To the Pit Crew on My Faith Journey

To the Pit Crew on My Faith Journey November 21, 2012

So I check Facebook this morning and see that Joanne McPortland has posted a link. I click it and discover she’s written a piece listing all the people who’ve distinguished themselves as guides and fellow travelers on her faith journey. Just for a joke, I checked for my name; like a perfect punch line, there it was! Joanne writes:

Max Lindenman (standing for all my Patheos Catholic Channel peeps). Max’s blog helped draw me back into the Church with the best of all possible lures—laughter and wicked mad writing skills. Max’s friendship convinced me to blog, built me an audience, pushed me to define and redefine what I believe, and called me (sometimes painfully) to account when I was careless or inaccurate in expression. Subsisting as he does on a diet of roller food and cigarettes, Max could use a good meal, and his store of anecdotes about the Weird Sh*t which with we are both obsessed would make sure the conversation never flags. All the Catholic Patheosi (and a number of those from other faith channels) contribute to, educate me in, and nurture my faith on a day-to-day basis for which I can never thank them enough, but this virtual table has only so much room. And I’m hoping Max will bring his amazing Mom, her boyfriend Bob, and a mess of Stupid Pies.

Well, at least now I won’t have to grope for things to write about. Like Joanne, I’ve needed my own pit crew on this faith journey of mine, and it’s time I called a few of them up for some applause.

Sister X:

I’ve alluded to her in at least half a dozen pieces. This is Sister of St. Agnes who, three years ago, morally bulldozed me into sharing Thanksgiving dinner with herself and some other Sisters; the Sister for the sake of whose comforting advice I nearly led myself and my baptismal candidate into a ghetto shoot-out; the Sister who, despite having less experience in the mating game than many modern 13-year-olds, put her dainty little finger on the fatal flaw in a failed relationship of mine. But no story does her justice like this one:

On Good Friday, 2007, she joined a crowd of parishioners who followed a scaled-down cross through the ASU campus and up Tempe Butte. It was my first Good Friday, and my first public expression of faith. I was feeling like a horse’s ass — till that day, I’d thought this kind of thing was strictly for fundies. As we trooped past Stauffer Hall, former headquarters of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, I overheard some guy say something about drinking Kool-Aid. With hindsight, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt — maybe he was hot. Maybe he liked soul food. But at the time, I took it as a dig at religion and was ready to throw down.

Just then I noticed Sr. X walking beside me. Her head was bowed, her hands were clasped in front of her, and she was singing, “Were You There When You Crucified My Lord?” in her godawful Wisconsin accent. She looked so caught up in the moment, so un self-conscious and un-ironical, and her tiny feet looked so cute in her Birkenstocks, that I cleared my mind and sang along.

After we’d wrapped up the last Station — I think we did the extra one, the 14th, where Jesus is resurrected, but I could be wrong — I looked around for her. But she was gone. Later, I found out that her mother had died that morning and that someone had found her and passed her the news. Without causing a ripple, she’d slipped away to book a flight home for the funeral.

I’m not sure whether that’s grace under pressure or Grace under pressure. Either way, it’s pretty impressive.

Fr. Y:

With Romney defeated, I can say it out loud: whenever I see a nice, normal, well-mannered white guy in front of an altar, my heart sags a little. Objectively, I know he’s earned his collar; but, being a marginal weirdo, I’d like to see a few more like me in positions of authority. It would give me more confidence that our Church is truly catholic.

My very first pastor, Fr. Y, so overfilled this bill that he spoiled me for all other priests. Mad as a hatter and — it was widely known, though never spoken of above a whisper — gay as a goose, he combined waspishness with an intensity that made him appear capable of killing someone at the turn of a card. If you can imagine a younger, fit Joe Pesci starring in The Richard Simmons Story, you’re on the right track.

In the pulpit, he wasn’t shy about mentioning his personal demons. The gay stuff he left alone, but the rest — family problems, frustrations with authority, the deep offense he took at social injustice and sometimes at mortality itself — he treated as fair game. Every once in a while, he’d work in a lesson from one of his therapists. As the son of a psychoanalyst (and as a sometime analysand), I heartily approved. Mind you, he managed to relate every single one of these Oprah moments to the Gospel reading in a way that seemed natural and logical. When I thought about the priesthood, it was this man’s shoes — not infrequently, his Crocs — I challenged myself to fill.

Fr. Y and I never clicked on a personal level. For some reason, he pegged me as a smartass. The dance of approach and avoidance we performed whenever we crossed paths was my first lesson that this whole business of building relationships and having authentic human encounters was going to be hell on the nerves.

He stood only five-three, and he made his height the basis for the best pulpit punch line I’ve ever heard. The build-up went something like this: as a seminarian, Fr. Y was assigned to assist at some parish in Anchorage whose pastor had a reputation as a wit. Reporting for duty, he found the pastor in the sacristy. Since the man’s back was turned, Fr. Y tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hi, I’m Brother Y, your new assistant.” Turning to face him, the pastor screamed in mock-horror: “MY GOD, THEY’VE SENT ME THE INFANT OF PRAGUE!”

I’ve since learned he’d been telling this story since his ordination. As a writer, I’m relieved to know even superstars recycle their material.

The Patheos Gang:

Not so long ago, when I was blogging about religious affairs at Open Salon and submitting occasional pieces to Busted Halo and National Catholic Reporter, I looked up to Mark Shea, Greg Kandra and Dwight Longenecker like demigods. They were real opinion-makers, serene and untouchable. I was just a wannabe. That all changed on Super Bowl Sunday, 2011, when, just for the hell of it, I stopped in the Anchoress’ combox and posted a link to something I’d written. To my surprise, I soon found received an e-mail with The Anchoress in the “From” field.

“This is very clever,” the letter read. “Are you submitting this to Patheos?” It was signed “Elizabeth.” A little dazzled, I said I guessed I was, and we proceeded to exchange a flurry of e-mails. Caught up in the moment, and feeling encouraged by this gift Lizzie has for making people think it’s okay to say stupid shit to her, I ended up oversharing. In somber tones, she replied: “Let me back off and give this some more thought. I’m not sure if you’re controlled fire, friendly fire or wildfire.”

Figuring I could at least impress her as a good sport, I wrote back that I wasn’t sure which I was, either. And then came one of those moments where a small decision on my part, a few short words, randomly chosen, ended up changing my life forever. In the next sentence I dropped the name of one of Lizzie’s favorite beati, Piergiorgio Frassati. Don’t ask me why. When I started the letter, Bl. Piergiorgio was nowhere in my headspace. The instinct to mention him came out of thin air, but I obeyed it.

It took Lizzie about five minutes to make up her mind. In her next e-mail, she not only re-affirmed her earlier decision to run my piece, but she offered me my own weekly Patheos column. The patron of boisterous young men must have worked some pretty serious juju.

Like many people, I learn about new things by reading. But when the material’s especially abstruse or dry, it can hold my interest only if I can digest it in writing. And I’ll only bother writing if there’s someone around to read and applaud. By the time I contacted Lizzie, Mystagogia had shrunk to pin-size in my rear-view mirror; in practical terms, Catholicism had come down to attending Mass and washing an occasional pot, which is to say it was getting awfuly dull. Whether she sensed it at the time or not, her giving me this platform kept me engaged with the big issues, connected me with the rest of the Church, and helped prop up a flagging faith.

I should probably wrap up by returning Joanne’s shout-out, but it’ll have to be a strangled shout-out. The woman intimidates me. Compared to my conversion, her reversion has been bar-raisingly fast and furious. Paul bragged about finishing the race; Joanne turns it into NASCAR. Maybe I can arrange to have some Stupid Pies sent to the winner’s circle.

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