I remember the first time I saw her. I was a 15-year-old high school sophomore. She was a junior, but I didn’t know that at the time. We apparently had grown up on opposite sides of the same city. I was in the audience and she was on stage that early fall afternoon. I don’t remember getting to the theater, why I was there or where I was going afterward. All I remember is being absolutely captivated by her.
The way she moved on stage was the embodiment of beauty and grace. Her turns and jumps, expressions and graceful gestures were all absolutely enchanting. She was not merely physically, mechanically performing the steps; she was letting the dance perform through her. The moves had been rehearsed so many times that she didn’t have to think about them at all. Her performance came together seamlessly.
I knew nothing about dance when we met. I came to learn that it has a system of rules and procedures with funny sounding names (not so different from my field, the law, perhaps). More than 15 years and two kids later with the dancer I met in high school, I admittedly still don’t know very much about dance. However, I’ve seen enough performances over the years to have a sense of what is beautiful and indicative of solid training and what is discordant or inharmonious.
These days, my wife teaches tiny dancers (aged 3-7 years) at the University of Hartford HARTT Community Division. They are learning the foundational aspects of movement, progressing toward something more recognizable as dance and ballet. If the students progress through the pre-professional program, they undoubtedly will learn of the many positions, turns, jumps and other movements in the classical ballet repertoire to the most minute detail. They will have performed them so many times as to make the movements second nature. They will aspire to graduate with those movements and techniques committed to their muscle memory, to be recalled and performed seamlessly. They won’t need to think about the rules; they will just dance and it will be beautiful.
I listened to a lecture recently that probably was recorded some years ago by a professor emeritus of liberal studies at the University of Notre Dame, Holy Cross Father Nicholas Ayo. His lecture was an in-depth discussion of the pinnacle Catholic prayers. Father Ayo described the purpose of our lives as learning and practicing the steps of the dance that is being performed in heaven. This is a metaphor that resonates with me.
To be a practicing Catholic is to do (and refrain from doing) certain things. We go to Mass (hopefully, each week) and confession (less often than we should, no doubt), we perform corporal acts of mercy, we give charitably. I would argue that these are the outward manifestations of a kind of person that the practicing Catholic aspires to be: loving, in the broadest sense of the word. Therefore, the steps of our dance are designed to show our friends, family, community and the world that our lives are an expression of the love and beauty that is living and dying in the joy of Christ and the salvation possible only through him.
The steps in our dance represent the actions that influence a way of being and the way we approach the world around us. We aspire to perform our steps more fully, more innately, more effortlessly and essentially more beautifully. Our hope is that we have practiced our steps well enough in this life that we will be invited to the great dance and can perform in heaven with complete grace, relying on our muscle memory, and have it be beautiful. That is, in a sense, the purpose of our lives on earth; the purpose of “practicing” being Catholic.
We practice being Catholic in preparation for the dance in the next life. My wife the dance instructor, my kids, friends, co-workers and clients continue to help me practice my steps daily. I’m not very good, but there’s still hope. I might find grace, yet.
Cody Guarnieri is a criminal defense lawyer with a Hartford law firm and is a member of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford.