Monday, May 15, 2006

Concerning the Soul of Tony Hendra and Fr. Joe Who Saved It

Aristotle taught that the perfect mathematical figure is the circle since it ends where it began. And someone said that psychoanalysis is the art of missing the obvious. I, as a hoary, arthritic priest/psychologist, had both thoughts upon finishing the brilliantly written and, at times, frighteningly sad book Father Joe by the British writer, Tony Hendra. After wading through the dazzling list of justified and laudatory blurbs, my interest was whetted, not so much to experience Mr. Hendra’s formidable writing skills, as to experience his soul or his personhood. I was not disappointed. It was most rewarding particularly for me, an 85 year old priest who has been practicing psychotherapy for 40 years.

With the touching innocence of the “black or white” teenage personality, Tony swung, at different life stages, from one singular certainty to another. At one time he is certain that a torrid, secretive sexual liaison with a married woman is the apex of life. Later, at another time, he is certain that he truly is called to be a (celibate) Contemplative Benedictine Monk. At one point he extols the beauty and freedom of chastity, at another he strains for a couple more supererogated orgasms. From a superficial Faith life he leaps, almost in an instant, to a Halleluiah level: “What had been baffling claptrap all my life suddenly became more than a proposition—it became true and real. I felt a welling overflowing excitement in the perception that God existed and therefore so did I.” (p.73) Was this the powerful and loving grace of the Gracious God or was it a function of a developing young personality or both?

Still, later as an adult, with a kind of cascading “blinders over the eyes” personality, he is certain that his call is to save the world from itself by a slashing, stinging, sometimes even savage life view he called “satire.” He becomes certain that he must destroy every sacred cow in sight, puncture every pompous balloon and eviscerate every strutting hypocrite on the horizon. Utterly nothing is to be exempt. This glorious mission is to happen through the great medium of laughter, with no holds barred and sensitivity ignored. But it will happen only within a kind of inner-crowd bubble.

It will not be the laughter of the Sam Levenson, Myron Cohen, Fred Allen, Jack Benny genre which gave millions the gift which C.S. Lewis called the “belly laugh". It isn’t even the laughter of one of my heroes, S.J. Perlman, whose book “Westward Ha” (with hilarious sketches by Al Herschfeld) became my laughing companion on a long, boring trip on a freighter to Capetown—to my first Missionary assignment. It isn’t the hilarity of Peter Sellers or the comedic genius of Sid Casear or Groucho and his loopy company. Why not? Because it destroys and has a tinge of “hate” in it. I cannot find it funny. While Fr. Joe taught (p.117) that “love alone can conquer hate”, Tony once said: “I hate Love.”

It isn’t the laughter of my vaudevillian parents, my Jewish father, joking, kidding, teasing or my Irish mother who laughed till it almost hurt. While, sometimes superficial, they were mostly sheer enjoyment. Never were they malicious or hurtful. Is there a substantive difference between laughter “at” someone and laughter “with” someone? When eyes don’t laugh anymore and humor becomes constricted, forced and ultimately bitter or pitiless, when the humorist gets hard-hearted and uncompassionate, when traces of sadism surface, we have gone too far. Or is it something like the kids writing dirty words on public bathroom walls? Is teenage blasphemy a way of thumbing one’s nose at parental figures (even if one is a 30 year old teen)? Is it latently about unresolved authority problems thrust deep into one’s unconscious life?

Is it psychology which has taught me that I get like what I “pay attention to”? Or was it my Irish grandmother, educated only to the third grade, who taught me “Never make fun of what is sacred to someone else”? Pre-articulation and intuition seem to shriek out to me some kind of cautionary signal! It is too complex for a facile explanation; nevertheless, it is comforting to remember my old buddy, Freud, and his “things are rarely only what they seem.”

Yet how frightened and sad Tony must have been at one stage: “I was one of the craziest, unhappiest, most vindictive, least trustworthy people I knew. Yikes…” (p. 197) But the marvelous Monk, Father Joe, with the “vast ears” and the “knobbly knees”, came to the rescue. He asks Tony (p. 187) about satire and the ideal of straightening out the wayward world: “Does satire often ‘bring the bastards down’?” And Tony responds: “Alas, no.” It is a puzzlement. How could it happen that a nice, smart Brit kid with a definite (if underdeveloped) attrait to God, with a mystical appreciation of the Eucharist (even through the dirty finger nails of Fr. Bleary) could be so misled? So seduced by false gods? Was it some evil spirit which masked the “the un-good” with the face of laughter?

Where was I, the priest-shrink living in New York, when this good natured, ambiguous Catholic was flailing around, being pursued a la Francis Thompson by the Hound of Heaven? “I needed something that I could get nowhere else (Fr. Joe), least of all in New York. A Confessor. A shrink who knew right from wrong: one who would talk while I listened.” (p. 185) I was, in God’s Providence, doing the spiritual walk with those to whom I was called. This unique Father Joe, no one else, was tailored for this unique Tony Hendra. It was this unique Father Joe who needs a Polish joke explained, who likes a glass of red wine and who is fascinated by blondes, intelligent or otherwise--- this is the one who is tapped by the loving Lord as the catalyst for the salvation of a special soul.

It was Father Joe who encouraged Tony to read Meister Eckhart where he found that real laughter is linked to God.

“When God laughs at the soul and the soul laughs back at God, the persons of the Trinity are begotten. When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love and that love is the Holy Spirit.”

There is something very arresting in Father Joe’s style, as a Spiritual Director. He combines “…not taking one’s self too seriously” with treating the “other with gentleness and respect”. His skill in the “Care of Souls” is fascinating to me. With my own clinical background I sense at least a quasi Rogerian Counseling dimension in his priestly ministrations. I didn’t “hear” scolding or lecturing or terrifying or moral frowning. I note his positive language, e.g. “Be unselfish” rather than “Don’t be selfish.” It strikes me that there is a significant difference here in the tonality. On the contrary, I sensed a deep belief in the goodness of the human being and an enormous trust in the gracious Lord Who loves all with an implacable love beyond understanding. There was, it seemed to me, a belief that, in God’s good time, Tony would rise to the Call of Grace. It reminds me of the thinking of my old swimming partner, Dr. Tony Schwarz, who, as the expert in understanding sound, taught the Invisible Chord theory.

This Tony believed that all one has to do is find the existent frequency within the soul of the “other”, play to that chord and the correct music, peace or energy or joy or commitment, will emerge. Father Joe, perhaps intuitively or possibly with a special grace of understanding, played this Invisible Chord on young Tony and on all he met. Actually, the Divine Conductor, I believe, was behind it all.

The young Tony’s observational skills were astounding. His delicious description (p.51) of the Monk Groupies was hilarious and a remarkable “bull’s eye.” These unattractive old “Gollum-like” types are all over the Catholic world with their superficial, poorly understood theology and their insatiable appetite for daily gossip. Ever more delightful to them would be public scandal within the Church. What a picnic they might have with the thieving Monsignor and the ephebophilic priest!!!!!

The older Tony arrives at another remarkable and profound truth. Listening. One page 181 he notes: “…..listen at every level; to the words, the emotions, the intent of the other… completely open…bring nothing preconceived or prepared to the moment. Listen and then speak only to what you’ve heard.”

“The only way to know God is to listen------listening is the reaching out into that unknown other self……..the first exercise in love.” And Tony writes this in the Big Apple which he calls “a city of non-listeners.” And it does seem that God is always saying: “Be still. Be still.”

It is patently clear that Father Joe was a real listener whose two “vast” ears were not his only mode of hearing. He owned what the shrinks call the “Third ear.” He obviously had deep affection for Tony who becomes, in effect, his son. Their relationship became a deep and loving one whereby whatever deficits Tony’s natural father had, were healed. It speaks volumes (p.133) when Tony describes his anemic familial relationship: “I wasn’t used to being held against his tubby body--- smelling of the day old aftershave on his jowls.” It is surprising that Tony was not more damaged, psychologically.

I have never met Tony, except through this book but I like him. Fr. Joe who knew him exceedingly well, loved him. Clearly before God, he must be lovable. ‘nuff said!!!

As to Aristotelian metaphor: Tony began with inchoate Faith, sincere and true. He winds up in the same Faith place, but deeper and truer.

As to psychoanalysis and missing the obvious: Tony’s quasi obsession with noses…. How did he miss the treasure under his own? In that inchoate Faith there were tons of peace and joy, authentic excitement and laughter, meaning and God. The Kingdom of the Lord is within. I rejoice that now he knows the real score.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Anguish of Some Middle-Aged Catholic Priests

Catholic priests who have lived through the pre-Vatican II era and the years immediately thereafter, seem, on the whole, able to live their priestly lives with a reasonable level of satisfaction and peace of mind. One might characterize them, as a group, “happy” with their life choice, able to criticize but generally comfortable with their own Church. They are enormously loyal to this Church which they consider to be, in fact, protected from serious error by the very Spirit of God, Himself. With such an attitude toward the Church, they are somewhat docile and accepting in whatever the Church asks of them. They find it easy to live as priests with a kind of generous humility and unquestioning Faith.

The very young and “new” Catholic priests (along with the seminarians in formation) are often in “sync” with the battered and tried Dinosaur priests mentioned above. They are Pope John Paul II (and Pope Benedict VXI) priests, deeply influenced by the rich Catholic traditions of the past. It seems relatively obvious that these men, insulated from the heady and sometimes precipitous enthusiasms of the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, are prototypic Catholic clergy of the future. These are the Bishops and Cardinals and Popes of the next generation. This type of priest will predictably be replicated in the Catholic Church.

The third group of Catholic priests functioning in the Church are those from the “middle aged” category who often suffer from an anguish which could move the hardest hearted among us. I was recently in a seminar of priests studying “Organization” in Church structures which, at one point, moved into a discussion category called “Morale.” “Morale” was defined basically as contentment with their life choice and their priesthood. An interesting distinction was made whereby some middle aged priests can enjoy the practice of priesthood with its immediate rewards of adulation, almost assured success, acceptance by a believing laity, gratifying interpersonal relationships, and great joy in presiding at beautiful liturgies while, at the same time, they can reject certain positions of Church leadership. Such rejection means that they can sometimes dissent even from Catholic essentials. This rejection presents an “outside” and an “inside” of his priesthood which basically are in conflict with each other.

This puts him emotionally in an acutely stressful situation. In order to continue to function in the priest role which gives him such great personal satisfaction, he must adopt a stance which projects an image or persona to his “outside” world which will be at variance with his inner feelings and convictions. Should he reveal his true inner self in an open manner, he feels (with some validity) that he will jeopardize his source of personal satisfaction, since the Catholic laity, in large part, share the Faith and contentment of the other two priest categories. Many Catholic lay persons will find some of the views of these priests as unacceptable and inimical to the Faith. Of course, other Catholics including malcontents, radical feminists and the John Kerry types whose consciences were formed by “Pope Pius 23”, might be drawn to him by a kind of fellow traveler radar.

Still, the anguished (he calls it “angst”) middle aged priest gives, at best, half consent to some positions his Church officially maintains. Such a balancing act becomes overwhelming for some of these men leaving them theologically and psychologically “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” This sad conflict, apparently, has been intensified and focused by the recent (Nov. ’05) Vatican statement on the rejection of homosexual men from Catholic seminaries. Linking much of the tragic priest scandals of recent years involving homosexual priests, the Vatican has taken a strong stand listing three criteria for rejection. 1) an active homosexual lifestyle (akin to an active sexual life for a heterosexual candidate), 2) a profound homosexual orientation and 3) a toleration of the “gay” agenda, even if such toleration were only passive, the “gay lens” perspective. The Vatican’s position seems reasonable since it does appear that the scandals were not really pedophilic (common to both heterosexual and homosexual persons), i.e. molesting children under twelve but more accurately were ephebophilic, i.e. same sex behavior with post pubertal adolescents.

The middle aged Catholic priests who have the homosexual orientation are particularly distressed by the Vatican statement which (in their minds) undercuts their sincere self donation to the priesthood so many years before. This priest says, in effect and with a trace of bitterness: “I was OK to be ordained twenty years ago even though I was homosexually oriented but today they tell me I would be ineligible to enter the priesthood because I am homosexual. Does this mean that I am an inadequate priest? Has my priesthood over these years been a sham, a fake?”

Such a realization could lead these priests into a definite confusion, discouragement and possible bitterness. What does this conflicted priest do to untangle his inner turmoil? Does he construct support groups of similar minded brother priests? Does he engage in a kind of sacerdotal “apartheid” wherein he avoids the company and dialogue with priests who hold different views? Must he live in an ecclesial bubble in his kind of sanitized environment? How does he continue in the priesthood with any kind of peace of mind when, at times, he basically disagrees with what his own Church teaches? When he allegedly witnesses by his role/presence to the truth of his Church’s positions and simultaneously interiorly rejects them, his very soul becomes a ferocious battleground of conflict.

One of the priests attending that seminar recalled the observation of the young Father Martin Luther who said: “One cannot say yes to Jesus and No to the Church.” This is the stuff of interior turbulence.

Some such priests, with admirable (to my mind) integrity, have resigned from the priesthood because they simply could not continue to live a life which for them became hypocrisy. It is difficult to imagine what kind of psychic energy is needed for them to keep from falling apart as active priests. Are they prone to depression? How do these priests keep from showing anger and bitterness and sarcasm? Does this impact on their unconscious lives and their pastoral practice? How will they “lean” in matters such as same sex behavior (in the confessional), women’s ordination, same sex marriage, porno, divorce and remarriage, pre-marital behavior, abortion? Will they support political candidates who clearly oppose Church teaching? Will they tend to believe that Catholicism is just another sect among many? Will they support Deconstructionist thinking? What is their view on Church infallibility? On the priesthood itself? On the Real Presence? If he can’t put this all together, will he be vulnerable to clinical depression and heavy drinking? Or acting out?

More profoundly, what is the relationship between their sense of rebellion, their difficulty with submission to Christ’s Church and their natural family lives, especially their father relationships?

It became clear to me in the meeting that these poor priests are in a terrible place. Their problems are beyond the usual base line struggle of the average priest. I wish I could help them! But how to help? I recall with a kind of sad validation that in 1978, I addressed an assembly of priests cautioning about the ordination of men to the priesthood who had serious same sex problems. The caution was based only on clinical and professional experience with priests under my care. I knew their torment and their inner conflict and wished to spare other men that pain. Alas, I was called an alarmist among other more demeaning names.

It is certainly beyond me what to do but it does seem that they are a dying breed. They will not replicate. They are at variance with the contemporary youth mood. The dominant view among the young priest and aspiring seminarians is integrity, putting it all into a single whole. May the merciful Lord grant the anguished ones some kind of peace. May He deliver them from any kind of schism, either within their souls or de facto split from their true home, the Catholic Church.