Here’s the problem that many priests have with the people who cut their hair. We have the same problem in planes. Wear a clerical shirt and the person with whom you are interacting is not going to stop talking about religion or their personal problems. That is one outcome. The other is that they are not going to speak at all. Either way, there are no normal conversations between clerics and cosmetologists. Hopefully, this helps to explain how I came to be on a neighborhood street in Columbus, Ohio, dressed as a priest, looking at my hairdresser’s, mostly exposed, derriere.
What I liked about Megan, the woman who cut my hair in Columbus, was that she could chat away about anything besides religion or her personal life. But then Megan went weird. She started talking about “all of the messages” that she was receiving.
“From heaven, from out there, from beyond…. You know what I mean. You’re a God-man.”
Why do only sane people worry about being understood by others? Unhinged people just know that you know what they mean. Megan began to explain about the messages that she was receiving, often, from the letters on license plates. Coincidences were too copious to be just coincidences, she insisted.
Kindly turning off crazy (conversation) is very challenging. I did not do it well. Instead, I ended up agreeing to come to her home and to look at some paintings. Then I would see it all, she insisted.
The day of the rendezvous I wore clerics and left a note for the pastor about where I was going. I did not want to be reported missing, my body, perhaps never found. I was punctual; Megan was not.
“Hi, Terry. I’ve been out getting a tattoo. Radical isn’t it?” That’s when she bent over and pulled down her pants. I think it was a butterfly. I don’t remember. I only remember being dressed as a priest in the middle of an incredibly sunny street, urging my cosmetologist to pull up her pants, which she wasn’t going to do until I appreciated the beauty of that butterfly.
Finally, we went inside. Megan had things to put away and suggested that I sit on the couch. From the kitchen, she yelled, “You don’t mind snakes, do you, Terry?”
“Snakes?” I lifted my feet far off the floor.
“Yeah, I have a pet python, but I’m not sure where he is.”
Fortunately, the python never appeared. Unfortunately, Megan’s boyfriend did. Up from the basement came Charles Manson, whom Megan introduced as Larry. Megan thought that he could help her to explain all of the messages that the two of them were receiving from the beyond.
He did. The messages were not coming from heaven, unless by heaven you meant Russian satellites, beaming directives down into our brains. The whole country would soon enough come under Russia’s control, but he could graph it out more clearly for me if I came downstairs, into the basement, to look at his murals.
Perhaps if I had gone into the dungeon—sorry, the basement—and looked at those frescos I might have learned about the Russian plot to control the United States. Why, I might even have been able to change the course of U.S. history and prevent that from happening. Instead, I used the excuse that priests have inherited from Jesus himself. “I’d like to stay, but I must be off.”
Megan and Larry may have gone crazy, naturally, or with the aid of drugs, but their desire to learn God’s will, to see what God wants us to understand, is something that all of us have felt at one time or another. Why won’t God simply tell me, give me some sign, of what God wants of me? I used to hear that question several times a week when I was a seminary spiritual director. I still hear it from parishioners, who are only asking God to give them some indication of what they should do, some message that can be applied to their current situation.
Two things to note. First, be glad if you’re yearning to learn God’s will, God’s direction for your life. The desire might prick, but at least your soul is alive. You want to understand and to do the will of God. Lots of people couldn’t care less about that.
The second insight comes from St. John of the Cross, who pointed out that, rather than beg God to speak to us, we should ask God to help us to hear what God has already said in Jesus. John suggested that we are a bit like children, who keep asking the question “why” yet will not listen to the answers already given. He wrote:
In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word—and he has no more to say...because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty (Ascent 2, 22, 3-5).
The beatitudes can bewilder, can be a spiritual wisdom that overwhelms us. Yet, like the prayer that he left us, the “Our Father,” they perfectly distil the teaching, the spirituality, of Jesus. It is just that reading them cold, they are too much. To think that we have really heard them and truly understand them seems utter presumption.
But don’t discard them as something too sublime for you. Instead, read them every morning as a “to-do” list. Bring your questions, and expect God to answer them as you read the beatitudes. Think of the beatitudes as God’s daily tweets, sent directly to you. They come into their own, the beatitudes come into us, when we read them in tandem with our worries about what we are supposed to do.
• How do I respond to this family member?
• If I’m exhausted, where should my falling energies be concentrated?
• If I’m worried, what am I missing?
• If I can’t think of any action that would help in this situation, what does Christ suggest?
• I’ve got my worries and hopes. What am I not seeing, in my small circle and in the larger world?
Megan and Larry might have been crazy, but they were right to believe that we have not been left in darkness, that the will of heaven can be heard by those who listen. But, like so many of us, they didn’t realize that what was needed was not an investigation of the occult. Only a paying attention to the obvious, to what is happening in our lives, and, then, listening again to the Lord.
Readings: Zephaniah 2: 3, 3: 12-14 1 Corinthians 1: 29-31 Matthew 5: 1-12a