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Monday, May 3, 2010

Article: My Occupational Hazard

A few summers ago when I was watching a baseball game at Boston’s Fenway Park, my friends, Paul and Karen, thought it necessary to buy me a new baseball cap. After my usual initial protests claiming reasons of my Jesuit vow of poverty, I yielded to their demand. We hustled over to a concession stand where I excitedly selected a classic cap – dark navy blue with a bold emblazoned red “B.” Karen boldly instructed the concessionaire to “put that back and give him the red one.” At this I protested even more loudly, “I can’t wear red. I have red hair,” but Karen would not budge. “Father John,” she said, “I’m going to give you a lesson in colors.”

After Karen bought me my vibrant new cap, she took my palm into her hands and examined it. “Father John,” she said, “you must wear warm colors. Go, buy a Boston subway map, which is designed with primary colors, and take it shopping with you to Filene’s Basements. You will know what to buy. It will jump out at you. And, Father John….never wear white and avoid black if you can.”

I was in a dilemma. How do I avoid wearing black as I am a priest? I appreciate its slimming qualities and I know that black clerics are an important symbol of the priesthood. Its solemn tone communicates a deeply ingrained respect for a life of wholehearted discipleship and radical service in the midst of countercultural movements of society, but is the color of these medieval black garments the only color that communicates something special about the priesthood or religious life?

My first challenge was when I ordered a new alb at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The tailor-monk would not sell me a white alb; only a cream alb with a hood would do. He was right. I vanished when I tried on the white alb. This might be taking humility to an extreme. Fair-skinned people are at a disadvantage when purchasing garments as we are a small market share of the fashion industry. Earth-tones, winter burgundies, classic tans and pastels just do not energize a fair-skinned person.

While distrusting my own shopping choices, I looked at my drab wardrobe and decided to take Karen’s advice With subway map in hand I entered Filene’s Basement and immediately while my eyes landed upon a shirt that screamed out to me – a fresh lime green shirt with brilliant dark sky blue and thin calypso orange burst stripes. I felt paralyzed as I reasoned I ought to buy a classic blue shirt. I deliberated for a while because I never selected anything so bold before, but I offered it up and bought my first colorful shirt. I have not purchased a dull shirt since. St. Ignatius tells us that one must always seek confirmation for decisions in the spiritual life. I heeded his advice and wore my shirt on a train ride from Boston to New York the following week. A young woman plunked herself right next to me and said, “I just have to sit near a man who is confident enough to wear such a bold shirt,” to which I replied, “not bad for a Catholic priest, huh?” lest she think I was available.

Though I proudly clothe myself in black clerics each day, I find that I can accessorize by wearing a flashy Polo Ralph Lauren sunburst yellow baseball cap or bright carrot stick orange socks. It adds just enough pizzazz to keep my spirits high, especially in the land of the long winter to which I am missioned. Maine by rights ought to be following the Atlantic Time Zone. The winter darkness, for a man who comes alive in the sight of tropical color-bursts, is never-ending and can be a downer for a person’s mood. In order to remain buoyant in spirit, I have to make eye-catching adjustments. If bright color in clothing makes me feel alive, would it also work by painting my living space? The sunburst yellow walls with trim work of blood red and tangerine orange in my office brightens up the short winter days, while the triple shade of summer blues metaphysically transport me to the sun and fun of a Caribbean beach.

As I continue to discover new color patterns, I am pleasantly surprised that choosing the right color makes me feel so cheerful or sets a vibrant mood that helps me throughout the day. One might have thought I would have learned my lessons years ago when I worked full-time to pay for college. In those days, I dyed for a living – a useful skill when you are in the resurrection business. I have even learned how to see colors when I pray. Previously I would contemplate a scripture passage and everyone was dressed in drab grayscale shades. As you would expect, conversations with the characters were not all that thrilling, but when I inserted color into my composition of place, the intensity of conversation increased and I felt that I was fully present in the contemplation. Now, when I get stuck in prayer, I often tell Christ the color that I am feeling and I point to the hue of color at which I would like to arrive. On a recent retreat, one directee told me that her music instructor asks her to sing a certain color in order to reach the proper pitch. This works for me too!

I am reminded of Karen’s happy insight to me whenever I watch the Home and Garden network or slowly scan the many make-over shows that dot the television landscape. I marvel at the world Karen opened up for me. I see it as my “Wizard of Oz” experience when all my senses become awakened to a dazzling new reality. My soul conforms to that new world by making simple adjustments in my life. On that sunny day at Fenway Park, I officially became a man of color.

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