About a year ago on Facebook, I mentioned my holy ambition to one day become a saint, and, more specifically, the patron saint of anyone looking for a bathroom. Over Thanksgiving my family ran with this idea, composing all sorts of rhyming prayers to a hypothetical Saint Grace. To share a few…
Oh St. Grace, to you I call.
I need to find an empty stall.
I know that prayers should not be rushed,
But soon my problem must be flushed.
St. Grace, I thank you for the stall,
But now again to you I call.
The problem is, as you can see,
It’s totally lacking in TP.
To you, oh saint, I hate to gripe,
But after this I need to wipe.
Dear St. Grace, I’m going to pop.
Help me now, and this I’ll stop:
I won’t swear and I won’t bet.
Just keep me now from getting wet.
Oh, St. Grace, I’m in the lurch:
Just help me pee, and I’ll go to church.
(Is there a bathroom in the church?)
OK, that’s more than a few, but we (they) got carried away. Anyway…
If you spend longer than twenty minutes with me you will know the reasons for this saintly aspiration, but far be it from me to over-share on a blog. (My beloved niece Lollipop refers to her grandmother as “TMI woman” because she actually answers when asked why she is going upstairs.) Let’s just say I believe that prayers would be sent up with relative frequency and urgency (no pun intended) and if we invited potty-training moms into the mix, we’d give St. Anthony a run for his money in the popularity department.
In fact I suspect it is only due to pious hagiographical sensitivities and a certain measure of class that a saint has not been assigned to this already. (But given that St. Catherine’s head is displayed in one city and her body is venerated in another, I would say the class argument is a bit weak).
I recently shared this ambition with a friend who was quite horrified. Not by the presumption that I could ever be a saint, but that I would “want to spend heaven looking down at people using a restroom.” Now that is bad theology. Presumption is a problem for people who wish to be holy, and deserves a negative reaction. But more importantly, do you really think that saints have to watch the intricacies of the earthly matters for which they intercede? I mean, do you think Mother Cabrini is spending her afterlife watching people parallel park? Or St. Lawrence is eternally watching people struggling to light a grill? And goodness knows what St. Valentine would be stuck watching…
If six-year old me knew that I had such aspirations, and worse was broadcasting them to the world, she would have been on the first ship to Never-Never Land. She was decidedly squeamish about such things. A squeamishness which cannot, for the record, be blamed on my family of origin.
My six year old self had two imaginary worlds into which she retreated (and which will tell you pretty much everything you really need to know about adult me): One was beautiful and perfect and, not coincidentally, it had no people in it. The second was made entirely of candy, and was imagined in vivid detail, from chocolate concrete to ribbon candy curtains to cotton candy clouds. Aged-six self was also a bit of a perfectionist (imagine that!) and very particular that things be “fitting.” For example, the clouds had to look like clouds, even if they were made of candy. They could not be made of jelly beans because that would a) look stupid, and b) defy gravity, which was still operational because this was a reality-based imaginary world. (Twizzlers being ridged made for good escalator material, FYI).
Pretty much everything worthy in actuality was re-constructed in confection in this imaginary land, with one glaring exception: bathrooms. There was no way to imagine a bathroom or sewer system that was in any way compatible with Candy Land. So, my then imaginary friends were configured not to have personal plumbing, or butts.
I fear that, at times, there is a temptation in contemporary Christianity to configure humanity, and the Church, in much the same way. And in so doing, we likewise make it inhospitable to actual human persons.
We are afraid of mess, and so find ways to quickly sanitize, hide or imagine it away. We white-wash it or airbrush it or coat it in sugar to make it more appropriate, more palatable—to ourselves, to others, —to God.
We see this in some popular Christian contemporary art—particularly books and movies which, while no doubt well intentioned, are often no more than awkward homilies hobbling along in the all-too-modest clothing of good little sheep. Caricatures of good and evil duke it out in a mediocre script that ends happily ever after when the good cardboard character convinces the bad cardboard character that everyone is better off being good (and it’s not really hard to be). A few token sins or flaws are allowed for plot or effect, but by and large the “real” Christians are expected to have it together, and any moral mess is neatly cleared away before the last scene fades.
The only proper reaction is “Holy crap!” These pieces of “art” are embarrassing.
I think that on some level we are still uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus came for tax-collectors and sinners, and we still need to distance ourselves from them, even when they reside in our own souls.
Sometimes we do this by pretending our sins are not “real” sins and call them something else or minimize them into insignificance. Sometimes we hide our bodies or shelter our eyes from the sinful world. Sometimes we step aside from other sinners, relegating them to spheres outside of the “real Church.” Sometimes we focus on those sins of others, hoping that ours, by comparison, will seem less bad. Most insidious, perhaps, is our pretense that if we work long and hard enough we can clean it all up before Jesus shows up.
Like suburban housewives who “clean before the cleaning lady arrives” we need to put on a good front even as we profess that “only God is good.” We fashion gowns of tissue paper to hide our nakedness and shame, and imagine ourselves “whiter than snow.”
Of course as usual I am mostly talking to myself.
This past Holy Thursday I made a plan to stay after Mass and spend an hour with Jesus. So I slipped on my goody two shoes and my Sunday best and headed off to Church. But by the time Mass was ended, I was tired, cranky and distracted. I thought that perhaps it might be better to come back some other time, when I had more sleep and less on my mind, perhaps after going to Confession or profiting from a good nap.
Into my mind came a vision of the manger. ‘Twas not the season, so I pushed it away, only to have it stubbornly butt back in.
And so I thought about that feeding trough full of hay. Not the sanitized one we see on Christmas cards and sing about in carols. But rather one that might be found in a real stable–with hay that is speckled with dirt and animal spittle, perhaps with tiny spiders crawling in it, heavy with the odor of other things that animals may do in a barn.
And I thought about how Mary took the First Born of Creation and placed him in that manger, that feeding trough, for all of us.
In my mind of course I wish to offer Him a more perfect room, one clean and spotless and welcoming. But there is no other room. There will not be on this side of eternity.
I can only welcome Him into the Mess That Is Me, or turn Him away.
November has only just begun—the leaves are still falling and we’re still cleaning up the litter from Halloween. And yet here I am talking about Christmas.
Photo: Matthew Paris, Age 1 (sibling to Nicholas and Theresa)