This is a story about saints and signs, and how the right word to the right person at the right time can change a life.
At the beginning of 2011, I was brand-new to Catholic online media and utterly mesmerized by it. Everyone, writers and commenters alike, sounded insane – either ready to slit their bishops’ throats or as though they lived in some timeless paracosm where men wore wigs and scribbled with quills on parchment. I was in those days not terribly well disposed toward my own bishop, and had, for years running, been constructing my own vivid fantasy life with mortar mixed from nostalgia, paranoia, and vodka. Identifying with the worst in both sides felt like being locked in a fun house where I could experience the full range of emotions from pity to terror at varying distortions of my own reflection.
Don’t knock it – it felt more like life than anything I’d ever encountered in a cube farm or on a loading ramp. It also had the not-so-incidental benefit of spurring me to study the faith, if only to decide for myself which faction of lunatics had more on the ball. In pursuit of this goal, I ran across writers who sounded distinctly saner. One was John Allen, Jr. Still writing, in those days, for National Catholic Reporter, he seemed to earn his living persuading people like me that the sky wasn’t falling, despite all appearances to the contrary.
Another was Elizabeth Scalia.
Naming all the qualities that drew me to Elizabeth could take hours, but here’s a syllabus. She was a New Yorker – observed from the Sonora Desert, distinctions between Manhattan and the Guyland tend to blur. I knew from watching her on EWTN’s In the Arena that she spoke in an accent that stirred childhood memories of visits to my aunt’s house in Plainview. Though nearly a generation younger than my parents, she seemed to have climbed the same steps from lower-middle to upper-middle class, and, like them, had never really stopped thinking of herself as a neighborhood kid. Reading her thoughts on the Anchoress blog was a little like being present at the first Pentecost and hearing the Good News in my native tongue.
But sociology barely scratches the surface. Elizabeth seemed to embody the concept of having a life in the faith. Her faith was alive and life-giving. It didn’t make her brittle or self-righteous. More than someone to talk to when rendering apologies or begging favors, her God was mysterious, elastic, and interesting enough for her to talk about, with her son, while running errands in the car. His presence in her life was an ongoing domestic miracle, binding her loved ones in what looked like an enviably healthy way. Unwittingly, she penned her own epitaph when she wrote, of a beatus, “he could be holy without getting all freakish about it.”
That beatus was Piergiorgio Frassati. Even before reading Elizabeth’s panegyric, I had become familiar with him – as saints go, Piergiorgio cut an alarmingly accessible figure. I say “alarmingly” because the Turinese engineering student and Azione catolica activist reminded me of everyone I’d met at Tempe’s All Saints Catholic Newman Center. Neither Piergiorgio nor the Newman gang were a bit freakish. They were young and bright, in every sense of the word, and fairly sweated optimism and energy.
The Newmanites had always made a conscious effort to be nice to me; indeed, the consciousness involved in the effort was a little too plain to see. How, they seemed to be asking themselves, does one approach this feral ancient who smokes cigarettes? It was partly my discomfort at their discomfort that led me to hunt for kinship among the Internet cranks.
But Piergiorgio cast shadows, showed signs of having edges that were ever so slightly rough. He smoked, for one thing – a pipe, which on him seemed more like a habit than an affectation (which is how it looked on the young Evelyn Waugh). In the famous photo where he’s standing on an Alpine peak, he’s striking a heroic pose that verges on deliberate self-parody. He signed some of his personal letters “Robespierre,” which, for a politically active Catholic of his day, must have been a little like signing “Hitler” would be for anybody in ours – evidence he had a touch of the ghoul in him.
The upshot is that Piergiorgio appeared to me in three dimension – or nearly so, anyway. My attitude toward him was just as complex, a coin with admiration stamped on one side and envy on the other. It was the attitude you’d take toward a classmate who’s competing with you for top honors.You can’t ask a favor of such a person. That would upset the delicate balance of power between the two of you.
Asking a favor of Elizabeth was another matter, and I had a huge favor to ask. A couple of years earlier, I had resumed learning a trade I’d once thought beyond me: writing. Entering the Church was such a novel, emotionally fraught experience that it begged documentation. In the space of a few months, I managed to sell a few pieces to Busted Halo.
They were pretty amateurish, but one of them, an essay recounting my gradual realization that I had no business in the priesthood, contained the line “Tying the knot with Lady Poverty doesn’t mean much if your jagged career path has already made her into your common-law wife.” Not too long afterward, I ran across a similar line by another writer: “Like St. Francis of Assisi, I am wedded to poverty. However, in my case the marriage is not a success.”
The second writer was Oscar Wilde. Noting that my bon mot did not suffer too much in comparison with his encouraged me – probably more than it should have. Hey, do you want this sword back in the stone? No? All righty, then. Desperation will make you see signs everywhere.
That venue dried up after I got into an argument with the editor (who has since left his post). There didn’t seem to be too many others where I had any hope of publishing. If not right-wing priggish, they were left-wing priggish. If not dry and scholarly, they were sticky-sweet and insipid. None of the editors, as far as I could tell, would have let me get away with classifying incorrupt bodies as “all natural” or “waxed,” the way BH’s had. With no clear idea of what I expected, I dashed off a thousand-word piece on my personal blog and posted a link in Elizabeth’s combox.
She e-mailed me back to ask whether I’d meant to submit it to Patheos. Sure, I answered, why not. We got into a conversation – Elizabeth sounded exactly the way she did on her blog: fresh as a Granny Smith apple. She put me so much at ease that I ended up forgetting my job-interview manners and oversharing, or saying something smartassed.
“I really need to rethink publishing this,” she wrote back. “I can’t decide whether you’re friendly fire or wildfire.”
My heart, as they say, sank. But I decided to try to impress her as a good sport, so I answered, “To tell you the truth, neither can I.”
Piergiorgio Frassati was nowhere in my headspace at the time, but from some mysterious place came the idea of dropping his name. I have no clear recollection how I worked him into the letter, but in he fit.
In her very next letter, which arrived not five minutes later, Elizabeth responded, “You know what? I’ve thought about it, and I’d like you to write a weekly column.”
As I said before, desperation can make you see signs everywhere. Maybe Piergiorgio deserves less credit for bringing me to Patheos than I do for knowing how to work Elizabeth. But working people isn’t normally one of my strong points, and I could never have anticipated that Piergiorgio’s name would have an effect like the Jedi mind trick. Faith is a supernatural gift, but believing can be a conscious decision. And I’ve decided, a little to my chagrin, that I owe him one.
Perhaps I’m still desperate.
When I came back from hiatus, I asked Elizabeth if we could replace the thumbnail photo that goes with my blog. She agreed but balked when I offered the selfie from my Twitter account. Instead, she insisted on using one snapped by Pertev on the balcony of one of the Turkish schools where I taught. Before I’d even abandoned the fight, she had one of the graphics people “universalize” it by removing the cityscape from the background.
To my eye, it’s an inferior shot: I’m squinting, and my hair’s a mess. But there’s something about it that speaks to Elizabeth. Would I be seeing signs again, I wonder, if I were to hypothesize that it evokes for her somehow the photo where Piergiorgio’s standing on the mountain? I’ll have to ask someday. All she’s ever said was that I looked “fit and happy” — in other words, not freakish.