Why Do We Care?

Okay, seri­ous­ly: I am writ­ing about LeBron James.

I don’t know why. I will make no attempt to con­ceal the fact that I know next to noth­ing about pro­fes­sion­al bas­ket­ball these days, and care even less. I have nev­er seen a moment of play by James – or any of the oth­er buzzed-about play­ers these days. There were a cou­ple of years when I got excit­ed about the Tim­ber­wolves when they first arrived, but that was 1989: I was eleven years old, so any­thing new was excit­ing. All I remem­ber of that now is the name “Pooh Richard­son” and dis­cov­er­ing the bit­ter­ness still fes­ter­ing in the state over the Lak­ers’ depar­ture thir­ty years ear­li­er.

But then I grew up a lit­tle more, and part of that was devel­op­ing an utter dis­taste for pro­fes­sion­al sports in gen­er­al, and for NBA hoops in par­tic­u­lar. A big part of it is the mon­ey: there is sim­ply no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the kind of remu­ner­a­tion that pro ath­letes demand. (Of course, I would advo­cate a strict salary cap for every­one – no one on earth needs more than, say, a mil­lion a year – but that is very much a top­ic for anoth­er time.) My atti­tude has a soft­ened quite a bit in recent years. I would go watch base­ball any­time, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so. In what threat­ens to become a guilty plea­sure I find I con­sis­tent­ly enjoy watch­ing NFL games when the oppor­tu­ni­ty aris­es, but again, I would not seek it out. Hock­ey is a mys­tery, as is soc­cer, and I don’t feel left out of any­thing engag­ing in either case.

But there is some­thing about pro bas­ket­ball that I find utter­ly revolt­ing, although I haven’t both­ered to give it enough thought to fig­ure out exact­ly why. It is not the game itself, since I thor­ough­ly enjoy NCAA bas­ket­ball. Per­haps it is a cul­tur­al thing (I tru­ly and sin­cere­ly hope it is not a sub­li­mat­ed race thing on my part); my impres­sion of NBA play­ers in gen­er­al is low on gen­til­i­ty and heavy on rock star atti­tudes and thug­gish lifestyles. Per­haps unfair, but that is my stereo­type, and it leaves me with no desire to see these over­paid man-tow­ers pos­ture about and pre­tend they are doing some­thing that mat­ters, or that they are even play­ing a game.

David Schwartz of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa School of Jour­nal­ism and Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion post­ed a piece ear­li­er this week on the emer­gent trend of sports play­ers tak­ing con­trol of their own mes­sage, or at least attempt­ing to do so, through use of the social media tools avail­able to them, and in so doing bypass­ing the jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sion. (Full dis­clo­sure: Schwartz is mar­ried to my wife’s cousin.) The hyped, script­ed and mar­ket­ed LeBron Show of the past week or so is cer­tain­ly a defin­i­tive exam­ple of this, and I am sure, as folks like blog­ger Andrew Miller have already observed, that peo­ple will be sub­ject­ing this episode to inter­dis­ci­pli­nary exam­i­na­tion for years to come. Whether this is the har­bin­ger of a new way of doing things, or an his­tor­i­cal­ly-iso­lat­ed series of inci­dents, I will leave for the media schol­ars to decide.

For me, the whole fren­zied cir­cus of the past week seems just a fur­ther esca­la­tion in the infla­tion of pro­fes­sion­al sports from an enter­tain­ment indus­try into some­thing that it has no hope of being: mean­ing­ful and sig­nif­i­cant. Clear­ly LeBron James is a gift­ed ath­lete (I read that in sev­er­al places, so it must be true), but that his employ­ment deci­sion should be allowed to effect such pas­sions among so many peo­ple is gross to me. This goes back to my most fun­da­men­tal qualm about pro­fes­sion­al sports: fan­dom. It baf­fles me that so many peo­ple will invest their emo­tion­al well-being so heav­i­ly in the exploits of a small group of extreme­ly fit indi­vid­u­als, in the out­come of a game of sport. Some­times I think I get what the draw is, some­thing to do with the human con­di­tion, the urge to feel a part of some­thing larg­er than our­selves, or some­thing. I sup­pose many could well ques­tion my devo­tion to the Catholic reli­gion, and it is prob­a­bly open to the same sort of cri­tique: it is my “some­thing larg­er” of which I am a part. I won’t try to defend it; it works for me, just as clear­ly die-hard fol­low­ers of sports fran­chis­es have latched onto some­thing that must work for them. But it just doesn’t make sense to me, and I won­der if it ever will.

Dark days of hope

We are enter­ing into the Tridu­um, the most sacred days in the Chris­t­ian cal­en­dar, and for me the most painful days of the year.

I come into these East­er cel­e­bra­tions with a lot of bag­gage. I have dwelt on this long and hard; words on this top­ic have pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in these pages. I won’t pre­tend that any tremen­dous heal­ing has tak­en place in the four years since. Cer­tain­ly mar­riage and par­ent­hood have imposed sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on my out­look and reac­tions to things. I have grown, and am still grow­ing. But the road to heal­ing, to whole­ness, is exceed­ing­ly long.

For the first time in sev­er­al years — per­haps for the first time ever — I have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cel­e­brate the Tridu­um alone. Of course, no litur­gi­cal wor­ship can hap­pen alone; it is by def­i­n­i­tion the activ­i­ty of a wor­ship­ing com­mu­ni­ty. But I know well how to be alone in a crowd, and the wel­com­ing glow of com­mu­ni­ty has sel­dom warmed me. I hope in this holy and sacred sea­son that I can find the grace to turn a cor­ner, to fur­ther my rein­te­gra­tion into the lov­ing Peo­ple of God.

This last is not a thing I take light­ly. My past has been all about the Church, and now I am con­fi­dent once again that my future is to be large­ly about the Church as well. But to do so I need to relearn how to be a Chris­t­ian. Not in the sense of faith, of being a believ­er, but in terms of rela­tion­ship, of feel­ing myself a part of a human com­mu­ni­ty. I don’t know where to begin, oth­er than to go and pray with oth­er Chris­tians, and to keep doing so. Ther­fore, with only my lone­ly heart, I go to cel­e­brate the sac­ri­fi­cial love of my God, and to dare to open myself to grace, to love, and to hope.

Radicalized

Three months ago, if some­one had told me I would get all fired up about litur­gy in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, I would have had to give them a wry smile and shake my head at them. I had been there, done that, I would have said. I burnt out, and I no longer had the emo­tion­al ener­gy to get entan­gled in that morass.

And then I start­ed my Chris­t­ian Litur­gy course. When speak­ing of activists (and ter­ror­ists), the term “rad­i­cal­ized” is often used: some­thing — some event, or some encounter, or some expe­ri­ence, or some increase of inequal­i­ty, some­thing — push­es an indi­vid­ual over the line between resent­ment and the will­ing­ness to do some­thing about it. By the end of the sec­ond class meet­ing, I could tell that this course was going to be my rad­i­cal­iz­ing expe­ri­ence.

I haven’t spo­ken up much in this class. Of course, I am typ­i­cal­ly reserved, and sel­dom throw my hand in the air unless I am real­ly con­fi­dent in what­ev­er it is I am about to say. And in this class I have an added fac­tor that keeps me pret­ty mum: I am so aghast and seething on the inside that I don’t trust myself to start some­thing in a ped­a­gog­i­cal con­text that I am not equipped to fin­ish.

I grew up into a pas­sion­ate love of the Roman Rite, in all its “noble sim­plic­i­ty” and in all its solemn grandeur. I loved the Latin lan­guage, I loved the elab­o­rate and care­ful cer­e­mo­ny, and every Sun­day as a boy I longed to be up there, in the sanc­tu­ary, where the sacred action was tak­ing place.

And even­tu­al­ly I got my wish. I was four­teen when I first served as an altar boy in our new parish (most boys start­ed in third grade, but we had been mov­ing around a lot). I was extreme­ly ner­vous, fret­ful that I would for­get what I was sup­posed to do next in the intri­cate dance of the Mass (and I often did). But I was intense­ly engaged in what I was about, and it was not long before I was one of the top servers, and when we moved parish­es again short­ly after I turned six­teen, I was fast-tracked to elite altar serv­ing rôles. And, espe­cial­ly with a pas­tor who was as fond of the sacred pageantry as I was, the step from top-notch altar boy to sem­i­nar­i­an was not such a big one.

But after four years of bit­ter­ly-par­ti­san intra­mur­al con­flict, almost all of which cen­tered on some aspect of the litur­gy or anoth­er, I left sem­i­nary tired to death of it all. How could some­thing so beau­ti­ful, so pow­er­ful, so sacred, be the cause of so much strife? I did­n’t know what the answer was, but I knew I was done with it. Not that I did­n’t care any­more: I still cared intense­ly. But I delib­er­ate­ly pushed such feel­ings down every time they arose, and it slow­ly, painful­ly got eas­i­er to slide along as a prac­ti­cal Catholic, tak­ing the Sun­day Mass as it came, clos­ing my eyes (lit­er­al­ly) when­ev­er I thought some inno­v­a­tive prac­tice or lack of rubri­cal fideli­ty was like­ly to irk me.

But now I am done with that. My Leu­ven-edu­cat­ed litur­gy pro­fes­sor has opened my eyes (though prob­a­bly not in the way she intend­ed) and I am ready to wade into the bat­tle once more. But if you know me, or knew me ten years ago, and think you know which “side” I am on, you are prob­a­bly going to be wrong about that.

I am rad­i­cal­ly sure of two things right now regard­ing the eucharis­tic litur­gy of the Roman Rite. First: the reforms car­ried out over the course of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, while indis­putably nec­es­sary, went wild like priv­i­leged sub­ur­ban girls on spring break, and lost all their dig­ni­ty in the process. Sec­ond: the increas­ing­ly-wide­spread return to the usus antiquior — the 1962 Missal, the pre-Vat­i­can II “Tri­den­tine” Mass, what­ev­er you like to call it — is a deeply-mis­guid­ed and eccle­si­o­log­i­cal­ly-blind effort to turn back the clock, and it is an effort in which I see next to no mer­it. There is tremen­dous solem­ni­ty pos­si­ble with the Mass of Paul VI, and while I agree with the writ­ings of our cur­rent pope regard­ing the many fail­ings of the reformed litur­gy, it is clear that those fail­ings are more often in the area of appli­ca­tion than in the litur­gi­cal books them­selves. There is a mid­dle way here, but it has been lost between the poles of antipa­thy that dom­i­nate the Catholic Church today.

Mysteries

My young life is full of leit­mo­tifs, but none are as per­va­sive or promi­nent as a cir­clet of fifty-eight beads with a tiny cru­ci­fix attached. Car­ried in my pock­et, stashed in the car, clutched between my sleep­ing fin­gers, the rosary was every­where in my young life.

From the time of my moth­er’s con­ver­sion expe­ri­ence we prayed the rosary togeth­er as a fam­i­ly night­ly, usu­al­ly gath­ered togeth­er on our knees in the cor­ner of our liv­ing room, fac­ing the stat­ues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Our Lady of Grace, perched up on their lit­tle shelves next to their match­ing votive can­dles. We would take turns read­ing the med­i­ta­tions for the mys­ter­ies — Joy­ful, Sor­row­ful, Glo­ri­ous — tak­en in rota­tion from a col­lec­tion of books we had.

I was a Sor­row­ful mys­tery sort of Catholic for most of my young life. The suf­fer­ing and death of Jesus for my sins was the cen­tral theme of my reli­gious out­look. Sure, the real good news was that He rose again, but I need­ed to con­stant­ly remind myself that I was a sin­ner, and that my sins caused Jesus pain, lots of pain. If I kept this fact before me at all times, then per­haps I could sin less.

I have noticed a shift in my affin­i­ty of late. In an attempt to recon­nect my des­ic­cat­ed soul with some­thing I have tak­en to pray­ing the rosary dur­ing my walk to work each day. As I cycle through the sets of mys­ter­ies — Joy­ful on Mon­days and Thurs­days, Sor­row­ful on Tues­days and Fri­days, Glo­ri­ous on Wednes­day and Sat­ur­day — I find that I don’t feel a lot of response any­where in my being with reflec­tion on the Sor­row­ful mys­ter­ies any­more. I am left cold by a sin-cen­tred approach to my rela­tion­ship with God. I realise that I am a sin­ner, that I sin a great deal, and that my sins caused Jesus the Man-God to have the flesh flayed off His Sacred Body. I get that. I won­der now, how­ev­er, if I am the sort of per­son who can real­ly ben­e­fit spir­i­tu­al­ly from such knowl­edge.

As I said, I know I do things wrong. Hell, most of the time it seems that pret­ty much every­thing I do is the wrong thing. I am feel­ing it is time for me to try to find things that will me help me on a pos­i­tive path, not to stop doing wrong things, but to start doing right ones. I have no idea if this has any­thing to do with it, but I have come to find a great con­nec­tion to the Joy­ful mys­ter­ies that I had nev­er thought of before. My mind wan­ders less on the Joy­ful days, and I find them the clos­est I have come to mean­ing­ful prayer is long dry years. I pray that I can con­tin­ue do dig into these hith­er­to-unex­plored spir­i­tu­al vignettes, and that per­haps the search for joy in my own spir­i­tu­al life may become less of a mys­tery.

Amateur holiness

It has now been sev­en years since I packed my world­ly pos­ses­sions and left the sem­i­nary, walk­ing through the doors into a world that I was ill-pre­pared to live in. In some ways I am still leav­ing, still strug­gling through a painful and dis­ori­ent­ing process that I keep think­ing should be over by now, but which I often feel may nev­er be final­ly com­plete.

But progress has cer­tain­ly been made. The last three years have been espe­cial­ly growth-filled, and there is much more to come. I am more con­vinced than ever that I have found my true voca­tion every time I hold my son. But being a hus­band and father is not the whole sto­ry of my life; there are still oth­er aspects of my voca­tion that I have yet to dis­cern.

I am already cer­tain of this much: God does not want me to live my life as a cor­po­rate cube-dweller, at least not in the long term. That has been the eas­i­est piece of dis­cern­ment I have ever done. I think the many lunch breaks spent hud­dled on the cold side­walk out­side my work­place sob­bing have made the fate of my soul in such an envi­ron­ment very easy to divine.

So my neg­a­tive dis­cern­ment is going very well; I know what I don’t want to do with my life. But as help­ful as that is, it still leaves unan­swered the ques­tion of what I do want to do, and I want to know this answer very soon.

Of course, impa­tience is not a wel­come trait when engaged in any­thing like a spir­i­tu­al search, or so I keep remind­ing myself. But if I must pos­sess myself in patience, I must by the same token push myself for­ward and not allow myself to sim­ply wait for God to hand me a future all pre-pack­aged and ready-to-live. I need to prayer­ful­ly and active­ly make my life hap­pen.

One of the biggest stum­bling blocks for me is my rela­tion­ship to the Church. After years of oper­at­ing under the assump­tion that I would be liv­ing out my life as a pro­fes­sion­al holy man, the prospect of ama­teur holi­ness has proved impos­si­bly dif­fi­cult for me to engage. I seem to have been unable to trans­late my youth­ful piety and earnest sacra­men­tal devo­tion into a spir­i­tu­al prac­tice that fits my adult soul. And of course I strug­gle with this: am I wrong to expect my faith expe­ri­ence to ‘grow up’? Should I not rather be striv­ing to become “as a lit­tle child” in my spir­i­tu­al life? I don’t know, and so I have for all too long sim­ply let the ques­tion lie. And life cir­cum­stances have made it very easy for me to avoid any involve­ment in our parish that might make me feel like I was actu­al­ly a part of some­thing.

This needs to change. I am increas­ing­ly cer­tain that I want to lead a life that is deeply involved in and con­nect­ed with the Catholic Church, and it is time I began to dis­cov­er for myself what that means, rather than wait­ing idly to find out. This does­n’t have to mean any dras­tic steps, although by this point any step for­ward feels dras­tic. It could be as sim­ple as tak­ing on a litur­gi­cal rôle — I have long missed lec­tor­ing at Mass. Would there not be a lot of emo­tion­al bag­gage involved in set­ting foot in the sanc­tu­ary after sev­en years of exile? With­out a doubt, but it is time for me to real­ly start to move on in a tan­gi­ble way, and the most impor­tant way for me to do so is to redis­cov­er that I can be an active mem­ber of the Church with­out wear­ing a plas­tic col­lar around my neck. Once I do that, then maybe I can explore fur­ther what my Catholic­i­ty will mean for me in a larg­er way in the years ahead.