Tuesday, September 4, 2007
So this evening a few old and new friends from the local Catholic Worker house came over to my place for a while, and it was so nice to be able to reconnect, talk with like-minded people of similar age, and listen to how they are putting their energies into really trying to be men and women of peace and simplicity and of protest against a popular culture that seems to be constantly on the verge of implosion under the weight of its collective ego. Each person in the conversation has stories of spending weeks or months or years in Central America or Africa, working in another language, and working with some very marginal people. On that last note, I again find myself restless at the thought of the kind of life they and I lead. Hopefully this doesn't have roots in the old ego-serving concepts like how difficult the work is, so that I could feel more heroic if I worked in more trying circumstances, but given the immensity of immediate needs around the world, for food, vaccinations, basic literacy, and so on, it makes me aware what a luxury it is to have the time and means to do theology, to offer ministerial services to students, to have all the resources I have at my fingertips. My Catholic Worker friends generally do very earthy but very important works: maintenance work at a nursing home, teaching at an alternative high school, advocacy with a local community organization, running a food line for hungry people, letting homeless people crash on their couches. Perhaps part of me envies that kind of earthiness, but on the other hand, I have to acknowledge that I have some measure of aptitude for doing theological work, and that I am retreating into solitude more and more frequently as I get older. I wouldn't really want to go home to the noise and controlled chaos that is the usual Catholic Worker house, nor do I think I would best make use of my abilities by spending my days directing janitorial staff or piddling through algebra I (but I have done so before, and kudos to those who do it). I have no notions that I am accomplishing something magical by spending a lot of time in silence, and I can't even claim that I am developing some kind of spiritual depth that my friends aren't getting because they are too "active." On the contrary -- I feel less and less like I have made any kind of "progress" (whatever that means) in the religious life, institutionally speaking, or in the spiritual life, existentially speaking. My every action still seems to proceed from amazingly selfish motives, or better yet, from an addiction to the cult of ME. Even tonight, I am ashamed at how much I tried to "compete" (unsuccessfully) with the experiences the others have had, how hard I tried to sound wise or to sound theologically sophisticated or to turn the conversation back to myself. There is the true monastic ideal of "contemptus mundi" -- contempt for the world -- not hating secular things or living in some rarefied (and false) holiness, but freeing oneself from attachment to the images of success that are held up for us: degrees earned, countries visited, languages mastered, and so on. What will it take to crack through the seemingly endless layers of self-defense mechanisms that just can't stand the fact that I am not the smartest or wisest or most talented guy in the room?