Sunday, September 20, 2009

Because This is My Great Adventure

I dropped out of college at nineteen to follow Cesareo. At thirty-three I married my polar opposite, dumbfounding my friends. Four years later, I launched a business using a model I made up myself. Ten years later, I started another business, requiring skills I didn't have. I am no stranger to adventure, but none of these adventures matches my conversion to Catholicism.

Each previous adventure represented a sharp discontinuity in my life, a quantum shift. Each had a different motivation, a different driver. Thinking about them individually today, I realize that my conversion to Catholicism combined all of these motivations and more. Which makes Catholicism my ultimate adventure.

First, Cesareo. I left college for the reason that many people drop out. I was dissatisfied. In the parlance of the day my leaving school was "countercultural." Dissatisfied with myself mostly, I realized that college was leading me nowhere. Cesareo offered an avenue of hope. A brilliant psychologist, the founder of a growth center called Cumbres in Dublin, New Hampshire, he seemed to promise a countercultural approach to education and to living. As indeed he did. He was the formative influence of my young adult years.

Ironically, forty years later, I have joined the greatest countercultural institution of our times, and I embrace it wholeheartedly for that reason. This statement will appall some and incense others. To these, the Catholic Church is the ultimate orthodoxy, the most conservative cabal on the planet. But consider what our culture represents today. From Sigmund's psychology to Victoria's Secret, sex—the free and convenient enjoyment thereof—is the foremost motivator of contemporary Western man. With death coming in a close second. More wars, more genocide, more abortions, more spectacular atrocities than ever before in history . . . The 20th century ran up an impressive death toll, didn't it?

The Catholic Church is regularly criticized by the chattering classes for standing against our so-called sexual "freedom" and our ready embrace of murder. I stand with the Church precisely because it is so countercultural.

Ech. This post is getting grim, and I'm a good news kind of guy. So let's shift deftly to Webster's Second Excellent Adventure: marrying Katie. This was not counter to anything. It was all for. It was nothing but toward—a pure act of love. I fell in love with Katie three years before I even asked her out (long story). I waited (longer story). The love never died while I waited, nor has it since she agreed to marry me. Believe me, marrying her was a quantum leap, a delightfully mad discontinuity that, I'm afraid, still dumbfounds many of my friends. Katie and I just laugh.

So exactly with the Church and my conversion to it. As I stated already in my first post about Katie, where Catholicism is concerned, I just fell in love, pure and simple.

Starting Memoirs Unlimited, Inc., in 1988 was a different sort of adventure. You can read a bit about it at the related blog. No details needed here; the point is only that the adventure demanded a lot from me and was an unqualified success because it somehow drew on a talent set that is almost uniquely my own: good editing skills, combined with a sympathetic ear, especially for people in their 80s, plus what I call "knowing the secret handshake." Having been raised in private day and boarding schools, having belonged to country clubs "back in the day," having a Yale father and a Westover mother, I am very comfortable in the social atmosphere inhabited by most of my clients. And to top it all off, I was young, hungry, and very good at self-promotion (something I have little appetite for anymore).

Of the four, then, this adventure was a matter of "works," my works, my effort and drive, and it is the one adventure of the four that I can rightly take some personal credit for, since few people could have been as successful as I have been in this arena. The record speaks for itself: over 50 personal memoirs and 10 organizational histories—including the current bicentennial history of Mass General Hospital—in 20 years. Yeah, I'm proud of it, and it ain't false pride.

In the same way, when I jumped with both feet into the Catholic Church, I "worked" hard: Mass just about every day, lots and lots of reading, and all the other niceties of Catholic devotional life that came my way—Eucharistic Adoration, confession, even a lay movement, Communion & Liberation, on my "résumé." If you're going to become a Catholic, I recommend you not be a part-time Catholic. Throw everything you have into it. I did.

Then pray for help. Because when I started Commonwealth Editions, I sure needed it. With Memoirs Unlimited well established, I got antsy, wanted another challenge. And given the opportunity I published the first of over 150 "trade" books (books sold to stores) in 1998. I knew nothing about this business. The first thing I didn't know was how punishingly hard it is. After ten years of regional trade publishing, we have earned many kudos but few profits.

Still, I would not have lasted three months in this business without plenty of angels—so much seemingly coincidental help coming my way that it was enough to make a man believe in the Holy Spirit. The first angel was Katie. She began selling the books I published and, wow, did she have a flair for it! Next, our best-selling author came our way through a completely hilarious chain of circumstance (another story too long for this already long post). Employees appeared when needed. A huge lump-sum rights fee landed the same year we had to take our biggest write-off. Starting with zero skills, Commonwealth Editions (unlike Memoirs Unlimited, where I had the skills) seemed to sail along on a sea of goodwill.

This happens when you convert to Catholicism and throw yourself into it with both hands and feet, as I did. God helps you. Or Ferde. Go to the same church every day and sit in the same pew. Pretty soon, you will be surrounded by love and support. This happened to me. Ferde introduced me to Communion and Liberation, where I met more loving, supportive people, like Ellen and Carol, Neil and Julie, Michael and Elizabeth in Beverly, and Lorenzo, Roberto, Lele, Alessandro, and many others elsewhere. Then last summer I happened to run into a woman who sings in the St. Mary's choir, and she encouraged me to join. More love, more support. The Church will carry you, I promise, if only you follow it with all your heart, soul, mind, strength—you know the commandment. Even when your "works" fall short, as mine have repeatedly, something will raise you up and bear you forward. That is the companionship you find in the Church. That is the companionship that is the Church.

I'm afraid this post has become a long college-style essay, and I hated writing essays in college. But then this essay seems to have pretty much written itself, which tells me there must be two or three bones of truth buried somewhere in it. For what they may be worth.

To sum up (and make this truly college-worthy): Converting to Catholicism was a movement away from a culture that I had come to distrust and toward something for which I felt a deep affection. It has demanded works, which is to say efforts, from me, and at the same time it has carried me where my strength alone could never have gone.

What does my family (the picture) have to do with any of this? Without the love and support of Katie, Martha, and Marian, none of the above would have been possible.