“I believe in aristocracy, though — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.” – E.M. Forster
About ten years ago, in the waning hours of my tentative honeymoon with the Roman Catholic Church, I stumbled on a website called Beliefnet. In this little corner of the web which hosted thousands of conversations daily, I discovered the “Catholicism Debate Board” and became acquainted with a whole cast of characters with whom to debate and discuss the relative merits of all things Catholic, Christian, spiritual, political, and mundane. Here, I sharpened up my writing skills, my ability to debate and to stand up for what I believed in, and in the process became friends with some lovely people. There were clergy members, ex-clergy, non-practicing cradle-Catholics, crazy fundamentalists, fresh-faced new converts to Catholicism, ranting ideologues of all stripes, resentful ex-Catholics, scholars, those with a passing interest in religion who stumbled in and never left, and many more. In short it was a diverse and lively community, and ultimately there was no topic that was off-limits.
And while I dawdled in this particular virtual community, my own real-life issues became increasingly troubling and less easy to ignore, in particular, the issue of my crumbling marriage. I found support and surprisingly good advice here at what was certainly one of the more challenging times in my life.
One of the characters whom I befriended both on and the board and in private communication was an ex-Trappist Monk, 25 years my senior whose screen name was “Cherubino”, or as we playfully called him “cher, ‘bino, cherub or chubby”. His real name was John Cavanagh, and he was the self-titled “Resident Curmudgeon and Grand Poobah” of the Catholicism Debate Board. His story, which he brought forth again and again in discussions there, was both tragic, redemptive and very timely. The year I joined the board was 2002 which was the same year the Boston Globe cracked open the sexual abuse and cover up scandals in the Church, and the year after I was baptized and confirmed. A painful, dark time to be a Catholic for certain.
John Cavanagh was an opera lover, his screen name borrowed from a character in the Mozart Opera “The Marriage of Figaro”, a story of love, betrayal and forgiveness set in the milieu of Spanish royalty in the 1700’s. Mozart’s Cherubino character was a young rowdy teenage page who was embroiled in the scandalous behavior of his superiors. John certainly chose his screen name intentionally in light of his own life circumstances. Other meanings for “Cherubino” include “a spiritual being attendant upon God”, “an angel of the second order whose gift is knowledge; usually portrayed as a winged child”, and “a sweet innocent baby”, and all of those definitions in some way suited him as well.
John Cavanagh’s own story of love, betrayal and forgiveness in and out of the Roman Catholic Church can be found here. It is a compelling story on many levels, and this link takes you to his full-length version which includes historic photographs and a more detailed account of his betrayal by the Church and the Trappists, and his later descent into alcoholism and redemption through Alcoholics Anonymous. Here is a brief synopsis of his story from a letter he wrote that was published in the Jesuit magazine “America” in 2011. In his own words…
It Never Happened
In the 1950s and until the mid-’60s, the abbot of the Trappist monastery I had entered in 1959 was recruiting barely legal colts for his stable. Boys 17 to 23, considered too young by the order’s standards elsewhere, often became the abbot’s lovers. He was discreet and dropped them as they got older, but eventually there was a row over how the place was governed. In 1964 a team of abbots came to investigate, and four of us went together to tell what we had seen and heard. We signed notarized affidavits after being promised immunity from retaliation, assured that the Congregation for Religious was monitoring the investigation and guaranteed our immunity.
The investigators thanked us for sticking our necks out, fired the abbot and his friends at once and brought in a new superior. But within a year the whistle-blowers were separately told that we had never had an authentic calling to the monastic life, and one-by-one were advised to leave because we had a problem with authority and were ill-suited for the tranquil discipline of monasticism. One had been in the order for 18 years, another for 30.
Six weeks later at a family dinner attended by a prominent foreign Jesuit and a monsignor, my aunt asked why I had left. When I told the group, the Jesuit erupted in rage. “It never happened,” he shouted. “I forbid you to ever say it happened. Or even to believe that it happened.” I swore that night I would never again allow myself to be humiliated and silenced. My parents took the Jesuit’s side, and they and their cronies treated me as an enemy of the church for the rest of their lives.”
Cherubino was a moderator on the debate board. As such, he was charged with keeping the conversations relatively civil, and ousting those who refused to comply with the rules of the board, and for awhile, I too was a moderator. We traded emails back and forth about the behavior of strangers and mutual friends on the board, and periodically I shared bits of my life with him and received succinct and plain-spoken answers to my complicated questions, which usually amounted to the “you have to clean up your own business and take care of yourself” and “you can’t change anyone else” sort of advice, always delivered in a kind and respectful manner. It was my first real conscious brush with 12-step recovery philosophy and with the realization that I was powerless over the addictive behavior of others, and not only that, but the idea that MY behavior was part of the problem. While I wasn’t quite ready to live the message that he gently delivered, it definitely began to simmer in my brain.
Cherubino introduced me to a helpful book called “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., and both privately and on the board, gave me plenty of quotes and ideas to hold on to at difficult times, many coming from his 24 years in AA.
Not long ago I bumped into a young man on-line with whom I struck up a quick and easy conversation via email. He is a writer and blogs at WordPress at “A Curious Strain of Weakness“. He’s writing a series of fictional stories based on his (mis)adventures as a teenager in Seattle. He is 27, and is acquainted with my oldest son who is 21. We connected in the wake of the murder of one of their mutual friends, Everett Williams, which I wrote about here in my blog. Certainly it was in our mutual quest for meaning and understanding that we began a conversation. Like my friend John Cavanagh, this young man is doing his best to make sense of the “good” and “bad” of his past through his writing and the connections it brings and by telling his stories. Recently, he sent me this quote:
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” – Jack Kerouac
When I read this quote, I was reminded of the quote at the top of this page by E.M. Forster which was one that John shared regularly. It had been nagging at me anyway for awhile, so I decided to drop back in on him to say hi and ask him for the quote. When I went to find him, I discovered that he’d died in September, 2012.
Sometimes we think of social media and the internet as problematic in that this kind of socializing and communication can prevent us from creating and maintaining real-life, face-to-face friendships and connections, and indeed this can be true. At the same time, some of the connections that I have made through social media and websites like WordPress and Beliefnet have had profound effects on my life, and I am grateful for that.
I am grateful for John Cavanagh who came to me on-line at a time where I needed his message, and I know that he touched and helped many other people as well in this way. He once commented in a discussion on the board on the seemingly random coincidences in life that provide us with a glimpse of the “tapestry” – those “unpredictable moments when the frayed and irregular threads on the back of the fabric of our lives suddenly weave recognizable and meaningful shapes when turned around and viewed from the other side.” Meeting him was like that for me.