If you work out at the gym or walk the dog for exercise, and feel the need for some adrenaline, enjoy this ridiculous sport in which energetic young men race down mountains on mountain bikes, starting at the very top, on the glaciers, and ending at the very bottom, in some little village. It takes about 30 minutes of concentration and a bit of luck to make it to the bottom in one piece.
I can’t recall any instance in my secular life where someone, faced with dealing with a perpetually annoying person, shrugged and said “Look, in 20 years he’ll be gone, let him do his thing, treat him kindly, and later someone else can do a better job of it. Patience!”
Being accustomed to working in NYC I was accustomed to people being promptly fired if they didn’t please the boss. And if a new boss arrived, one had to adapt or be fired.
But even in daily life I never heard someone say about a noisy or nosy neighbor, “She’ll die one day, and then we’ll have a different neighbor with other quirks. Meanwhile, charity and patience.” Usually one either brainstormed mock revenges or called in complaints or confronted the neighbors directly.
So the first time I encountered the patient approach I was startled. A young priest discovered that every 9am Sunday Mass at his new parish was animated by an adorable elderly couple playing peppy guitar and drums. However, since they had been playing for decades and were elderly, he shrugged and carried on, letting them have the pleasure of their service for a few more years, though it was a far cry from the kind of music appropriate for the Mass. Hearing of this I remember thinking, but why not just fire them?
Once this remarkable idea had entered my head I found it explained many things in parishes, including lengthy periods of patience with insufferable people of all sorts. It probably explains the patience others have had with me, too!! It explains, perhaps, even the striking attitude towards gardening I encountered once, when I came upon some young men with shears cutting down a flowering vine. Why not, I inquired, cut down only the weeds, and leave the pretty flowers to grow? Ah, but it all grows back! one responded. And so it does.
But in any case I’ve lately begun to think of all the interminable ‘crises’ in the Church as much more easily understood if one takes this long view. The radicals of the 60s will soon be gone. The beloved customs that were banned by heavy handed revolutionary enthusiasms will grow back, if they were worthy of being beloved. We can try to extirpate the Word of God through neglect or direct assault, but the gates of hell cannot prevail, and we would do well to trust far more in God’s infinite power and majesty than fret that our feeble vanities do much damage beyond potentially damning our own souls.
A friend and I had a laugh last night, watching some video interviews with an interesting old man, and ruing the presence of the video-maker/interviewer, whose interruptions, asides, interpretations and questions only distracted from the engaging presence of the old man.
Then I could only think of more examples: most vividly recalling going to a panel discussion featuring several authors I had read. I was so excited to hear more from them. Except the moderator was a motor-mouth whose enthusiasm carried on throughout the entire 90 minutes, such that we mostly heard him talk about how amazing the panel was and how excited he was to have such luminaries in his presence, and the luminaries barely got a word in edgewise.
Similarly, I recently watched a couple of video interviews with interesting, sensitive subjects (in the sense that they had complex, delicate and subtle things to say), where the enthusiastic interviewer ignored all the interesting parts, interrupted frequently, and kept asking crass, unsubtle questions that had obvious answers and didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to talk to someones who knew far more about the subject than he did.
This has only pushed me lately, in reading, to read primary sources! And to have a tendency to skip the introduction, author’s reflection, translator’s thoughts, and so on in a work. Those bits can go on for 150 pages before you get to the part you actually want to read, and they spend most of that time telling you how to engage with the poem or whatever it is. Sometimes the front matter (or equally copious concluding material) is interesting to read in itself, especially after having first read the original text for oneself.
[Some commentators, on the other hand, have a depth of wisdom in and of themselves that makes their ponderings on a primary text amazing to read. Like St. Augustine. But that’s rather rare.]
Everyone seems to think they are right. And I do, too. Weird, right? This is why people have arguments over Thanksgiving dinner. I keep noticing, however, how much of what we say has no basis in fact. I wonder sometimes if it counts as lying. It’s not ill-intentioned, but it’s garbage.
I suppose there’s some leeway for courtesy and trying to make others feel better, but I would think it better to just listen than to invent random things and pretend you are quite certain of them. Then again, if we didn’t say useless things we wouldn’t have much to say, would we?
The other day someone said that to talk about oneself is the most tedious conversation killer. Perhaps they were imagining those people who drone on and on and never pause for a breath. But I think how often people desperately wish to be acknowledged and listened to. Maybe the droners and the desperate are not the same individuals. But maybe the droners are the desperate, clinging to their listeners like drowning men.
It seems like garbage, however, to respond to babble-streams by merely nodding and smiling. Surely you are lying. If you really find it fascinating, by all means nod and smile! But if not, then what? Why not respond with some anecdotes of your own that engage with what the other is saying? I mean, you can’t talk (ill) about others, which eliminated another big chunk of regular subject matter.
It also seems awkward to be the kind of person who feels obliged to pick apart everything the other person says and show them why it’s wrong. This seems just as true if the person has a clear misunderstanding of some factual knowledge (like the behavior of vultures), as if the person is ‘wrong’ in the sense of having a disagreeable stance on some controversial issue.
Nor does it seem appropriate to make sure you clarify your position on any subject that comes up, just to make sure everyone knows where you stand. Who cares?
As I once joked during Lent, if we practice the monastic tips on guarding the tongue there’s nearly nothing to do but praise God. All other speech is pretty much a waste of time or veering towards sin. Am I right?
A theme that recurs in some stories of saints is how their peers resented them for their piety, or for their efforts to reform the convent when they were in a position of leadership. I’ve run across another example today, from the story of Our Lady of Good Success, in Quito, Ecuador. One of the foundresses of the convent, Mother Mariana, was opposed early on by a group of nuns who wanted an easier religious life instead of the strict Franciscan rule that was kept at the time (this is in 1500-something). The ‘nonobservant’ nuns plot to get the bishop to take over rule of the convent, and to demote and imprison the prioress, Mother Mariana.
What was fascinating was that the convent had (and presumably still has, since the convent still exists and is still the home of the same religious order) a prison within it, a large room (nearly 400 feet long), complete with sleeping platforms, stocks, prayer books, and shackles. And so the imprisoned mystic – and eventually many of the nuns who supported her – were shut in there for some weeks or months on several occasions, where they carried on in piety and charity while the mean girl nuns taunted them.
This rang a bell, as it were, remembering dozens of similar tales: St. John of the Cross (imprisoned and tortured), St. Joseph of Cupertino (imprisoned); Saint Benedict (attempted poisoning)… I thought I’d try googling for a list of saints who were threatened with harm by their own brethren or superiors, but it was too hard to define well for the search engine. The attempt did reveal that “saints who were sinners” is one of the most popular saints-related searches.
Sometimes when I talk to people about this kind of story they are happy to hear that not all people aspiring to holiness are doing very well; others are inspired by the perseverance in charity of those being afflicted by their ill-intentioned peers. Perhaps perseverance in charity is only inspiring if it seems like something possible for oneself, even if one isn’t there yet?
All this put me in mind of a ponder: what makes a saint admirable to someone? Or even, taking away the detail of sanctity, what makes another person admirable? Thinking of my own experience, I can’t think of any examples that clarify what I think. So I’ll let that simmer until something comes up.
Why do odd details remain in memory? I remember fragments of dreams and moments from childhood, some with greater clarity than more recent memories. Why are they kept so vividly? I have deep sensory memories of the spindles of a dining room chair, the glitter of a formica counter, the warmth of sunlight on a wooden floor.
Or the smell of gym mats, the alternating enthusiasm and confusion felt during a children’s martial arts class, the green color that grape jelly makes when put on your scrambled eggs.
What about the spiral metal of a screen door (through which small children view the world like cloistered nuns)? The surprise of white filling in an orange popsicle. The double popsicles, always neatly broken in two to share. The glittery tassels on girlfriends’ bicycles. The rattling soda straws on younger brothers’ tricycles.
A dream in which I walked along the top of a low wall, following my mother to the store, only to look up and see that she was now far, far ahead, out of range of my voice.
The sound of typewriters in an office below our apartment; the circling splashes of light on the walls as cars passed by outside; a swan in a pond at the park.
These moments of strangeness or anxiety seem most common in times of new experiences, especially in early childhood when simple things like a visit to the neighbors or a trip to the store were full of novelty.
Just today I saw a quote from St. Augustine about the profundity and expanse of memory that struck me. I can’t find it again now, though, so it will have to remain half-remembered for the time being.
The more intense memories now seem to be those of God. I marvel sometimes to see little children who have a life of prayer. I didn’t, though I can see in hindsight a constant clumsy seeking, and the constant intercession of Our Lady and my Guardian Angel, unrecognized at the time. But these more recent memories of God’s mystery and love and intimacy are more vivid now than the faded strangenesses of long ago. Sometimes it seems even the long-ago memories are colored by that new wonder and tenderness, as if my whole life has been infused with His mercy.
To file under ‘who knew?’
My hair dresser of ten years died a few months ago. Of appendicitis. He was in his forties, fit, and much loved by friends, family and colleagues.
His sudden disappearance from Whatsapp was the first sign something was wrong. I had an appointment in two days and pinged him to confirm the time. No reply. On the day of the appointment I called the salon to double check the time. They said he had to have a minor unscheduled surgery and would be back soon. That was an odd answer. I called Brazilian bluff on that: the tendency to tell cheerfully optimistic stories in the face of grave situations. The more optimistic the people are, the worse the actual scenario, in my experience.
I worried for a few days, then called again to check in. Not to worry! He’d be back at work soon! Soon, what? Like a couple days? Who has unscheduled surgery that is minor? What could it be, a sudden toothache? An ingrown toenail? He fell down and needed stitches?
Still no noise on Whatsapp, which meant he couldn’t hold his phone. That wasn’t ‘minor.’
Then one day a photo came in on his Whatsapp: a photo of someone in a hospital (their face not in the picture) holding a sign encouraging blood donation. “Are you alive? What happened?” I wrote back, writing it in a half-teasing, half-serious tone. Nothing.
And then one morning I got a phone call from the lady who cuts my hair. That’s always bad news. Brazilians never phone me (at least) unless it’s an emergency of some sort. You can brace yourself just hearing the phone ring. Silvio had died. The conditions were unclear, but the funeral was scheduled for the next day.
Only later, after multiple versions of the story, did I find out what happened.
Apparently his brother had died of covid the week before he got sick, and he was quite worried about also getting covid and dying from it. He stayed home that week grieving his brother and also avoiding contact with people for worry of getting sick. So when he came down with some abdominal pain, and even when it escalated to fever and severe pain he didn’t leave the house to have it looked at. Only when it was so intolerable and his abdomen was reddened with infection did he finally go to the hospital. They did an emergency appendectomy but the infection had already spread and couldn’t be controlled by antibiotics. He died a week later.
I woke up sad thinking about him this morning, and out of curiosity looked up ‘deaths from appendicitis,’ since I’d never heard of anyone dying of it. Apparently a few dozen per year do, though.
At night little ants climb into my electric tea kettle to drink. If I forget to rinse the tea kettle in the morning I end up with Mint Tea with Ants, the new specialty.
I love the smell of country air. In the mountains in Brazil, in the drier zones, the smell is a wonderful ever-changing palette of pine, juniper, herbs and flowers. In the damper zones, such as around the city of Rio, the moist earth and heavy foliage have their own distinct smell, accompanied by seasonal wafts of flowers, fruit and rotting fruit, rain, and salt spray. One of the most startling is the smell of the flowers of the Cannonball tree. The prolific flowers grow directly from the trunk, enveloping the tree in garlands of pink. The flowers smell like roses, though without the delicate timidity of many (hybrid?) roses.
We were waiting by the stables for a rental horse ride in rural Brazil. When we arrived a competent looking man was leaving, and said our guide was running just a bit late. “Late like ten more minutes or half an hour?” I asked. “Oh, not half an hour. Maybe ten minutes!” I assumed he had a terrible sense of time and was also being optimistic and tripled the estimate.
About 20 minutes later a man stomped through the gate. He was broad-shouldered and neckless. As he climbed the short driveway he swung his clenched arms in the air and gave a couple of howling roars. I assumed he might be a non-verbal disabled man, perhaps a relative of someone who lived nearby. Once he reached us he stammered some not terribly coherent conversation. It took a few minutes to understand that this was our guide. We frowned at each other in great doubt, but sat patiently near the stables while he stomped around swearing (gently) and howling at the horses, who were not interested in being in a hurry.
By day two we had become accustomed to his alternating grunts, howls, roars and conversation. He appeared to be, after all, someone of fairly normal mental function and good intentions, and the odd noises were simply his enthusiastic expressions of frustration when any minor difficulty was met. He was also, perhaps, socially awkward and shy, and so he seemed much more normal by the end of the second day when we drew him out with friendly conversation about horses, the weather, the route, and so on: “What is this plant good for? Does it have fruit?” I asked. “It’s good for giving thorns,” he grumbled.
In any case, we soon decided he reminded us totally of Shrek. And once that image was in our minds we couldn’t shake it, so Shrek he will remain.