This is the tenth installment of A Deacon’s Diary. In the ninth installment, Steve tried to love his enemies, and his friends, too.
A week ago, I was listening to a talk at Boston University’s Catholic Chaplaincy. The speaker, a Carmelite priest, was telling our students about the life of the (recently) Blessed Carlo Acutis (1991-2006, beatified by Pope Francis in 2020). Carlo was a fifteen-year-old kid with an interest in Eucharistic devotion and built websites to promote Eucharistic miracles. Perhaps he’ll be the first millennial to become a saint.
The talk began with a quote from Blessed Carlo: “All are born as originals. Many die as photocopies.”
I was struck by this. It’s something I sometimes feel deeply – when I preach, I try and find something new to say, whether in a question I’m posing or a perspective on the scriptures. When I write for academic purposes, graduate school beat into me the importance of having something new and fresh to say.
But it’s not always about newness or originality. I think it’s more about authenticity, which is perhaps both a catchword for millennials (so I’m told) and something I crave deeply. And sometimes authenticity means not what’s brand-new, but reliance on tradition.
Having been born in the early 1980s, I’ve sometimes puzzled over generational cohorts that sociologists love to talk about. Depending on the divisions and the particular sociologists, I’m either the earliest of millennials or the very last of the Gen-Xers.
I don’t know that labels mean terribly much, but I find this discussion sometimes useful for trying to make sense of my own experiences. Straddling the line like that, I find that I have many Gen-Xer friends—we have enough in common. And I speak the language of millennials, having taught and ministered with them for a few years, enough to recognize differences and experiences that I don’t natively understand.
And while “authenticity” seems to be a buzzword for millennials, I can’t pretend that I don’t see Gen-Xers (or even what portion of my soul belongs to that generational cohort) seeking authenticity in all of the spiritual questing associated with them. I routinely visit orthodox friends for sabbath and used to sit for meditation weekly with some Buddhist friends in an attempt to understand my own tradition.
I wonder sometimes about people who seem like they simply can’t be anyone other than themselves and lack the capacity to hide who they are. Is this the surest sign of God’s grace?
As I write, I’m preparing to preach and I’m reading Saint Paul’s comments in Philippians 3: I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus. Paul’s coming to know Jesus meant that next to it, everything else was as nothing, in such a way that everything—every joy, every struggle, every hardship, every victory—was relative because of Christ and also who Paul was becoming in Christ.
It’s a puzzle for me—as I’m not sure I understand at all what that might have been like for him, especially with the complete about-face from persecuting the early Christian community as a devout Pharisee to becoming one of them. But it does strike me that a deep authenticity came about in Saint Paul in such a way that he simply couldn’t not preach and pursue a life entirely in the service of spreading the Word. Shipwrecks, imprisonment, depression, poverty, hardship, persecution—none of these got in the way of following that deepest loyalty to what he experienced to be true. Something so true it became part of him. Maybe it even became all of him.
Once, when I was a Jesuit novice, another novice said to me: Do you know that you’re eccentric? I replied: I just do what makes sense to me and expect that everyone else does the same.
But I’m never sure what that word means: eccentric. Certainly, it’s never been uttered at me without judgment in some way.
And (no offense intended to any of my readers) it’s not as though I’m someone who looks like they belong in an MFA program, with preppy Ivy-League fashions and talking about the novel they’re writing. (I have some good friends in that scene and sometimes there’s a difference between people who are writers and those who look like writers.) Friends tell me that it’s harder to be a writer than to look like one. And this I find to be true.
Sometimes it’s not even on my radar what might seem eccentric to other people. Maybe it’s the tendency to fill rooms with books – my room here in Boston is full of them, probably close to a thousand, many of them out from the library. Maybe it was the long, officers’ military great coat I liked to wear at one point. Maybe it’s the historians’ penchant to care about the dead as much as the living–not in any morbid way, but I do sometimes say that I have dead friends. A Jesuit superior once said to me, affectionately: There’s no shortage of characters in this community. Including you.
Recently, I was on a weekend retreat with some students from Boston University. On the bus from Boston to a retreat property on the Cape, one student and I got into a long-ish conversation about liturgical books. He was curious and a missal and lectionary had been left on a seat near us.
I was explaining to him how all the books worked, the cycles of the lectionary readings (three years for Sundays, two years for weekdays), and about the temporal and sanctoral cycles in the liturgical year. He listened and more than politely, with genuine interest. Finally, I said to him: Hold out your hands. He did. I placed the gilt-edged Roman missal in them and quipped: You could take that to the gym and lift it.
There was something really true in his curiosity–it wasn’t a conversation just to take up the bus ride or to humor the deacon.
One of our staff, too, when we had settled in at the retreat house and students were looking for snacks between some of their small group conversations said: I’m dehydrated. And had a gesture that went with it. And a humorous, partly-teasing conversation erupted about decoding idiosyncratic gestures. She said: I don’t try to be weird or quirky. And we poked fun, but it was from a genuine fellowship and love. We all laughed until we were breathless.
I wonder sometimes about the place of people who are authentic, different even. As I’m writing, I’m still on the university retreat, listening to students walk down the hallway outside my room, one of them singing Owl City’s Fireflies in a faux-cockney accent.
I have a dear friend at whom I sometimes wonder – he can’t help but be himself, for all the complexity, eccentricity, and joy I (and hopefully others) find in that. There’s a lot of sincerity in that, a lot of honesty. This friend, to borrow the words of the gospel, has no guile. (John 1: 47). Even in difficult moments, his authenticity keeps me in our friendship.
Beauty and joy are surely always unique, unrepeatable instances? They’re only ever glimpsed, like motes of dust in a sunlit beam. In the right light, they sparkle like small stars. Keats claims: Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –that is all // Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
In the presence of the authentic, the eccentric, the quirky, beauty can reveal itself in ways that it cannot elsewhere. Our eyes must be untame in order to see it. We must be prepared to come face to face with what is real. Easier said than done.
But I still wonder about what it means to seek an authentic life – why must we seek it, when if we simply put down everything that wasn’t us, it would be there, in an instant.
“All are born as originals. Many die as photocopies.”
My prayer in this moment: Lord, help me to seek authenticity if it points the Way to Your Kingdom. Help me to see the beauty you have hidden everywhere. Even in the odd and eccentric people who are sometimes put in my path. Especially in them. Give me the grace to persist in seeking your Image. Help me to resist the temptation to become a photocopy and to blur the edges of whom it is You have made me to be.