a manipulative messiah. (Wait for the story.)

Second truth: In spite of the first truth, and in spite of himself, Gulliver helped lead me to the Catholic Church.

Another way of saying the second truth is that the way, truth, and life offered by Christ in the Catholic Church can be so compelling as to overwhelm any other “spiritual” influences in one’s life. For me to overcome Gulliver was to overcome much. But I do believe I had help. As does anyone who searches sincerely. Knock and—

The story, a short one, comes from my first trip to Europe with Gulliver:

Gulliver had never visited Europe himself, but he led us through places like the Museo del Prado in Madrid with the same authority he used to talk about the Gurdjieff Work. So much of the art collected at the Prado is Catholic, which surprised me. Ribera, El Greco, Velazquez, and other artists gave Christianity a human face. I was moved by the moody brows and expressive hands of Ribera’s Apostles, brooding against dark backgrounds. 

We stopped together to meditate on Juan Juanes’s “Last Supper,” and I wondered for the first time about the inner or “esoteric” meaning of Jesus’s final meal with his closest followers. But this was not what Gulliver pointed out to me about the painting. Look at the way John the Apostle leans adoringly toward Jesus, Gulliver said. John was the youngest Apostle, he explained, and the one closest to Christ’s heart. As a result, he wrote the last and most spiritual gospel, and he lived longest, the only Apostle not martyred. 

As we walked away from the Juanes, Gulliver fixed me with a gaze and said, “You are John.” I got that he meant in his circle of friends—a claim as premature as it was thrilling. Others had labored through two years at Lilliput with him. I had only just arrived on the scene, yet somehow I had taken over the top position on his totem pole. The reciprocal of my preferred apostolic status did not fully sink in, however, or if it did I brushed off the absurd implication. 

Clearly, if I was John, then Gulliver was Jesus.

This event occurred during our first week in Europe. Gulliver’s sexual seduction of me took eight weeks to accomplish, as I explain in the excerpt “Europe.” This “you are John” moment was, in retrospect, one step in the seduction process. Back to the first truth: Gulliver, the manipulator, had used Our Lord Jesus Christ and the devotion of his closest Apostle to seduce a nineteen-year-old boy.

Back to the second truth: I was magnetized by this moment, horribly so if you think I only mean Gulliver’s Svengali act. But magnetized in another way: I believe that this “you are John” absurdity was also a small step on my path to the Catholic Church.

Grace works in mysterious ways. By leading me through the Prado’s collection of religious art—no matter how he interpreted it—by taking me to my first masses at Notre Dame and Saint Peter’s, by introducing me to Francis and Clare in Assisi, and by teaching me about St. Ignatius and the Jesuits at a Catholic bookshop in Paris, Gulliver offered me a life ring, the hope of a different and more authentic religious life than the crazy “esoteric” one I experienced by his side. And all in spite of himself. Because when I finally chose to become Catholic nearly forty years later, Gulliver fought me like a banshee.

As desperate as things got along the way, and they got pretty desperate, Gulliver and I would “always have the Prado,” just like Rick and Ilsa in “Casablanca.”

I know how twisted that must sound. But life and faith and grace all work by unpredictable twists and turns.

There is a final irony here, too, if you’re still with me. John had the last word on Jesus, since his Gospel was written after the other three “synoptics.” I am just presumptuous enough to think that, like John the Beloved, I too may get the last word: on Gulliver.

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