It is mid-Lent and you stumble into a church, not because it is Lent or you have a habit of churchgoing but because you need a bathroom. You try to look like you belong there, bowing your head, making yourself a bit tense. They are just about to begin a service.
Something about the candles, the kid in the white gown holding the taper, the marble, the death, everywhere death and gloom and a lack of irony. This you want. Though you did not know it until now. Suddenly you can’t make yourself leave.
You will stay for the entire mass. And you will return, again and again.
One day you will sidle up to an usher in a green corduroy sport coat who frankly will be no help – who will not exactly fall all over himself to point you in the right direction to start becoming Catholic.
Which will only make you trust this place all the more.
You will go to a weekly class and they will tell you to find a “sponsor” (what is this, AA?) and every Sunday you will have to parade with your little group mid-service out of the church in front of the whole crowd, like a row of prisoners whose time in the activity yard is up.
Then one Saturday night you will put on a white “alb” which the harried woman whose smile you never believe and who is in charge of the whole thing has told you many many times “is your baptismal right to wear”.
And the embarrassing and surreal totality of water. They drench you. Water as you have never used it before. Water without utility. You are not swimming, nor drinking, nor cleaning, nor cooking nor washing. You are doing what? “Symbolizing”? Is that a thing one does?
You just know the feeling, the way it is on your skin. As if no argument can be made against this, if someone would ever want to. If a charitable friend might tell you, for instance, that your baptism is not really a thing that is happening to you – that it is a thing leveraged or constructed or something. But, no, it did happen to me. The water was really there. Damp towels to prove it. Why would I put myself through this bizarre pointless soaking if it wasn’t real?
Your logic actually doesn’t work that well, but for you it suffices.
And, truth be told, arguments are made against you, by people who know you, though they are never spoken out loud. You wish they would be! You want to hear them. Because really, you know better than this. You have no legitimate cover for taking such grievous measures with your life. There was no Catholic girlfriend, no pending wedding to become spiritually aligned for. There has been no vision, no astounding conversion story, no miracle of the internal organs. No bible passage randomly flipped to, revealing the foul depths of your nonetheless sacred heart.
And so people will just think you are not that smart anymore. Or maybe you never really were that smart. And once they realize this, that you went off the mental rails somewhere – or never were on those rails – they can then consign you to a part of their brains that understands this quaint, even touching turn to old-time religion.
As for you, while you could cite doctrines, beliefs and a bone-deep feeling, really it’s this: you are in the game. That’s all you really know. You’re on the field, and you want to stay there.
For a while you will feel that to become Christian is to have taken on a kind of divine obligation to compliment people a lot. To say stiltedly, on car rides or at the tail end of breakfast at a diner, You are a good person Jimmy. I have always really appreciated… the way you… work so hard on your lawn.
Every Sunday after mass you will remain in the pew and with eyes closed pray for five minutes. But every time, rather than praying, you will simply become annoyed at all the people who are jingling their keys, shouldering their purses and chatting away as they leave the pews. It will take you an embarrassingly long time before you realize the futility of your devotion; that what you think is a practice drawing you closer to God is only making you loathe his people.
Though you don’t think of yourself as some kind of fanatic, you will be drawn to masses said by the priest who holds the host up a bit longer, stares at it a bit more fixedly. Eyes locked on the round wafer like a jeweler examining an unusual stone he can’t quite fathom.
One day you will go to a pro-life rally even though you are pro-choice, pretty much. You don’t tell your new Catholic friends this because you don’t want to make waves or get into tedious arguments. You find the demonstration to be, well, pathetic. The only celebrities they could muster up were a Britney Spears back-up dancer and a woman who was once in a John Wayne movie? And one bishop? And no matter that your astute new friends tell you that the Catholic Church is not identical with the political entity called “the Pro-Life Movement”, one or the other, you think, could dress things up a bit.
You will have moments, early on, where you wish everyone would just give the Catholic faith a shot. If only they would really stop and think about it! If they would just put all the pieces together. Get over all their hang-ups. If only you could talk to people, individually. If you could put something in your voice – a kind of pleading but not begging. An argument that is clear but not mechanical. Sensible but not wooden. If it’s true that the Creator of the Universe (!) sent his only Son from heaven… and if it’s true that this Son showed us how to live... through calm breaths merely stating facts, syllogisms leading to undeniable conclusions. If only you could tell them all over coffee how these seemingly oppressive Catholic things like “pontiff” and “dogma” and “hierarchy” are good! Because structure actually liberates and authority lends security and charismatics can be tested. ...And you would go on, reasonably – charming even – and wouldn’t they just melt into the arms of Rome.
But you never seem to get the perfect opportunity to make your case and then over time it will all just seem less urgent and you will wonder if that is a loss or a gain.
You will drive through Madison, Wisconsin and find yourself pondering why all college dj’s in all college towns sound the same: the low halting monotone, the long silences, the sense that every record they are about to play (and it is always an actual record) is tucked away in some teetering stack just out of reach from where they sit.
This will have nothing to do with Catholicism. It will just be one of those things.
You will hear a really fine sermon at mass approximately two, maybe three times a year.
The rest will float out there, and not land. They will bear little relation to your lived experience, nor move you emotionally nor call you to change anything about your actual life. You may never really notice this, though. You will just come to believe that this is how it is in the Catholic religion. In fact, you will vaguely believe that most priests probably have the ability to rouse their congregations with love, anger and justice. But they are taught in seminary to humbly mute all of that, so as not to draw attention from the Eucharist. And that, truly, the only place one can expect to hear inspiring oratory is from video clips of pre-game college football locker rooms.
One day someone will point out to you that in Michelangelo’s Pieta, the Blessed Mother is shown at the age she would have been when she gave birth. The 14 year-old virgin holds her dead grown child in her lap. She just gave birth to Jesus and then he’s 33 and crucified and then he’s gone. All in an instant.
For the rest of your life whenever you see this statue, you just think – you can’t even think. Its beauty and terror… this child holding… where do you even… You realize that almost everything you could ever be taught about your religion is told perfectly and completely in this one block of marble. And though you do not consider yourself fervidly territorial, you feel a sort of wanton pride that this one, Michelangelo Buonarotti, lines up on your side.
At some point you will reconcile with the fact that there is a wickedness inside of you, as in all people, that will never go away.
Or you don’t reconcile with it and you will always try to be better, to improve and perfect yourself in ways you can never achieve and you will die in ways you do not notice, slowly turning into a clutch of dry leaves on a rootless tree crackling apart and scattering into the hot wind.
But you do, you do reconcile it, and something lifts.
You will get married and have three children and they will all, of course, end up leaving the Catholic faith. One will do so outright, publicly, though not heatedly. She will come home from college and sit in the kitchen Sunday morning scrolling down a screen while you and her mother go off to church. Have a good time at mass, she will say brightly, not looking up. She will be charitable. I respect your religion, Dad. Jesus was a great ethicist. Later that afternoon you will see her in the living room, draped in a plain gray smock or poncho, sitting in lotus for two straight hours meditating on the state of her ultimate emptiness: a feat that you you will witness again and again for several visits home before you are able to tell her, without feeling like you are betraying your own religion, that you truly admire her endurance.
The younger daughter will leave the faith but you will never know about it, not really. Because she will keep going to mass with you when she comes home to visit. And because there is so little you actually know about her. This will be the source of a thin film of sadness at the edge of your life, for all of your life.
Every time she comes home her eyes seem a bit more hooded, darker, her body thinner. You wonder if she is on something. One day you finally ask her outright and she just looks at you and says, Are you kidding? This clears up nothing. She sits next to you at mass and says the words and does the gestures and where is she? All you can think to do is pray for her but really, how do you pray for people? What does that even mean?
The third child, the oldest, will leave the faith by actually becoming more Catholic.
He will trade in faith for its opposite, certainty. Or the near occasion of. With votives, holy cards, novenas, rosaries, medals, prayer chains, adoration and several months of advance work hunting down precisely the right kind of mass, he will conflate the shareholder ethos of late-modern American capitalism with the Holy Roman Catholic faith. He will have turned simple, poignant devotions into a network of annuities. If, say, the patella hits the marble and stays there longer than the time people conventionally allot before swinging into the pew, this small investment, (when bundled with countless others), will likely pay off in future dividends. No, he’s not simplistic, he’s not dumb. He knows there are no guarantees. In either the financial world or the religious. But, honestly, the ticket is in his hand – it’s his to cash in or not. If he just keeps showing up and punching his card, surely he will reap a healthy yield.
One day a member of the Knights of Columbus standing in the vestibule will hand you a little metal pin bearing feet the size they would be on a fetus in the womb. You take it, because he handed it to you.
One day you will start to wear this pin with the little feet on it. This does not mean that you have stopped becoming pro-choice. It just means you are wearing a pin that shows the size of the feet of a child when it is in the womb. But you will start to become more conflicted about being pro-choice.
You will never get beyond “becoming more conflicted about being pro-choice”.
Each morning in the loamy hours before work you will sit down and pray. This feels like the responsible thing to do.
You do not realize that you pray every day out of fear that if you do not pray there will not be a God. If you do not by talking to him decide that he is there, he will not exist. This is a responsibility for holding together the entire universe that weighs on you far more than you know. It is only your ignorance that helps you get through it.
You will find yourself telling people that mass is the best part of your day. And when they ask why, you will just look at them. As if they are out of their mind.
Where is your younger daughter? Where did she call from last? Philadelphia? Newark? (Newark? Why Newark? What happens in Newark?) Where is she sleeping, and with who? Does she have a job? How does she eat? What courses through her body that isn’t meant to be there? Or are you just overprotective, worrying too much. Is this how it just is with your kids?
Every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday a priest will tell you, as if he were some completely revolutionary paradigm-shifting soft hearted theocrat bestowing on the spiritually-starved masses something they have never heard before: Don’t GIVE UP something for Lent, DO SOMETHING for Lent!
Every year. How completely irritating. You like giving things up. The harder the better. And you will not let anyone, not even a priest, get between you and the serrated edges of your quietly self-induced suffering.
And speaking of priests – fine men, truly – but there will come into your life one day a cheery young cleric who tells you and all the men standing in the back of church at the 6:30am weekday to come sit in the front row! Take your jackets off. We’re a community!
This will last about three days.
And then he will be told the way things work here. One or more of the men will take him aside, and gently clue him in as to the way it is. Maybe you will be the one to do it. Respectfully of course. But telling him nonetheless that you were never taught in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults that there was a certain prescribed yardage from the altar within which one had to stand or sit for mass to be valid and licit. At least not as far as you knew. Was there a new teaching on this, Father? No? Okay. Well.
You will never think of leaving the church. No matter what gets said, or pronounced, or forbidden, or revealed, or never said at all. You just wouldn’t. Sometimes more out of stubbornness than anything. Like a dusty film heroine yelling at her exhausted band of fortune seekers: We’ve already come this far!
If the temptation ever did arise to leave, you would probably stay because of the way Ted Nugent cleans the paten after communion at the Sunday 7 a.m. (Ted Nugent? Truly, he looks just like the great outdoorsman, everyone thinks so.) As the priest sits in the chair “Ted” stands in the corner of the sanctuary and carefully dusts the crumbs into the chalice, pouring the water in, gently swirling it around, biceps pressing through a lime green sport shirt, fu manchu hovering over the holy vessels. Doing all of this as if it all means something. Means… what? Silence. And him dusting the paten, the last strains of Now Thank We All Our God still hanging in the air, and something is there. And whatever that thing is, you would not so casually leave it over… well, over anything.
One day you pick up a notice for a speaker on “Interreligious Dialogue”, which includes this:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation (Lumen Gentium, 16).
You look at this pamphlet every so often. Depending on your mood, you can’t decide whether this statement is: A) the most arrogant thing you have ever heard in your life. Who are we to decide to allow others to have their salvation? Do they really need our unsolicited blessing? They will be just fine, thank you.
Or B): the most shameless example of Clintonian pandering you can imagine, unfit for a stately enterprise like the Roman Church. Why not just say, Here’s the truth, here’s the path, either get on board or good luck wading in the flood? But not this half measure, long as we all do our best – I mean, those people didn’t have to go through Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. They didn’t have to knock on the door of the church in their white “albs” and say “Let us in!” or whatever it was. They didn’t have to take a second job to pay for their kids’ Catholic schools. They didn’t have to avoid sex before marriage, or not really but at least feel pretty bad about it.
Worrying about this will take up approximately twelve minutes of your life.
Your parish gets a grant and hires a woman, married with a couple kids, who has a Masters of Divinity degree and is very bright and holy. She offers spiritual direction to parishioners and frankly is supposed to be quite good. And the fact is you would never think of taking the caustic, unruly matters of your spiritual life to her. But if she were a nun you would. You don’t even realize this about yourself. But if someone were able to point this out to you, you would say, Yeah. Okay. A nun. That’s probably right.
Your Buddhist will come back. She will come back as if she had never left: getting in the car to go to mass and kneeling before the service starts and entering the communion line and kneeling afterwards and when you look at her, bewildered, just looking back at you like, What?
You suddenly will find yourself wanting her to stay Buddhist. And go to mass. Can one do this?
Your son will inform you that what the church needs is the same counter-intuitive medicine a recessionary economy needs. It must throw off, or simply stop worrying about, its regulatory framework (The Media, Theologians, Unchastened Public Opinion), and simply do “what it does best”. It is undergoing a time of creative destruction, and it must become more itself by burning out the understory and popping out those conifer seeds that only germinate under extreme heat. If it becomes leaner, less cluttered, more streamlined, delivered back to its “core competency”, so be it; all the better for confronting the hostile territory of the new “unchurched” century.
It is a Friday in Lent and you have been fasting all day to be in solidarity with Guatemalans and now you hate Guatemalans. Your wife is away, the house is empty. You wander into your younger daughter’s room. She long ago took down all the old posters and pictures. The walls are nearly bare. This happens to be a time in your life when the faith you once held so easily seems to be, not totally lost, just empty. The God whose presence was once felt is now just an idea “assented to”. Truthfully, it hurts. Does it hurt as much as if, say, you lost your mortgage? Who knows? But it does hurt, more than you let on to yourself. It makes everything dark.
Maybe it has to do with your fears about your daughter. You sit down on her bed and wonder where you went wrong with her. Didn’t you take her places? Didn’t you take her fishing? Isn’t taking a kid fishing supposed to be some kind of cold sealant on their character, and your connection? Why did your fatherhood (your work, your entire life) not turn out the way you thought it would? Or did it? What are you supposed to expect? Or does it matter? What would Jesus do? What a stupid question. Where is your daughter? You want to know her and talk with her and just have her around. Nothing in your religion can take this – her life, your relationship, your confusion, your nightmares – into its stony hands and solve it.
If you had a spiritual director she might tell you that you are feeling so distant from God because you are moving absolutely close to God. And so from this angle you don’t recognize him anymore. Your fears, your doubts, your “dark night” – it is causing you to turn away from your usual bag of tricks and rely on God and God alone.
And maybe that would be on target. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe that is what spiritual people say to comfort themselves. You have tried to talk about all this at confession, as if you have been doing something wrong. Your priest has encouraged you to pray more and maybe just kind of lighten up. He didn’t really say that, but it came through.
So, why? Why did you enter this way of life in the first place? What was it all for? You can say the things everyone says. My faith is my “rock”. The church is what I “fall back on”. And you would mean it. It would be true. That Pieta is followed by a resurrection. Even when God is distant, you just continue. You believe because you want to believe.
But your faith doesn’t take this little girl into itself and make her decisions for her, care for her, feed her, or tell you exactly what to do about her.
Why did you go into that church that first day, then? What was it all about? Is it like that story Christopher Plummer tells? About drinking all night in a bar on Broadway with Jack Lemmon? The morning finally comes and they’re still down there going strong and finally Jack stumbles up the stairs and out into the morning sunlight.
Plummer isn’t ready to call it quits and he asks Jack where does he think he’s going. Lemmon mumbles as he goes out, I gotta get to mass. Gotta go to mass.
Plummer runs up the stairs and out the door and watches, confused, as Lemmon weaves down the street. Finally he yells after him, But Jack, you’re not even Catholic!
Did you stumble with the mysterious instincts of a superb comic actor into the faith? Well, what then? Because frankly the comedy is getting a little black.
You can’t even really weep about any of this because it’s all so formless. You don’t know where she is and you don’t know where you are. You are hungry, annoyed, vacant, helpless. The only answer is to mow the yard. You start to get up from her bed. And then you notice something on the wall, down by her pillow.
It is a small framed picture, one that has been there so long you never even see it anymore. Just this side of a cartoon. An angel rising above a bridge being crossed by two barefoot nineteenth-century children. A little country girl with billowy clothes and a blue ribbon in her hair, her arm around her plump, scared, effeminate little brother. One plank of the bridge is gone, the water rushes below. The angel with fat red cheeks hovers behind, arms outstretched, looking tenderly and a bit hungrily at the kids.
It was a gift on her fourth birthday. You remember when she got it. Like yesterday. Her little dress, her green shoes. The darkness roils around the bridge, night sweeping in, the kids crossing. Not yet on the other side. And the white presence looming. Long ago every other picture was taken down, thrown away, you realize, but this one.