St. Dominic Savio and I have a complicated relationship. I learned about him from Z., a luminous, vivacious, and wounded woman with a mystical bent who was my fourth-grade teacher (in a sort of a homeschool co-op thing) and my confirmation sponsor. My older brother Caleb tells me I was so taken with St. Dominic that, whenever I was doing something he didn’t like, all had to say was “You know, I bet DOMINIC SAVIO would let me have the last of the potato chips” and I’d get all shamefaced and hand them over.
So that’s why Dominic Savio is my confirmation name. I confess to having a sort of grudge against him now, something I’ve never quite dealt with. The grudge is because he was such a good boy, and so was I. The problem is that my goodness at the time was more neurotic than genuine, more out of fear than out of love; or so it seems to me now. Was it really? Can you be a good boy without being a prissy one? Does all goodness begin in a kind of hypocrisy?
Whenever I compare my adolescence with those of others — great way to send myself into an emotional tailspin, NOT RECOMMENDED — I’m always struck by how much more drinking, pot-smoking, vandalism, fighting, and general screwing around everybody else seems to have done. It’s not that my adolescence wasn’t filled with vice; it’s just that my vices seem to have been so much less badass than they should have been.1
Dominic Savio didn’t hold with poop jokes or dick jokes — two things that, from time immemorial, young men have used as the basis, or at least the beginning, of friendship. So I can’t help blaming St. Dominic for my own prudishness at that age. If I had been less devoted to him, would I have been less standoffish and therefore less lonely? If I had been less conscientious, would I also be less neurotic? Was St. Dominic really as prudish as I was, or was that his biographers fell prey to the tendency towards idealisation that obscures the humanity of so many of the saints?
Or was it only that I couldn’t distinguish between prudishness and chastity, scrupulosity and virtue? A difficult distinction for any 10-year-old (or 28-year-old) to grasp, especially a 10-year-old who was already eager for his elders to think he was perfect.
I have a friend, C., who seems to have nothing wrong with him at all. He’s not neurotic in any way I can see, he doesn’t cut people down, he doesn’t talk with casual (or any) filthiness. He goes to Mass every day, spends time in prayer every evening, gets up early without complaining, and consistently puts his friends’ and family’s well-being before his own — but does it so you wouldn’t notice, as if it’s just what anyone would expect.
Can you believe that I have it in me to look down on him? Because, I tell myself, his interior life lacks complexity and intensity. Because he’s not tormented and conflicted and INTERESTING like I am. Because he doesn’t seem to be prey to the perpetual whisperings of the Accuser, like I am. How do I know all these things? Because I have perfect insight into the state of his mind, heart, and soul at all times.
Ha ha, just kidding! I don’t actually know jack sh★t about any of those things, because I have exactly zero access to his interior life. They might all be true. Or none of them might be true. Not my business.
My business is to somehow discover C.’s trick of purity without prudishness, friendship without obsession, integrity without scrupulosity, charity without bombast. In a word, my business is to become more like Christ, and to be patient with myself until I get there.