Sunday, January 4, 2015

Life Stories: A Sunday Rumination

[Today being the Feast Of The Epiphany (observed), it occurred to me that my Gentle Readers might enjoy the following quasi-epiphany, which first appeared at Eternity Road. It was written by one of the most remarkable people of my acquaintance, “my Vietnamese-American sweetie” Duyen Ky.

For those who remember Duyen from the earlier site, she’s well, happy, and still deep in connubial bliss with her husband Matt in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. She wrote the piece below when Matt was courting her. -- FWP]

Yesterday I visited with a new friend who's rapidly becoming a very close friend: Matt, the gun store manager I met on my "armament shopping trip" a few weeks ago. He's a little younger than I am -- he'll be 26 just about as I turn 34 -- but he has a hard sense about him that a lot of older people could stand to learn from. Maybe that comes from working around "deadly weapons" and the people who love them. I couldn't say. But I really enjoy the spin he puts on some of the stuff we talk about. (I also love that he has no fear about driving into New York City on the spur of the moment.)

Matt has no religion. I, of course, told him that I'm a practicing Catholic...just yesterday evening, for the first time. In the process of getting to know someone who might become really important to you, you can't just blurt out the most important stuff about you; you have to choose the right time and setting. You also have to work up enough nerve, for some things at least. Religion is one of them.

Matt was curious. He wanted to know more. Not in a prosecuting-attorney sort of way, either. He really, truly wanted my reasons. He wasn't about to let me get away with a synopsis, either; he wanted the whole story. So I did my best to give it to him.

I had no problem explaining the core of Christian doctrine -- hey, we sum the whole thing up in one prayer -- and no problem with the basic rituals of Roman Catholicism and why we practice them. But how do you explain conversion? It's an internal process. It involves things no one else can see, hear, or feel -- what Fran calls private knowledge. Talking about it can make you sound like some kind of nut.

I tried to avoid it, but Matt wouldn't let me. I became curious about the intensity of his interest, but I kept all my questions to myself and just did what I could.

He took it seriously. That surprised me more than anything else. He didn't pull a face. He didn't act as if I was someone who had to be handled very carefully. He accepted what I said as a truthful narration of what I'd experienced.

After a while, he said, "Do you think that happens to everyone? Because it hasn't happened to me."

I tried flippancy. "Well, you're not dead yet."

He scowled. "Look, if this is a good thing, then it ought to be available to everyone. Catholics don't believe in predestination like the Calvinists, do they?"

That set me back. "No, of course not."

"Then I want to know why you and not me," he said.

Oh boy, I thought, now I have to play theologian.

"Look," I said, "I'm not a missionary, I'm just a believer. I wouldn't dream of trying to convert you."

"Why not?"

I was punch-drunk by then. "Well, most people consider it impolite to press their religion on other people."

And this twenty-five-year-old man who sells steel, lead, and gunpowder for a living, who's surrounded six days a week by people whose every third word is obscene, who described the household he grew up in as "a demilitarized zone," said to me, "That's their problem. If this is good stuff, I want in. And if you believe it's good stuff, you should be out there trying to share it with others. Especially as it costs you nothing."



Have you ever used the phrase "the story of my life?" Do you think your life has a story -- a plot line that runs from an opening scene, through a series of crises, to a climactic moment that resolves into a dramatic finish? Probably not, when it's put that way. But I know a few people who'd like to be able to say so -- and I know why.

Stories are built around meaning. If your life has a story, then your existence means something to someone: the guy who "wrote" you, and anyone else who's "read and enjoyed" you. People seek meaning. They want their lives to have meaning. At least, I do.

(I know, I'm generalizing from a single data point, but everybody does that. At least, I do!)

But we look for meaning in a lot of perverse places: work, love, dependents, responsibilities, possessions, achievements, hobbies, etc. Those are all temporary. I can't imagine anything but transient meaning coming out of any of them. If they're the heart of your "story," I think you'll end up disappointed.

Let's imagine for a moment that you're not just the protagonist of your "story," but the author as well. You're standing outside time, just like God, deciding on everything about the temporal you: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Would you have "written" yourself and your "story" as it is?

Most people wouldn't. At least, I wouldn't have. (There I go again!) I'd want to be a person of stature: big stature, huge achievements, bringer of universal freedom, peace, and prosperity. The ultimate benefactor to everyone who'll ever live. I'd want to be remembered that way for eons and eons, until the Sun goes nova and Mankind is only a memory. (I'd also want better teeth and a fuller figure, but that's a subject for another time.)

It's a good thing we don't get to do that. There'd be too much competition for that Ultimate Benefactor position.

But here's the kicker: Someone did "write" me. He had to have His reasons. I mean something to Him, which is a lot more meaning than I could get from any other source.

Okay, that's a matter of faith. That's the "private knowledge" part that you can't reason your way to, that has to come as a gift. But once you've been given that gift, doesn't the rest sort of follow?

A writer doesn't put a character into a story unless that character has a reason to be there. So whatever my own purposes might be at any time, my Author gave me a higher one, too -- and part of my job on Earth is to figure out what it is. That's only right and proper. Especially considering all the detail work He had to do.


I'm speaking only for myself, of course. I don't want to make anyone feel guilty for being carefree, or for feeling completely in charge of his own life. But yesterday's conversation with Matt has me looking at the thread of my own "story" in a brand new way.

The highest purpose I can imagine for someone as insignificant as me is to help others to find the love and acceptance of Christ, the main blessing of my life. I can't give them the "private knowledge" that opened me to Him. And I know I mustn't force myself or my convictions on anyone, either. But I can "bear witness" by living as a Christian should. Not only can I embrace the seven virtues for myself, I can exemplify them to others.

Being a good example is a form of charity that isn't much appreciated. But it's always been the most effective form of preaching, the preparation for everything else. Your deeds can open the door for your words; nothing else will. And when that door is opened to you, you must speak. You must tell your story -- without embarrassment or fear -- and you must learn how to reassure others who haven't "gotten there" yet that their stories still have a few chapters to run.

It took a sharp observation by a smart young man with no religion to open my eyes to this. I can only pray that I won't forget it.


pdwalker said...

A remarkable obvservation from a remarkable woman.

Alex VanderWoude said...

Nice to hear that she is doing well. I was a bit worried for them after the (Thanksgiving?) thing, but it seems it has all worked out.

Reg T said...

Matt sounds bright enough to understand the distinction between faith and _Church_, with Church claiming to be the arbiter of faith. Or so it seemed to me when I was still a practicing Catholic, lo, those many years ago (has it really been forty-nine years?).

From what little I have read, it seems the RC Church has taken a fork in the road that has led it away from the values that made it righteous, at one time. If he hasn't already, I believe Matt will be able to accept what is good about the religion apart from what is false about the organization.

Also, Matt is a man after my own heart - I have been married for over twenty years to a wonderful woman who is older than I am. I have never regretted it for a moment :-)