Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Alternative to Pinball

How is it that some lives dash madly around in the public eye while others meander quietly among more local paths? Public figures, media favorites, and scandal-of-the-week personalities bounce about like so many balls in a pinball machine, vying for just a second of our attention. Most of us are drawn into the game – through magazines, online news, blogs, television, and the like – completely oblivious to the fact that in doing so we are bouncing to the same tune. And yet occasionally, when we take out attention away from that strange world of make-believe and take a long loving look around us, we realize that our real world is inhabited by individuals who are, in the final analysis and by slow increments, much more interesting and engaging.

Saints seem to share a characteristic deliberateness toward the more important things. They come to learn that virtues such as patience, perseverance, and true piety only grow as a complete package. One doesn’t happen without the others. Patience doesn’t come about unless your keep practicing it, unless you persevere. And piety – the kind where God’s presence seeps into all the nooks and crannies of your life – hasn’t got a chance without patient endurance and an ongoing practice that is quiet and humble. The fact is that truth and goodness seep into your life together. The important things can’t be split apart.

Saints also generally fall into the apparently boring, non-public category rather than into the public pinball one. Even the very public Mother Teresa often said that one of her greatest crosses was the fact that she was such a public figure; good for her work and her sisters, but trying on her soul. Most saints are ones that Catholics would never guess in a Jeopardy game, unless their parish or school was named for that saint. Yet their personal stories are fascinating, even appealing. For years, I would read a short bio of the saint of the day to my students. Some were fascinating (think St. Joseph of Cupertino, patron saint of pilots) and others were dramatic (martyrs, mystics, miracle-workers). Most were simple folks who became known for their piety and goodness; quite sufficient for sainthood. Students were drawn to these stories and would remind me if I’d forgotten to read one to them in class. Through these stories, they experienced, perhaps for the first time, a deep resonance with a mystery that lay beyond their ken, a connection with something vaguely but solidly true, even good perhaps. All they could tell at that point was that this was deeply appealing in a way that popular entertainment was not. The apparently boring had become both familiar and fascinating in the real stories of real people paying close attention to the really important things.

The reason for this reflection comes from thinking about St. John Baptist de La Salle and his life. Having just finished reading, along with most of the novices with whom I had a class this year, a heavy tome about De La Salle by Br. Alfred Calcutt, I’m left to wonder where his genius, his charism, his sainthood lay. Yes, he was a great organizer, a talented writer, a visionary, and a theologian with a practical streak. He seemed to require little sleep, virtually no ego stroking, and very few personal comforts; in fact, he seemed to relish the opposite. He was sometimes stubborn, often kind to a fault, and increasingly bore a radical trust in God’s Providence – dangerously so, in the estimation of many.

So why was he so loved by his Brothers and by many others? Why does he continue to fascinate us, inspire us, and draw us forward in our ministry? I can only conclude that his human adventure, as it is reflected in his story and in his written works, bears eloquent testimony to the important things that draw us all forward. It opens the curtain just a bit to that which lays behind the Gospel story, if we but pay attention and step into it, as he did. His story, boring in some parts and dramatic in others – as was that of Jesus – invites us to touch that same living mystery, to live in and towards the ongoing mystery of God's presence in our midst, to meander quietly among local paths and make the ever-pregnant mystery of God alive for others.

How can you play pinball when that adventure awaits?