The first thing I noticed about the vocational discernment retreat was the median age of the guests, which I estimated at 65. Then I saw the girl in the wheelchair. I couldn’t put a name to her disability, but her legs appeared withered or stunted, and she was wearing child-sized shoes. Her hands, though normal-sized, were clenched, clawlike. In her late teens or early 20s, she looked like the youngest person in the room.
I knew the old chestnut about the Church being a hospital for sinners. But never before had I gathered under Church auspices with so many people who could pass for patients in a literal hospital.
As my fellow guests and I began mingling, I learned the grayheads weren’t discerning a call to religious life. They’d discerned it, answered it, and professed their solemn vows long ago. Today they’d come to cheer on the rest of us. But the outlook from the Church’s point of view was still bleak. Thanks probably to over-optimistic projections on someone’s part, the professed outnumbered the discerning by a ratio of about 1.5 to 1.
And what a scurvy lot we discerning were! Along with the wheelchair-bound girl — who, it turned out, was considering various Third Orders — there was a man in his 20s, shaped like an enormous pear, who had one white eyebrow and drooled. The most promising among us was a guy who’d converted either after, or in the course of, kicking a drug habit. He was friendly and clearly gung ho, but something about his entire person seemed blurred, as though it had been partially erased and redrawn.
And then there was me, a 37-year-old chain-smoker with a small mountain of credit-card debt and a misdemeanor conviction who binged at least thrice weekly on Mickey’s malt liquor and Sky vodka. By advertising the retreat through fliers, the diocese had apparently meant to cast its net as wide as possible. On a haul like this it could have starved.
Once we all got a good look at one another, having taken our places on the living-room couches in preparation for opening prayers, some responsible party must surely have felt horror, or at least disappointment. If any did, he hid it well. The mood was all smiles and welcome, as though USO hostesses had taken over the Mos Eisley cantina.
As much as the event organizers, I credit the Benedictine sisters who ran the convent where the retreat was being held. In his famous Rule, St. Benedict decrees: “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ” and met with “every mark of charity.” What follows is a lot of fine print about washing feet and kisses of peace. All of that must have been waived in our case, but I’m sure none of us missed it. Even without it, the sisters treated us as though we were the most interesting and important people ever to show up on their doorstep. I’ve forgotten all the sisters’ names by now, but I do remember their crisp brown smocks and their laughs, which came in great gusts, without warning, but didn’t seem calculated to conceal stres
It sets my teeth on edge when people get gooey and sentimental over consecrated women. It always seems to me the complexity of their lives is being badly served. But on short acquaintance, not going gooey can be mighty hard. Somehow, these sisters’ Benedictine spirit smoothed out the grotesquerie of our situation. So the gathering had more chiefs than Indians, so most of the Indians were too warped to be of much use to the tribe — big deal. We could still relax and enjoy one another.
Normally, such a thing, for me, would have been unimaginable. I tend to jolly and coax myself through life with illusions of my own adequacy. Seeing my dents reflected too brightly in fellow misfits’ chrome can paralyze me. But on retreat it didn’t. The Benedictine ladies’ ungrudging, un-condescending warmth, the sense they imparted that it really was their pleasure to serve us, precluded my feeling any shame.
For the next two days, I succeeded in losing myself in the spirit of the thing, talking at great length with a Sister of Notre Dame about the WNBA, and with a Christian Brother who claimed to have grown up in Hell’s Kitchen with Jimmy Coonan and Mickey Featherstone. (You know you’re still a New Yorker at heart when you accept a man’s mob ties as evidence of his good character.)
The retreat ran from Friday evening through Sunday morning. I bunked with the recovering addict and the drooler. Both nights, I was the last to fall asleep. Both nights, as I lay awake in that dark room, farts like a camel’s lowing blared from the drooler’s bed, filling me, to my surprise, with an almost paternal tenderness.
I don’t really know the upshot. By now, maybe the recovering addict, who had already endeared himself to the diocesan vocational director, is halfway through the seminary. That would be nice. It’s not impossible that the drooler found some religious order willing to take him on as a laybrother. That, in my opinion, would be even nicer — the world’s too hard on his kind. As for me, I came to understand that I’m not sacerdotal material. (In truth, I’d come to suspect that very strongly long before the retreat, but the point probably bore repeating.)
Ah, but there I go again, being Johnny Consequentialism, subjecting the pains taken on our behalf to a cost-benefit analysis — were they worth it? In the minds of the Benedictine sisters, they must have been. The word hospitality comes from hospes, Latin for guest, which is also the root of hospital. Go back far enough, and you won’t be able to tell a fun, healthy visitor from a poxed-up dependent. Benedictines ignore the distinction on general principle.
Their house was filled, and I mean filled, with religious tchotchkes. On practically every square inch of wall hung a crucifix, or an icon of St. Benedict, looking like an Armenian Jawa in that pointed cowl of his. Even their johns were decked thus. I’d almost swear the plate for the downstairs bathroom light switch featured an image of Benedict and Scholastica standing side-by-side, offering their joint blessing. Someone told me the community received these things as gifts, and couldn’t bear to throw any of them away. Kindness before taste — that’s hospitality in its gleaming essence.