During Lent in the Catholic Church, we are called to focus some of our time upon self-examination – holy reflection, if you will. That look in a spiritual mirror should be a process, because it’s not an activity to be done in a hurry or without great depth. If done honestly and thoroughly, we should learn what is truly significant, salient and central to the core of whom we truly are and truly want to be.
Perhaps I can help prepare you to accept that Lenten challenge, to address the deepest desires of your mind, heart and soul in a profound way.
Have you heard of Albert Pujols? He’s a first baseman/designated hitter for the Anaheim Angels big-league baseball team, but he earned most of his surefire Hall-of-Fame credentials with the St. Louis Cardinals. Playing with that team from 2001-2011, he hit more than 30 home runs every one of those seasons, won three Most Valuable Player Awards and helped the Cardinals win two World Series.
He also is outspoken about his Christian faith.
Pujols not-so-subtly alluded to that on a video interview I recently watched. It was called “Yo Soy Segundo,” which is Spanish for “I Am Second.” The website www.iamsecond.com calls itself “a movement meant to inspire people of all kinds to live for God and others.” During his interview, Pujols said that a few years ago, a friend challenged him to begin a conversation with opposing players when they reached base during a game and found themselves standing on first base, next to Pujols.
“What is the most important thing in your life?” Pujols will ask. Inevitably, the other player will inquire why Pujols is asking. He responds: “The whole reason I’m asking you that is there’s more than the game.”
I have known hundreds of professional athletes. In virtually every single case, the player’s presence in the big leagues is the man’s realization of a boyhood dream, the culmination of a convergence of great talent, years of work and sacrifice, and a good bit of luck. Once arriving in the majors, most players find that isn’t enough. They continue working and setting new goals: playing in the regular lineup, gaining status as an All-Star and longevity in the professional ranks . . . Multi-million-dollar contracts. Celebrity. The Hall of Fame. Lasting recognition.
“We actually have something within us incomparably more precious than anything we see outside. Do not let us suppose that the interior of the soul is empty.” St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection
Should those exterior rewards and achievements really be the important things in life?
Modern human beings apparently think so. Fame, fortune and celebrity all seem to rank as matters of great importance. Why else would professional athletes and stars of other types of entertainment find so much more financial reward, prestige and privilege when compared to teachers, members of police and fire departments and a host of other professions that provide truly essential services?
Alas, this isn’t new to 21st century America. Celebrity affords perks throughout the world, and it has been the case for centuries. Part of the human condition is that people aspire to something of great status and apparent comfort, and those who achieve those upper rungs of the ladder are flush with honor and importance.
That might help explain the evolution of the American politician. It’s not enough to have ideas and influence; one also has to dazzle on the late-night talk shows and “perform” on televised debates. In fact, the ideas and influence seem to rank mighty far down the list of qualifications among the current presidential hopefuls.
If we were to peer deep inside the hearts and minds of Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – along with their behind-the-scenes puppet-masters – and discover what truly is important to them, and then we compared that with what most of us really think should be important for our nation’s best interests, would they even come close to lining up as the same?
I’ve been thinking about that the last couple of months or so. Beginning with the December 31 death of Natalie Cole, at the age of 65, the entertainment world has lost several major figures. In addition to Ms. Cole, we have read of the January 18 passing of Glenn Frey, 67, one of the founding members of The Eagles, and the January 10 passing of David Bowie, 69, one of the more innovative music figures for five decades. Among them, they sold a cumulative 325 million records.
They had unquestionable talent and success. And with that came some frequent “fruits” of their status. Bowie publicly waffled back and forth between heterosexuality, a gay lifestyle, bisexuality and back to heterosexuality. He also once called cocaine “my soulmate.” Cole, the daughter of music legend Nat King Cole, had a long, well-publicized battle with heroin and cocaine addictions. And Frey, well, he was part of a band that lived “life in the fastlane” in the “Hotel California;” he snorted so much cocaine in his life that he needed his nose rebuilt twice.
Those three were among the many voices on the soundtrack of my youth, as I came of age in the 1970s. Yes, there were a couple of sentimental reminiscences when I heard of their deaths. Their voices, singing favorite tunes, echoed in my mind for a while.
But that was it. I didn’t lament their lost lives any more than any other celebrity, frankly. Not that they deserved early deaths because of all they had achieved in the public eyes, nor did their celebrity afford them to deserve longer lives than any of the rest of us. Each of them might have been a wonderful human being with values any of us would respect; in the hot light of the stage, studio and red carpet, though, it’s difficult to know.
I wonder how they would have answered Albert Pujols. “What is the most important thing in your life, Natalie? Glenn? David?”
“If we took care always to remember what a Guest we have within us, I think it would be impossible for us to abandon ourselves to vanities and things of the world, for we should see how worthless they are by comparison with those which we have within us. What does an animal do beyond satisfying his hunger by seizing whatever attracts him when he sees it? There should surely be a great difference between the brute beasts and ourselves.” St. Teresa of Avila
Honestly, I wouldn’t have to ask that question of Dr. Robert Fleming or Mary “Dinny” Vogt. I sat in a pew at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church on Saturday, February 13, in St. Charles, Missouri, for Dr. Fleming’s funeral. I was back in the same church exactly two weeks later for Mrs. Vogt’s funeral Mass.
I hadn’t talked with Dr. Fleming, who was 92, for a very long time. He was the father of Tom Fleming, who was one of my best friends in grade school and high school. I spent a lot of time at Tom’s house in those years. It was a large home, perhaps expected for one of the top eye doctors in our then-small town, but the family needed every square foot; Tom had nine siblings. I have kept in touch with a couple of Tom’s sisters and brothers, and I knew he had gone on to become an ophthalmologist as well. I talked with Mrs. Fleming occasionally as well. She and her husband have stood as an amazing couple in our parish for years. His funeral highlighted just how amazing.
They were married for 59 years. Nine of the children are married, each still to their original spouse. The 10th child is a priest and said the funeral Mass, along with 10 other priests and an auxiliary bishop from the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The Fleming flock includes 39 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Doc Fleming served in the Army’s 94th infantry, saw action in the Battle of the Bulge under General George Patton and earned a Bronze Star, but he rarely talked about his World War II experiences.
During his years in St. Charles after graduating from med school, he was president of the local hospital’s staff, board member at the locally owned bank for 25 years and member of the town’s library board for 25 years. The doctor never refused to see a patient, even if they showed up at his front door on a day off, and frequently accepted whatever they could spare as payment.
His faith and spiritual life was the stuff of what a Catholic man perhaps should be. He went to daily Mass from the time he returned from the service until he was 90 and too severely limited by Parkinson’s disease. He began a Manresa group and was a 4th Degree Knight of Columbus. In his obituary, it said that whenever approached by a friend or stranger with a concern, Doc Fleming said he would pray about it – and he always did.
Mrs. Vogt’s obituary was much shorter following her death at the age of 79 – a total of 127 words, including the names of all her family members. But there was a beauty to her relatively simple life. She and Marv Vogt, a housewife and a drywall hanger, were married 60 years and spent most of that time in a fairly small two-story house in an older part of that same older town. They sent all three of their children to the local Catholic grade school and high school. Mrs. Vogt loved to work in her garden and collected dolls, attended Mass every Sunday and, reflected perhaps in that brief obit, lived humbly.
Neither Mrs. Vogt or Dr. Fleming ever performed in front of sellout crowds or sold a record album. Heck, I’m not sure if either of them could carry a tune or felt comfortable in front of a lot of people. It’s also true that neither of them was so perfect that their closets might have been bare of skeletons. The world at large didn’t notice their passing with tributes filling Facebook, Twitter and every other social media outlet. Radio stations didn’t lament their passing by playing their music.
In the eyes of the big world, Mrs. Vogt, Dr. Fleming and the stuff of their lives might not have seemed all that important. The legacies of Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey and David Bowie will last much, much longer in the minds of millions of people who were inspired by the moments in which they heard them sing and saw them perform.
But I think the simple music of two simple, humble lives will resonate much deeper in my soul as I spend time in holy reflection this Lent. I think I more clearly see what’s really important in life.