Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Myles To Go

This is the first day of my sabbatical. Suddenly I am relieved of much responsibility for the care of the parish—and a road opens before me. How shall I walk? What do I seek?

More than thirty years ago, when I was newly-ordained and serving at Saint Clement’s Episcopal Church in San Clemente, California, I went to the nearby mission in San Juan Capistrano. It must have been a day off, and I loved touring the old ruins of the famous mission. There were several open courtyards, an old-fashioned fountain or two that fed pools covered in lily pads. Bougainvillea adorned many of the adobe walls and attractive promenades that were marked by open archways. The long, narrow chapel was hushed. Votive candles made pools of flickering light in the dim interior of the place where people had worshipped for two centuries.

Finally I visited the small shop. In a bookrack I found a paperback with the curious title, Mr. Blue. The author was a man Myles Connolly. I learned later that Connolly had been a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood in the 1940s-1960s.

I bought the book for 75 cents and still own it. There is an unexceptional line drawing on the front, showing a plain-looking man walking with his hands in his pockets, and a winsome likeness of the face of the Virgin Mary looking down on him.

On the back, it reads, “MR. BLUE will introduce you to a most extraordinary character indeed— Mr. Blue is different, so glorious different that dull-witted people would think him fantastic and even grotesque.” Already I was intrigued. “He is a mystic, he has visions, he dreams glorious projects, he flies kites, squanders a fortune, exults in brass bands, lives in a packing box, preaches God and love, and mercy... Blue is happy, hilariously and outrageously happy, so happy that he is an affront to the normal man who allows poverty or discomfort of business to make him unhappy.”

There’s more, but at that point I had already decided to buy the book. As I read it, I became entranced. Mr. Blue lived in a frenetic world (although the book was written in 1928) but nonetheless exuded joy like a hot oven on a winter day. His joy came from a holiness that was so bright it was contagious even when not understood or even recognized.

Mr. Blue was clearly a person who had answered a radical call, a call that is extended only to a few. Yet those who answer it remind the rest of us that we also have that call, though we are to live it out less outrageously: to be holy and to exude joy.

As the years unrolled, I shared the book with a few individuals and once with a reading group. It was not always received with the same appreciation I had for it. Just recently, however, I learned that a young woman in my parish named Joi (whom I sometimes call “Galadriel” since she reminds me of the elvin queen) is also devoted to Mr. Blue. She even informed me that Myles Connolly wrote other novels—four others that we have discovered so far. I acquired and read them all. One of them—Three Who Ventured—I found very inexpensively and much to my surprise and pleasure, saw that it had been signed by the author:

The introduction to one of his books informs the reader that Connolly is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery near the Los Angeles airport. On March 22 Joi and I decided to visit his grave. We found it without much effort.

Though the stories he wrote are different, they all play the same symphony: joy in holiness that can be found by ordinary people in normal life. Once found, however, the people are no longer ordinary. Janitors, playwrights, woodworkers, vagrants, grocery clerks, the “girl next door”, fighter pilots, freeloaders, alcoholics, plagiarists, politicians, rage-aholics, children, ... Whether they already know Jesus or come to know him in the course of the story, the light of faith, once lit, burns inextinguishably bright.

It gives me hope. On sabbatical I need desperately to divest myself of so many things that have “clung too closely” and that weighed me down like layers of lead. I know I have miles to go, but Myles Connolly is one among many who has held up the light of holiness to which I press on, forgetting all that lies behind.


Rachel said...

Joi let me borrow her copy of Mr. Blue and I loved it. I also liked Dan England and the Noonday Devil. She told me about finding his grave--it's so neat that Connally's writings are still enjoyed so much even after his death. I'm sure he'd be pleased.

Best wishes for you sabbatical!

Joi said...

I've since found a few short stories published in magazines in the 50's that aren't anywhere else; fortunately, the organization that has the back issues will send out photocopies of any of the pages! I'm in the process of getting those. :)

I hope your sabbatical is VERY restful!