Thursday, August 23, 2012

Theology of the (funny) face

At the M Street Bridge in Georgetown, August 18, 2012

Last Saturday afternoon at a New York television studio, watching the playback of the interview I had just taped for Colleen Carroll Campbell's "Faith and Culture," I decided to stop fighting and admit to myself that I am funny-looking.

By "funny-looking," I don't mean ugly, just ... funny. The laziness of my left eye is increasingly pronounced, and my efforts to see with my good eye make me cock my head in a way that makes me look, well, cockeyed. Add to that the fact that my smile is stronger on my left side than my right, and my expression becomes occasionally Picasso-esque.

Admitting this brought a strange sense of relief. Back when I was promoting The Thrill of the Chaste, I tried to look fetching in a modest sort of way. (Around that time, a friend asked me for a title for a Christian-themed beauty blog she wanted to start. I suggested "Glam of God.")

But one can't stay winsome in aeternum. So, watching myself on the playback, I was thankful that promoting My Peace I Give You requires of me no special glamour—just a wounded witness. It was Archbishop Sheen whose writings taught me, as a new convert struggling with memories of childhood pain, that there is nothing wrong with being wounded, for it is through our wounds that we draw closer to the wounded and resurrected Christ.

There is also the comforting thought that being funny-looking in itself puts me in the company of saints. One of the holy people featured in My Peace I Give YouBlessed Margaret of Castello, was physically awkward in the extreme—born blind, dwarfish, and extremely hunchbacked. Her head was large in proportion to her body, and one of her legs was much shorter than the other, which would come to cause her great difficulty in walking.

Margaret's wealthy parents, who had hoped for a "perfect" child, were ashamed of her. Throughout her childhood, they did their utmost to hide her existence, locking her away in various places so that she would be out of sight of their friends. When she was nineteen, they decided to stop caring for her altogether—dumping her to fend for herself in a strange city.

After begging for a time, Margaret was admitted into a convent. She was prayerful, and was under the impression that the nuns, whose Rule entailed silence and personal sacrifice, would enable her to reach the holiness she sought. Appearances, however, were deceiving; the sisters were in fact worldly. Before long, however, they too dumped her—annoyed that she refused to follow them in ignoring the Rule.

Yet, this disabled and deformed young woman, cruelly rejected by both her birth family and her religious family, became so loved by the local townspeople—who saw her prayer life (she became a Third Order Dominican) and knew how she spent herself helping the sick and imprisoned—that when she died in 1320 at the age of thirty-three, they insisted she be buried in a place of honor at the town church.

Margaret's reputation grew after her death, as miracles of healing were reported at her burial site. When her body was exhumed in 1558 as part of the process of investigating her cause for sainthood, she was found to be incorrupt. Her kind, homely face; her hunched back; her unevenly matched legs and misshapen feet—all remained as they were on the day of her death. Although her body has since suffered sun damage (the locals were a bit too eager to display their very own beata), she remains as intact as she was in life. To the world, she was funny-looking. To God, who refuses to let her turn to dust, she is beautiful—a sign pointing to the day when each of the faithful shall receive a new, glorified body.

Another holy woman whose humble appearance let the light of Christ shine through was Mother Teresa. I remember once speaking to Sister Gerry (Geraldine Calabrese M.P.F.), a blind nun who was very dear to me, about beauty, and she related a story she had heard about a blind elevator operator who encountered the blessed woman of Calcutta. After the operator let her off at her desired floor, he asked one of the remaining riders, "Who was that?" Told that it was Mother Teresa, he said he knew it must have been someone famous, because she was so beautiful.

Sister Gerry (above) was herself outstandingly beautiful; too much so to pass for anyone's idea of "funny-looking," though she would have gladly accepted the title if only to be in greater solidarity with the suffering. Even as she was dying from cancer, her sightless eyes seemed to dance with joy.

My favorite funny-looking holy person is not a canonized saint, though he is an unofficial patron to people in recovery the world over. He is Father Ed Dowling S.J., the spiritual adviser to Bill W. who showed the Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder the connections between the Twelve Steps and St. Ignatius Loyola's rules for discernment of spirits.

Father Ed was, in the words of one of his Jesuit superiors, "humble and modest," which perhaps explains why he looks profoundly uncomfortable in his publicity photographs. Although I find his appearance endearing, he appeared awkward to those around him. In The Soul of Sponsorship Robert Fitzgerald S.J.'s account of Dowling and Wilson's friendship, a contemporary of Father Ed says "His manners and ways of expressing himself went against him. He seemed disorganized, a bit slap-happy, a roughneck."

It probably didn't help that he was overweight for much of his adult life and walked stiffly due to painful arthritis. Bill W. used to recount of the night Father Ed first visited him that, upon hearing the Jesuit's limping gait coming down the hall—thud, stomp, thud, stomp—he muttered to himself, "Not another drunk."

So I am not surprised to read in Fitzgerald that once when Father Ed paid a visit to St. Ignatius High School in Chicago, the young Jesuit brother who answered the door left him in the front parlor and said to a companion, "Who is this funny-looking guy?

My favorite image of Father Ed is this one, from February 1957, three years before his death.

It was taken at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. With Father Ed are descendants of Dred Scott. Dowling is revealing to them the location of their famous ancestor's unmarked grave—which he took pains to discover, just in time for the hundred-year anniversary of Scott's death.

Look at Father Ed's back in the photo and you can tell he is in pain. He used to joke about it: "I yield in my stiffness to no one."

Today, Father Ed's body lies in that same cemetery. But while Dred Scott's grave, thanks to the holy Jesuit, now has its own marker, Dowling's is unmarked, save for the monument listing the hundreds of Jesuits whose bodies were moved to the site when the order's Florissant, Missouri, novitiate was sold. Father Dowling's old grave at Florissant had its own marker. I have no doubt he would have been pleased at the reversal of fortune between himself and the hero whose legacy he helped preserve.

April 3, 1960, was the date Father Ed passed away at age 61. Appropriately, it was Passion Sunday (not Palm Sunday, but the one before it, marking the beginning of Passiontide). The first reading for that day, Hebrews 9:11-15, says, "For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!"

As I write in My Peace I Give You, we think of the saints as being pure, which they also are, but it would be truer to say they have been purified. Father Ed accepted his purification with joy. I want to be like him, my funny-looking face alongside his in heaven, both looking at the face of God.

At Calvary Cemetery's monument to the Jesuits buried there, St. Louis, Missouri, January 5, 2011 (click on photo to enlarge). I am pointing to Father Daniel A. Lord's name. Father Dowling's name is third from bottom. Photo by Mark S. Abeln.