|The Princess, The Dragon, St. George (see Chesterton's quotation below)|
He was a violent man. And he tried to kill me.
It was the first time a murder almost happened during one of our murder mysteries.
He had been raised in one of the most culturally depraved parts of Missouri, and his family history included a bit of everything, even incest. His father used to get in fist fights with him and his brothers - in public. In the parking lot of the restaurant they owned and ran. In front of the customers.
Over the years that we performed murder mystery dinner theater shows at his restaurant, he more than once threatened to "kick my ass". Somehow I managed to avoid direct confrontations with him, and he admired the work I was doing enough generally to leave me alone.
But he was particularly angry on January 11, 1997. He confronted me before the show and demanded that I share with him a portion of his overhead: the fee that Mastercard and Visa were charging him when people paid for their dinners on a credit card. Obviously this was unfair, but I dodged the issue, as he was particularly on edge. "Let's talk about it later," I said.
In fact, over the years, one of my favorite ways of dealing with conflict had been to dodge the issue. When I was at my poorest, and delivering flyers door to door (doing work that prisoners and the mentally disabled are often contracted to do), the company that hired me was paying me a ridiculously low amount per flyer. Instead of negotiating for more money, and for what amounted to a living wage, I simply delivered only half to 3/4 of the flyers I charged them for. This was dishonest, but, in my cowardice, I found it to be a better solution than dealing with the problem directly and taking the risk that I might lose the business.
So I was often like this with the bully who ran the restaurant. After all, I was making pretty good money, writing and performing my own comedy shows, I loved the work, and if it meant I had to sell my soul a bit or shut up and take a little abuse here and there, I figured I would do it.
But that night something happened.
A guy had parked his car in the parking lot so that it was blocking others from getting in or out. So during Act Two of the show, the restaurant owner sent his girlfriend table to table to ask people whose car it was that was parked there.
This was very distracting. It got to a point where I couldn't hold the audience's attention. The show was starting to die, as people kept looking at the girlfriend, who kept talking to people around the room. Finally I stopped the show. "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. We'll be back on after they figure this out."
And I brought the actress with me and made an exit.
In the hall, the restaurant owner, the angry man, was livid. "You can't stop the show!" he insisted.
"You can't ruin the show," I replied.
"We've got to solve this problem, and we'll solve it however we choose to! Get your ass back out there and finish Act Two!"
Now, here's the point I'm making.
When you love something with a passionate love, enough that you take pride in it, enough that you'll fight to defend it, enough that it means more to you than anything else - that's Eros. That's what so many young people, both in and out of the Catholic Church, are deliberately suffocating in their lives. Secularists kill Eros by "hooking up" and turning romantic love into mutual abuse. Catholics kill Eros by telling themselves that anything that gets their dander up is a sin and must be shunned. In both cases, the young live lives where they constantly dodge the issue, lives of impotence, lives of make-believe and comfort zones.
"Don't talk to me that way," I said to the angry man.
"You get your ass out there and keep doing your show, or you'll kiss $60,000 away!" he said. That's about what we were making from him in a year - though he was underpaying us by more than half of what the shows were worth, and what I was later able to get for them elsewhere.
"You're damn right I'm kissing it away!" I said, and I grabbed him and kissed him. "I've had enough of your s***, you a**hole!"
And I stormed upstairs to gather my costumes.
Now, granted, this was not the smartest thing to do. I was provoking him. I was finally giving in to an anger that he himself had been provoking in me for three full years.
But here's the thing: you don't mess with my shows. I let this man mess with me offstage, I let him harass my actresses, I let him nickle and dime me to death, I let him blow up in anger at me and shout at me on a regular basis before and after many performances, I let him treat me with the contempt he treated his bus boys.
But I was not going to let him mess with my shows. The stage is a sacred space. I wasn't a Christian in those days, but I knew there was one thing I would defend the way a priest would defend his altar, the way a mother bear would defend her cubs. I was going to defend the thing that I loved, the thing I was called to do. You don't mess with my shows.
Suddenly, he was on me.
Having been an amateur boxer in his day, he was pummeling me, and having been a dirty street fighter, he kept trying to trip me so that he could get on top of me. We were alone in the upstairs room where my costumes were. He was trying to kill me. I could see it in his eyes. He later admitted it to one of my actresses.
I held my own for as long as I could. I realized if I didn't start yelling for help, he'd eventually get me down, and if he got me down, he would knock me out, and once he knocked me out, he would keep beating on me, even if I were unconscious. I was a dead man, and this guy was bigger and stronger and filled with the kind of anger I've never seen in another human being - an anger not of this world, an anger he was giving himself in to with a glee of hideous abandon.
Eventually the waiters heard my cries and the police were called - but not until after he broke my nose in two places and almost delivered a "blow out fracture" to my left eye socket. The police were St. Louis city cops, friends of this guy's, regular customers at the restaurant. They arrested me. But not him.
So I was out of a job and almost murdered on the same night. And arrested, and filled with despair. And the guy who tried to kill me owed me for six performances prior to that night - and of course he never paid me. I decided not to sue, as it was all I could do to get through each day. It was the most traumatic thing that had happened to me up to that point in my life, and I struggled to come to grips with it. Lots of sleepless nights and deep days of anger. And a family to support, two little kids to feed, and a mortgage to pay (we had just bought our first house). And our main dinner theater client suddenly gone.
In my free time following the attack, I went to the library and started reading books at random to get my mind off things. One of the books was God in the Dock, an anthology of essays by someone named C. S. Lewis, who was the first Christian I had ever come across who was both a brilliant writer and a man who could mount a reasonable defense of the Faith. Lewis led me to Chesterton. Chesterton to Belloc. Belloc to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And the rest is history.
Sometimes my actors get down on themselves. "We didn't have a very good show tonight," they'll complain.
"Did anyone try to kill you?" I ask.
"No," they reply.
"Did you get the check?" I add.
"Yes," they reply.
"Then you had a good show."
Of course, had I handled the situation differently during our three years at this restaurant, had I stood up for myself early on and all along the way, either the business relationship would have ended sooner, or this guy would have learned to respect me. But things never would have exploded the way they did.
But there's a lesson here, a lesson about love. Not the love of forgiveness (though I've been given the grace to forgive this man, and I have); but the love of fighting for the princess.
Which is something that is very alien to many of you - especially to you Devout Young Catholics, a group I've been haranguing all week.
Young Catholics, stop dodging the issue. God has made us to love, and love includes both the selfless love of Agape and the possessive love of Eros. If you ever get married and have babies, you will suddenly find that there are little tiny people in this world that you would gladly die for in a heartbeat, little tiny people that you would gladly kill for in a heartbeat: your children.
That's love, fellow Christians. A love that is both self-sacrificing and jealous, insistent, firm and militant: a love that is (as all love is) both Agape and Eros.
Stand up for yourselves. Don't settle for loser boyfriends who can't bring themselves to pop the question because they're either too busy "discerning" or they're secretly gay or hooked on porn. Don't settle for girlfriends who manipulate or tease you or who can't be trusted or who won't be there when you need them. Don't settle for turning your vocation into an avocation, for jobs that simply fill space and make your life comfortable but that don't give you the chance to do what God has made you to do. Don't settle for an education that doesn't force you to grapple with the deepest elements of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Don't settle for a Mass that's contrived, filled with bad music and insipid preaching. Don't settle for a parish that's more anti-Christian than Christian. Don't settle for the safety of living in Mom's basement.
And don't let anyone mess with your shows.
When you find what you love, defend it, fight for it, die for it - and (most challenging of all) live for it.
The greatest writer of the 20th Century, my patron in heaven, put it much better than I ever could (my emphasis) ...
In every romance there must be the twin elements of loving and fighting. In every romance there must be the three characters: there must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who is a thing that both loves and fights. There have been many symptoms of cynicism and decay in our modern civilization. But of all the signs of modern feebleness, of lack of grasp on morals as they actually must be, there has been none quite so silly or so dangerous as this: that the philosophers of today have started to divide loving from fighting and to put them into opposite camps. [But] the two things imply each other; they implied each other in the old romance and in the old religion, which were the two permanent things of humanity. You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. It may be an airy, philosophical, and disinterested lust… but it is lust, because it is wholly self-indulgent and invites no attack. On the other hand, fighting for a thing without loving it is not even fighting; it can only be called a kind of horse-play that is occasionally fatal. Wherever human nature is human and unspoilt by any special sophistry, there exists this natural kinship between war and wooing, and that natural kinship is called romance. It comes upon a man especially in the great hour of youth; and every man who has ever been young at all has felt, if only for a moment, this ultimate and poetic paradox. He knows that loving the world is the same thing as fighting the world. - G. K. Chesterton