To Find Christ in the Grid

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.


    Oh! Do tell, Webster. What did you discover ther in Nashville? What surprises dis you encountr at the conference? I shall stay tuned… Pax Christi.

  • Webster Bull

    @Mujerlatina,Well, of course, once in the grid of Nashville (the pressure of a business meeting, new faces to meet and great, etc.) I forgot all about everything! A three-hour whirlwind of getting "there," being "there," and leaving "there." Finally, back at the airport, I "came to" and had a lovely 30-minute conversation with two waitresses on break: Jodit from Ethiopia and Merft from Egypt. The joy of that encounter was worth the entire trip. On the plane ride home, it was dark and I slept. Back home at 1:30 am.


    Okay, Webster. Now your two encounters will require two posts: one on the Ethiopian Catholic Church and the "Lost Ark" and Desert Fathers; the second on the Egyptian Catholic Rite. I have patients from both countries and know that the roots of Catholicism there are ancient. I am convinced you are to post on these two ancient Churches… The waitresses were merely angels-in-disguise. :)

  • Webster Bull

    You crack me up, Doc. Whether they were angels or not, and I'm not betting against it, I truly enjoyed my half-hour with them more than any of the business encounters earlier in the day. But no, have mercy, I will not be using this space to lecture on the Ethiopian Church!

  • James

    My son's 1st semester roommate was an Egyptian Coptic Christian and a gentle and pious young man. My curiosity piqued I researched the Coptics and learned something of their rich and beautiful tradition. I guess I'll have to investigate the Ethiopian Church now. I love how travel (business or otherwise) gives us an opportunity to step outside of ourselves and view the world from a different perspective. I have to admit though that I'm a little unclear on the grid concept – at least in this context.

  • Webster Bull

    @James,Nice to hear from you. Admittedly, I played with the idea of the grid a bit here, perhaps too loosely. But I think Carón's point is that most of us take religion like a hat we put on, an add-on, an embellishment to our ordinary lives, like an ID card in our wallet: "I'm a Catholic" and that's enough. Jesus Christ can bring our lives to an entirely different place, can "blow away the grid." But we have to understand this, see the grid, and place our faith in context.

  • Warren Jewell

    'Twould seem to me that if the grid has to hold – and, only God can say that it does or does not, really – our faith must embellish every 'wall' in the grid to which we would have access. We enter, we hang our heart on our sleeve and deal with what God would have of us in that sector of this grid.Goes Christ really blow away the grid, if it is an aspect acceptable to life and Himself? Or, does He instead 'breathe us' into another set of sectors – higher up, perhaps, and better able to show us His will and love?I don't know much about Copts and/or Athanasian Egyptians, but I know even less about this grid. Just where did you get to know of it, find its meaning and explanation, etc., that I might research it myself?

  • Webster Bull

    Warren,This grid is a metaphor employed by Fr. Carron in his essay, and interpreted over-liberally, I suppose, by Webster Bull in his post. While I don't pretend to speak for Fr. Carron, I know that Webster Bull conflated at least two meanings of "grid" in this musing: (1) the grid visible from the plane, which suggested to WB the warp and woof of daily existence, the mesh in which we get caught almost every moment, forgetting what's really important, what's above us, "overhead"; and (2) the inner grid, if you will, of a person's mindset (which I think is closer to Fr. Carron's meaning). It is this inner grid, this griddedness, if you will, of our thinking that may get in the way of a real encounter with Christ. We want to add "religion" to the preexisting grid of our personality and perception, like a rose worn in the lapel of an old suit. Fr. Carron and CL are proposing something different.That's the best I can do after a long Sunday….