a harsh and funny thing

A searcher for modern sainthood, at least here in Davenport, would be disappointed after about five minutes experience in our house. We’re generally rude to the guys, suspicious of newcomers, reluctant (on the rare occasions we’re willing at all) to share what we falsely consider “our” time with our guests.

The occurrence of the kind gesture, the charitable word, the generous act is as startling, rare, and refreshing here as it would be in the most materialistic and exploitative surroundings. And these gestures, words, and acts are much more often initiated by our guests than by ourselves.”

Michael Garvey, Confessions of a Catholic worker

I laughed out loud when I read these lines. They seem to encapsulate so much of what James has related to me about his experience in houses of hospitality. And this bears out the truth of all I’ve witnessed through him as well.

There are, of course, spectacularly good people associated with the Catholic Worker, but the proportion of spectacularly good people is probably just as high at Time-Life Incorporated. Our disadvantage is that people look for spectacular goodness at the Catholic Worker, and not at Time-Life Inc. There is a danger that self-centered, distracted, irritable, and self-indulgent people with square halos above their heads might obscure their real vision, which is the application of the Gospel to ordinary life.

(Michael Garvey)

Garvey’s memoir of his year (or perhaps two?) at Davenport house is ordinary, self-deprecating, and poignant. Nothing else I’ve read captures the hilarity of a self in a house of hospitality.

Hospitality is a lost art of drawing boundaries and then being pushed past them to give more than you thought you have. But, as Garvey points out, not because you’re so great and generous, but because the people who come to your house are beautiful and good. Because “mine” and “yours” is both the deepest truth of human existence and also the hardest illusion to break.

Readers of the Brothers Karamazov (read: Greek Orthodox converts and graduate students everywhere) are fond of calling active love “a harsh and dreadful thing,” in homage to their beloved Father Zosima. But active love, as Michael Garvey points out, is a dreadfully funny thing. And funny in a harsh and rough way. It is the blackest of humor.

Humor is made up of juxtapositions, of upturned expectations. And living in a house of hospitality, from what James has shown me and what Michael Garvey writes about so honestly, is that living in a house dedicated to welcoming others shows you the juxtaposition between who you think you are and who you are.

Garvey says:

“I had one of those headaches that makes you accuse someone of buttering toast too loudly. The
fact that one of my shoelaces had come untied very nearly reduced me to tears, and my face was wet and sticky anyway.

“Both my face and my shoelace had wound up that way because it was oppressively hot and humid, a typical Mississippi River Valley midsummer day.

“As I climbed the steps of the house, I could hear Andy Whiterock, dead drunk, going into his ‘everyone
hates me ’cause I’m an Indian’ rap. Rene de Voilaume: Faith is the patient work of the will seeking the presence of Christ at all times and in everything.

“Exactly, I thought, and once again I’ve lost faith, because I want to tell Andy Whiterock: ‘Everyone
hates you because you are a pain in the ass.’ Then I want to tear into tiny threads that flowery burlap poster on the wall that says, ‘What kind of a revolution would it be if everyone in the world sat down to eat together?'”

I think I chuckled for two minutes straight at this sequence of events. We talk a big game in theology circles about seeing Christ in all things. But we are hard pressed to summon up an image of Christ’s face when it’s a humid 90 degrees, we’re in physical pain and mildly inconvenienced. And this, Garvey points out and I would echo, is the stuff our institution is made of: weak.

We talk about [the Church’s] contradictions, absurdities, insensitivities and mediocrities but these things merely reflect the sluggishness and fear with which we ourselves respond to the invitation of Christ: Abide in me.

But one thing we ought to not lose sight of in the serious business of salvation is that it’s pretty darn funny as well. And there’s no better reminder to laugh than our neighbor. Except our own damn self.

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