My Real Career: Fool in Christ?

The letter opened on an ominous note. “Dear Max,” wrote the manager. “I wanted to let you know the result of your interview.” Without further ado, she let fall the axe: “We met another candidate that we feel is the fit that we are looking for, so we are going to proceed in that direction.”

Then her tone turned conciliatory, even sweet. “We all really appreciated you and your thoughtful answers and your obvious talent and interest in our company,” she wrote. “We all express how we would love to sit and chat with you and learn from you in a different atmosphere.” She concluded: “You are very intriguing.”

The job would have paid me decent money to write promotional web copy, something I already do for pretty close to peanuts. Naturally, I felt sorry for myself. But for a moment or two I felt sorrier for the manager. She obviously hated having to deliver the bad news, and seemed worried about how I might take it. The letter arrived in my box right at the close of business on Friday, which suggested she’d put off writing it all afternoon.

She needn’t have worried. The moment I sat down at the table across from her and the two other interviewers, I knew I had no more chance of landing the job than I had of being appointed gonfalonier of the pope’s army. All three of my interlocutors wore the bemused, slightly alarmed look of people watching an amputee unstrap a prosthetic limb. By now I’m used to it, just as I’m used to fielding compliments like “intriguing,” which are really euphemisms for “weirder than hell.”

One winter when I was about 10, I developed a cold sore on each corner of my mouth. They felt enormous, and I imagined them growing until they sealed my mouth completely. To prevent this from happening, I took to opening my mouth as wide as I could, the way I did while yawning, but with extra violence. It became a habit, which survived both the cold sores and the winter and earned me the nickname “Pac Man.”

At some point before puberty, I managed to outgrow the tic, but I’m convinced the damage was already done. Somehow, by gobbling all those phantom energy pellets, I’d tweaked my aura permanently. Even without mossy teeth or bad breath or an age-inappropriate passion for Pokemon cards, I have, ever since, given the impression of being off by a few vital degrees.

If there’s a pattern to my eccentricity, I’ve never been able to spot it. All I can do is cite discreet instances where I crossed some invisible line. One day in grad school, I was sitting in the front row of a lecture hall with my knapsack on the table in front of me. A woman took the seat next to mine; figuring she’d need space for her books, I swept the knapsack off the table and onto the floor. Behind me, I heard muffled laughter. It was my friend, Changeez. When the lecture was over, I asked him what, exactly, was so goddamned funny.

“Brother,” he said. “You looked like Billy Dee Williams in that Colt 45 commercial, the one where he yanks the tablecloth out from under the bottles.” So my sweeping gesture was too gallant for a 500-level class in media law — how was I supposed to know?

Being an oddball has its advantages. I’ve never been bullied. A close relative of mine, who spent 10 years in the Florida penal system — including a stretch at the maximum-security prison where Ted Bundy met Old Sparky — once told me that the most brutal, nihilistic inmates turned suddenly shy around anyone they suspected of being crazy. But no mistake, my weirdness has confined me to an occupational ghetto. Lacking both people skills and any Temple Grandin-level technical gift, I’ve been stuck doing jobs that, for good reason, most sensible people avoid. If JFK could call himself a Berliner, then I can say with at least as much justification, “¡Soy Mexicano!”

It now occurs to me that this sense of myself as an irredeemable, largely indigestible kook is what’s really keeping me Catholic. Catholic culture is varied and intricate, and my experience of it is still too limited to admit of any bold pronouncements. Still, it should be obvious that the Church attracts people who are willing to devote their spare time, perhaps their careers, to pursuits that will never get them rich or laid. Normal this ain’t. Mastering many of these pursuits — in particular theology, canon law, and liturgy — demands a degree of detail orientation that falls somewhere between fussiness and obsession. This is a space where geeks tend to gather. Of course, not all geeks are weirdos; nor are all weirdos geeks. But there’s enough overlap that I feel less of a marked man among liturgists than I would in the company, say, of investment bankers.

I’ve heard that certain Russian Orthodox mendicants used to style themselves yurodivye, or fools in Christ. I won’t pretend to understand the requirements of the role very well, but I think the basic idea was for a person of normal intelligence to scorn the world’s expectations by acting as though he suffered from some developmental disability. Maybe no similar tradition exists in the Western Church, but I’d bet that the examples of canonized goofballs like Ss. Francis and Joan of Arc, together with good, old-fashioned charity, encourage Catholics to read a positive spin into quirky behavior.

On Holy Saturday, the year I was serving as an RCIA sponsor, I woke up late. That Lent, i’d sworn off booze, and indulging for the first time in six weeks, at the end of a day of fasting, had knocked me flatter than an Escalade squashes a jackrabbit. Remembering I was supposed to join the candidates and other sponsors for a morning retreat, I drove hell for leather to the Montessori school where the retreat was being held. Anxious as I was, I walked through the wrong door, tripping the alarm.

But I noticed this only later. As soon as I passed through the school into the grassy, tree-shaded playground where the retreatants were waiting, my attention was diverted by a tortoise penned up with a bowl of water and a plate of lettuce. The thing was huge, probably ancient, and the sight of it so stunned and absorbed me that I just had to take a knee and murmur a greeting.

My candidate was absolutely tickled. “You’re, like, this…random vector!” he told me, beaming, after I apologized for my tardiness. The word Franciscan, as a descriptor for a personality type that combines a fascination for animals with a general flakiness, had not yet entered his vocabulary. But I got the impression that if it had, he’d have used it on me.

Anyway, one thing the Church definitely does offer us flakes is material with which to construct a rich inner life — about as good a substitute for upward mobility as any. Arriving at the office for my interview, I was greeted by one of the veteran writers, a pale blonde wearing Spanx leggings either despite or because of the advanced state of her pregnancy. Straight off, in my mind, I painted her in red, flanked by Magi. As associations go, that’s got to rank a notch above “Hey, it’s Gwynneth Paltrow!”

Monday Mourning Coming Down
Lent and the Lame Evangelist
Valentine’s Day: For Some, 50 Shades of Blue
The Crusades and Yearning for Christendom
  • Alana de kock

    I so relate, what a brilliant piece! Being Catholic not only ups flakiness it also embraces what you already had.
    But Max, what the hell are spanx? Everyone told you they’re called leggings…

  • Fabio P.Barbieri

    The Church has a place and a use for EVERYONE. That is one thing that honked off the Protestant Macaulay:
    It is impossible to deny that the polity of the Church of Rome is the very master-piece of human wisdom. In truth, nothing but such a polity could, against such assaults, have borne up such doctrines. The experience of twelve hundred eventful years, the ingenuity and patient care of forty generations of statesmen, have improved that polity to such perfection that, among the contrivances which have been devised for deceiving and oppressing mankind, it occupies the highest place. The stronger our conviction that reason and scripture were decidedly on the side of Protestantism, the greater is the reluctant admiration with which we regard that system of tactics against which reason and scripture were employed in vain.

    If we went at large into this most interesting subject we should fill volumes. We will, therefore, at present, advert to only one important part of the policy of the Church of Rome. She thoroughly understands, what no other Church has ever understood, how to deal with enthusiasts. In some sects, particularly in infant sects, enthusiasm is suffered to be rampant. In other sects, particularly in sects long established and richly endowed, it is regarded with aversion. The Catholic Church neither submits to enthusiasm nor proscribes it, but uses it. She considers it as a great moving force which in itself, like the muscular power of a fine horse, is neither good nor evil, but which may be so directed as to produce great good or great evil; and she assumes the direction to herself. It would be absurd to run down a horse like a wolf. It would be still more absurd to let him run wild, breaking fences, and trampling down passengers. The rational course is to subjugate his will without impairing his vigour, to teach him to obey the rein, and then to urge him to full speed. When once he knows his master, he is valuable in proportion to his strength and spirit. Just such has been the system of the Church of Rome with regard to enthusiasts. She knows that, when religious feelings have obtained the complete empire of the mind, they impart a strange energy, that they raise men above the dominion of pain and pleasure, that obloquy becomes glory, that death itself is contemplated only as the beginning of a higher and happier life. She knows that a person in this state is no object of contempt. He may be vulgar, ignorant, visionary, extravagant; but he will do and suffer things which it is for her interest that somebody should do and suffer, yet from which calm and sober-minded men would shrink. She accordingly enlists him in her service, assigns to him some forlorn hope, in which intrepidity and impetuosity are more wanted than judgment and self-command, and sends him forth with her benedictions and her applause.

    In England it not unfrequently happens that a tinker or coal-heaver hears a sermon or falls in with a tract which alarms him about the state of his soul. If he be a man of excitable nerves and strong imagination, he thinks himself given over to the Evil Power. He doubts whether he has not committed the unpardonable sin. He imputes every wild fancy that springs up in his mind to the whisper of a fiend. His sleep is broken by dreams of the great judgment-seat, the open books, and the unquenchable fire. If, in order to escape from these vexing thoughts, he flies to amusement or to licentious indulgence, the delusive relief only makes his misery darker and more hopeless. At length a turn takes place. He is reconciled to his offended Maker. To borrow the fine imagery of one who had himself been thus tried, he emerges from the Valley of the Shadow of Death, from the dark land of gins and snares, of quagmires and precipices, of evil spirits and ravenous beasts. The sunshine is on his path. He ascends the Delectable Mountains, and catches from their summit a distant view of the shining city which is the end of his pilgrimage. Then arises in his mind a natural and surely not a censurable desire, to impart to others the thoughts of which his own heart is full, to warn the careless, to comfort those who are troubled in spirit. The impulse which urges him to devote his whole life to the teaching of religion is a strong passion in the guise of a duty. He exhorts his neighbours; and, if he be a man of strong parts, he often does so with great effect. He pleads as if he were pleading for his life, with tears, and pathetic gestures, and burning words; and he soon finds with delight, not perhaps wholly unmixed with the alloy of human infirmity, that his rude eloquence rouses and melts hearers who sleep very composedly while the rector preaches on the apostolical succession. Zeal for God, love for his fellow-creatures, pleasure in the exercise of his newly discovered powers, impel him to become a preacher. He has no quarrel with the establishment, no objection to its formularies, its government, or its vestments. He would gladly be admitted among its humblest ministers, but, admitted or rejected, he feels that his vocation is determined. His orders have come down to him, not through a long and doubtful series of Arian and Popish bishops, but direct from on high. His commission is the same that on the Mountain of Ascension was given to the Eleven. Nor will he, for lack of human credentials, spare to deliver the glorious message with which he is charged by the true Head of the Church. For a man thus minded, there is within the pale of the establishment no place. He has been at no college; he cannot construe a Greek author or write a Latin theme; and he is told that, if he remains in the communion of the Church, he must do so as a hearer, and that, if he is resolved to be a teacher, he must begin by being a schismatic. His choice is soon made. He harangues on Tower Hill or in Smithfield. A congregation is formed. A licence is obtained. A plain brick building, with a desk and benches, is run up, and named Ebenezer or Bethel. In a few weeks the Church has lost for ever a hundred families, not one of which entertained the least scruple about her articles, her liturgy, her government, or her ceremonies.

    Far different is the policy of Rome. The ignorant enthusiast whom the Anglican Church makes an enemy, and whatever the polite and learned may think, a most dangerous enemy, the Catholic Church makes a champion. She bids him nurse his beard, covers him with a gown and hood of coarse dark stuff, ties a rope round his waist, and sends him forth to teach in her name. He costs her nothing. He takes not a ducat away from the revenues of her beneficed clergy. He lives by the alms of those who respect his spiritual character, and are grateful for his instructions. He preaches, not exactly in the style of Massillon, but in a way which moves the passions of uneducated hearers; and all his influence is employed to strengthen the Church of which he is a minister. To that Church he becomes as strongly attached as any of the cardinals whose scarlet carriages and liveries crowd the entrance of the palace on the Quirinal. In this way the Church of Rome unites in herself all the strength of establishment, and all the strength of dissent. With the utmost pomp of a dominant hierarchy above, she has all the energy of the voluntary system below. It would be easy to mention very recent instances in which the hearts of hundreds of thousands, estranged from her by the selfishness, sloth, and cowardice of the beneficed clergy, have been brought back by the zeal of the begging friars.

    Even for female agency there is a place in her system. To devout women she assigns spiritual functions, dignities, and magistracies. In our country, if a noble lady is moved by more than ordinary zeal for the propagation of religion, the chance is that, though she may disapprove of no doctrine or ceremony of the Established Church, she will end by giving her name to a new schism. If a pious and benevolent woman enters the cells of a prison to pray with the most unhappy and degraded of her own sex, she does so without any authority from the Church. No line of action is traced out for her; and it is well if the Ordinary does not complain of her intrusion, and if the Bishop does not shake his head at such irregular benevolence. At Rome, the Countess of Huntingdon would have a place in the calendar as St. Selina, and Mrs. Fry would be foundress and first Superior of the Blessed Order of Sisters of the Gaols.

    Place Ignatius Loyola at Oxford. He is certain to become the head of a formidable secession. Place John Wesley at Rome. He is certain to be the first General of a new society devoted to the interests and honour of the Church. Place St. Theresa in London. Her restless enthusiasm ferments into madness, not untinctured with craft. She becomes the prophetess, the mother of the faithful, holds disputations with the devil, issues sealed pardons to her adorers, and lies in of the Shiloh. Place Joanna Southcote at Rome. She founds an order of barefooted Carmelites, every one of whom is ready to suffer martyrdom for the Church; a solemn service is consecrated to her memory; and her statue, placed over the holy water, strikes the eye of every stranger who enters St. Peter’s.

  • Lin

    Max, verily the image of you widening your mouth to stave off the advancement of the cold sores will stay with me a while. And the tick, ah, the tick – how appropriate a metaphor for all the craziness, the weirdoes in us (uh, I mean, in ME, my bad for the plural). I swear that this whole reflection of yours has occurred to me once or twice in the past, like a déjà vu. I also remember it was during one of my musings on the”ticks”, you know, the ones that belongs to no one but you and your personal history, that I suddenly understood the “hope” of the theological virtues. Until then, it was the vaguest and most abstract of all Three to me.

  • Jo Ann

    Thank you for the Macauly quote, Fabio!

  • Maryette

    The Church is the original Big Tent, Max—a place where freaks, geeks, and weirdos can mingle with their normal brethren. Sometimes the normal ones are even kind enough to find us amusing instead of scary. Yay!

  • Bryan

    Why? Why was this so damn funny? The thing with the tortoise?

  • Nicholas

    Fabio: can you give a citation for that passage by Macaulay? I see an addition to the family library in the offing….

  • Gia

    That’s why I want the Capuchin friar Cardinal O’Malley as pope — a touch of Francis is what we all need right now, a reverence for life, a simplicity of spirit, a purity of faith and a safe place for those a couple of ticks off center. ;)

  • Wow

    This is my first time reading your blog, but wow! In addition to St. Francis, I couldn’t help thinking of John the Baptist, Joan of Arc, and all the other beloved weirdos in the Catholic tradition. You are in good (i.e., “intriguing”) company.

  • GeekLady

    The thing with the tortoise isn’t funny per se… but it is delightful, and we laugh from delight as much as we laugh from amusement. I would have laughed at the backpack sweeping too, and for the same reason.

  • V

    Yes. My conversion to Catholicism is the first time I have found a religious social group entirely devoted to nerdy weird people. To put this into perspective– I converted from Neo-Paganism. I used to be proud of being in the silliest looking religion– yet most of my coreligionists used to look at me oddly, and were skeptical of anyone who actually believed what they claimed.

    Now that I’m home, well… my new brothers and sisters in Christ have the grace to at least laugh at my antics– and sometimes even sympathize with my weirdness! Most of my friends from my old life still don’t believe most of my stories. They somehow think I’ve gotten into the world’s largest Calvinistic/Pelagian cult with lots of cool doodads, and a Pope, to boot. Patience, patience, saith the Lord. In His time, not mine.

  • Fabio P.Barbieri

    To everyone who asked: the Macaulay passage is from his review of “Ranke’s History of the Popes”, in his “Critical and Historical Essays, Volume 2″. They can be found in Project Gutenberg, in, alas, quite an ugly format.

  • Manny

    Hey, we’re all weird in some way. But I sympathize. I have felt different my entire life. Not sure if that’s universal, which would be ironic.

  • df

    Really excellent. I would guess that you find it not so difficult to identify with Chesterton’s wilder side, and characters in Flannery O’Connor stories. Have a great Triduum!