Caveat lector: There are more dangers about this autobiography which ought best be voiced, dangers for readers, and dangers for myself. A word also needs to be said, then, about mirth amidst danger.
Dangers for readers
Wanting to understand can be a difficulty, even for really good people. Having lived in Rome for some twenty years, I came to know many excellent priests who now work in various dicasteries of the Roman Curia, the Vatican, the Holy See. I showed one of them, a good friend of many decades – whom I have never ceased to hold in the highest regard – some seven hundred and fifty pages of a little project on which I had been laboring in my free time.
After some weeks, he said that it was this that was a travesty, surely written by a Judas-priest, though I was his best friend! He insisted that it was the most incisive bigotry against Catholics that could ever be published. Now, for someone who works in the Vatican, that is saying quite a bit. All of the worst heresies and anti-Catholic writings make their way to Rome to be examined. “The author hates the Church,” he said, continuing in the third person, “handing over on a silver platter the best arguments against the Church to those who hate the Church.” Perhaps the vulnerability of John the Baptist’s head on that silver platter, a kind of faith by the sword experience, wasn’t this priest’s idea of religion at the time. Too bad, that. The martyrdom of saying things the way they are when others should but do not is not at all an argument against the Church, but is her very glory (no thanks to us, but to Christ Jesus). People who have suffered know what a great encouragement it is to see that someone, anyone – by the grace of God – has survived such things. He didn’t finish reading, rejecting, it seems, perhaps without knowing it, the Pope’s call for what is also “self-critical dialogue”. Perhaps I should add that another friend of many decades, who works in a much more important dicastery in the Holy See, and who also read those 750 pages, said that I must continue writing, saying things the way they are.
I recount all that to you, dear reader, since I’m quite afraid that someone else, in reading these pages of autobiography – not all that different from the project mentioned above – might get the same idea about my betraying the Church like Judas. To avoid scandal, a crash course in irony by the great Hilaire Belloc is necessary, for, you see, my life is filled with the most cutting irony, so much so, that I have left many an ecclesiastical superior aghast, whether they were proud of me or embarrassed by me, depending on their appreciation of irony. The life of each one of us should and must be filled with irony if we want to be saints. Everyone, no matter what, can become a saint. If we do not become saints, we will have utterly, catastrophically wasted our lives. That a sinner becomes a saint has a glorious ferocity that can only be described as mirth, but one must be terribly, caustically alive to be aware of the realities of good and evil all around us:
To the young, the pure, and the ingenuous, irony must always appear to have a quality of something evil, and so it has, for [...] it is a sword to wound. It is so directly the product or reflex of evil that, though it can never be used – nay, can hardly exist – save in the chastisement of evil, yet irony always carries with it some reflections of the bad spirit against which it was directed. [...] It suggests most powerfully the evil against which it is directed, and those innocent of evil shun so terrible an instrument. [...] The mere truth is vivid with ironical power. [...] The mere utterance of a plain truth labouriously concealed by hypocrisy, denied by contemporary falsehood, and forgotten in the moral lethargy of the populace, takes upon itself an ironical quality more powerful than any elaboration of special ironies could have taken in the past. [...] No man possessed of irony and using it has lived happily; nor has any man possessing it and using it died without having done great good to his fellows and secured a singular advantage to his own soul. (Hilaire Belloc, Selected Essays (2/6), ed. J.B. Morton; Penguin Books (1325): Harmondsworth – Baltimore – Mitcham, 1958. See the essay “On Irony” on pages 124-127.)
So, if not happiness, irony brings blessedness, living life on the edge, marginalized as obscurantist, cut down by the sword for reflecting light. As for me, without grace, I am not ironic, but self-affirmingly trample on others, claiming a moral high ground swamped by my weakness. Given the circumstances, and without grace, I would be more evil than the worst monsters mentioned herein. Nice circumstances do not justify, but tend to deceive. Those saying differently are liars, selling something, prostituting themselves to buyers deluded in the self-congratulations that are despised by the prostitute.
Any irony in this autobiography is most ironic, for, with the prodigal son, and with Saint Peter, I learn not from any failure, but in being forgiven for culpable ineptness by the One I have often betrayed. Irony is not diablerie. It is about being brought to life. But the understanding that it is God’s chosen irony to bring others to heaven by way of us inevitably casts light on the misunderstanding of those who do not want to understand, who want only to bully others into having their own tunnel vision of themselves. That God will bring others to heaven by way of us – we who are so very unworthy, we who have known understanding as a gift, we who have had the benefit of others suffering for us in like manner – is my entire hope, without which irony I would want to run straight into hell and remain there forever. My hope extends to those who presently go out of their way not to understand. Dum spiro spero.
Dangers for myself
Pride and lockstep ingratitude, whenever there is a question of speaking of one’s life, are always a risk. There is no way around this except grace. Even Saint Paul did not dare judge his standing before God (see 1 Cor. 4,3). What to do except take his example, regardless of his holiness and dedication?
For I reckon that God has appointed us apostles last, as those condemned to death, so that we became a spectacle to the world and angels and men. We are fools on Christ’s behalf, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are in glory, but we are in dishonor. Up to this very hour we are hungry and we are thirsty and we are poorly clothed and we are beaten down and we are gyrovagrants [instabiles sumus; ἀστατοῦμεν] and we labor, working with our own hands; being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being slandered, we respond with kindness. We have become like the off-scouring of the world, the scum of all, to this very moment (1 Corinthians 4,9-13).
Surely one of the slanders Saint Paul had to endure was that he had a “martyrdom-complex”, but, as he indicates, it is all for Christ’s sake, all done according to His will, by His appointment. I love the bit about gyrovagrancy, for I have often been condemned, even with extreme severity, for that aspect of my life. Saint Benedict, in chapter one of his rule, also condemns gyrovagrants as the worst of the worst. Of course, he wasn’t speaking of the type of gyrovagrancy mentioned by the Apostle to the Gentiles or that which is mentioned by our Lord, when He predicts how his Apostles will flee from one town to the next. I think some have thought rather badly of me, calling to mind the gyrovagrant Russian monk by the name of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin.
But when the angels see what Christ does with us, we are a spectacle to them. Christ takes us to Himself and has us work greater things than He ever did (John 14,12) for the simple reason that any work we do in Him must be “greater” in that we are otherwise just so very much nothing before God, having been lost in sin. What a privilege it is to be thought of as fools for Christ, the greatest of all works we could ever do.
While having come to know, now and again, on the one hand, being weak, dishonored, hungry, thirsty, poorly clad, beaten down, laboring with my hands for upkeep while at the same time being marginalized to the point of gyrovagrancy, I have also many times known great difficulty and even failure in blessing, enduring and responding in kindness when reviled, persecuted and slandered. Yet, I have also come to know at least how to begin to rejoice in becoming the off-scouring of the world, the scum of all, to this very moment. If, by the mysterious will of God, I am also to be a spectacle for angels and a fool for Christ (and I think that is true for us all, in Him), then surely being formed in His goodness and kindness in this very way is also His will.
Some months before writing this, a modern-day gyrovagrant of the streets stopped to speak with me, thinking that I might be somebody “important,” but I said that I was always expendable, always available to be marginalized – and often was – a nobody. When he heard the words “a nobody”, he lectured me with the ferocity of an angel sent from God, saying that I was never ever to call myself “a nobody”. Circumstances never made anyone less than somebody.
That’s true, of course, about external circumstances. However, to be appointed to be a nobody by our Lord is an honor. Horrific, however, is the fact that I have often, in my sin, designated myself to become a somebody, and therefore less than a nobody. Yet, in failure, I can learn to rejoice in the Lord’s goodness and kindness. It is in Confession that I have learned to be a fool for Christ. With the repentance of just one sinner, even me, there is more rejoicing before the angels in heaven than over a multitude who consider themselves to be just. It’s great to be a spectacle to the angels in this way. They are eager, then, to instruct us, often through the world and men. However adept we are at perceiving this, such instruction is not so easy to receive. But it is always according to God’s will. It’s about humble thanksgiving.
Mirth amidst danger
“Aaarrgh!” exclaimed a seminarian, laughing, “You can’t have had that many outrageous experiences in your life. It’s just not possible for one person!”
I was just one of the storytellers that prompted frequent remarks that seminarians should have to pay to eat at the same tables as myself and some of the other storytellers for the entertainment and lessons we shared.
“If you are faithful in the smallest things,” I answered, “never compromising faith or morals, that’s when life becomes interesting, not that I’ve always been faithful, mind you. Far from it. But the way back to the Lord is just as extraordinary, just as life-giving.”
That kind of autobiographical methodology seemed to be good for conversations, which were often hilarious or even had a rip-your-face-off, stunning gravity to them (as the seminarians put it), but such levity, however true in detail and interpretation, hid the fact that I was just making light of the circumstances the Lord provided or permitted in my life. However much anyone laughed or cried, the pride which makes light of all things cannot provide irony and the in-your-face paradoxical mirth-making that reflects life.
The written word of this autobiography, however, brings with it at least an opportunity to go to the heart of what, that is, Who life is all about. Instead of just making people laugh or cry about the details of unrepeatable circumstances, instead of moralistic pontificating, I hope to point in all vulnerability, in all irony, in all mirth, to the One who supplies life to us all, who provides or permits all the circumstances in our lives.
I fear I do not have the spiritual agility necessary to understand our fallen condition before God, who loves us enough to bring us back to Himself. Original sin, however forgiven by God, leaves us with its consequences: weakness of mind, weakness of will, emotions all over the place, sickness, death, and the annoyance of suffering the effects of our own sin and that of others.
Yet, mirth admits of such a fear, which is why it is what it is. Mirth is the most wonderful and the most elusive aspect of Judaeo-Catholic faith, wonderful for the joy found in the power of God’s ever so loving irony, elusive since one cannot pursue such mirth, only be drawn up into it by the Lord. He patiently teaches us that mercy and justice and His great love for us are but one and the same in Him.
Great is the joy to be had in realizing that God does not hold our weaknesses against us, but even commands us – in His justice geared to mercy – to carry weakness as a cross upon which narrow-minded egoism is to be crucified to the point of us giving up trying to trust in ourselves so as, simply, to trust in Him. He puts our weakness to work for our sanctification. We take up our cross, being honest, and follow Christ, being lifted into reality. Those who know the life which any good autobiography should reflect are aware that such irony does not bring with it a jump up and down for joy emotionalism, but is rather an introduction to a peace adequate to march after Christ until we meet Him.
Those who do not want to understand, think that actual justice – a love which will not compromise love – is only for fools, the spectacle of whose lives are best ignored or mocked. It is in just such a circumstance that humble thanksgiving flourishes. We know God’s love is good. We know we are unworthy. It must be shouted from the housetops. He who said, “One who talks does not know; one who knows does not talk,” spoke of nirvana as if it were sane, not of autobiographical hilarity. To remain silent would be a travesty.
Irony, not an autobiographical laxative
This is not a psychological study, a return to the way things were so as to divine my present and future. The love of God is always readable in the wounds on the Body of Christ Jesus and, at the same time, always exquisitely unpredictable in that He draws us to Himself in ways we cannot now comprehend.
This is simply an account of someone who has, by the grace of God, desired, in all irony, to understand, even at the risk of being misunderstood. Pop-psychology, with no understanding whatsoever, rejects irony as satire, a projection of self, an auto-biographical laxative. Before such obtuseness, such niceness, Saint Francis described irony as understanding willingly at risk of being misunderstood, with the being misunderstood part always but always being the price for understanding. My hope is that this account of irony will strike a chord in those who want to understand, and that those who want to misunderstand might have a change of heart. Again, anyone’s account of the Lord’s irony with us is a treasure, no matter who writes it, even me, no matter the circumstances that are related, even mine. It’s all about Him, not about any one of us, especially not me.