Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. Those are my answers when people ask me, knowing what they do about me, why I became Catholic so late in my life. In fact there are many answers to that simple question, but one of the quickest ways to say what I mean is simply by making a short list of some of the people who I want most to be like. If you want to know who I am, ask my friends. But if you want to know who I am becoming, ask my heroes.
Over the early years of my adult life I found myself returning to a small chorus of voices who shared a powerful compassion, a sharp and clever wit at taking on the powers that be, and a particularly stubborn grasp of the light while they took on darkness. They are each intellectuals in their own right, mostly American, some men and some women. But the obvious thread woven through their lives was a deep spirituality that anchored them to the earth in the same way a sailor might lash himself to a mast in a storm whipped sea.
I have looked at the evidence of their lives and legacy, and feel confident in saying, “I’ll have whatever it is that they are having.”
And what they are having is faith with a sharp edge and deep roots. All of them found both the insight and courage to confront evil, in the world and especially in themselves. None were strangers to the Gospels or the the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. And all of them were willing to wrestle with the Church to stay part of it, even when the Church seemed to be part of the problem.
These people lived well, at least well enough to have left a powerful legacy that makes others want to live well also. I love their lives and want to live my own personalized version of what they have been up to. And I want my life to inspire you to be exactly who you are, only better.
I know not every Catholic, not every Christian, is like them, but that is part of the point. I am certainly not trying to be like every Catholic or every Christian. I think that would not only be impossible, it would be a bad idea. But this particular cadre of holy fools always seem to inspire me to be exactly who I am, only better. Those are good footsteps to follow.
One need not be Catholic, or of any faith at all to honor those who mastered the art of living before us. A good memory of good people will always confront us with our differences from them, but also give us hope, for a good memory recalls their struggles to be who they were and the grace they found there.
November 1st is always a bittersweet time for me. The next two months are simultaneously my favorite time of year, while also probably being the most lonely. There is plenty of darkness in the world, and on a steady diet of struggle and tragedy our imaginations can shift to see the world as impossibly dark.
Part of what these holy story tellers taught me is to learn to tell other stories, alternative stories than that of impossible darkness…
Stories in the prayers of the psalms, or pericopes from the Gospels, questions from the Summa Theologica, and the stories of their lives, memoirs and imagination. I need keep my soul on a steady diet of precisely the kind of things that sharpened their faith.
It does me well then to pause and re-member those who have gone before and gifted their lives to the world as a means of grace and justice. We always begin, never alone but already with a cloud of witnesses cheering us on. I pray that gives me to the strength and grace to pay it forward.