Thursday, June 26, 2014

Poetry and Exile

In the photo above, you see me (left) at a restaurant with Fr. Dwight Longenecker.  Fr. Dwight was in St. Louis presenting a three day mission at Immaculate Conception Church in Dardenne Prairie.  I offered to take Fr. Dwight out to breakfast one morning.  My plan was to take him to the lobby of his hotel and eat donuts and cereal for free.  But he insisted that we go to someplace swanky, so we ended up at Bob Evans.


I first met Fr. Dwight when he was still Mr. Dwight - a former Anglican Priest who had sacrificed his career when he converted to the Catholic Faith in the mid 1990's.  I met him at Ave Maria College back in 2005, about ten years after his conversion, where he was giving a talk on The Lord of the Rings.  He mentioned then that he was hoping to be ordained a Catholic priest - but only at his first mission talk this week did I hear the whole story.  It turns out that that entire period, from about 1995 to 2006, was a decade in which Dwight Longenecker suffered in quiet obedience to three different bishops who refused to ordain him, while his former Anglican clergy friends in other dioceses were being ordained and getting on with their careers.

In his mission talk Fr. Dwight didn't dwell on what this must have been like.   But I think we can picture it.

Imagine being called to something - having a legitimate vocation - and spending a decade of your most productive years, from age 39 to age 50, being prevented from practicing what you're called to do, what you're made to do, and what you love to do, all the while having a wife and children to support; being forced to support them by taking odd jobs and being under-employed, all because you decided to be faithful to God and obedient to your bishop.


Actors understand this - because actors know how hard work is to come by and how much we long for what we love when we're not able to do it.  These days I give all I've got to Theater of the Word and Upstage Productions and Grunky, for I know what it's like to go years deeply wanting to do what I'm made to do, but being unable to.

Living like this - where there's a painful gap between what you love and long for and the satisfaction of that desire - living in this exile, this is what makes a man a poet.  For poetry is always somehow about that quest, the quest of the lover for his Lady, the attempt to find or to build an earthly city that somehow embodies the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, whose music you hear echoing far away, whose four lost chords you seek to sing and to honor, though you yourself are muddied and bruised, your instrument out of tune, a drunken troubadour on the side of the road.

And though all actors are tempted to do this for a kind of vainglory, if you love it you don't mind the reality, which is usually far from glorious.  In other words, you sing the four lost chords even if you're on the back of a hay wagon getting pelted by sleet and the small audience is running for cover.  The reality (for me, at least) is spending long hours on the road, changing in dressing rooms that are storage closets, performing for audiences who are often drunk and heckling you, dealing with performance spaces that are sometimes bowling alleys or barns with bugs flying in your face (see photo below - one of our many performances at a barn in rural Kansas, where I ended up swallowing a lot of bugs).

But we do what we can, and we do it for love.  Fr. Dwight had a good line about this.  He repeated advice he once heard about what to do if you're a Catholic layman seeking to serve the Church.  "Do what you can.  Don't wait to be asked - and don't wait to be thanked."

For as Paul says, "Woe unto me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16)  When God calls, you answer, for His sake and not for the sake of anything else.  We act (we actors) because we must.  It is what we are made to do, what we are called to do.

This is what makes it a vocation.  It is similar to the great vocation of marriage, where likewise you long for and seek out your Lady; and when you marry her, she'll find that you're a drunken troubadour on the side of the road, and you'll find that she's not as attractive the first thing in the morning as she was under the moonlight when you picked up your guitar and wooed her.  But you are One Flesh, and sweating beneath the floodlights on stage for applause is not unlike changing dirty diapers in the family room for no thanks at all.  In both cases, our love becomes incarnate - fleshed out - only by means of a cross.

That cross can be the hard work and persecution involved in answering the call; or it can be 11 years of exile and frustration, longing to answer the call.

Either way, we find ourselves in a gift of ourselves, and we find our greatest glory is this rough and splintered cross, embraced with love.


Meanwhile, Fr. Dwight gave an impressive three day mission, aimed at both the heads and the hearts of his audiences.  He told his conversion story, spoke on the twelve "isms" that threaten the wholeness of life in the Church, encouraged ways to counter these sins and divisions, gave honor to Our Lady and the saints, and drew us all closer to Christ.

He ended the mission by having the audience stand to receive his blessing.  All of us in the sanctuary - over 100 people - stood and crossed ourselves as he blessed us.  Then immediately, the associate pastor said, "Let's show our gratitude to Fr. Dwight!" and we all gave him a hearty round of applause - while we were still on our feet.

And I couldn't help thinking, "Not a bad way to get a standing ovation!"

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