Wednesday, August 08, 2007

This year, in Chicago ...

I just got back yesterday from last week's Courage Conference, which was held in Chicago at Mundelein Seminary. And as I've said about previous conferences, it was like an oasis in the midst of the desert:
To put it in the most crass way possible (moi?), I enjoyed 10 days of chastity -- before during and after. It was the anticipation and later fact of a holy environment, with daily Mass and availability of confession, *despite* the temptations of the people surrounding me. The whole weekend was just ... hopeful. It was more than fellowship, more than the holy environment and daily sacraments, but my just being able to *be* for four days without any fear or shame or worry or Angst. To breathe easily with everybody always already knowing the thing I hate most about myself and most fear others knowing/guessing/finding out. I hate the word "liberating" (it carries the aura of Che Guevara posters), but that's what it was. I was not sunk in my customary gloom, trapped in the whirlpool of frustration, anger, acting out, despair and depression.
Damascene episodes are not my experience here, but the simple ease of a life of submissive grace is. It happens the same way every year for me, with the worst thoughts coming upon leaving, to the effect of "why can't the other 361 days of the year be like this?" Even before going, I was touched by grace.

The previous week, as I finished my assigned hours at my parish's Perpetual Adoration, I told the man who shares my second hour that I would be gone the next week "for a church conference in Chicago." So he needed to make sure he was either there or lined up a substitute. Nodding his understanding, he then innocently asked me "what's the conference about?" I thought about it for a half-second and decided that, though I hardly know the man at all, there need be no fudging in the Presence of Our Lord. I told him it was a Courage conference and he said "oh ... do you know Father Harvey." Turns out the man's wife is a former student of his, and he asked me to say hello to Father Harvey for her. I was relieved at being able to handle The Awkward Question truthfully and without a hitch.

So I go up to Father Harvey during the conference and said "do you know a Mary Constantine?" He responds, without further prompting, "yes. I taught her at Dunbarton College 30 years ago. She was in my moral philosophy class" (exactly what the woman's husband told me). I told Father that her husband and I share an hour at my parish's Adoration Chapel, and he told me to send the former Miss Constantine his blessings and prayers. Here's a man nearly 90 years old (born 1919) and showing it in some ways -- but still having the presence of mind to remember a student from decades ago.

At the end of the conference, I've checked out of my room and am returning the keys, packed baggage in hand. Father Harvey is doing the same at the same time. I grab his hand and thank him for the conference, for Courage, for everything. He responds in the socially normal way but then, he puts his hand on my head and says a blessing on me and my trip home. Without my even asking him.

There was some broader good news in Father Harvey's keynote address, in which he said there were about a half-dozen new chapters, including one astonishing example (albeit quasi-underground) of official approval from one of the most-liberal and least-St.-Blogs-loved of U.S. prelates. He also mentioned that Courage had started the process of incorporation. I don't pretend to understand the subtleties of what this means under either secular law or canon law, but Father said it would make the group's mission more secure and its means broader and deeper. He said Courage International Inc. would be sending out solicitations to us and to others in the Catholic community to raise its projected budget.

Father Benedict Groeschel gave the main address on Friday night. The man is simply amazing, able to hold an audience in the palm of his hand despite having very little physical strength and not too much voice (he had to sit to give his speech and needed assistance from one of his brother friars just to walk from place to place).

But he has so much wisdom and self-assurance that he gave his whole speech, a critique of conventional psychiatry and the turn to virtue, without notes and overflowing with epigrammatic and surprisingly scalding wit:
  • "Freud's mother would repress anybody."
  • "That's like the Communist secret police publishing the diary of St. Faustina."
  • "Why would Mother Teresa want an honorary degree from Harvard? That's like making Jesus a monsignor."
  • In reference to some of the recent atheist tomes: "I am deeply insulted that atheism can be so badly represented. I am tempted to write a book defending atheism in response."
But even when tossing off bon-mots, Father Groeschel understood what is relevant to the audience in front of him. In reference to the celibacy vow and the sexless life, he said, "whatever we missed, it's not the secret to happiness; 98 percent of the world's great literature and drama are about problems brought about by sex," presumably referring to works like "Madame Bovary," "The Red and the Black," "Oedipus Rex" and "Don Giovanni." Men like myself tend to think play "if only" ... thinking that all would be well if we were straight or married or whatever. But Father reminded all of us Courage members that "God is not a psychiatrist" and "calls both the healthy and the ill," citing his own namesake, St. Benedict Joseph, as an example of the latter, as someone who exemplified being "poor in spirit."

Amazingly, he ended his talk with the line "my apologies for taking so much of your time." Yeah, you're forgiven for such an affront all right, Ben. Father Groeschel will also be in the Arlington Diocese this weekend for two talks — one at St. Mary's in Old Town Alexandria on Friday night; the other at Blessed Sacrament on Saturday (can't find a mention of it on that parish's site).

We also saw a nearly-finished version of a one-hour profile documentary on Father Harvey, called "Profiles in Courage." I was surprised how much I enjoyed it, particularly the early parts about Father Harvey's boyhood (he was a Phillies fan ... apparently into long-shots at an early age) and the early years of his work with Catholic priests struggling with homosexuality, which dated back to 1953, a decade-and-a-half before Stonewall. The latter parts, particularly after the founding of Courage, is a bit heavier on testimonial and a bit lighter on history and narrative (including the difficulties the apostolate has faced) than I would have liked. There's one really sweet moment, which brought down the house, involving Father Harvey, his sister and a Miraculous Medal. To say more would spoil a moment that really relies on unexpected spontaneity. Besides Father Groeschel, the film also had an appearance by Archbishop Edwin O'Brien (now in charge in the Baltimore Archdiocese; hopefully to effect some changes there).

Some highlights I remembered from other talks, in addition to two strong testimonials, including one from a married couple whose daughter is practicing the lifestyle but who themselves had the Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara bit down pat:
  • The ebb and flow of spiritual tides is like the ebb and flow of oceanic tides in that low tide is God enabling us to see the muck that high tide covers up. (from one of my Courage brothers and a reader of this site, on "The Meaning of Companionship")
  • The Lord, upon His Resurrection, calls Mary Magdelene by name. Not my a slur or a descriptor, but by name because He knows her most fully for who she is. As He does all of us, whom He calls by name.
  • The woman caught in adultery is not named. Which means it's the reader (or listener). You. And that moment -- Jesus bending down, writing something and then rising up -- is the whole sacramental economy in miniature. God descending to the earth, revealing Himself and then arising from the earth. As is the woman's arising from the dirt.
  • "The only failure is to see yourself as nothing but a sinner with no hope. Not to say 'I did something wrong,' but 'There is something wrong with me'." (all from Father Richard McAlear on "The Healing Presence of God")
  • "Hell is not going to let go of you easily."
  • Even if you've stumbled a thousand times, that means that 1,000 times in Confession, "you've committed yourself to Christ. Whether it lastest 3 hours, 3 days or 3 months is of little consequence."
  • " 'Firm purpose of amendment' doesn't mean 'I'll never do it again,' but 'I'll get up again next time'."
  • "Why does suffering happen? So love can reveal itself."
  • "You cannot live in this society without an adult understanding of the faith." (all from Father Donald Timone on "The Critical Problem of Pornography")
Other things overheard:
  • "If you're not doing it for Christ, you're a fool."
  • "My SSA is a permanent inoculation against the sin of Pride."
  • "Know what OSFS stands for? Old Shoes For Sale."
  • "If anyone finds a missing Roman collar, it's mine."
  • "Homosexuals did not start the sexual revolution. They were simply too few ... But then they asked 'if it's OK for everyone else, why not us?' " Why not indeed?
  • "I have made all things new -- including you."
  • "Father Timone's presentation on porn would have been better with visual aids."
  • "His penis is fine; he's just too fat."
As for myself, I met three readers of this site who didn't know me by name, including one who's discerning the religious life and another who left not merely Protestantism, but a very specific type that he could rattle off like the Very Model of a Modern Major-General. (I think his leaving reduced their remnant rolls by 20 percent.)

As I noted above, one of the best things about these conferences is simply the easy fellowship. And sometimes, some of it is not edifying in the purest sense -- like my teasing Ryan about his mere-wannabe status as an opera queen (the boy didn't even know the ending of "Aida" fer pity's sake); or my doing my world-famous Eric Cartman** imitation one lunch and leaving my whole table in stitches; or my noting that it was OK for me to by wearing white sneakers since it wasn't yet Labor Day, only to have one of the other guys look at the well-worn pair and contemptuously and say "those haven't been white for a LONG time." Holiness is obviously first and last, but fellowship also means the ability to not be serious and have some fun. To let oneself breathe easily, in other words. That ability enabled me to hug the guys in parting or at Mass unselfconsciously and freely, even if they were men to whom I might be attracted under other circumstances.

Next year in Jerusalem. Or if that isn't an option, Boston will do.
** Image of Father Cartman swiped from Father Erik Richtsteig.


Jeron said...

Most excellent post, my newfound friend. You described this weekend wonderfully. It was such an amazing time of grace and love; one that I will not forget. God showed up BIG! And the healing continues, only with much more Joy and Peace for me. I so look forward now to reading your blog with the deeper sense of knowing you. Your brother in Christ,

shelray said...

I second that. I may need to borrow, with credit of course, parts of your post.
God Bless

Anonymous said...

What an amazing blog! Quite a few of my family members have sister now lives a chaste 16 year old daughter has practically moved in with a girl who has a baby age 17 but is now a lesbian! we don't know what to do with my daughter..but i cannot condone her behaviour in front of all the other kids..any ideas? Have added your blog...God bless

White Stone Name Seeker said...

Thank you for this. I found you via Closed Cafeteria.
Your post touched me very much especially the part about Jesus calling Mary Magdalene by name and the woman caught in adultery.
I often wonder if he wrote her name in the earth that day.

Sometimes I feel so wounded I don't know who I am and I so long for Him to call me by my name.
God bless you.

CW said...

"...and another who left not merely Protestantism, but a very specific type that he could rattle off like the Very Model of a Modern Major-General. (I think his leaving reduced their remnant rolls by 20 percent.)"

Because you and so many of my friends are tickled pink every time I say it, here goes: I was a Fundamental, independent, King-James-Only, cessationist, second-degree-separationist, pre-millennial, pre-tribulational, dispensational Baptist!

It was good to meet you there. It's nice having a face to put with your blog now. And I have to third Jeron-excellent post indeed.

"Father Timone's presentation on porn would have been better with visual aids." Would love to have been there for that comment!

Jeron, I tried to find you before I left, but couldn't. Sorry we didn't get the chance to say good-bye. Contact me through my blog. You too, CourageMan.

Steve said...

hi Courage man, I do hope we meet at the conferance, I rode with woodrow. Anyway loved the post on the conference. Pax

Steve from Michigan.

Dale said...

A Cartman impression too, eh?

My kids just know it as "the funny voice." "Respect my auth-or-i-tayh!" gets them rolling.

Yes, at this point my most likely salvific hope is to wash ashore on the sandy beaches of Purgatory and then start heading uphill.

Glad you had a grace-filled time at the conference.

John Jansen said...

Here's a man nearly 90 years old (born 1919) and showing it in some ways -- but still having the presence of mind to remember a student from decades ago.

It seems to me that really holy people often have a particular knack (grace?) for remembering people they met years before.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! First the photo of my beloved Fr. Benedict caught my eye (oh! to be as sensible as he is!) and then your post reeled me in. I haven't read your blog in awhile...I need to come back!