Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Machen Kleider Leute?

As part of trying to help out with the Catholic ministry where I'm living, I'm in the process of joining a men's group that has lots of history and idiosyncratic garb for use at big occasions. (Lest this be seen as some sort of "slam," let it be remembered that I'm a Catholic priest, and as such, have plenty of idiosyncratic garb on two continents now!)

It turns out that SFC McG and I will be a 'continuity piece' in the Chaplaincy program here Down Range as large units exchange authority at some point. To that end, I stepped up to the plate when asked to help out with this organization.

There aren't too many rules, as such, but there are by-laws. (How's that for splitting hairs?) I noticed the other night that one of them addresses the issue of what ought to be worn by members of this group when going to church for services.

To paraphrase: 'Get dressed up, because it's not reverent not to.' This is probably a corollary of the adage, 'Clothes make the man,' or, Kleider machen Leute.

I must admit that I find this outlook a bit shallow at best.

In contemplating this, I was reminded me of one of my trips outside the wire:

A while ago now, while it was still beastly hot every day here Down Range, SFC McG and I went by convoy to an outpost that doesn't often get visits from a priest. It took about forty-five minutes to get there, over roads that are generally really safe these days.

It was another ghastly hot day, with poor visibility due to the high-intensity dust-storm we were having. The convoy was uneventful, which is the best kind, I'll tell you.

When we got to the outpost, the Soldiers had been given the day off from their normal routines. We saw groups of them playing soccer and volleyball in the heat and dust (there was not a blade of grass to be seen anywhere in the vicinity -- certainly not on the soccer field).

Needless to say, there was a lot more dust in the air than had already been the case!

Surrounded by high concrete walls which are topped with concertina wire, and with practically no vegetation in evidence, the place felt like what I'd imagine a maximum-security prison yard might be like.

The Soldiers there have nowhere else to go for recreation; they don't get much respite time away from there, either. Sanitation there was much more primitive than what we have here at "The Ritz" where I live, and that was disturbingly evident.

I heard no one complain.

The First Sergeant (known as "Top" in Army parlance) apologized that there might not be many Soldiers for Mass, as they'd not been expecting us, and today was their first "free day" in quite a while. He had very sad eyes and looked much older than his age.

(Fifteen-month deployments clearly seem to have been thought up by people who'd never been on one!)

Top showed Sar'nt McG and me to the room where we could set up for Mass, and then went off to try to round up Soldiers who might be interested in praying with us. As he was leaving, he again apologized and told us not to be surprised if he wasn't able to get anyone to come.

Indeed as Mass started, we had just two 'third-country nationals' (from Pakistan) in attendance, and this was after having delayed the start of the service for about ten minutes.

However, a short time after we began, about a half-dozen Soldiers showed up, just in from whatever games they had been playing. They were wearing Army physical fitness uniforms -- shorts and T-shirts. A couple were panting from whatever exertions they'd just been engaged in.

All were really quite dirty -- even muddy -- from the day's recreations. They had clearly dropped whatever they'd been doing (perhaps to the chagrin of their buddies?) to come to Mass.

It was awesome.

Afterwards, one of the men (a senior NCO) tried to apologize for how he looked and smelled. He knew there was no time to go clean up before coming to Mass, and didn't want to risk being able to participate at all by trying to.

It had been more than a month since Mass had been an option, and none of them wanted to miss it. Each begged me to come back the next week, if at all possible.

(SFC McG and I haven't been back since then, at that was almost a month ago now....)

I felt humbled to be in the same room with those men, and gratified to be of service to them. I really encountered God's presence through them.

But I remember thinking just after they'd left to rejoin their buddies, that well-meaning worshippers of a variety of denominations would have been shocked, annoyed, hurt, scandalized, outraged, and/or embarrassed if those guys had shown up to pray with them on any given Sunday (or Saturday or Friday), as disheveled and unkempt as they were.

Kleider machen Leute flashed through my mind at the time, and I laughed to myself about how shallow an attitude that really is.

These men literally dropped what they were doing for fun -- what they love doing, and get so little chance to do in the middle of this war -- and came to pray and worship, to be reconciled and to be fed. I was blessed by their presence, their devotion, and their faith. Truth be told, *I* felt out-of-place and inadequate in their company.

The notion that somehow God is so small or so insecure that how I dress when attempting to commune with the divine would offend God's fashion sense baffles me. The last time I read Matthew 11:28, the text (at least in the Catholic bible I use) says, "Come to me all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

It doesn't add, "just make sure you're dressed stylishly and smell nice before showing up."

Maybe being an alcoholic who's sober today through God's grace has something to do with it. My sober friends who go to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous tell me there aren't many drunks who show up to their first AA meeting looking and smelling and sounding their best.

Yet they're welcomed into the group with open arms and told, "Keep coming back. Let us love you 'til you can love yourself."

If they do keep coming back, and don't drink between meetings, they wind up looking and smelling and sounding their best at meetings as they, themselves, welcome others who don't....

One of my favorite hymns, "I heard the voice of Jesus say," begins with a riff on that Scripture text I quoted:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one,
lay down thy head upon My breast."

I came to Jesus as I was,
weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
and He has made me glad.

Those Soldiers showed up, just as they were: weary, worn, and sad. They found in Him a resting place. He has made them glad.

I'd much rather spend time in the company of those guys, as gritty and human and real as they were, than in the company of a stadium full of folks whose main interest at church is who's wearing the most impressive and expensive outfits and driving the most lavish and impractical vehicles.

Evidently contrary to popular imagination -- and I hate to break it to you -- God does not have a "Was the Best-Dressed" category in heaven.

I was filled with gratitude at being able to get to meet those Soldiers, and have been frustrated at not being able to get back to them thus far.

God was really "showing off" that day out at that outpost, as my friend Sam (a hopeless alcoholic who on 27OCT08 celebrated 30 months of being clean and sober -- must be those AA meetings he goes to, I guess) likes to say.

Machen Kleider Leute? Niemals!

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

p.s. A Soldier from that outpost was killed in action not too long after SFC McG and I visited there. Down Range is still a dangerous place.

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1 comment:

angelinabeadalina said...

I just found your blog, and I will be back to read more. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I've always found it hard to believe that any higher power would care what we humans wear to worship.

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