25 December 2006
Rev. Jim Ryan
I have a story to tell this evening about a brush with celebrity, actually two celebrities depending on whether both are familiar to you. There is, I think, a point to the story which I will draw out later. But it’s Christmas and this story is my gift to you as you give me the gift of allowing me to tell it. And besides, I really like telling it.
I lived in a monastery when I was I college. It was the Passionist monastery in Louisville, Kentucky and it was the late ‘60s. We were enterprising young monks and in the basement of the monastery we set up a little print shop. I ran a small printing press for one of my jobs during high school, so this made me the expert pressman for the budding business.
We decided that we need some expert advice so we contacted the monks at the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky and asked if we could visit their printing operation. They agreed so we went. It was the late Fall of 1967. Next year it will be 40 years since our visit.
As we drove up the front drive of the monastery a monk – the first one we saw - was walking along the side. One of my classmates said, “Hey, there’s Thomas Merton.” (Thomas would be the first celebrity of this story.) Our response was, “Louie, the first monk we see does not need to be Thomas Merton.” In our world of monks and church folk Merton was certainly a big celebrity.
We got out of the car and looked more closely at the monk and decided that he really was Thomas Merton. And we were happy to see him.
As we waited for the monk from the print shop to come and get us, the same Louie looked out the window back at a new car that pulled up and parked. He said, “Hey, there is Joan Baez and she’s talking with Thomas Merton.” Now since this is a real celebrity we laughed at Louie.
But when the two of them came into the lobby, the monk (who by now we know is Merton) says to the woman, “Joan, the restroom is across the lobby over there.”
Well, I got into high gear and took a pen and card over to Fr. Louis, as Merton was known in the Trappist community. I asked if I could have his autograph and he was very kind about doing so. My not so hidden reason for going to him was really to ask the obvious next question, “Father, could you tell me, is that Joan Baez.” He said, “Yes, that’s her.”
I waited until she came back to the lobby and also approached. “Excuse me, Miss Baez, could I get your autograph.” She stepped back and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t give my autograph to anyone older than 8 years old.” Not to be deterred I said, “I’m sorry, but noone is going to believe that I saw Joan Baez at the Trappist Monastery if you don’t give me something.” (Pretty bold, right?)
She nicely took the card Thomas Merton signed and drew and initialed a picture of a flower. I still have that card.
Fast forward 20 years and Jean and I are in a book shop in Lexington, Kentucky. Jean brings a book to me and says, “I think you should read this.”
It was the recently published autobiography of Joan Baez and Jean showed me the passage where she tells of her meeting with Thomas Merton. My friend Joan wrote, “I went into one of my religious states at the sight of the monastery. Then I wished the monks were hidden behind bars in great hoods, because the first one I saw was tripping over himself, acting suspiciously like a Joan Baez fan.”
How kind of Joan to remember 20 years later.
Well, brushes with celebrities are certainly fun. These days we can’t get enough of those silly celebrities. Just name your celebrity and look at the tabloid press and cable life they get. They have become such a huge industry in our society, as if they were some kind of valued source.
Well, we celebrate Christmas and remember real celebrities. Let’s see, what do we call the celebrities who are the source of really important gifts, like life and love?
Oh yes, they call those celebrities Parents. And not just biological parents but so many in our lives who share themselves with us – their life, their love. The Gospel tonight has a few pointers on how to recognize the real celebrities in our lives.
First, we, like the shepherds, go to see the Christ. We come here to see wonderful things at Jesus Our Shepherd Community. And second, we, like Mary, treasure in our hearts for safekeeping the presence of Christ among us. We can leave behind the tabloid celebrities and hold on to such gifts of life and love.
When we go really deep, though, we find the celebrity worth celebrating. Life and love – gifts that become eternal realities – are given by God. As St. John writes in his Gospel, and as we heard in our Festival of Lessons and Carols, “These are they who believe in his Name – who were begotten not by blood, nor by carnal desire, nor by human will, but by God.”
I invite each one of us to tell each other celebrity stories this Christmas. They’re so much fun to tell. Just think, for twenty years Joan Baez treasured in her heart the event of meeting me – her monkish fan. Well, probably not exactly a treasure.
But, once we tell those stories remember the real celebrity – our Star - of Christmas and be thankful.