Thursday, October 22, 2009

Because Some Words Make My Heart Vibrate

I often lie awake in the small hours of the night. It’s a soon-to-be-old-man thing. Last night, both to get back to sleep and to avoid waking Katie, I read a Kindle book by the teeny light of my iPhone. Tonight, after thrashing around wondering whether it’s time to start posting again, I'm writing about it.

I was reading George Weigel’s book Letters to a Young Catholic. As a book publisher, I wonder how much of the $7.03 Kindle download fee Weigel is earning as a royalty, but as a reader I couldn’t care less. Letters to a Young Catholic is a lot of book for $7.03.

It hardly matters what I was reading from Weigel; it was the section on GK Chesterton (left), but it could as easily have been the one on Brideshead Revisited, which I picked up today at Borders at full retail. Weigel’s a wonderful read, especially for me; I am “young” as a Catholic convert if not as a JAG (football coach Bill Parcells’s acronym for “just a guy”). My point, though, is not the content of the Weigel book but the experience I had reading it.

With the lights off in the middle of the night, with the bright light of daily living dimmed down too, you can be intimately aware of your inner experience. “What my heart feels” becomes literal. Some thoughts, some readings in cases like this, can cause a distinct vibration in your chest, a warmth like the one you might feel in recognizing an old friend or finding the lost piece of silver. I felt that sensation while reading Letters to a Young Catholic—not just that it was “speaking to me,” but that it was speaking to the deepest needs of my heart.

This month, Communion and Liberation (CL) groups around the world (known in the parlance as “Schools of Community”) have been reading a short monograph by Fr. Julian Carron about the critical importance of making “judgments.” I thought I understood something about what this meant last night while reading Weigel. Making a judgment is a complicated notion and I can’t possibly exhaust its meaning here, but it boils down to weighing experience against the deepest needs of your heart. We grow through experience, Carron says, only when we “judge” it.

Reading Weigel by the light of my iPhone, I felt that I was in the presence of a dear friend who had something ultimately important to tell me. Two dear friends, actually. Standing alongside Weigel, overshadowing him literally, was the rotund GKC, explaining with the words of his book Orthodoxy, just exactly why I am a Catholic. “But that's it exactly,” I thought, as my heart vibrated. “And that too—and that too.”

We judge things against other things, by contrast, and although Carron does not use this notion exactly, I did just this last night. An iPhone being an iPhone, mine periodically vibrated in my hand, indicating that, while reading Weigel on Chesterton, I had received an e-mail. And being a JAG, of course I pumped the control button and touched the e-mail command to see who or what it was that was trying to “reach” me at this hour. And each time I did so, my heart stopped. The moment I turned away from Weigel to pick up some trivial thread of quotidian experience, it was as though my heart literally stopped beating. The sensation of vibrant warmth vanished, and I was suddenly lost in “learning” something about the world. I had this experience not just when trashing a piece of junk mail but even when reading the New York Times lead story for the coming day, which flashed to me as it always does around 3:20. Last night that lead story was about the pope's dramatic offer to the Anglican communion, which you might think would be “heart-warming” to Catholics everywhere. In fact, it is heart-warming to me too, but not that kind of heart-warming. 

The book that was most influential in my converting to Catholicism, My Life with the Saints by James Martin, S.J., tells a wonderful story of St. Ignatius of Loyola that perfectly mirrors my experience last night:

Confined to his sickbed, Iñigo asked a relative for some books. All she could offer was pious reading, which he took grumpily and grudgingly. To his great surprise, the soldier found himself attracted to the lives of the saints and began thinking, If St. Francis or St. Dominic could do such-and-such, maybe I could do great things. He also noticed that after thinking about doing great deeds for God, he was left with a feeling of peace—what he termed “consolation.” On the other hand, after imagining success as a soldier or impressing a particular woman, though he was initially filled with great enthusiasm, he would later be left feeling “dry.”

I dried out instantly last night each time I looked at my e-mail. Which makes me wonder just how dry most people’s daily lives are. As a JAG, I am “most people.” As a Catholic, I often feel an inner call to something else entirely.

(If my computer clock is working better than my circadian clock, this post will be date-stamped around 3 a.m. Time to get back to bed, back to Weigel, and, in about 20 minutes inevitably, back to the New York Times.)