Monday, February 24, 2020

Marianist Monday

March 2020

My dear graduates of Chaminade, Kellenberg Memorial, and St. Martin de Porres Marianist School,

Many more years ago than I care to admit, when my cohort in religious life and I were “Young Brothers” (or, what the students affectionately referred to as a “Baby Brothers” or BITs – “Brotherin Training”), we were all assigned some facet of manual labor at which we were to become experts. It took me a while to find my niche.

At first, I was assigned to carpentry, working under the skilled eye of Fr. Garrett. Let’s just say that I had a few close calls with the table saw and the radial-arm saw. You might say that I’m lucky to have all ten fingers today – a thought that makes me shiver when I consider all the typing I do.

Then I tried my hand at gardening. I discovered that I most certainly do not have a green thumb. Next, I reported for kitchen duty. I gave it my best shot, and although I’m not a bad cook now, I was a terrible one back in the not-so-halcyon days of the Novitiate. I thought I’d go out of my mind peeling potatoes and cutting up vegetables for about thirty-five people a night. And when I finally did graduate to some actual cooking – well, barbecuing, actually – I burned seventy or so pork sausages to a carbon-crusted crisp.
And so, painting was my last, best hope. That’s painting walls, not canvases.

At first I was a mess – literally. I ended each work period with more paint on my clothes than on the wall. I couldn’t do trim work or cut a straight line to save my life. Midway into my first summer in Community, when we were painting in the newly carpeted library, I spilled a five-gallon bucket of yellow paint – the entire bucket – onto the new avocado- green carpet. I saw my entire four weeks of religious life ebbing away before me as the paint spilled not onto the tarp with which we had covered our work area, but away from the tarp, right onto the portion of the floor we had been too lazy to cover.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, and thanks to the patient instruction of many professed Marianists who, for some reason, still had faith in me, I gradually became rather proficient at painting. It’s a silly boast, I know – I hope you will forgive me this brief moment of braggadocio – but within about five or six years, I became the painting guru not just of Chaminade High School, but of the entire Meribah Province. It’s a dubious honor that I still hold today!

As I think about the season of Lent that we have just begun, I see a good number of parallels between the fundamental premises of Lent and the basic principles of painting. In fact, I think I could tick off quite a few similarities between painting and Lent.

First off, most people I know just don’t like to paint. When summer rolls around, and I announce which Brothers and which students will be working on the painting crew, I usually hear more than a little groaning. Now, at this point in my life, I rather like painting, but I’m afraid that not too many of my confreres and trainees share that view. The same is true of Lent.

Why is that? Well, I think it’s because both painting and Lent require considerable discipline. Only in cartoons do painters slop on the paint in any old way. I learned early in my painting career that there is a correct way to hold the brush; a correct direction in which the painter applies the paint to the wall with his or her paint brush (ALWAYS unpainted to painted, and NEVER any exceptions); and a correct way to use a roller, lest the finished ceilings and walls turn out botchy, streaky, or otherwise uneven. Painting is intentional, not casual – or worse, mindless.

So too with Lent and the spiritual life. Advancing in the spiritual life implies a high degree of intentionality, no small amount of discipline, and a willingness to submit to a methodology developed by many who have gone before me. Neither painting nor Lent is about doing it my way. Both are about doing it the right way.
Further, the right way requires a tremendous amount of preparation. Everyone who has ever donned painter’s overalls knows the popular painter’s adage: “Painting is 75% preparation and 25% execution.”
Of course, by its very definition, Lent is all about preparation – preparation for Easter, for the Resurrection of Our Lord. Further, the preparation is rarely easy. I’ve spent many a day scraping away old layers of paint, sometimes with the help of a chemical – and highly caustic – paint remover. Not infrequently, scraping opens up fault lines in the original plaster that have to be filled with quick-drying cement or spackle. And no painter worth his paint-brush bristles applies paint to the a freshly spackled wall without sanding and washing the walls down first. In painting, there’s a lot of old that has to be stripped away before the new can be applied.

So too in Lent. Lent is all about striping away the old – the old bad habits; the old, self-deceiving ways of thinking; the old grudges that we harbor against one another. Sometimes what we thought would be a simple resurfacing job opens up deep cracks and fault lines within our lives that have to be cleaned out and replaced by something more solid. It takes time; we can grow impatient with the process. But, if we want the finished job to look right, we have to take the time to get the preparation right.

Then, once we begin to apply the paint, we have to do so deliberately, not haphazardly. How many times have I had to fend off project supervisors who want me and the paint crew to cut corners!!! “Maybe we could get away with one coat of paint. No? Then how about trimming only once but rolling the walls twice? That would work, wouldn’t it?” To that suggestion, every bone in this old painter’s body wants to shout, “No, no, no!”

Painters don’t take shortcuts. Neither do those who are serious about the spiritual life.

“Painting is seeing,” I repeatedly tell my painting crew. Of course, they look at me as if I were crazy, but it’s true: painting is seeing. You’ve got to look carefully at what you’re doing. Youve got to step back from time to time to see if you skipped any spots with your trim brush or your roller. You can’t get so absorbed in all the peripheral noise of conversation, of the radio, of your iPhone and your Apple Music, that your take your eyes off the prize. And so too with the spiritual life. Lent asks us to reduce some of the noise, some of the distraction, in our lives so that we can keep our eyes on the spiritual prize of Christ Crucified and Risen from the Dead.

Painting is seeing. Lent is seeing. Not infrequently, the good painter and the good Christian see something with which he or she is not entirely satisfied – some imperfection that we’re just not going to settle for. And we do everything we can to fix it.

So far, it sounds like a lot of work. And, truth be told, it is. But when you reach the end of the job, fold up all the tarps, remove all the painters’ tape, and clean out all the brushes and rollers (A good painter cleans up his equipment so well that it lasts a lifetime!), the result is a glorious room – clean, freshly painted, a true reward for a job painstakingly done.

And speaking of rewards, what greater reward can there be than the celebration of Easter and the assurance of the Risen Christ that we are redeemed? The work of Lent is strenuous; its reward is more glorious than the most meticulously painted, gilt-edged salon in the Palace of Versailles.

Forty-six years ago, when I was a rookie religious with few skills in either ora or labora, a couple of kind Marianists who saw more in me than I saw in myself, took me under their wing and helped me to become someone who has supervised the painting of every nook and cranny of Chaminade High School – and of more than a few places at Meribah, Founder’s Hollow, Kellenberg Memorial, and St. Martin de Porres. I didn’t become a good painter on my own – not by a long shot. And I know that, someday, when at last I can call myself a good Christian, I won’t have become that on my own either. I will have profited immensely from the example, the guidance, the patience, and the kindness of many mentors and teachers along the way. Most of all, I will have profited from the instruction, from the grace, from the redemption, and from the love of the Master Teacher, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Despite the odds, I became a better painter. And despite the odds, I – all of us – can become better Catholics, better Christians, more ardent followers of Christ. Lent is the training season – and the season of grace – to do just that.

On behalf of all my Marianist Brothers,

Bro. Stephen