By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published January 1, 2016
St. Malachy’s Church is located on West 49th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue in New York City. St. Malachy’s has long been called the Actors’ Parish. Many well-known stars of the stage and screen were drawn to St. Malachy’s because of its convenient location in Manhattan’s theater district.
The basement of the church is used for all kinds of meetings. The parish has long offered programs to help the poor, the homeless and the housebound, in addition to being a source of spiritual comfort to those who appear on the stages of Broadway productions.
I was there for a reading of a new play. I did not know what to expect when I headed downstairs and into the meeting room. The actors of the play, which was called “How to Bury a Saint,” sat in the front on folding chairs. Before them was a small audience, maybe 30 or so people. Each of the seven actors had a script and read their lines in succession. I listened to them but was not able to catch all the dialogue. They did not use microphones. But I was able to get the general drift of the plot—a blend of feminist concerns, racial prejudice and family misunderstandings. But by the end of the play, all of these found peaceful resolutions.
It was near Christmas when I went. Above the basement and out through the doors, Manhattan was ablaze with the spirit of Christmas. The streets were packed with sightseers and tourists. Salvation Army people stood on many corners, ringing their bells and asking for contributions for the needy. My thoughts wandered from the play in front of me to the magnificent spectacles taking place all throughout the city.
I thought about the irrepressible need for meaning. After the play, the actors welcomed comments from the audience and generally the critiques suggested more clarity, a tighter plot, the checking of facts, etc. There were also a lot of positive comments for the actors and their performances. In short, the comments pressed for a clearer meaning.
Even the positive comments fit this pattern, in that it was deemed meaningful to encourage the actors in their endeavor to craft and deliver a theme.
We are born into a world that hungers for meaning. We look for it in myriad ways—theater, the arts, philosophies, religious studies, the analysis of ancient texts, the effort to articulate a theme.
The Christmas stories were originally oral traditions before they were eventually written down and elevated to the status of canonical writings. Something took place thousands of years ago that drove people to talk about the wonder of a birth in Bethlehem. The stories were told and retold and there were additions, subtractions, refinements, all done in the hope of spreading the Good News of the Word who became flesh.
Yet the Word left behind no written plot, no directions, no self-composed biography.
Perhaps that is because we are the play, the drama of God who we believe lives in us, acts through us, moves us to refine and improve our lives and place our hopes in Him.
The play was over. People mingled for a while and then headed upstairs and out into the city. I hope they had a good evening and marveled at the lights and festivities that filled Manhattan with joy and hope.
“How to Bury a Saint” will hopefully be tweaked enough that it will reach the stage of a theater.
And someday, we will be tweaked enough that God will be satisfied and pleased with what he has done in us. And then we will enter a city of joy, where the lights burn forever, and our hope for lasting meaning is fulfilled.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at www.HolySpiritMonasteryGifts.com.