Tuesday, November 3, 2009

For All the Saints: Martin de Porres

Much surely has been made, and will be made again today, of Martin de Porres being the first black saint in the Americas. What gets me instead is the broom (here in a statue from New Orleans) and the dog, cat, bird, and mouse eating from the same dish at his feet (as in other representations of the Lima-born Dominican brother). If I am going to be a saint (and that's the goal, isn't it?), what will my statue be holding? What animals will gather at my plaster feet? What colors will stand out in my stained-glass window?

In asking these questions, I am borrowing without permission from a lovely concert Sunday evening by Boston-area musician Jaymie Stuart Wolfe, highlighted in my previous post. At the beginning of her “Cloud of Witnesses,” Wolfe spoke of sainthood and our calling to it. It is not about perfection, profession, or personality, she said; becoming a saint is only about progress. Then she asked just this question about our statue and our stained-glass window: what symbols will they contain, what colors will brighten them? In other words, what will symbolize my particular charism? I've been thinking about this for the past day or so. (This post began to take shape at 1:30 Tuesday morning.)

Katie and I are not animal people particularly, so I'm pretty sure birds will not be nesting in my hair. I will not be holding a small plastic bag and following around a nonexistent puppy I am currently too busy, too self-involved to walk two or three times a day. We did have a cat once, named Smokey, but after that loving, three-legged (long story) feline was buried under the tree in our yard, Katie and I did not rush out to buy another pet. Still haven't.

A broom would not be out of the question, where my saint statue is concerned. For twenty-five years, I was a card-carrying member of “Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company,” a widely known resident stage magic show playing right here in Beverly, Massachusetts. Still playing, still featuring Katie, though I am no longer in evidence. As such, I did a lot of sweeping of popcorn and much mopping of Coke spills. I can say with complete honesty that I enjoyed cleaning the floors of the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre, where LGD and company still perform. But I do not believe this qualifies me for canonization.

What is my charism? What symbolizes my particular calling? What is my gift? I'm pretty sure that the answers to these questions are elusive to most people. Especially when I think of the gospel for today. Jesus tells a parable of a man who invited several people to supper. But each invited guest had invested himself in something worldly—a business, a field, a wife—and passed up the chance to dine with the Lord. Especially today, we think of our gifts in worldly terms: our talents, crafts, trades, arts, professions. These are important, just as the color of Martin de Porres's skin is important. But I don't think these investments add up to a charism. I think they may even distract us from our true gifts—or from our true opportunities for giving. As a result, we miss out on dinner.

In my case, I can become focus wrongly, I think, on what has become my profession, more or less: writing. Although I've done other things (including sweeping theatres) it is fair to say that, in the course of a checkered career, I have earned more income from, have added more value with, writing than with any other talent. But—and this just occurred to me at 2:09 by the clock on my MacBook Pro—what has always mattered is not the writing itself (I am no Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor) but what the writing served. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that service is central to sainthood.

Now I'm going to leave that thought right there and see if I can't sleep a few more hours, then finish this post at dawn, when most of my best thoughts are usually waiting for me anyway. . . .

5:40 by the computer clock . . . Nothing brilliant to report so let's just keep banging . . .

I hated writing in high school and college. It was something I had to do to get a grade, like going to a job you don't like for the paycheck at the end of the week. In fact, I discovered my talent, if talent it is, while working with Le Grand David and company on Cabot Street. In our first years as a troupe, we had quite a collection of talented people: performers, musicians, carpenters, painters, seamstresses—but not one committed writer. And if there's anything a theatre company on the make needs it's words, publicity, PR. I was put in charge of the biweekly newsletter, our organ of PR, and soon realized it was much easier to publish a biweekly newsletter if you had something to say, and especially someone to say it. I looked around the landscape, saw no writers, and thought, the only solution is to write myself. And so I began.

I found I liked writing—when it served this purpose that I believed in fully, working with friends to build an internationally respected theatrical adventure.

Cut to the mid-1980s. Katie and I married, Martha arrived, Marian was on the way, and I wanted to have my own business, a source of income under my control with which to feed and especially educate our children. And I thought of my grandfather, Daniel Bull, who had written his own memoir at age eighty, and (longer story) I started a business called Memoirs Unlimited to help elderly people write and publish their life stories.

This was probably the greatest creative leap in my entire life. I basically started a new business model: Find clients (that was the hard part), interview them about their lives, edit the interviews into narratives, and publish those narratives in handsome but simple private volumes, usually for family and close friends.

The point of this (getting long-winded here, at dawn) is that my writing was put to the service of others. The cool thing was/is, I was/am good at it. And some pretty small-m miraculous things came to me and to my clients as a result.

Cut to the present. Cut to Webster, the Mad Catholic Blogger. Another case of writing that, if it is to have any whiff of holiness, must be in service to something other than Webster, the Mad Catholic Blogger and his dreams of empire. With help from hard knocks, this is a litmus test that I am beginning to learn to apply. For this, my blogging, to "work" it must be truthful and it must be a positive expression of my experience as a Catholic.

In a recent e-mail, dear Father Danielsen expressed my current calling, my charism (if that's what it is) in a simple statement: “Catholics in the U.S. and around the world certainly aren't getting much good press these days so someone who writes interestingly and convincingly about why he is Catholic is a blessing to us all.”

I can't take credit for having set out with that intention. But if my writing serves that purpose, then that should be enough for me. And someday, perhaps on a small private family altar, in the best Asian tradition, there will be not a statue or a stained-glass window but simply a black-and-white photograph of The Old Man hunched over his MacBook Pro, knocking out another thousand words for God.