Sanctification: A Comedy of Error
Fr. Bruno M. Shah, O.P.
Selected by Eleanor Bourg Donlon, Assistant Executive Editor
I. Playing a Part
During the first days at the seminary, the Master of Students gathers the newly arrived to discover what practical talents are available for the community’s benefit. (We blithely refer to the house’s chores as “privileges.”) Each of our sixty men has some share in the work of home—maintenance—this brother is handy with electrical equipment, that brother has a background in carpentry, this brother is literate in computers, et cetera. Well, this brother claimed that he could cut hair. And for an order that vows evangelical poverty, getting haircuts for free is what philosophers call a “useful good.”
When I testified to having the skill to cut hair, I was relying on memories of buzzing roommates’ heads in college—memories that are not especially clear and coherent to begin with. That I had any of the barber’s prowess was, you might allow, a “shear” delusion.
Brother Kevin—as heavenly aloof as he is worldly languorous—was my first customer. He was simple enough to make a single request: “Anything but a buzz.”
So I messed around with the rusty scissors, trying to imitate the habits of real barbers as best as I could. I made small talk about our life: “You know, I’ve never liked the metal-chain rosaries: They break too easily.” I tried to engage him more substantially:
“Don’t you find that Daniélou’s typology posits too much of a binary relationship between the Old and New Covenants? Ratzinger’s thought has greater nuance.” And in order to feign habituated confidence, I wrenched his head this way and that while exercising the rusty blades in perpetual action, hoping that even when not cutting hair, the sound would be impressive (if only to me).
When all was said and done, it was—as a matter of fact—a perfectly awful job. (As a work of fine art, I could have appropriately named it Fulvous Coiffure of Jagged Textile #1.)
But as I said, Br. Kevin is eminently easy-going. All he asked was that I take a little more off, on the top, in the back. “Not a problem,” I faked. Lacking alternatives, I turned to my trusted instrument of old—the buzzer. His hair only needed a little evening-out. Just one little stroke and . . . well . . . and then I saw a crater that revealed the Irishman’s bared white scalp. I hadn’t put the guard on the clippers.
“What happened?” he asked, as his whole face furrowed in the mirror’s glass. I could only respond in ways for which I was later contrite and sought absolution. He looked as if he were about to ask if I could fix it, but then thought better to himself. Finally, he concluded in his characteristic bass, snoring sigh, “Oh well, I gotta gettup early, so I’m going to bed. Uh . . . thanks.”
Ashamed, I too went to hide in my cell, a guilty criminal. The evening was spent perusing the holy Rules of Saints Benedict and Augustine, looking for patristic insight about accepting the limitations of one’s brothers: I wanted to ready myself with repartee for the brothers’ coming barbs of scorn. What I should have been seeking were traditional proscriptions against imprudent zeal.
II. Being Laid Bare
We had Mass first thing the following morning. We’re generally esteemed to preach and celebrate liturgy well, so even on this early Saturday morning there was a decently-sized crowd. At that time in the house’s customs, we would lay an additional corporal on the congregation’s side of the altar: with so many communicants, space was needed for extra chalices and therefore an extra place-cloth. The placing of this second corporal was the duty of the acolyte.
You can guess who that was.
Only the front of Br. Kevin was visible during the celebration. It wasn’t until the liturgy of the Eucharist that he would have to come out in front of the altar and turn around, thereby facing away from the congregation. Well, when brother came out and with total insouciance turned and bowed before the altar, the otherwise recollected chapel coughed forth in gasps and guffaws. The faces of some older friars wore anxious consternation, speculating perhaps that some reactionary parvenu was reviving the tonsure.
I felt so small. (The Little Flower would have been jealous of such humiliation.) Because the house’s “privileges” are listed on our community’s bulletin board, it was known to everyone that yours truly had been the instrumental (and voluntary!) cause in embarrassing Br. Kevin. And as in a religious community the sacrificial meal of the chapel very naturally leads to the convivial meal of the refectory, I was sacrificed unto mockery at the breakfast table... and then at the lunch table... and then at the dinner table.
It is unarguable: Our order’s common meals are a fundament of our sanctification. Such light-hearted (but enthusiastic) derision is perhaps even part of the natural law of fraternity. But what later ensued was a phenomenon that continues to bemuse me, for it shows the kind of unnatural, or rather, supernatural standards that govern religious life.
During the course of that Saturday I had seven requests for a haircut! One by one, they came up to me and asked, basically, if what I had done for Br. Kevin would similarly be done for them... or not so similarly, as the point was variously stipulated. Admittedly, many muttered something about the haircut taking place later on in my burgeoning career, after receiving more experience (from the heads of others). But the requests were for real, as the following weeks proved.
I was suspicious. What if one of the superiors had issued a formal command—namely, that the brothers should ask me for a haircut in order to “affirm” me in my “hair-cutting ministry”?
Thankfully, such was not the case. The brothers simply didn’t care that I had butchered the son of a butcher. That is, they cared, but yet they didn’t. They merely needed haircuts and were asking for such from the (not-so) duly appointed brother. There was even a counter-cultural mirth about the whole thing. The standards of metro-fashionable appearance do not prevail upon our life.
III. The Unity of Grace
God loves us wholly in order that we may become holy. And He dramatically reveals this in the life of community. To be sure, some will fulfill their tasks less ably than others. Nevertheless, charity and service do not get outsourced: many members but one body. Local labor will always be more costly and often less productive. And it will definitely yield the occasional travesty. But under the merciful hand of Divine Providence, the frustration of bald earnestness can actually cut to one’s benefit.
There’s a well-known writer and preacher whose celebration of the Mass I regularly used to attend. When I told this to a sister friend of mine, she said, as do many others: “Oh, he just loves to hear himself speak.” I admit that this observation is probably true. Nevertheless, the guy can preach! God uses us—practically despite ourselves—in order to expand and fulfill us.
Every vocation builds upon our God-given gifts. Everyone accepts this truth of the Gospel’s talents (Matt. 25:15). But we can miss the transforming and unifying effects of divine grace when we act as if God can only make use of our positive characteristics. The sacrificial drama of conversion and self-knowledge then devolves into a compartmentalizing arithmetic of addition and subtraction. Having the innate desire to conceal what is bad and make-up for what is lacking, we furthermore adopt personae to mask our private shortcomings. Ashamed, we hide from God and dissemble our true selves.
But we are not reducible to certain proficiencies and deficiencies of character. Even the virtues—which are distinct and creative excellences of habit—are virtues precisely insofar as they conduce toward personal integrity and communion with God. Every soul is immediately created by God Himself, a wellspring of animation and unity. And it is this human soul that, by Christ’s grace alone, is enabled to love God as a true friend and to love one’s neighbors in Him. In the mysterious economy of divine grace, our plusses and minuses add up to the measureless wonder of holy communion.
The consecration of one’s whole character—however fallible and peccable—leads to true freedom. Man can find joy in the knowledge that God has graciously called him, and that He works through him just as much as He works upon him. So even if yours truly need not, like the prophets of old, shave his head as an outward sign of consecration, he was at least allowed the happy fault of shaving the head of his brother.
Fr. Bruno M. Shah, O.P. is a Dominican priest of the province of St. Joseph (Northeast, USA). He currently serves at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City (www.csvfblog.org).