“What good is it to light a little candle in the darkness?” Pope Francis asked at a prayer vigil to open the Synod on the Family. “Isn’t there a better way to dispel the darkness? Can the darkness even be overcome?”
I thought of a friend back in L.A. who, just before I’d left for Rome, had observed, “The pope is great. If he could just get on board with women and birth control and marriage …”
I didn’t have the energy to explain, one more time, that Catholicism is not a “progressive” social program or a political platform. It’s a stance toward reality.
(Plus the guy’s moving my car while I’m gone so I don’t get a parking ticket and I didn’t want to antagonize him).
“One cannot imagine St. Francis of Assisi speaking of rights,” observed the French intellectual and mystic Simone Weil. Rights alone leach the fun out of everything. Rights alone — rights as an organizing principle, rights as a god — have led to a culture where the crowning glory of womanhood, the ability to give birth, is being reduced to a business transaction between two people who need never even touch.
To be both utterly clear-eyed and profoundly childlike is a paradox that can only be lived out by those with creative imaginations fired by a wildcard sense of joy.
St. Francis of Assisi was one such person. Writing of the pope’s namesake frolicking with his monks in freshly-fallen snow, G.K. Chesterton observed: “A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfill the law of their being. He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. He will do things like this, or pretty nearly like this, under quite a different impulse. He will do these things when he is in love.”
The writer Katharine Butler Hathaway was another. Born in Baltimore in 1890, Hathaway developed spinal tuberculosis as a child and was strapped to a bed pulley-rigged with iron weights for 10 years.
She was kyphotic (colloquially, a hunchback) anyway, and upon reaching adulthood, bought a house in the seacoast town of Castine, Maine, that she planned to turn into a kind of spiritually high-minded bordello where men and women could come and indulge freely in the physical love she feared that, by virtue of her deformity, would be denied her.
Instead she came to her vocation of writing, and to Christ. (She also married).
Gratitude, she wrote in her memoir “The Little Locksmith,” “is the natural expression of those who are not so stupid and so rude as to have forgotten that they are guests. Those naïve, medieval people — and they exist always in every generation, usually obscure, unknown and even ignorant — who begin and end each day in that most beautiful instinctive human attitude, the attitude of the sensitive, courteous guest of God, on their knees with the head bent down before an ever-present God toward whom their hearts open like drooping flowers or like radiant flowers — they are the only people who really understand admiration and gratitude.”
To come before the world not demanding rights but on bended knee with bowed head, is not a stance toward reality that can easily be articulated to a secular friend.
But speaking of gratitude, as I was planning my trip to Rome, Dominican Sister Maximilian Marie of the North American College took me under her wing, invited me to lunch with her and the sisters and offered to get me tickets for the Oct. 4 Papal Mass.
Then there was my little brother Joe, whose punk band The Queers tours often through Europe.
“Hey in Rome try to get out to Forte Prenestino,” he emailed. “It’s a 275-year-old fort taken over by squatters. The guy who runs it is named Walter. Pronounced Valter with a V. He doesn’t speak [beans] for English but if you stop by out of the blue and ask for him and tell him you’re my sister he’ll roll out the red carpet for you. Which in that place isn’t much — some gruel and white bread haha — but fun to spend an hour or two and poke around. Another pal in Rome is Marco. He owns a store called Gonna Puke Records.”
Between Sister Maximilian Marie and Marco, I figure I’m covered. And isn’t that it? It is all family. And we need every bit of it.
Families — whether our families of origin, the family of the Church, or the “family” of friends who, if we are single and childless, we often depend on way more than we might like — rip our hearts out. They’re also all we have.
On the plane coming over, I watched “Salt of the Earth,” the Wim Wenders documentary about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Salgado has photographed people in the most horrific, ravaged places on earth: Rwanda, the Sahel; genocides, massacres, famine.
What struck him in every instance, he said, was the trust the child had for the mother. These children would be starving, diseased, dying and always, still, they went to the mother’s breast.
That is the truth of the world. That is the heart of the world.
May the light shining from the dome of St. Peter’s continue to guide the way.