The Lenten season led me to an uncomfortable examination of my life. Not that anyone’s examination of their life is meant to be comfortable. I’ve poured over the classic texts of a number of wisdom traditions and have never found any that proclaimed, “Blessed are the comfortable,” or “Thou shalt be comfortable.” Quite the contrary.
In the spirit of the season, I attended a day-long retreat entitled Responding to Fear and the Crises of our Time with the Spirituality of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton, led by Franciscan friar, Father Daniel P. Horan, OFM—more about that a little further on.
By the end of the retreat, my mind was going a hundred miles an hour (when I open my eyes in the morning, it’s usually idling somewhere between 35 and 40 MPH—ask anyone who has been in my vicinity when I awaken). I had just a few hours to calm down before going to the theatre with friends
I’m not entirely unused to such leaps of culture and consciousness.
In the mid-1980’s, I chaperoned a Fourth of July picnic in Griffith Park for my church’s largely immigrant / first generation youth group. I served for four years as a volunteer youth minister, details another time. The students were Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadorian, and Honduran and to have any credibility with them, I had to learn to make these distinctions or listen to the kids say dismissively, “You gringos think we’re all just Mexicans.”
After that picnic, I had about 45 minutes to drive to Beverly Hills to attend a second picnic at Rod Stewart’s estate. The difference between the two environments is as pronounced as those of Kansas and Oz.
Stewart was absent; his estranged wife, Alana, hosted the festivities. Alana was a client of the talent management company I worked for or I never would have been on the guest list.
I arrived to find Jack Nicholson, Angelica Huston, the Collins sisters—actress Joan and author Jackie, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, Sean Penn, Dyan Cannon, Farrah Fawcett, and my client, Melanie Griffith, among others, variously chatting in the living room, hanging out on the terrace, lounging around the pool, or ordering drinks at the downstairs bar.
The Stewart estate has a formal ballroom, decorated with stunning pre-Raphaelite paintings which would look at home in London’s Tate Museum; there is also an “informal” discotheque downstairs where we celebrated our country’s independence that afternoon. Alana explained to me, in her distinctive Texas drawl, that the disco had a more “picnic feel” to it and, “Didn’t I think so, too?”
Early in the evening (outdoor fireworks had not begun), Huston and Griffith could be observed dancing beneath the colored lights in the center of the disco floor, not so much together as adjacent to one another, each woman apparently caught up in her own reverie, although, from time to time one would amiably acknowledge the presence of the other. Without warning, a strap on Angelica’s dress broke briefly exposing one of her breasts. As she quickly covered the bare breast with her arms—without, by the way, losing her cool for even a millisecond —Melanie, swooped down in perfect time with the music, recovered the dangling strap and handed it to Ms. Huston who, with casual aplomb, wrapped the strap behind her neck. The two enchantresses danced until the music ended and then retreated, giggling, to repair the dress. Maybe mermaids and sylphs really do exist.
I visited Alana’s home one other time for a New Year’s Eve party which was held in the formal ballroom. I’ll limit my description of the evening to one indelible image: as the clock struck twelve, there was infamous LSD advocate, Dr. Timothy Leary dancing with Vanna White, the Wheel of Fortune letter turner, as the band struck up “Auld Lang Syne,” and balloons floated down from on high.
People ask me, “How do you remember these things?” I respond, “How, in God’s name could I ever forget?”
During that same period I represented Willem Dafoe—the nicest, most down-to-earth actor I ever worked with.
Willem’s performance as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Niko Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ is wrenching and extraordinary; if you haven’t seen it, please do. The film is raw and gritty unlike the pious 1950’s and 60’s biblical epics like King of Kings where someone thought it a good idea to shave Jesus’s armpits before nailing him to the cross and the film’s uncredited narrator, unmistakably the voice of Orson Welles, made the curious artistic decision to pronounce the heretofore silent “t” in the word “apostle”.
Christian church groups were scandalized by The Last Temptation of Christ before they saw it—if they ever did. Both Willem and Scorsese endured threats and condemnation. The controversy centered on the revelation that the Messiah had genitals—I have no doubt that there are believers to whom it has never occurred that Jesus had them—and is thereby tempted by ordinary (not evil) human desires.
Christ’s last temptation, as imagined by Kazantzakis, takes place on the cross. Christ experiences an alternative reality where he weds Mary Magdalene, and lives out his life comfortably as an ordinary man. He learns on his deathbed that he was deceived by Satan and begs God to let him be His (God’s) son. The dream ends and Jesus awakens still on the cross.
I’ve brooded a lot over the years about the temptation to live a comfortable life (God knows my life is not, by any stretch of the imagination, ordinary) and the unsettling call to abandon it.
One of the scriptures that has always spoken most deeply to me is the story of the rich young man which is reported in all three synoptic gospels— Matthew 19: 16-23, Mark 10: 17-22, Luke 18: 18-23.
Mark’s gospel, the earliest narrative, has a detail not present in the other two and that detail haunts me.
As he (Jesus) was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good. No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall no bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.” He replied and said to him, “All of these I have observed since my youth.” Jesus looking at him, loving him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; come then, follow me.” At that statement his face fell and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Mark’s gospel alone says that Jesus, “looking at the man, loved him.” This always gives me chills.
The man not only turns away from the invitation to follow Jesus but from Jesus’s proffered love. There are few passages in the gospels that speak explicitly of Jesus loving an individual.
A few evenings prior to the retreat, I attended a screening of the film “Ignatio de Loyola,” the story of the founder of the Jesuits (Society of Jesus). I was delighted by how good it was—with the exception of the sequence where Ignatius defends his Spiritual Exercises before the Inquisition (if condemned he will be judged a heretic and burned at the stake); it seemed to go on forever. But it probably felt like that to Ignatius, too.
Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Ignatius of Loyola did not “turn away sad”; they literally obeyed Jesus’s invitation to, as Father Horan remarked at the retreat, “embrace risk, vulnerability and a precarious life.”
To Catholic school boys of my generation, Ignatius and Francis of Assisi were akin to Marvel superheroes. There were even comic books about them; apparently, there still are (although now they are called graphic novels).
A romantic sense of these saints still whirls away in the adolescent recesses of my psyche, not too far a distance from Superman and the Lone Ranger. Hero-worship might not be too strong a term to apply to the projections adolescent Catholic boys (at least this one) placed on these saints.
Mark’s gospel was very much on my mind when I attended the Saturday retreat.
Father Horan—he refers to himself as “the millennial Franciscan”—focused the day on Francis’s and Merton’s approach to privilege, racism, violence, poverty and xenophobia (which I had not realized literally means “fear of foreigners” or in a broader sense, “fear of the other.”) That’s a lot for one day.
It’s sobering to spend a day reflecting on how much of the world’s suffering and violence is rooted in the “fear of the other.”
Father Horan, God bless him, wasted no time in debunking some of the romantic myths about St. Francis that have been with me since childhood.
Francis, I discovered, never said, “Preach the gospel at all times and, if absolutely necessary use words.” What he did say was, “Let the brothers teach with their deeds,” which is pretty much the gist of Reza Aslan’s sermon on the Epistle of James at the same venue a few weeks earlier.
I had not known that Francis said, “God sent me brothers; I didn’t ask for them.” I’ve often wondered if one of the reasons Jesus went off so often to be alone (sometimes the scriptures say he “escaped”) was that he needed respite from the company of his disciples.
Most helpful to me was Father Horan’s reminder of Saint Francis’s exhortation to the brethren in his community, “Don’t imitate me and what I do; that’s mine to do! Rather, each of you ask God every day, “What is yours to do.”
Writing in his journal, March 16, 1968, which I happened upon just days before the retreat, Thomas Merton says,
“Almost every day I have to write a letter to someone refusing an invitation to attend a conference, or a workshop, or give a talk on contemplative life, or poetry, etc. I can see more and more clearly how for me this would be a sheer waste . . . participation in a common delusion. (For others, no: they have the grace and mission to go around talking.)”
Here is a “God shot.” Merton names and affirms my vocation: “the grace and mission to go around talking.” That’s mine to do!
Father Horan devoted the afternoon to Thomas Merton. As he quoted from Merton’s writings on racism and civil rights, I was struck by the similarity of Merton’s writings to those of James Baldwin.
I asked Father Horan if Merton and Baldwin had met and he referred me to Merton’s book, “Seeds of Destruction.”
I found the book on a shelf in my office. As I thumbed through the book, I discovered that Merton had included a letter to Baldwin. This may not thrill everybody, but it thrills me.
Both Baldwin and Merton write with the immediacy and urgency of prophets. There is no past tense. Everything they write about is happening now; the names, dates, and locations may have changed, but truth is truth and it doesn’t change or adapt to fashion.
When I got home from the retreat I found a gift in my mailbox that put the day and, most important, my concerns about God’s relationship with me in perfect perspective. One of my dearest friends on earth recently discovered that I had never read the children’s classic, The Runaway Bunny, and sent it to me. As I read this piece of sacred literature (I’m not joking; it’s inspired!), I was reminded of the 12-Step acronym, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid!
I had an appointment with my barber a few days after the retreat. Felix, his name means “joy” and it suits him perfectly, is a Mexican-American in his early 30’s. His grandfather taught him to cut hair when he was a teenager in Tijuana. He has a green card, in case any of you were wondering, and is due to be sworn in as a citizen the first week in June. I hope I can attend. He and his wife have a four month old daughter, Olive Maria. Felix shows me new pictures of her whenever I visit his shop. This little girl will never want for love.
While he was cutting my hair, Felix got unusually serious, put down his scissors, and said,
“Jim can I ask you a question? It’s about my mother. You know she has cancer, right?”
“You’ve told me.”
“She’s had over 22 chemotherapy treatments.”
I had never asked what kind of cancer his mother has.
“She was diagnosed with Stage 4C ovarian cancer two and a half years ago.” I thought to myself, that’s not possible.
“She has little tumors—the doctor said they look like little chocolate chip cookies. They’re all around, but so far they are staying calm.”
I’ve been being treated for prostate cancer for nearly 20 years and no doctor has ever described tumors as looking like little chocolate chip cookies.
“The problem is my mother keeps making friends with other patients during chemotherapy. She stays in touch with them after they finish treatment. Jim, do you think this is good for her?”
Before I could answer Felix continued.
“She even visits them at home and in hospice. She’s always asking me or my brother or my sister to drive her. Five of her friends have passed over, but then she makes friends with new people in chemotherapy and visits them. Is this healthy?”
“Does she enjoy doing it?” I asked.
“I think it’s too much! Her doctor called her and asked her if she could talk to a group of chemotherapy patients because they’re so depressed and she’s so positive. She told him she could come ‘right now.’ He said, ‘No, no, Maria, it will take a few days to arrange.’”
“Jim,” Felix said, “She would have dropped everything and gone that minute.”
“Does she enjoy doing it?” I asked again.
“She loves it. Why do you think that is?”
Felix and his family are devout Christians in the healthiest sense of the word—“they teach with their deeds.”
“Maybe, being of service makes her happy.”
“It does,” Felix beamed. “It always does.”
“Then why should she stop?”
“You think it’s all right.”
“I think your mother is a saint.”
Ask every day, “What is mine to do.”
SKISS! (Saints Keep It Simple, Stupid.)
“For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” ~Thomas Merton