CALVIN: We’ll have a secret clubhouse with a secret knock to get in, and we’ll do big, secretive things!
HOBBES: Why all the secrecy?
CALVIN: People pay more attention to you when they think you’re up to something.
~ Bill Watterson
Did you play spy when you were a kid? My brother and I played it regularly, although I can’t recall my sister ever joining in. Maybe it’s a guy thing.
Anyway, the procedure was pretty simple. Usually there was some kind of adult gathering downstairs – a party or a bridge game – and my brother would sneak out of bed, come wake me up, and whisper (chant-style), “S-P-Y not?” It was our code for commencing an intrigue – like Mission Impossible’s “this message will self-destruct in five seconds” lead-in – and while it was posed as a question, my brother always knew the answer would be affirmative.
We’d creep to the top of the stairs, staying in the shadows, and peek over the railing at the grown-ups below. What were they doing? What were they saying? There’d be laughing, clinking of glasses, and cigarette smoke – lots of smoke in those days.
And then…well, and then, we’d just keep watching. If anyone looked up in our direction, we’d duck back into the shadows – and giggle. If the action on the ground floor was out of sight in the dining room, we’d try slithering down the stairs to establish a beachhead behind the sofa. The object? If you have to ask, then you probably never played this game, but, for the record, here it is: The object was solely the thrill of concealment – that’s it! Since we weren’t supposed to be out of bed or eavesdropping on my parents, we were deliberately choosing a precarious course simply for the pleasure of trying to pull it off – while not risking much more than a finger wag and a march back upstairs to bed.
Many years later, my brother and I engaged in a similar kind of game while we were at college together, but this time the secrecy had a more concrete goal. Some student leaders enlisted our aid with a human scavenger hunt at Sea-Tac airport. The hunters were freshmen who’d been given a list of “characters” to locate, and my brother and I, along with some other upperclassmen, were the hunted characters in disguise – the thrill of concealment again! Earlier in the day, we went to Good Will for outfits, and then arrived at Sea-Tac to take up positions prior to the hunters’ arrival. Since I had settled on a vagabond ensemble, I played to type and hunkered down next to a locked gate to snooze.
This was pre-9/11, so airport security was considerably more relaxed than today. Even so, vagrancy and loitering were definitely out of place there, and when a police officer spotted me, he tapped my feet with a baton and called out – “Hey, wake up.” I thought it was one of the student hunters, so I mumbled a reply to put him off – “Lemme’ alone.” Then the tap on my foot became an actual hit – “I said, wake up!” That got my attention, and I not only woke up but stood up. As I fumbled for my student I.D., I tried to explain to the officer what was going on – and I could see my brother, a safe distance away, relishing the moment with a wide grin on his face.
When I contemplate the life of someone like St. Edmund Campion, whose feast is today, a bit of that conspiratorial vibe bubbles up to the surface from my youth – here’s why.
Campion, the son of a bookseller, went on to become an Oxford standout and the “diamond of England” in the words of William Cecil, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Unfortunately, like many successful public figures, Campion bought into his own hype, and he decided to buttress his status by signing the Oath of Supremacy which affirmed the English crown’s authority over the local church in defiance of the Pope. Campion even went so far as to accept Anglican ordination as a deacon in 1568.
After a time, however, Campion’s conscience plagued him and his reason compelled him to recant his commitment to England’s revolutionary ecclesial order. His life now endangered, Edmund abandoned his tutor’s position at Oxford, fled to Douai, France, and reconciled himself to the Catholic Church before enrolling in seminary studies there. Within a few years, the eager re-vert was anxious to make up for lost time in service to his Lord, and he walked barefoot to Rome to formally enter the Jesuit novitiate in 1573. His training and formation were completed in Prague, and, after ordination, he and his companions were dispatched back to Elizabeth’s England, where Catholicism was banned and priests were fugitives. As a result, the missionaries traveled in disguise – Campion, as perhaps befits the former “diamond of England,” took on the persona of a jewel merchant at first.
Now, here’s where the comparison with my youthful games of subterfuge utterly breaks down, for the stakes involved couldn’t be more different. For me, the worst I faced at Sea-Tac, for example, was probably an uncomfortable and lengthy interview in the airport security office. For Campion and his fellow missionaries, capture meant interrogation, torture, and some form of humiliating execution – hanging, burning, beheading, drawing and quartering, and sometimes all of them in succession (as in Campion’s case at Tyburn in 1581).
Yet, there’s a continuity of sorts – at least in a certain resonance with Campion’s daredevilry along with a great deal of admiration for his grit. St. Edmund was no fool, of course, and the risks involved in his illegal missionary enterprise must’ve terrified him at some level. Nonetheless, we can detect hints in Campion’s writings that he derived at least some amusement from his deceptions. “I cannot long escape the hands of the heretics,” Campion wrote at one point. “I am in apparel to myself very ridiculous; I often change it and my name too.” Plus, there’s the fact that he went ahead with his furtive mission, despite his well-founded fears.
This is our calling as well, and it’s providential that St. Edmund’s feast always comes around just as Advent is kicking off every year. The weekday Gospels coming at the end of the liturgical year as well as Advent Sunday #1 warn us of upheaval and tribulation, noise and disturbance – but the Kingdom of God is not affected by those in the least. Rather the Kingdom comes quietly and unobtrusively – like a wee baby being born in an out-of-the-way village. This is the spirituality of Christmas: that we, too, like Mary, bear Christ to the world, regardless of how hidden or obscure that bearing might be.
It’s an idea that I try to get across to my nursing students, who might be tempted to think nursing is only about putting in catheters and giving shots. That’s all important, true, but ultimately it’s all a ruse. For the Christian, what we actually do in the world – nursing or business, homemaking or rocket science, whatever – is just a foil for what we’re really up to: making Jesus present here and now!
God willing, we’re all jewel merchants, like Edmund, distributing ordinary treasures in the course of our ordinary lives, and all the while smuggling Jesus himself beneath our humble get-ups. “We should think about so much hidden holiness there is in the Church,” is how Pope Francis put it, “the saints of daily life.”
And, while few of us will face the noose and the rack as did the English martyrs, we can embrace their resolve in following Jesus, come what may. “The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun,” St. Edmund declared in his so-called Brag. “It is of God; it cannot be withstood.”
That can be our brag, too – and our thrill.
image: A 16th century volume opened to an engraving of St. Edmund Campion from the Gleeson Library / Flickr