Saturday, March 21, 2009

Who will carry the cross?

Last night I finished the book Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith, by Joe Eszterhas. It is the story of his return to the Catholic Church. I liked the book a lot because, in equal parts, it inspired and angered me, sometimes I was angered at him and sometimes angered with him at certain things, especially things that happen in the Church. I was glad that I balanced out reading this book by continuing to read Giussani, who never downplays the human dimension. It is a very authentic book. While it is autobiographical, it is not an autobiography. It is a conversion tale, a memoir of faith, as the sub-title indicates. The main theme is about what it means for Eszterhas to have new life in Christ. For most everyone there is what Giussani calls the determined moment, the moment when the scales fall off your eyes and you can see, the event that becomes an encounter.

My moment occurred in a bedroom in the house of a friend's parents. It happened while I was in college, after a night of pretty serious partying, while her Dad and Mom were out-of-town. It was in the fall. The backyard of the house abutted the Ogden City cemetery. The moon was full. I was lying on top of the bed and moonlight illumined the crucifix on the wall opposite the bed. I let my eyes look at it. I contemplated it. As I looked at the object, the corpus went from being a thing to a Him, a person. I started to reflect on my life, where I was going, what I was going to do. After a little while, I got off the bed, took a couple of steps, and knelt down. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. I cannot remember what I said exactly, but it was something like, "I believe in you. I know you love me. Show me where to go, what to do." I did not achieve any great insight in that moment, apart from the knowledge of God's love for me, shown in Christ's sacrifice on the cross, which is the most important insight in the world. It did not become clear to me what I should major in, what career or vocational path to pursue, but I was changed. The change did not become immediately apparent, even to me. I remember thinking the next day that something really happened, but I did not know what. Over the next year and half things unfolded in my life that I am sure now, as I was at the time, were happening as a result of that sincere moment.

What I like most about this book is that Eszterhas makes it clear that when you are converted, it is you who is changed, but not all at once, it is a process, a sometimes slow and even painful one. This means that when you come to faith in Christ Jesus all of your troubles do not go away. Again, what changes is you, how you deal with the circumstances in which you find yourself. Make no mistake, this once notorious Hollywood figure, author of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, experienced a miracle of healing. By the time his miracle occurs, he has come to see that this is not the greatest miracle he has experienced; the real miracle is what God has done for us in Christ and our faith in this fact. Looking back, he sees the incredible faith of his long-dead mother, who was afflicted with schizophrenia, who died a slow and painful death from cancer, but who was grateful and prayerful to the very end of a life of suffering, a life of carrying the cross.

Another, improbable exemplar of faith for him is a man he calls "Loody". Loody is a wealthy and successful movie producer, with whom Eszterhas had gone drinking, toking, snorting, and whoring. One Saturday evening, after his conversion, quite by chance, he runs into Loody at Mass while visiting California (he moved back to his native Ohio). It seems he never knew that his friend was a devoted Catholic, if not a particularly exemplary one. I laughed because for anyone who has dealt with people, people are always people no matter what situation they are in. One of the stories Eszterhas relates about his friend, with whom he wants to do a film on St. Juan Diego and the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to him, is when they went to supper in Palm Springs. Loody, who is tremendously devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe, asks their Hispanic waiter if he believes in Our Lady of Guadalupe. The waiter answered that he did. As they were leaving, the waiter showed them a laminated card of Our Lady of Guadalupe that was attached to his key chain, and then he showed them pictures of his kids. Lastly, he kissed the image of Our Lady. Eszterhas' friend then reached into his pockets and gave the waiter all the money he had, which amounted to $200. The waiter tried refusing the money, but the giver was insistent. After prevailing on the reluctant waiter to take the money, he said, "Buy some toys for the kids. Nothing else, understand? No booze, no pills, no broads, no ponies, no Lotto. Just toys for the kids." The waiter agreed to the conditions and the generous friend said, "And thank Our Lady for it."

As a deacon, I cannot but relate a funny episode in the book that has to do with the deacon in Eszterhas' parish in Ohio. After Eszterhas had unsuccessfully launched a one man campaign to end the deification of LeBron James by Nike and his hometown Cavaliers, who were blasphemously promoting LeBron as the new messiah, Deacon Fred gave a homily actually comparing LeBron's visit to a Cleveland playground to Jesus visting the towns and villages of ancient Galilee, using the advertising slogans. Eszterhas, who ultimately develops a fondness for Deacon Fred, writes, "On my way home, I resolved that next Sunday I was going to bring my Cavs rally towel to Mass instead of my rosary. And they would say: 'Did you hear? Did you hear what happened? Did you hear the news? He strangled Deacon Fred with it. Right there in church!'"

It was one of two books given to me by a dear brother, a parishioner, who himself returned to the faith after many years away. Together, we are going to begin a ministry in our parish aimed at Catholics who have been away and now are either back, want to come back, or who are thinking about coming back. It is primarily going to be a listening ministry. I expect to hear more stories, like Joe Eszterhas'. Eszterhas gives one of the best rationales for the existence and necessity of the Church: "We must help one another with our crosses. Because every time we help someone with a cross, we help Him with His." This reminds me of a question I was asked after my talk in Seattle last fall. It was asked by a man, a computer scientist, finishing his Ph.d, who was worried about his co-workers thinking he was nuts for being a believer. He wondered if telling his skeptical co-workers that "The church is where I can hurt the way I need to" counts as evangelism. I told him I would be hard-pressed to think of a better definition and utterly incapable of a more honest one.

My dear friend, Riro, who is like a benevolent big brother to me, my link to Giussani, who is the lead vocalist on yesterday's traditio song, which he co-wrote, recently wrote to me: "We are blessed people - as screwed up as all yet chosen and blessed. So that above and beyond all our limitations and weaknesses the Human Glory of Christ is made visible in the world." The real miracle, one that Eszterhas also grasps, is that God chooses what, in the language of his book he would call "eff"-ups. The three of us are on solid biblical ground with this assertion: "So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:7-10- underlining and emboldening mine).

I also want to point to two other good things today: with a deep diaconal bow to Fred, whose steady friendship I cherish, Peter Gabriel's Don't Give Up, sung in duet by Sinead O'Connor and Willie, as well as Sharon's post on the whole dust-up over condoms and HIV transmission in Africa. I guess the empiricists aren't so empirical after all, this is what happens when you are in the grips of a preconception. You become ideological when your abstractions and theories discount and reduce the humanity of others. Pray for the Holy Father, who is surely a servant of the Truth and who speaks out of love.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this post. I kept changing my mind which part to tag (delicious has a word limit)! Thanks for sharing your conversion story too. This mercy piece can be so hard to get, maybe especially for a cradle Catholic. I always practiced, but sometimes felt far away. Once I had this overwhelming experience of mercy, when I was sick in pregnancy and received the Sacrament, and it changed everything. Four years later, when I first met CL, reading something from Giussani, I realized that here was that place that would put mercy in front of me first and only all the time.


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