Why the World Loves A Ham

In considering Fr. Corapi’s appeal, Fr. Dwight Longenecker makes the point that sanctity and flamboyance are easy to conflate — fatally so. The truly devout and holy are easy to miss, and often prefer it that way:

It’s nauseating. Stop and consider that the real saints are hidden. They follow the little way. If you were to tell them they were a saint they would laugh and tell you to keep searching. If you even had the sense and discernment to see the saint next to you–the ordinary person who perseveres–the little person who serves others–the plain Jane who takes life easily and simply loves people, then you would learn again what true holiness really is. If we only had eyes to see the simplicity of the saints, the extraordinary ordinariness of holiness, the practical good humor and humility of the truly grace filled ones.

Ah, yes. The old Messiah-in-the-manger trick — oldest in the Book. The truth is, by any conventional measure, holiness is easily mistaken for dullness. The qualities that attract me most include good looks; a nimble wit (the more inclined to lacerate, the better); good fashion sense; erudition; self-confidence; and that quality the military calls command presence — a natural ability to make people what you want them to do. If the call to holiness doesn’t require that these qualities be smothered, it offers no great encouragement to advertise them, either.

I’m certain I overlook some very holy people on a regular basis. Almost two years ago, I went on a vocational discernment retreat at a Benedictine monastery. A number of women religious from various orders also attended, in the hope of drumming up recruits. To a woman, I found them almost unearthly in their placidity — especially the ones from Latin America and the Phillipines. I’ve been warned that calling an Asian woman “demure” is a little like calling a Jewish person “clever,” but in the case of these sisters, it’s the only word that fits. The effect was a mixture of attraction, repulsion and oblivion. Though I found them easy to admire from afar and in the abstract, they unnerved me at close range. Today, I find myself unable to remember even one of their names.

Back in May, I had cocktails with a Catholic theologian and writer who enjoys the good opinion of his peers, but has a relatively low public profile. He was quiet, thoughtful and listened — to an idiot like me, mind — far more than he talked. Since I had expected him to hold forth in a booming voice like George Weigel on In the Arena, his modesty caught me completely off guard, and even made me wonder whether I was being mocked. George Lois tells us if we’ve got it, we’re meant to flaunt it Failure to flaunt looks like coyness, or a determination that the audience isn’t worth the performance.

What I’m talking about here isn’t so simple, or so purely negative, as an absence of charm. Up close and personal, I tend to underwhelm, and I welcome fellow dorks as fellow travelers. It was Pope Benedict’s introversion, his visible discomfort facing crowds, that endeared him to me in a way that John Paul II’s people-friendliness could never have done. You can try to tell me that Parkinson’s disease is a bigger handicap for a pontiff than a marked preference for playing Mozart for a few good friends, but I don’t have to buy it.

No, what baffles and sometimes repels me is the principled determination to shrink. Catholics like to speak of the emptying of self, but to me it’s always looked more like downsizing. The emptied self takes up less space than the standard model. It affords more space to other people. It certainly demands little in the way of recognition and validation.

Well and good. But for me, at least, this also makes it harder to see or take hold of. On meeting someone for the first time, I ask myself, “What are this person‘s ego needs? What does he want for himself?” One motive is simple curiosity; for most people, “I want“ and “I am“ are one and the same, or at least very close. Another motive is enlightened self-interest: knowing how to make a person happy means knowing how to make him like me.

If the person‘s tamped down his ego needs, or balanced them with a commitment to living the Gospel, well, everything suddenly becomes very complicated. All the concepts that govern relationships — the very notions of knowing and liking or being liked by — get turned sideways. In one sense, a person with a studiously emptied self is very easy to understand: he wants to be good and Christlike — any questions? But winning the person‘s particular affections becomes harder; if he‘s determined to be charitable to all people, where can any single person find a special place to cache himself?

This, I think, goes a long way toward explaining the allure of the showboat evangelist. At some level, audiences recognize that he wants something. His goals may not be as venal as Corapi’s have turned out to be; he may simply crave applause, or enjoy the sound of his own voice. He may be after some wholly respectable reward, like the comfort that comes from connecting with — and belonging to — a great mass of people. Even when people aren’t consciously aware of the need, they respond to it — in the best cases by offering their hearts; in the worst, their money.

The best homilist I’ve ever heard — and having entered the Church at a Dominican parish, I’ve known some pulpit aces — was a deeply conflicted guy who’d been in and out of psychotherapy for most of his adult life. At close range, his defenses came up, and he could be surly. At a distance, where he perceived no threat, he played the wounded healer, offering his own pain and struggles as inspiration to others. And you know what? It worked. People loved him enough to weather his snits and wait for the good stuff. When he left, he was roundly mourned. His successor was no slouch as a preacher, probably a better administrator, and more pastoral, withal, by any conventional definition. But he was less easily knowable, and therefore less tangible. That made the difference.

Howard Stern describes himself as a self-hating megalomaniac. He should be glad for that. If he were a self-emptying saint, he might never have made it out of Roosevelt.

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  • Joji

    Your blogs are really great and balanced. But somehow I find it difficult to agree with Fr. Dwlight. There will always be little ones. Flamboyance or fan following may or may not accompany sainthood. There were Kings and extremely wealthy people who were saints and there were many outspoken people who were saints, starting with St. Paul, St. Jerome. What to really look for is, if the person pointing to himself or to Jesus. Like the bright star that lead the wise men to Jesus. Solomon was made flamboyant by God himself. “Will anybody light a candle and put it under the bed”. It is God who lights and lifts the saints. Mother Theresa had too many followers and admirers all over the world. If one person who would acts as a witness for Christ in the modern era for the humanity as a whole, it is she. She was even given Nobel prize

  • LindaF

    Whatever order had been at that Retreat? That simply doesn’t describe the sisters I have known. It doesn’t describe my daughter, the sister – those who know her best call her a “live wire”. She’s outgoing, funny, and not afraid to speak her mind. Not unlike most of the sisters I know.