From Clerics to Cardigans: Tuesdays With Vinny

Goth Phone Call by fluffy_steve at Flickr

Even Goths Make Phone Calls

Last week I shared a story about the nerve-wracking experience of buying my first clerical shirt. The discomfort I experienced walking into the clerical goods store to buy that shirt had less to do with the shirt itself and much more to do with the way it altered my sense of relationship with those around me. It might even be the case that this alteration of relationship is a uniquely religious experience; as Jim Martin, S.J. likes to say, “Spirituality connects you with God but religion connects you with other people.” (Granted, the latter is the more challenging of the two endeavors, especially given that other people are significantly more likely to piss you off, and less prone to communicating unconditional love and acceptance, than the good God Almighty.)

But we long for those “other people,” don’t we? Even the most radical adolescent experiments in countercultural fashion (those screaming statements of so-called independence) generally represent an individual’s longing for acceptance and inclusion in a group of like-minded, perhaps similarly disaffected, people. We long for community. Dorothy Day said it well in the conclusion of her autobiography: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

Our clothes are (quite literally) a superficial manifestation of a deeper desire for belonging and union. When I walked out of the store with my new black shirt wrapped in paper under my arm, my nervousness was a reciprocal reaction to the deep desires I’ve always had to belong somewhere, to someone. The happy ending to that story is that I’ve found that place again and again in the Society of Jesus, and… to be honest… this has virtually nothing to do with that little black shirt and more to do with the personal relationships that have accompanied this vocation. Relationship with God and (who knew?) other people have moved to the heart. Which brings me to the whole point of this follow-up.

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A couple days after that last piece was published an old Jesuit died. Vincent T. O’Keefe, S.J. died at the age of 92 in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in New York. I never met the man, but he was well known throughout the Society around the world in light of his long tenure as assistant to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J. (who is often referred to as the second founder of the Jesuits). I never heard anyone, Jesuit or not, call Fr. O’Keefe anything but “Vinny” – which I attribute to his reputation for relentless kindness. News of Vinny’s death spread around the web (Jim Martin’s memorial can be read here if you’d like), and on Tuesday I came across a collection of short interviews of Vinny reflecting on his work with Fr. Arrupe. You’ve heard of Tuesdays with Morrie? Well, this was my Tuesday with Vinny.

I’ll just say it: take a look at a few of these videos. Pearls abound.  My favorite is when he uses the phrase “Earthing it” to explain the demand to inculturate faith.  Take a look here (skip to 1:20 and watch the last minute):

I love this.  You can just see him trying to find the right word, and… well, he basically makes one up. (Earthing is a verb? Really? To earth something?).  But he’s swept up in a passionate moment… getting his hands dirty… finding God in the dusty details of this world… I love it! He is passionate, funny, and deeply in love! He’s talking about someone with an affection and admiration rarely seen in our cynical time. It’s beautiful, almost incredible, to witness this kind of faithful love in the elders among us. (I offer Exhibit ‘B’ here.)

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You might notice that Vinny isn’t wearing the infamous black clerical garb of my last post. Instead, he’s wearing the standard uniform of the old man… a cardigan sweater. (Incidentally, our current Superior General, Adolfo Nicholas, S.J., is in the habit – pun intended – of wearing a cardigan over his clerics; I guess some guys just want it all!).  But cardigan sweater or clerical symbol, what that man wears in those videos is the bright love of God.  He wears love of his superior and close friend Fr. Arrupe, and love of this crazy world of ours.

In each of those videos he is talking with humor and passion (two intimately related modes of expression) about someone he loves. To be frank, that Jesuits could talk like Vinny does is one of the reasons I’ve grown more comfortable living in that clerical shirt I bought years ago. It’s part of why I’m happy to imagine myself an old man in a cardigan someday. The fears I have of the strangeness of this religious life or the universal fear of death and decline are melted away watching these interviews.

Love looks good on anyone. And, Vinny, you look marvelous! All cleverness and insight aside, I can’t wait to wear such an outfit myself. Heck, I may even try that one on today.

Vinny O’Keefe, S.J.,
Pray for us.

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