In the underrated novel Julie by Ruth Babcock, the protagonist, a hardworking young architecture student from a working class background, learns invaluable life lessons while simultaneously financially supporting and trying to avoid a beautiful young woman with whom he eventually falls in love. The book is one of my favorites because of its beautiful language, but also because it is from another era, and I love old things, sometimes a little too much more than new things, I think. But this book -- well, you would love it too. Because of lines like this: "And then suddenly I held Julie in my arms, and I knew it was the reason for everything in my life and the plan of it. This was what made life fun and life earnest. This was why buildings went up and cars ran on the streets and ships sailed the seas. To give things to some woman. To do all the things that never could be done, alone, for her."
As Easter Vigil approaches, the third anniversary of my entrance into The Catholic Church, I look back on the trail of books, blogs, encyclicals, and other media of study behind me. All to learn and know, to love what I was trying to avoid, The Church. I have learned the lessons Chad learned in the novel: that poverty has many meanings and manifestations, that love is inexplicable except perhaps for its essential characteristic of selflessness, and that our first duty is to examine ourselves and our own sins, or as my sister would say, "Count your own change."
Julie, you see, was a young woman raised in great wealth, until the day her father killed himself because of his financial losses, and she was left with less than nothing, and had to flee the luxury hotel in which they lived before she was chased down to pay the debt she and her father, Dudley Chartelow, had accrued there. Chad, raised in a middle class home with very defined values, takes Julie to task for walking away from the debt. She then explains to him, "You'd be surprised how little high-sounding phrases help" when one is in a desperate situation. As Chad learns more and more about Julie's life before meeting him, he discovers that she lived in a different kind of poverty with Dud in the hotel: a spiritual poverty. They were isolated; her mother had abandoned them long ago, and the only activities in their lives were shallow ones that revolved around spending money. Julie had never learned to "do" anything; she couldn't cook, clean, even carry on a conversation with anyone other than an extremely wealthy peer. She knew French, and ballroom dancing, but had no practical skills, and no sense of her own innate value when the money and frippery were stripped away. Obviously her father didn't either, hence his suicide.
Chad has to learn not to judge Julie exclusively by the standards he knows. For him, a work ethic could save anyone. Anyone who was poor must have been so by choice. He was working his way through architecture school and patting himself on the back for it. When he falls in love with Julie, he realizes that marrying and raising a family with her is of more "real" value than any material goal he had previously set for himself.
The Church has shown me these things, woven together beautifully, in its social justice teachings and moral teachings. The dignity of the human person is absolute: it is neither reduced nor inflated by material lack or material excess. So I have no reason to disdain the poor or be envious of the rich. I cannot measure the cross of a highly paid executive because I don't know what that cross might be. I cannot assume the woman on welfare is laughing as she cashes her check, because I don't know what circumstances brought her to that place. My concern is to count my own change, both literally and figuratively. Am I changing, evolving, converting, every single day? Am I improving in areas of frequent temptation to sin? Am I giving of myself?
The Church has also taught me that as I give selfless love, I should be able to receive it. I can accept help from people who sincerely want to give it. Pride is a sin that prevents us from accepting help that God may be using a secondary cause to send to us. As Julie resists Chad's efforts to help her financially because she sees him as needing the money himself, we sometimes resist help from others, thinking somehow they are judging us and lording their help over us. Help given in the pattern Christ has established for us should not make us feel this way, for there should be no judgment or condition placed on it.
That inherent and immutable dignity also informs our Church's moral teachings. It is why we can never approve abortion, torture, or euthanasia, or celebrate any disordered appetite. It is why we fight human trafficking and slavery, and why we have closed rail communion, in order not to endanger the souls of those who would approach the Eucharist in a state of grave sin and, as Scripture teaches us, "condemn themselves."
Chad attempts to describe Julie's impact on his consciousness and his perspective on existence: "I thought of Julie, Julie who loved high places. Who wanted so few things for herself. Who wanted most of all to do something for me. Who loved me. [Julie was] like a gesture upward. Like something rising fine and clear. Julie was like the sound of wings in my life."
A convert is in a difficult place sometimes, trying to explain her joy and her discovery to those who remain in a life she has left behind. How on earth to explain what is gained without making the listener feel as if you are implying that he is "below" or "behind" you? I can only say that my theology forbids it! I am the smallest of all; invisibility is the goal, the blending of me and Christ so complete that there is no positioning or ranking, only the Truth, the Teachings, the Tradition, the Love. I have gone neither right nor left, nor do I look right or left. The Church, for me, with Christ's own hand still gently but very definitely guiding Her, is the sound of wings in my life. It is what calls me to look upward to my Father in Heaven for answers, not to my own selfish whims and capricious reasoning. I didn't want to fall in love with this Church, this Church that urges me to count my own sins daily rather than those of my neighbor, but I couldn't resist what was planned and carried out by the Holy Spirit. This love is irrefutable and inescapable. One step is all that is needed, and the rest is all gravity. Falling in love. Falling down on my knees, and looking up to see all that ever really mattered anyway.