Monday, August 6, 2012

The Oasis of Joy

The Dying Man

"Who are you?  I want to thank you," he whispered, lying there.  On the side of the busy street.

"Don't worry about that.  Just pray for me," I replied.

He sat up.  Or tried to.  "Are you a Christian?" he asked.


"So am I," he said.  And he relaxed and faded back into unresponsiveness.

Above him, the lady continued to talk on her cell phone to 911.  "Does your chest hurt?" she asked, repeating what the dispatcher was telling her.  She repeated the question several times.

"Veteran's Hospital," was all that he could muster, in a hoarse whisper.

He was wearing a Veterans of Foreign Wars baseball cap.  His face was covered with a three or four day growth of stubble.  He was lying on the sidewalk in downtown Reno, Nevada.  His cane lay beside him.  We had come upon him after dinner, walking back toward the Silver Legacy Casino where this year's national conference for the American Chesterton Society was being held.  Behind me stood a group of Chestertonians.

"Sir ... does your chest hurt?"

"Yes."  But it was unclear if he even knew what the question meant. 

I said some things to console him, to calm him down, as he would grow into confusion and agitation when awake.  He was slipping in and out of consciousness.  The lady was told to feel his skin.  She touched his hand and he recoiled in anger.  I talked to him some more.  He seemed to understand what I was saying.  He then reached up, eager for the human touch that had just been drawn away.

The paramedics arrived.  They knelt down beside me and the dying man.

"What's your name, sir?" one of them asked.  His eyes glazed over.  "Are you in pain?" she asked.  No answer.  "How much have you had to drink?" she asked.

"As much as I could!" he whispered.

"When was your last drink?" she asked.

"Five months ago," he said sadly and his eyes lost focus and nearly shut.

Was he homeless?  A drunk?  An old man having a heart attack or a stroke?

"Are you in pain?" she asked again.  The other paramedic began to set up a stretcher.  No more replies, but he continued breathing.

I stood up to get out of their way.  I crossed myself.  We prayed over him.

The Hooker

I was talking with David in the hallway on the 20th floor outside the elevators.  It was 2:30 in the morning.

The elevator doors opened and out walked a man about my age with a pot gut and a very young dark-skinned black woman on his arm, pretty, provocative, about 22, who looked right at me and made disturbingly direct eye contact.  She smiled.  A very daring and inviting smile.  A smile that said, "Next!" 

He escorted her around the corner to his room.

David and I looked at one another.  "Well," I said, "It's legal here."

Less then five minutes later, the couple appeared again.  They got back on the elevator and the door shut.

"That could only have been one thing," I said to David, and used a slang term for the only sex act I could think of that could be performed in about three minutes in a hotel room in Reno.  Or in an alley.

A few minutes later, the doors opened again, and our friend - let's call him "John" - appeared, this time without the young woman.  He heard David complete a sentence on film criticism which ended with, "In Act Three of the first Harry Potter film -"

John interrupted him.  "That's a sentence I've never heard before in Reno!" he exclaimed, and I noticed how much he was slurring and how badly he was staggering as he walked to his room.  This time to stay.  Alone.

The Reluctant Convert

The pressure was getting to him.  He was in deep waters.  He was arguing his Protestant bullet points with people that he had no idea were the smartest Catholics and the leading apologists in the country.  He was starting to melt down.  He had caught a glimpse of the Body of Christ and the light was too much to handle.  He was pushing back.

The Priest

"The problems with Reno are the problems with America," he said to me.

And I knew that Father was right.  He had nailed it.

To begin with, you're in a desert. 

My daily three hour hike would take me up into the mountains to pray.  Once you get past the neon, the slot machines, the drunks, the hookers, the dying men on the street, the gamblers sitting alone and sad and bored hitting the same button over and over again, you see the beauty - and the desolation - that surrounds you.

A view from my daily hike.

It was 100 degrees and sunny.  Every day.  I would drink three 20-ounce bottles of water on the way up the mountain, and three 20-ounce bottles of water on the way down - a gallon total.  Any less than that and I would have collapsed - on the streets of downtown, perhaps.

The skyscrapers around the Silver Legacy are abandoned.  Abandoned skyscrapers.  Uninhabited.  Casino hotels, some of them, closed, sliding into a slow dilapidation.

Reno as seen from the mountains.

I have never seen so many abandoned skyscrapers.

But the neon always shines.  The drinks are always served.  The gambling never ends.

This is paradise. 

Or so we keep telling ourselves.

The Murderers

Three blocks from the Silver Legacy, on the way to the mountains and the desert, my daily walk would take me past a modest building with a large blue sign out front - PLANNED PARENTHOOD.

I would say three Hail Maries and feel helpless.

On the second day, two teen-aged girls casually strode into the building from the parking lot.

One of them was texting, not looking up.  Like they do.  They could have been at the mall from the way they were acting.

Were they workers?  Clients?

"Am at PP.  Will see u after abortion.  Later."

But don't think about that.  This is paradise.  Just keep telling yourself that.  Just keep pressing that button.  It might come up all sevens.  Light a cigarette.  Get a drink.  Find a hooker.  Look past the dying man.  Forget about the empty buildings.  Look past the dying country.  Look past the dying culture.

The Argument

On one side of the table sat two of the key players in the Morality of Lying argument - Mark Shea and me.  My writings had fewer readers than Shea's, but my involvement with James O'Keefe and my early defense of him and the sting video technique were an important part of the debate.  The debate had gotten ugly at times, but it was not ugly now.

Across from us sat Dale Ahlquist, who still supports lying in sting videos (although he won't call it lying) and Jason Jones, a producer of the film Bella, and a long-term warrior on the front lines of the Pro-Life movement, who started the sting technique years ago on his radio show, and whose daughter herself makes sting videos.

Left to right - Mark Shea, Jason Jones, Dale Ahlquist

The debate was not ugly now - though Dale made me pretty mad at one point.  It was not ugly now because, although we were all sticking to our guns - and although we talked until well past 2:00 am, we saw in our faces and heard in our voices the emotional and spiritual and human context that was often missing from the internet during the Lying Debate.

I saw how someone like Jason, fighting with very little support the most important social battle in the world - a battle against what he calls "democide" (the deliberate and systematic murder of a segment of our population) - a battle against the heart of the Culture of Death - a battle to save the most innocent among us - I could see how Jason could say, "The Catholic Church doesn't care about abortion.  If it did, it would do something about it.  And when some of us do, and we're attacked by our fellow Catholics for something as trivial as lying - lying to save lives!  When that happens -" and the frustration filled his face.

But I think Jason saw something in Mark and me - in our faces; perhaps he heard something in the tone of our voices that we were hearing in his. 

I think he saw that we are not saying what we say to attack the Pro-Life movement, but to protect it - to protect it from what we see as the beginning of consequentialism - the mistaken belief that the end justifies the means and that we may do wrong so that good may come.  Perhaps he saw that we have never intended to equate what Lila Rose and others are doing with the horrors they are opposing.  Perhaps he does not know that we have said time and again that even if the sting videos are morally wrong, the wrong pales beside the enormity of the evil they are seeking to defeat.  Perhaps the context of our argument had been somewhat lost on him, as the context of his had been somewhat lost on us.

The Toast

Dale Ahlquist had asked me to give one of the formal toasts at the closing banquet. 

He told me to start funny and end serious.

Me giving the toast at the closing banquet.

I told the story of how I first contacted Dale ten years ago - a story he always gets wrong, and which I finally dug up the email evidence for. 

"I emailed Dale and suggested live productions of Chesterton's two best plays - Magic and The Surprise.  I was but a recent Catholic convert.  I was quite naive.

I was so naive I asked, 'Is this the sort of thing the American Chesterton Society would pay to produce?'  I was so naive I asked, 'Is this the sort of thing EWTN would pay to produce?'  I was so naive I asked, 'Is this the sort of thing anyone in the Church would pay to produce?'"

And I told the story of how I first met Dale.

"I had brought several actors to EWTN to film Season Three of The Apostle of Common Sense.  It was the first time I had met Dale in person, and I wasn't sure I liked him.  Most of you still feel that way.

We were all in a van going out to dinner.  Dale was driving and Chuck Chalberg was next to him.  My actors and I were piled in the back.  This was before Theater of the Word.  They were all secular fundamentalists.

One of the actresses - having no clue where she was - began to pipe up.  It was the Primary season for the election of 2004 and Howard Dean was making a brief splash in the Democratic Party.

'I just love Howard Dean, don't you!' she exclaimed, referring to that liberal spiteful pro-choice whack job, Howard Dean.  That baby-killing Church-hating quasi-psychotic Howard Dean.  That pro-abort anti-family mental-case Howard Dean.  'I just love him, don't you!'

Dale, driving the van, didn't miss a beat.  He calmly replied, in a very kind and generous tone: 'Chesterton was right.  Women should never have been given the right to vote.'

And the actress wouldn't speak to us for the rest of the week.
And Dale Ahlquist has been one of my best friends ever since."

And then I got serious.

"After each of my visits to EWTN I used to think the same thing that I used to think after each of my pilgrimages to a Chesterton Conference.

I used to think, 'This is what the Church ought to be.'

Now I think, 'This is what the Church really is.'

A gathering of like-minded people, united in a kind of communion with one another, celebrating Our Savior Jesus Christ through the sacramentals of good writing, good company, drinks, food, laughter, and by means of His saints - in this case G. K. Chesterton.

This is what the Church is.  The Church produces culture.  The Church inspires drama, writing, and art.  The Church leads us to joy.

But it is the joy that C. S. Lewis so accurately described.  It is a joy that comes with a longing and is tinged with sadness, for it is a joy that includes suffering, and that gives a taste of a more complete fulfilment in the Inn at the End of the World.
This conference has included dying men on the street and hookers in the elevators; it has included speeches at the podium and arguments at the tables; to reach the conference hall we had to walk through a maze of slot machines, located in an empty downtown in a false oasis in a scorching desert in a dying culture.
But the Conference is real - and what happens here is real; more real than the make-believe that surrounds us. 
For the American Chesterton Society Conference is the Church - a glimpse of the True Church.  And when we're at our local parishes, with their bad architecture, their insipid music, their ugly art, their parishioners who don't particularly want to be Catholic and who don't really enter into any meaningful communion with Christ or with others - when we're back home we have to keep in mind ... that a parish like that is less of the Church than a Conference like this."

And I concluded

"G. K. Chesterton is the most powerful force in the Church today.  He has been responsible for thousands of conversions, including mine.  He has been responsible for the Catholic Literary Revival, and is the main character behind this strange cultural revival, a revival seen in enclaves and in fits and starts, of which the annual conference is the most telling example.

There will come a time when the Church will look around and say, 'Oh, this is what the Holy Spirit has been doing for the past several years.  He's been working through the cult of Chesterton, and He has, as usual, much surprised us.'"

And we raised our glasses to toast.

The Return

I sat beside Nancy Brown on the flight home, and we talked for nearly four hours straight.  Nancy is a wonderful person and has a particular love for Chesterton's wife, Frances, who, I learned, wrote a number of poems and plays, which Nancy has gathered and published.

with Joseph Pearce (center) and Nancy Brown

She agreed with me that this year's conference was particularly spiritual and powerful, the "best conference ever," as Dale kept calling it.

I am home now, trying to focus on a great creative and practical vision that was given to me in Reno, and that was confirmed in a number of powerful ways.  And trying to put into words what the past few days were like.

But it's not possible, for that kind of joy, though more real than anything we touch with our hands, is fleeting - solid and the source of all solidity, but constantly beyond our reach.

I was on EWTN's The Journey Home tonight, an appearance taped about six weeks ago - and after watching it with Karen and Kerry I knew that somehow I hadn't quite gotten it.  I hadn't manged to put into words anything close to what is true about God in my life and about the great lost chord of the most perfect song ever written.

On The Journey Home, I mentioned The Surprise.  In The Surprise (Chesterton's most brilliant play), the Poet strums his guitar looking for a song of great beauty that always eludes him.  He says ...

There are four notes that I can almost hear, but cannot yet name or number, that lift the last line of the song suddenly into heaven. Or at least they will, when I know what they are....

Well, I know what they are, but I can never quite sing them.

The Revival

I once wrote, concerning the Surprising revival of the author of The Surprise ...

Chesterton, the most brilliant essayist and thinker of the twentieth century, had been buried. But this is a Faith of Resurrection, and we now see Chesterton out of his grave, jovial and ebullient as ever. This has caused a rush on shovel sales.

For the critics - the secular fundamentalists - are trying to re-bury him.  But Chesterton can't be buried again.  No grave is big enough to hold him.  He has, like our Church, and like its founder, an annoying knack for finding his way out of the tomb.


"An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered," he once wrote, and so Dale Ahlquist has started the tradition of the Cup of Inconvenience, awarded at each Conference to the attendee who suffered the most en route or on site.

This year the award went to a woman who was diagnosed with terminal cancer one month ago.  She was very sick and taking chemo daily. 

She has been a faithful viewer of The Apostle of Common Sense for years, and her one desire was to see Dale in person before she died.  Her doctor told her that if she took chemo Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the beginning of the week, that she should be well enough to go to Reno and get through Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Chesterton Conference at the end of the week. 

And she had a joyful time.  And she drank from the cup.


From Chesterton's novel The Man who was Thursday ...
"I repel the slander; we have not been happy. I can answer for every one of the great guards of Law whom he has accused. At least—"

He had turned his eyes so as to see suddenly the great face of Sunday, which wore a strange smile.

"Have you," he cried in a dreadful voice, "have you ever suffered?"

As he gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, "Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?"

The Conclusion

With actress Nicole Scofield, shortly after our visit with the dying man.

The Puritan "is always screwing himself up to see the truth," Chesterton observed; the Catholic "is often content that truth is there."

God is Truth, His Church is real, and so is that joy - it is hard to grasp and impossible to describe, but it is real; it is true.  Its taste is sweet, but not saccharine - for it is seasoned with suffering; it fills our cups; our cups runneth over. 

And when Reno, Nevada falls with a crash like Sodom or evaporates with a sigh like a desert mirage, and when America and the West follow - it will be to the enclaves where men will turn, to the gatherings that by then will either be filling more fully the convention halls beside the casinos or huddled here and there in the catacombs beneath. 

Eating the Bread and drinking from the Cup.  And celebrating our salvation.

Three of the Four Musketeers.

My buddy Kaiser Johnson - and the rest of us - feeling like kings.

(Thanks to Joe Grabowski for some of these photos.)


Anonymous said...

I want to hear Kaiser say, "My name is Edith Ann. And that's the truth. Plplplplplplplpth!"

Mark Shea

Bernie Kegler said...

Deeply moving and highly accurate; funny and sad. "Bittersweet" is what they used to call it, before the modernists decided that sort of thing was too sentimental. What they actually mean is that it's too real. Just found this blog today and was surprised: I included a little snicker at Godot in my own post yesterday. Beautiful work; I'll check back often.

Benjamin. said...

That's right, weren't they going to show Manalive?
Will it be available on DVD or the Internet?

Kevin O'Brien said...

[Sean Dailey, a great Chestertonian and a great friend, left the following comment on my Facebook wall. I am copying it here.]

Kevin O'Brien, there really is something special about Chesterton. And the specialness that moves a hardened atheist like Lewis to abandon atheism for Christianity is the same specialness that inspired Dale's side-splitting, miss-no-beat reply to your Howard Dean-loving actress.

Chesterton is not responsible for my reversion to the Catholic Church, Tolkien is. Tolkien was equal to Chesterton as a thinker and superior to him as a novelist. Belloc was his equal as a thinker, probably superior as a poet, and on a par as a writer -- albeit a writer with a much different style. Lewis, poor fellow, was not Chesterton's equal as a thinker or a writer, yet he is cited by seemingly many more people, including Catholics, as influential in their faith lives (he's respectable, you see).

But Chesterton has something that all of these rest lack. There are passages in Chesterton's books that I may have read a hundred times, yet I cannot read them, especially out loud, without getting choked up and sobbing. I could never perform Chesterton like Chalberg does -- and I don't even need a pillow to look the part. But I could never recite the lines. I'd be too busy breaking out in tears. My local Chesterton society has gotten used to this by now. Tolkien does this to me too, but not as much as Chesterton.

I would never presume to question the holiness of those other men I listed, especially Tolkien -- and even Lewis -- but if influence, or whatever you call it, ultimately hinges on holiness, then Chesterton must have had it in spades; must have not just overflowed with it, but must have had it gushing forth, so that it floods the whole world. When you read his book on Aquinas, for instance, and especially if you know the story of how it was written -- dictated off the top of his head in two sittings -- what comes through is not that Chesterton found a Catholic saint who he admires and who has had some influence on his thinking, but rather that in Aquinas Chesterton found a saint, a theologian, a philosopher, in whom Chesterton saw a kindred spirit, a brother, a man who occupies his heart and mind, and whose heart and mind Chesterton occupies.

Or when you read anything that Chesterton writes about our Lady, from Ballad of the White Horse to his description of her role in his final decision to join the Catholic Church, and a hundred references in between, you know you are reading a man for whom Christ's words from the cross: "Son, behold your mother...woman, behold your son," is a literal and physical reality, and not merely a theological abstraction. Not to disparage the Marian devotion of each and every saint and Catholic since the first century, but you get the idea that Chesterton clings to the skirts of the Mother of God like no one else did since Christ himself was a suckling babe.

What a blessing it is to know him.

Nickel Halfwise said...

How vividly you portray the whole experience!

I did, by the way (which I forgot to mention before), see that man again the next day, on my way to Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas, though he no longer appeared as a Dying Man; in fact I probably would have paid him little more attention than I gave to anyone else as he crossed the street, still with his cap and cane, seeming in perfect health. The fruit of prayer?


Anonymous said...

But Kevin--Apple is coming to Sparks! Right next to Reno. They're opening a data center. Salvation is at hand! David