Saturday, August 31, 2013

I Found My Thrill After I Left Blueberry Hill

Reader Alice, who is praying our 50 Days of Prayer in preparation for the world-wide consecration to the Immaculate Heart, says something that has made me think.

My first consecration (Louis de Monfort) to Mary was one year ago, and I won't even go into what, mostly, a hash I've made of the past year; but I do believe Mary has brought me to your website, to let me know that whether I can see it or not, progress was made, and that just to breathe, means I have more chances to become what I am meant to be.

First, thank you, Alice, for such comments are great consolations for me.

But more than that, this subject Alice brings up has been on my mind recently.

Let me explain.


Rock and Roll legend Chuck Berry performing at Blueberry Hill
Today my wife Karen and I went to Blueberry Hill, the famous restaurant in St. Louis associated with Chuck Berry and filled with a ton of pop culture memorabilia.  Some of the items have been on display for over thirty years, which is about how long I've been going to Blueberry Hill.  In fact, in the old days I used to hang out there with my friends - who were a very different lot of friends from the kind I have today.

And that got Karen and me talking, and it got me wondering - and suddenly it struck me how different my life has been since becoming a Catholic.


You can watch my conversion story on one of my appearances as myself on The Journey Home, some clips of which are available on Grunky.  I'll give you the Reader's Digest version here.

In brief, I became an atheist at age nine (yes, age 9 - one of my Facebook friends thought that was a typo when I mentioned it a few days ago) and remained a vehement one until the age of 18, at which point my experiences acting on stage convinced me of the reality of the spiritual world.  I was "spiritual but not religious" for the next 18 years of my life, reading folks like Carl Jung and George Bernard Shaw and Eric Hoffer, along with psychologists like Fromm and May.

Then, a combination of factors began to usher me into the Church, not the least of which were the writings of C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.  My wife and I were received into the Catholic Church on July 30, 2000 - a date I later learned was the 78th anniversary of Chesterton's reception into the Church.

I was 39 at the time.  And every friend I had then is no longer a friend today.  My friends were all quite anti-Catholic and my conversion was a watershed our friendships could not endure.

Somehow, over the course of the last 13 years, losing my friends was just the tip of the iceberg.  Somehow my life has become entirely different.

Like Alice, I feel as if I've made a real hash of the last year of my life, too.  And, like Alice, I feel God's grace still at work in me, despite how far I keep falling from the mark of letting Him transform me into the New Man He wants me to be.  Indeed, one of the great temptations of this past year (a year of profound temptation for me) has been the desire to despair - "It's not working out.  I'll never become the Christian I ought to be.  Look at all He's given me and look at the sins I keep committing!  What a hypocrite I am!  I might as well just give up.  I keep talking about God and yet I keep doing things that keep me from God - things that hurt myself and other people."

Well, Alice, and other readers who find yourselves in this same boat (more than one of you has communicated with me about this very sort of thing), here's at least one consolation.  In order to convey it properly, I'll have to talk a bit about my life, so please bear with me.


I was 24 or 25.  I was dating Karen.  She was in the passenger's seat.  I was at Grand and Gravois, or one of those South St. Louis intersections.  The light was red.  The sign said, "No Right Turn on Red".  I started to turn right.

"Kevin," she said, "the sign says NO RIGHT TURN ON RED."

"That's an optional no right on red," I replied.  "It doesn't apply to me."

I turned right.  I had failed to look in my rear-view mirror.  A cop was right behind me.  His lights came on; he pulled me over.

I had an outstanding bench warrant for a previously unpaid ticket.  He hauled me in to jail.  Karen had to get my sister and brother-in-law to come downtown and bail me out.


In those days, I honestly believed that the rules did not apply to me.  

That sounds stupid and arrogant, but I had read the entire collected works of psychologist C. G. Jung - 20 bound volumes or so - and that's the main lesson I had learned from Jung and the main lesson Jung had learned from life.  Jung taught me that so-called "conventional morality" applied to the moronic masses.  Those of us who were intelligent and sensitive and who had a greater sex drive than all those bourgeois monogamists could live outside of the rules - for the rules were merely the conventions of men, and could not be expected to have any bearing on those of us who were elite, who were a bit more than mere men.  Those of us who were in touch with the collective unconscious were not just slogging along from day to day.  We were in the process of individuation, of becoming unique individuals, and conventional morality could do nothing but hinder us.  Thus we were, in a sense, obligated to break the rules.

This I would later see clearly as the Gnostic hogwash that it is (which is why I have ever since had a keen nose for the Gnostic hogwash and recycled Jungianism that Christopher West and other "hipster Catholics" keep trotting out).

But this is how we lived, my friends and I.  I am not exaggerating.  This was our philosophy and this is how we lived.

One of my close friends, the serial philanderer that I have mentioned in these posts before, would visit Blueberry Hill with me in the 1980's and 1990's, and we would sit in a dimly lit booth and he would brag about his latest conquests.  This was a man who had slept with hundreds or thousands of women in his life.  This behavior cost him two marriages and his career, but even now in 2013 at the age of 78, it's still the main focus of his existence.

I was not quite at his level.  But I did live simply and solely for myself.  I had no intention of marrying Karen, for example.  We dated for almost nine years before I finally did marry her.  A family life?  A wife?  Kids?  A regular job?  Why would I want that, if I could get the only benefit my narcissistic personality saw in my relationship with her - sex and companionship without any sacrifice on my part?

And yet I wasn't totally self-centered.  I wasn't really all about pleasure, and I certainly had no desire to make money.  I was never really into mere materialistic hedonism.  For instance, I wanted to find out what this individuation was that Jung kept mentioning and somehow I wanted to achieve it, and I certainly had a sad and painful longing to do theater.  I loved acting and play writing so deeply it hurt.  I wanted only to make money doing what I loved - and I had picked the one career where accomplishing that was nearly impossible.

But I knew I hand't picked it.  I knew acting and drama for me wasn't a mere career.  I knew it was a vocation, a calling, though I didn't believe the "call" had come from a personal god.  I knew, however, that this was indeed one of the rules I had to live by, and I learned it the hard way - like going to jail for making a right turn on red.  I had somehow to give my life to the art of show business - difficult as that was - or else I would be miserable.

But, aside from my love for drama and for art and literature, my existence was very mean, which is to say petty and small-minded, sordid and selfish.

I had another close friend who was not a philanderer and who was a bit into reading like I was, but in many ways his life was just as narrow and narcissistic as that of my Blueberry Hill buddy.  He was a lapsed Catholic and he married a liberal Jew and had one - and deliberately only one - child between them.  And the two of them were more like Episcopalians than anything else - filled with what I call the Anglican Ennui, the sadness of the sophisticated.  "This is all there is to life and we might as well make the best of it, but we're a sorry lot, we humans, and we are teetering on the edge of depression, and we need our illusions, and the best we can do is find a set of illusions that are sophisticated and erudite and aesthetic.  We are, sad to say, all alcoholics but we really owe it to ourselves to drink the best gin."  Such is the Anglican Eunni.

"So what was I living for back then?" I asked Karen tonight as we sat in the dimly lit interior of Blueberry Hill, in a booth I had sat in hundreds of times over the years.

The answer is this: I was living for nothing beyond myself - or at least for very little.


The first big change came when I got married.  I suddenly realized how lonely I had been in comparison, all those years, all the while congratulating myself for being so clever and avoiding the lot of most men.

The next big change came when our kids were born.  The moment I saw our firstborn, Colin, I knew a love that I had never imagined I could feel.  Here was someone I would die for in a heartbeat, without asking a question or hesitating for a moment.  I felt the same, of course, for our daughter Kerry when she was born.

And the more my career came together, the less of a misfit I felt, for I somehow knew that my other great love - my love for the dramatic arts - was not arbitrary, meaningless, or pointless.  It could pay off; it had a goal; it was not for naught.  I have supported this family for 20 years now acting and writing and producing and directing - all the while living in St. Louis, Missouri, of all places.  And I have had the great honor to lose most of the money I've made from show biz over the years on Theater of the Word Incorporated, evenagelizing through drama and being persecuted for it.

And somehow, sitting with my wife Karen in Blueberry Hill on a hot summer night in 2013, I look back on all those years and on the huge change my imperfect love for Jesus Christ has made.

For while I am (like Alice and like most of my readers) far from the Perfect Christian, I have changed orbits.  I am in a different solar system.

I now orbit the Holy Trinity.  My life is no longer centered on my self, or even on the things that are "mine" like my family or my career.  My life, instead, has become a continual struggle to cooperate with God's grace and to leave the old orbit behind.  My center of gravity is now totally different.

Do I get it right?  Hardly ever.

But, Alice (and Readers), as St. Francis de Sales says,

Perfection does not consist in being perfect or in acting perfectly. It is the striving for perfection that is important. 

By "perfection" he means holiness, a life of love lived for God and neighbor.

My devotion to that, to which I committed myself officially 13 years ago, has cost me all of my friends from those days - the Philanderer, Mr. & Mrs. Anglican Ennui - many that I haven't mentioned - all of them but Karen.


Yes, we can make a hash of things.  But the eggs, the corned beef, the potatoes - the ingredients of that wonderful hash all come from God.  For this much we can say ...

To try to live for God and to fall shy of doing so is nonetheless a great blessing.  

To try to live for yourself and to succeed at it is a damn shame.


PJMULVEY said...

Great Post a lifelong Catholic I have similar feelings that you do. At church on Sunday, I tell the Lord the great efforts I will make in the coming week and by Monday evening I feel like a miserable failure. However, we only read of St. Peter's failures in the Gospel but the Lord forgave him over and over nonetheless because Peter loved Him despite his faults. I once wrote to the famous Trappist author Fr. Raymond almost 30 years ago a similar note about failure. His advice was 'to stay close to Jesus'. That is all we can do and throughout the day say: My Jesus,mercy.

James Joseph said...

Who in world is Christopher West?

Gonzalo T. Palacios, Ph.D. said...

Sunday, September 1, 2013
"I Found My Thrill After I Left Blueberry Hill": thank you Kevin for sharing your conversion experiences. I wish I could do likewise but I must not use this forum to publicize my work. Thank you, Gonzalo T. Palacios, Ph.D.,

Pedro Erik said...

I am a big Chestertonian, you taught me today that coincidentaly (I did not know that) I got married 83 years after Chesterton reception into the Church.

Many thanks.

God bless you and your family

Dennis said...

Hello Kevin,

I am a fan of Christopher West and have heard criticism about him without specific reasons given (but am open to hearing and considering them). Could you elaborate on what you mean by the term Catholic "hipster" as well as your criticism of Mr West? I ask because, while having not read any of Jung, the description you provide does not seem to fit what I have heard and read from Mr West (I have seen him speak several times and have read many of his books, but not all of them).

Thank you.

Del said...

I will announce that THIS POST IS AWESOME!!!!!

(And for the sake of convenience, you can assume that I think every post is AWESOME [more-or-less, as long as I don't make a specific specific comment to complain!])

Anonymous said...

A nit: Fats Domino made Blueberry Hill famous. Other than that, terrific post!

Kevin O'Brien said...

But the restaurant is more associated with Chuck Berry, who plays there regularly.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Dennis, if you click on the link in the post that says "Christopher West", you'll be taken to my many articles on him.

I'll say this much here: what he has in common with Jung is his implication that the elite can indulge passions that the common folk cannot. He is careful - very careful - about how he phrases this, but he has said clearly that those with "mature purity" may dispense with "custody of the eyes". In other words, the elite among us may stare at naked ladies, while the common rabble should not. This is exactly the kind of tripe I devoured as a young man. It's Gnostic hogwash. And it hardly ever mentions what sex is really all about - marriage, babies and the family.

The fact that he's a "hipster" Catholic, I don't hold against him.

Be aware that he has been under great criticism from many circles, mostly in the academic community, for several years now, and that he has not effectively responded to any serious critique of his work. If you're really interested in concerns serious Catholics have with his work, Google a bit and you'll find a ton of stuff is out there, from better writers than I am, and from a good many serious scholars and theologians - of which I am neither.

Dennis said...

Thank you, Kevin, for your response.

I found your links after posting my message and spent about 40 minutes going through your articles. My initial reaction is that most of the things Mr West is accused of promoting are misinterpretations of what he has said.

I realize, though, this may be due to a subconcious filtering of his message on my part or perhaps my lack of exposure to all of his materials.

I will continue investigating this with an open mind, and thank you for giving me something to look for while doing so.

God bless!

Sherry McMahon said...

Kevin, in your post you said "...I feel as if I've made a real hash of the last year of my life". Well, during this period you also gave a huge gift to lots of appreciative people in Florida.

Your "Theater of the Word" - Evangelizing Through Drama - is one of the best evangelization methods I have ever seen. When you and your actors presented "Socrates Meets Jesus", based on the book of the same name by Dr. Peter Kreeft, you gave us a priceless gift.

This play portrayed the faulty thinking of so many in today's society. The college students who saw your play, as well as the adult audience, came away with a deeper appreciation of their faith - of who Jesus Christ really is - and a better understanding of what has gone wrong in terms of the erosion of the basics. And, it was humorous.

You were brilliant as Socrates! God has definitely given you a very special gift for writing, directing, producing, and acting.

Your faith-oriented plays, whether this one - or the one on Theology of the Body - or the Travels of St. Paul or any of the many others - should be seen across the country - and beyond. It would be wonderful if you could do a national tour.

So all in all, this year for you (and Karen) has also included huge self-giving and a sharing of your hearts and talents with people who are hungry to hear the Truth proclaimed in Love. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Kevin, keep up the good work!

Dr. Eric