I seldom travel on business but Wednesday I did, a one-day round trip to Nashville. I had about twenty minutes to speak at a sales conference, and eighteen hours to think. Flying above the southern Connecticut coast in the early east light, I marveled at the land and river waters undulating away from the plane to the left, toward Long Island Sound. I turned from the view to my reading, the Easter edition of Traces, worldwide journal of Communion and Liberation (CL).
I became absorbed in a series of stories of CL founder Msgr. Luigi Giussani, who died five years ago. I also read about Russian poetess Ol’ga Sedakova, about the Turin Shroud, about an extraordinary man of charity from Ivory Coast, and about St. Bridget of Sweden, whose favorite prayer was, “Lord, show me your path and dispose my heart to follow it.”
Suspended 34,000 feet above ground, totally in the embrace of the Almighty, it is quite easy to realize the truth of these words from Pope Benedict, printed on the cover of this month’s Traces: “Conversion to Christ ultimately means this: to exit the illusion of self-sufficiency in order to discover and accept one’s own need, the need of others and God, the need of His forgiveness and His friendship.” The need, I thought, for Him to fly this plane.
Down there on the ground, the illusion of self-sufficiency takes hold, persuading me slyly that I do not need, that I am able to do and direct my own existence. Up here, I can feel my own fragility, my contingency, and look down on the puny scale of my ordinary life. It is ironic, as I thumb through Traces, to come upon a review of the George Clooney movie “Up in the Air,” about a businessman who escapes responsibility by flying endlessly. On Wednesday, I feel a different kind of responsibility by flying once in a great while.
Ridges of cumulus form over the Jersey shore, like drifted snow melting in the rising sun. In the lengthy article by Fr. Julián Carrón, successor to Don Giussani, there is a striking idea, repeated several times: Before “I tried to put what happened in a pre-defined grid” … Now “the grid is blown away” …”"I don’t remain in the grid, adding something” … “The risk of saying, ‘I understand,’ and putting a label on what happens, making it fit into the grid, is always lurking” … “Christianity does not fit into the grid.”
Below me now is the grid of the Appalachian chain, an uncountable collection of ant hills, an ant farm stretching toward the horizontal slash of a distant river, which cuts across the landscape as surely as Christ cut into history and is a presence here today. “The problem,” writes Father Carrón, taking off from Dostoevsky, “isn’t whether a cultured man of our times can believe in the divinity of Christ, but that without a cultured man, that is, without a man who uses all his reason and all his capacity for freedom, there cannot be real faith—one cannot reasonably affirm Christ, except as an addition to the grid, like a hat put on an already perfectly constituted ‘I’.”
East of Nashville, prior to landing, the grid has become a patchwork of fields, seemingly hedged off from one another, a bit like the tiny grazing spaces of the Aran Islands, cleared of stone slivers and walled off with structures made from those slivers. I do not especially want to be here, on a trajectory toward a 20-minute meeting that promises little meaning, instead of being happily ensconced in my home work space near Katie and within sight of my garden. But “Lord, show me your path and dispose my heart to follow it.”
We land in the grid—browner and drier from the ground than when viewed from above—with oil slicks layers on the tarmac. If any clouds are visible from above, they are only a haze here.
Later, I am sitting outside a Starbucks at the head of Concourse C, waiting for business associates to arrive on another flight. I am reading about the man from Ivory Coast more carefully now. His life was in ruins when he encountered Christ. Thirty years later, he has helped free 150,000 fellow citizens from mental illness and some from a barbaric traditional custom of being chained to tree trunks. Gregoire Ahongbonon was rescued from his former life by a priest and words from a homily: “Every Christian participates in building the Church, placing his own stone.”
In worshiping at St. Mary’s, in participating in CL and our weekly men’s group, in visiting homebound elderly parishioners, in teaching CCD to 4th graders, the presence of Christ can be palpable to me. But where is Christ here, now, outside a Nashville Starbucks, deep in the grid?
My friends have arrived. I guess I’ll find out.