The Story that has no Story
A famous Catholic preacher takes to the streets of New York and booms out as uninterested crowds rush past him to get to school, the local hospital or merely to rent bicycles. “Do you have a story of your heart you want to share?” he shouts as person after person completely ignores him. Far from the great adoring numbers who heard him preach with sophistication and grace, they, in the New York manner of studied aloofness and non-involvement, pass by him who is dressed in shorts and sneakers, as If he were not there.
A few break out of the mold and say—somewhat sadly – I don’t have a story. Or they shrug their shoulders and smile wanly —almost apologetically for their life emptiness. A very few stop for amazingly beautiful descriptions of personal generosity and human compassion . One journalist stops to arrange for us to do a brief taping for a local cable station. But the huge majority seem untouched by the potential of spiritual meaning. Harried. Tense. Unsure. Sad. Seeking the elusive carrot at the end of the stick. So they seem to a casual observer like me, a 94 year old psychologist and priest. I am his assistant. I sit on my walker and observe what I suspect is the prompting of the Holy Spirit of God.
Does that response “ I don’t have a story “ reflect a profound sadness and alienation? Do some people feel detached? Rootless? Empty? Are they hesitant truly to reach out to others for friendship and love? Hesitantly, perhaps, because they feel no one could love them!
Do people hide even from themselves the suspicion that they are not really lovable and that others are faking at loving them? Is there a loneliness in the modern psyche? Is this an example of the famous description of anomie …”lives of quiet desperation”?
It is probably the action of the Holy Spirit of God which inspired Fr John to begin what looks on the surface as a weird apostolate . I suspect that Saints unapologetically become involved in the bizarre and the apparently impractical because of their dream, what they see and hear from the Lord. They have empty pocket and impossible dreams but they do wonders. The young Francis of Assisi in giving up a classy life style to exchange his silks for burlap bags must have seemed odd and even nutty to his contemporaries. Mother Teresa would clearly fit the term “loopy” when she gives her life to the filthy, despairing, poorest of the poor in a land culturally at odds with her upbringing. Consider the exhibitionist Don Bosco with his adolescent card tricks trying to rehab wild teenagers whom so many professionals abandoned as lost souls. The smart ones made jokes about him in their insights that he was wasting his time.
Perhaps, the holy pursuit of God does make “saints” a little crazy–depending on one’s value system and culture. To the secular “hot shot” this is obvious. ”You live in fantasy” they say as they turn away to their martinis and escapist living. Yet a large number of Americans seem to hunger for a “spirituality” freed from the boundaries of organized religion. They are not sure what this really means or how to find this gift which they sense is somehow there --- somewhere “out there”.
People like Fr. John take great emotional risks in reaching out but in the manner of the saints of our tradition, he takes rejection and sneers as part of the“ Sidewalk” pre-evangelization. As I listened and watched his efforts, I thought of Jesus reminding us of the ever applicable metaphor that the smallest of seeds like the mustard seed can grow to become a great meaningful sign of God’s presence in the world.
But, also, as I sat, watched and peddled flyers meant to nudge empty human beings—just a little bit—toward the Lord, I thought of myself ! Am I completely senile at 94 in doing this?
I have a PhD in psychology from a prestigious university, I have chaired a graduate school for 20 years, I have been the confessor for bishops and cardinals, I have traveled the world, I have even eaten at the Four Seasons yet here I am like a young immigrant from Ghana who hustles flyers for renting bicycles at Columbus Circle……
I have been on the sidewalk three times with Fr John, loved it, believed in it, and can’t wait to do it again. Nutty or saintly, I plan repetitions. And as young Martin Luther said (he who could have written a best seller “I was a Teenage Catholic”) "For good or for ill, here is where I stand."
Truth to tell, just between us, my hope is that I am or will be one of those crazy saints !