Vomiting for some minutes, soaked in sweat, with bursting capillaries reddening the whites of my eyes, gasping loudly between individual retchings, my head bowed low into the excrement-filled toilet, and then spinning around to explode yet again with diarrhea, a seemingly endless and dizzying cycle when, two weeks into Bangladeshian entamoeba histolytica, I was able, finally, just to sit in that “Saly” dorm room toilet stall, giving my lungs a chance to heave the hot, humid and ever so rancid air of my of new surroundings of inner-city Calcutta. The odors of the toilet stall mixed with those from just outside the barred and paneless window, where the locals were using dung to cook their food, giving the hazey air outside a quality without which all of West Bengal would be incomplete.
Sitting there, hoarse from near hyperventilation, my eyes tried to tear up from non-stop exertion, but I was dehydrated, and without nutrition for weeks. My head seemed to be whirling about in a continuous vortex of sewage, even when I would be able to lie on the heavily stained, infested mattress for a few minutes, just five feet from the toilet. I was much thinner than I had been a couple of weeks previously. The full impact of culture shock was upon me. I was as far away from home as a youngster could ever be.
With blurred vision, I stared at the cockroach carcases littered about the edges of the toilet stall. Someone with more energy than I had managed to kill most of them and push them off to the side. They came in all shapes and sizes, some as big as mice, not counting the legs and antennae. I didn’t realize how many there were until someone came in to the dorm room late one night and turned on the lights. I thought I had been taken to a different room as the walls seemed brown. I was wrong. The walls were also moving, the brown color being the multitude of cockroaches. Everyone and everything was thickly covered with them, every night.
As my mind became a bit clearer, sitting on that toilet, just before the next bout of vomiting and diarrhea, I began to study intently the not so typical graffiti. It wasn’t the usual erotic imagery one finds in affluent countries. Instead, there were proverbs and poetry, even an admonition or two. One of the latter went like this:
If you think the bottom is falling out of your world, come to Calcutta, and you will think that the world is falling out of your bottom.
- Is this the despair of two for one, spiritual and physical suffering at the same time?
- Or is this the bitterness of nihilism, holding everything and everyone to be no more than the liquid excrement exploding from one’s bowels?
- Or is this an expression of humor and levity mixed in with moralistic platitudes?
- Or is this a kind of beginner’s mirth, a wisdom putting perspective on the relativity of suffering so all-inclusively that it places one before God? In such a place as this, my eyes lit right up. For many decades, I have wanted to thank the author. The next cycle of diarrhea and vomiting was upon me, but I had new strength. Little things confirm one’s hope.
Our unrepeatable circumstances – even dysentery – become interesting to others only when there is some interpretation given to the events. What is it that makes such a person tick? In finding that truth for one person – on a most profound level – we find that truth for all. It is no beginner’s mirth that I wish to provide in this autobiography. The project here is to speak of Incarnate Mirth, who brings us to life, Christ, our God-with-us.
~ ~ ~
My father was the first one to encourage me to write about my exploits, perhaps seven times over the years, beginning when I was only a teenager. At the time, I did not understand. Later, I happened upon a diary he had written during the years of his combat pilot missions in Guam, the Philippines, Japan, China and Korea, as leader of the famed Corsair Checkerboard squadron of Marine pilots. My mom had often encouraged me to read it. It was filled with his aspirations of service to his fellow man and to God.
My dad’s patriotism – enlivened with a sense of the natural law he had learned at the Catholic University of Saint Thomas and which was enshrined in the Constitution of the United States (though often ignored) – spurred him on to political and legal endeavors. He was an honest statesman. Once, when I was just twelve years old, a friend pointed him out in a crowd, staring at him in wonder. He said, “Just look at him. He’s an example of integrity. I want to be just like him.”
As the baby of the family, I had always been dad’s favorite, and he had set his hopes on me to further his own aspirations both legally and politically. Yet, I was reticent to begin writing as he had asked me to do. It’s not that there wasn’t anything to write about. It was that my own spirit wasn’t up to the task, and I knew it. Something was missing, but I didn’t know what.
Then there were others, many of the laity, across the decades, who have been after me to write. The same goes for many priests, who, again and again said that I should, and even must write an autobiography, becoming upset that I would rebell at such an idea. Since they were not my ecclesiastical superiors, they had no say, though they had come close to convincing me. Yet, something just didn’t sit well with me about all this.
Then cloistered nuns and “spiritual mothers” all urged me to write. They all know I have lived a rather raucous life and were interested to know how this had been an occasion for the Lord to draw me to Himself. They said that people who suffer much might well benefit from knowing something of my own life. That, of course, would make it imperative to interpret recounted events, precisely what I thought myself incapable of doing.
Eventually I understood what I needed to know: the one who goes about writing an autobiography is almost irrelevant to what is written, the details of the story even less so. It is the skill with which one points to what is essential to the life of every man that matters. To be worth the time of the reader, an autobiography must be about the lives of the readers themselves. It should be a kind of rough mirror, reflecting, at least to some small degree, their own souls, that they might more easily see how their own autobiographies are being written out with all the unrepeatable details of their own lives.
One nun in particular was persisting in her requests for years and years. But I always had some excuse to give, such as my ever present unworthiness, which overrides any understanding I came to have. She just would not take “No” for an answer. I finally said, “Never! Not an autobiography, not without my being put under obedience by an ecclesiastical superior, at least the priest who is my spiritual director and confessor.” I said that that command under obedience would be highly unlikely, so she should just forget all this.
Some days later I spoke with her and she said that she was putting me under obedience herself. After all, she explained, she was a Spiritual Mother for me, so why shouldn’t she put me under obedience? To make it all very official, she got permission from a priest to do this, and recounted the all too serious conversation they had.
This, of course, just wouldn’t do. I repeated that I would have to speak with my own spiritual director and confessor. Sigh. It must be a conspiracy to have me make a fool of myself, though everyone who knows me already knows that I am such a fool, particularly my spiritual director and confessor. He’s a hilarious and holy priest, full of the joyful mirth of our Lord. He said that the point of me, of all people, writing an autobiography, was not that I’m anything special – and I’m not – but because, in his opinion, I might sometimes have a certain way of phrasing things that might be useful to others.
Of course, he might just want me to see in print what he’s been trying to point out to me all along, that the Lord wants me on this earth for a reason, at least so as to offer the service of a being a purgatory for those the Lord has put in my path, so that they might have the opportunity of going straight to heaven when they die. Who am I to stand in the way of such a great plan? Whether some of these others in my life think of me as an unforgivable Judas, or, more hopefully, as Peter the Apostle in all his weakness, I nevertheless hope that — should they make it to heaven before me – they will welcome me into the eternal habitations when it is my turn to meet the Lord.
Besides the dangers of this autobiography for myself and the readers – detailed in the next chapter – my other, equally serious objections, were all dismissed.
My most serious, preemptive objection is that writing an autobiography is redundant to and a dumbing-down of the detailed biography that is written for each one of us by the Lord (see Rev. 20,12-13). Will not the autobiography written by man be compared for accuracy to the biography written by Him who is Truth? If the autobiographer has even unknowingly dissimulated, will he not be judged on this? Is this not a risk that is eminently avoidable?
More frightening is the fact that anyone’s biography can be read, even now, in the five wounds of the feet, hands and heart of the Living Word of God the Father, whose eternal speech of Living Charity is readable in that One Word. Could I possibly think that I could write better, or more completely, of His love for us?
Indeed, if our lives are written out on the wounds on the One Word of God, what’s the point of the multiplication of words in an autobiography, even if I were to succeed in being honest? Isn’t the account of just one of the trillions of men who have lived in past ages, are living now, and who will live in the future, just an exercise in narcissism, a distraction to those who could better spend their little time in this world in getting to know their Creator, the One who has loved them right to death, the One who brings them to life?
And yet, again, a good autobiography is not about oneself. Saint Paul speaks of the enigmatic mirror (1 Cor. 13,12) by which we see the Lord in this world, that is, by way of love of the Lord and love of each other before the Lord. He adds that, because we now see by way of this dark mirror, we only understand imperfectly, but then, when we see God face to Face, we will fully understand just as we are fully understood. It is the goal of this autobiography merely to reflect such a reflection. If an autobiography polishes up the mirror just a bit, manifesting the presence, by love, of the Word Incarnate, in whose very being our lives are written, then the writing and the reading is worth the effort.
Should this be the case with any given autobiography, the effect would always be the same, no matter the person writing it, no matter the circumstances with which his or her life has been intermingled, in all irony, with God’s truth and charity. It’s just that not all have the time to write in this life. That’s alright. We will hear all the stories in the next life. Again, my account is nothing special, but our Lord using even my weakness, not only for my sanctification but also that of others, is awesome in His irony. The Lord Himself says that His power is being completed in such weakness (2 Cor. 12,9). The Lord’s irony is always awesome.
But I, of course, having been pushed on this for years, have more objections. For instance, just because it was not my idea to write an autobiography does not guarantee that I won’t write it with the most despicable pride and insufferable arrogance, perhaps even more so. Even if I intend with all my heart and soul to write with a spirit of humble thanksgiving doesn’t mean I will.
- I can complain that self-promoting autobiographies – always evidenced by the lack of interpretation of the details which become, then, just more fodder of the braggart – are deathly boring.
- I can express my displeasure with autobiographies in which honesty is equated with a mere recitation of one’s degradation on the written page, so that it is all just a prostitution, a selling of oneself for new-found “celebrity” status in which neither vulnerability nor honesty are rightfully claimed.
However, who’s to say that I will not do these same things in, perhaps, a more hidden way?
The reader might think to have the consolation that at least with this autobiography one has the words of the author, not of a literary hack, who, despite whatever flair he might have with the written word, ironically destroys the very reason why any autobiography could possibly be interesting to read in the first place: the personal touch, the personal presentation, the personal agony so evident with the one who writes for himself. Yet, writing for oneself might only be a circumstance necessary to a dishonest autobiographer, who must be in complete control of the all-encompassing lie he wants to produce.
The one true consolation, dear reader, that you can have in all this, is that the only reason you are reading these words now is because they have been given the go ahead of my spiritual director. He was also my confessor until I became a hermit. But my new confessor, out of the blue, pushed me to write an autobiography. Sigh. That is not to say that my spiritual director and confessors can be blamed for my ineptitude for such a project, for I always seem to make more difficult what should be an easy matter. Anything unhelpful is my fault entirely.
Saint Augustine’s Confessions constitute the incomparable masterpiece of autobiographies for the reason that theseConfessions arebut one long love letter to the God of all. How could he not remain honest? How could he not plumb the depths of who we are before the living God? This method of writing kept him honest on so many levels. It would be a pretense to imitate the inimitable. I can only pray to the Lord that I will write in a straightforward manner by addressing myself to the reader. There is no difference in writing either way, for, as the Lord said, what you have done to the least of these, you have done to me. As far as I am concerned, I am writing to the Lord, placing all these words before Him, directly burdened with the time of those who will read these pages. This is, at the same time, crushing and freeing.
I know I will have achieved what I set out to do when people who are unaware of how much they are loved by God all of a sudden know this to the point that they will say: “That priest-hermit who wrote that autobiography? He’s not special. I know Jesus that way, too.” Perfect!
If the effort expended in writing results in anyone coming to understand just a bit more that the Father speaks that One Word, that Verbum of His into our souls, that we might all together re-Verb-erate, in a symphony, with the Holy Spirit, the very life of the Most Holy Trinity, now by grace and in heaven by the very glory of God, I will be more than compensated. We are nothing if not alive in God. He is, as Saint Paul said to the Athenians in the Areopagus, the One “in whom we live and in whom we move and in whom we are [...] for we too are His kindred” (Acts 17,28).