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Learning truth from fiction

I picked up a copy of Father Elijah on one of my recent bookstore trips (for the kids, honest!) and, as has been my practice of late, picked it up from my reading pile in lieu of some more heavy spiritual reading.  I’ve seen quotes from the book smattered here and there and while I’m not at all big on the apocalyptic genre of literature I figured this would at least be a light and entertaining read.

Let me first say that to get through this book you almost have to be Catholic, or at least quite open to the Catholic point of view across a variety of subjects – the author makes no pretense of a C.S. Lewis-esque “mere Christianity” – the main character is Catholic through and through.  To be honest, it took me a while to get used to such unvarnished expressions of orthodox Catholic faith; when I noticed this I knew I wasn’t quite getting what I had expected.  Since this isn’t a book report, I’ll condense the story to this: chapter after chapter I witnessed someone tempted and tortured, sometimes almost to the breaking point, but always falling back to find strength in Christ through his weakness.  I kept thinking to myself, “you know, I’m making this whole thing out to be way harder than it really is”.

Towards the end of the book the main character, Father Elijah, is having a rather intense discussion with an angel.  In this discussion I finally got the message.  Elijah, beaten, exhausted and spiritually worn out says to the angel, “I want to die.”  The angel replies, in a statement that struck me like a cold hand, “Now we can begin.”

For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Cor 12:10

I’ve been spending these last few months trying to figure out a way to be a “normal” Catholic.  I know that for some, in particular I imagine cradle Catholics, that concept seems pretty strange.  Forget not that I spent the first twenty-some years of my life with no religious formation at all, so even as I increase my book smarts I can be downright street stupid when it comes to the day-to-day living of this Catholic life.  This all runs back to one seemingly infinitesimal event in the very beginning of my life as a Catholic.

Not altogether long out of RCIA – we’re talking months here, not years – I was invited to the rectory to have dinner with the priests at my then-parish.  It was a wonderful way to expose someone deeply contemplating the priesthood to what life is like for priests outside of office hours.  Dinner was had and we sat down to some Scotch and conversation.  I remember not how we got there nor even what the exact topic was, but I made some sort of rather flat statement of how things ought to be done – according to the book.  One of the priests laughed a bit and said, “well remember, you’re still a zealot – that’ll wear off after a while.”  A zealot – i.e. someone not quite completely sober and mature in his judgment.  That statement, probably only part-serious, struck me to the core and made me wonder, “do I really know what I’m getting myself into?”  This question was not just about the priesthood, but about the very axis on which my life was spinning, my life as a Catholic – maybe in my zeal to “do it right” I’d missed some more pragmatic solutions.  A seed was planted.

As I said, I’ve been spending the last few months trying to figure out how to be a “normal” Catholic – not “nominal”, just “normal”.  It’s very easy for me to go way overboard on something – easier, in fact, than to do something with moderation.  There has been a constant tension in my life, to strive for the extra-ordinary and be judged odd or live in the “normal” if slightly above average and blend in.  I’ve been wondering, “is what I’m doing too much?  Am I asking too much of myself and those around me?  Am I trying to solve the world all on my own?”  So some of the more peculiar things (the major offices of the Breviary, fasting on Fridays, etc.) I’ve picked up over the years got packed away – useful experiments, but something from which it was time to move on.

Then I read this book.  It was supposed to be something that just relaxed my mind from the stressful day and helped form my now-very dormant writing skills.  It wasn’t supposed to change my life, it wasn’t even supposed to scratch the surface.  But to read Elijah over and over again coming back to the Lord for strength and solace and guidance, to see him take on those particularly Catholic practices like fasting, praying the Breviary or imploring help from the saints … And then realizing there is nothing wrong or odd or immature about this.  All this striving for “normal” has been a striving for precisely not-normal.  Sometimes, despite the fact you’re the only one around doing something, you just might not be way off on a tangent somewhere.

Then I read those two lines above, and my mind went to the quote from St. Paul.  The lesson doesn’t fit cleanly into words, but it goes something like this:  God gave us all a gift – use it, even if nobody around you is.  Don’t try to find the geometric center of life in all aspects – Christianity, at its core, is an extreme calling.  We are asked to give up everything and then have faith that it will be given back to us tenfold (I think, in particular, of the Parable of the Talents, Mt. 25.14-30).  If you find yourself drawn to something just a little bit out of the ordinary, a little deeper than usual, take a step out in faith and try it.  The world needs those who are willing to be extraordinary for Christ.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Mike February 25, 2010, 1:59 pm

    Peter, I pray that you will never be a “normal” Catholic. Thanks for adding to my reading list.

  • saintos February 25, 2010, 2:48 pm

    Be peculiar. Peculiar is the Catholic normal. God bless you as you are both/and – as it were.

  • frival February 27, 2010, 5:39 pm

    I wanted to thank you both for your encouragement. This world can draw you in so many different directions and all of them look good in one way or for some time – the encouragement and correction of fellow members of His Body the Church are so unbelievably necessary for as weak a soul as am I.

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