Sunday, May 15, 2011

( Not ) Churchgoing: Thoughts on a Very, Very, Rainy Sunday Morning.

                           " A serious house on serious earth it is/ In whose bent air all our compulsions meet/ are recognized and robed as destines/ and that much never seems to be obsolete/ since someone will forever be surprising/ a hunger in himself to be more serious."   Philip Larkin "Churchgoing".

                            Even though these reflections are entitled   "The Decaf Drinking Papist"  ( Kudos to any reader who catches the reference! ) ,  no-one reading the  first few submissions to this web-site would have guessed that its author is in fact a Catholic. But that he is. At least, he tries, with very mixed results, to be one. This is not the place for a long autobiographical reflection on love/ hate relationship with the Catholic church.  That will have to wait for a future installment.  Instead, I want to reflect on  something good Catholics are supposed to do every Sunday morning, and which some even more serious Catholics try to do every day, but which this writer failed to do.

                             I speak of the simple act of going to church. Back in my Charlottesville days, I attended church, pardon the expression, religiously. Sometimes, I attended a tiny red- brick in down-town Charlottesville called "Holy Comforter", ( An "low church"  Episcopalian friend  said she was puzzled by the name:  " Joe, are comforters holy relics in Catholicism?".   I explained that  it was a reference to The Comforter -  the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. This explanation did not bring any enlightenment.   " I thought that holy spirit stuff was  something Pentecostal types do.")  More often, I attended the University parish church, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

                           Saint Thomas had been designed by an avant-garde Jesuit back in the late sixties, and it showed.  At Saint Thomas, the roof of the church did not swope up, it swopt down, to symbolize God taking flesh and coming down to dwell among us.  There were stained glass windows symbolizing, in very abstract ways,  the various liberal arts and professions, with inscriptions  beneath the windows quoting such very non-Catholic writers as John Galsworthy (!)  The principal decorations were abstract sculptures, fashioned from driftwood.  Out in front of the building was amassive stainless steel statue of a thoughtful, squatting Saint Thomas, which non -Catholic passer-by often mistook for a statue of another religious figure; The Buddha.

                           I spent too long in Charlottesville- long enough to witness the complete redesign of the church by more traditionally minded Catholics.  While  "Saint Thomas of the hubcaps"  remained, the other changes were far- reaching, indeed. The old- avant garde church was converted into a parish social hall, and a whole new  building was constructed next to it, in quasi-Romanesque style. Now the roof swooped up, quite spectactularly,  while stained glass windows were now dedicated to the various and sundry patron saints of the liberal arts and professions.

                           Despite all these changes, one constant remained; the extraordinary quality of the homilies. Saint Thomas, though originally designed by  "Jebbies", was staffed largely by Dominicans. Though the one US unversity under Dominican supervision, Providence, leaves much to be desired,  most of the US Dominicans are bright, articulate men. In fact, the  Black Friars are only surpassed by the Loyolas as far as intellectual attainment goes, and in Charlottesville, we usually got the cream of the crop, shipped down from the justly celebrated Dominican House of Studies. in Washington, D.C.  In addition, like a few secular universities,  Virginia  boasted at least one pretty articulate, polymath, Jesuit on its faculty. a teacher of church history. The Dominicans, as well as the Jesuit  (and his occasional Jesuit graduate students ) did almost all the preaching at Saint Thomas, and the results were usually quite stirring, and much more intellectually stimulating than almost any homilies I had heard previously.  It was like a continuous retreat for academics and well-read professionals.  In short, despite its flaws,  I loved going to Saint Thomas, even back in the days when it looked liked an ugly Unitarian assembly hall.

                                And then, in 2004,  I came back to Michigan, and started attending the suburban church of my youth.  I will not name it here, but only describe it.  It is a smallish suburban church, designed in the well intentioned but unispired style of the sixties, to all outward appearances almost indistinguishable from the Holiness and Episcopalian churches a few blocks away. It boasted two priests and a deacon. I will concentrate on the priests. The chief pastor when I came there was a young fellow- younger than myself, with a mildly interesting background. he was a  fellow Michigan State grad, who had even gone to the same almost famous residential college I had gone to,  James Madison. There he had specialized in political theory, just like me, and minored in Russian studies, unlike me. Also  unlike me, he never had to drop out for finaincial reasons, instead graduating on schedule with pretty good grades. All of that Straussian politcal theory apparently helped inspire him to find a vocation outside of the secular world, and to enroll in Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. After graduating from the seminary, he served a number of different suburban parishes, and ours was his latest. Simultaneously, he served as chaplain at a Catholic high school a few miles away.  At our parish, this very -well read ( he loaned some excellent books to me.) and very bright young man ( We occasionally had interesting conversations) , busied himself with his pastoral duties, endlessly planning parish festivals, consoling the bereaved and / or baffled. and organizing Bible studies discussion gropus with names like  " Learning From Andy: What the Andy Griffith Show Can Teach Us About The Christian Life. "
                              The other pastor. ( our church had need two pastors for some time.) was a Jesuit from India , who taught marketing at the business college of the University of Detroit Mercy. He boasted an advanced degree in Biblical studies ( including archeology) from a university in India, as well as an advanced degree in economics. He always spent a chunk of the years visting his family in the old country, including his aged mother. Every Mothers day, he would serenade the mothers in the congregation by singing an old Indian pop hit ( he did it in English), called  "Mother of Mine".
                              Their preaching styles were very different. The young priest specialized in short, punchy homilies,  which often presented complex ideas in entertaining and even edifying ways. Ocasionally he showed his James Madison education by quoting Kierkegaard or telling anecdotes about great Russian writers. More often, he soecialized in pithy parables , which seemed to be taken from Paul Harvey broadcasts or old copies of Guideposts.  He was a popular priest,and most of us hated  it when the diocese transferred him to three church parish down river.

                             The Jesuit had a different preaching style, indeed.  Almost every homily was a long, often prolix, commentary on all three of the days readings, in which he displayed his knowledge of Biblical archeaology and sacred languages, often  with obessive detail that baffled the  congregation. In short, this Jeuit was constantly under the impression that was preaching to Jesuits, rather than a typical American suburban audience.

                               Even though the Jesuits frequently tried  my patience with his prolixity, and even though the young priests inspirational anecdotes were sometimes saccharine, I usually liked going to church.  For one thing, we have a pretty good music minister, who makes sure that the music at our church isnt usally as bad as the happy clappy guitar srumming junk too often found in Catholic Churches nowadays. For another, I volunteered to be a lector at the church.  So, two or three times a month, the congregation  would be treated to my less than dulcet tones as I read some passage from a Pauline epistle or the Old Testament.
                              However, my mothers view of things was different.  She almost always found the young priest patently insincere, and the elerly Jesuit a long-winded bore.  Besides, the music and decor of our little suburban church simply lacked holiness .  She preferred an  older ,larger,  more majestic, suburban church from the old neighborhood, which had been built  back in the twenties, when all thechurches were fortresses of the Church militant, with gorgeous, slightly florid stained glass windows, pretty, if slightly  kitschy frescos, and an array of holy statues. The priest was a late middle-aged, earnest Polish American bore, who droned on (at short length) about how " our parish" was  a "church community". ( He seemed to repeat this inspired theme in every homily). She loved it. The sermons were short, brisk, and othodox. I hated it. However, it was this parish that she preferred, especially after I was relieved of my duties as a lector, for reasons that remain opaque to me. ( Most of the congregation complimented me, despite my odd vocal tones. )

                    It was a hard winter in Michigan this year, and I found it hard to trudge to my suburban church in the snow.  Besides, Mom did not like the way things were going at the church.  I finally starting attending again, rather fitfully, early this spring. The Jesuit is gone; retired  to India. The young priest, as I said , has been reassigned. Our new chief priest is a gentle, warm- hearted black man who has produced award -winning documentary films for the Catholic Church,  and who has  a in "Intercultural communication" from someplace called The Union Institute.  I've heard him deliver homilies several times. He seems very fond of the word " paradigm" and very fixated on the " Kemetic" culture of ancient Egypt.  He is an articulate fellow-  a great communicator in fact-  whose homiles sometimes  have a checkered relationship with the facts. Only the other day, he made the remarkable observation that "the Jews" were "an oriental people" : which " of course "  meant that they  " believed in Karma." I kid you not. That is exactly what the sweet, well meaning,  chap said.  After the service, a parishoner..a silver haired,  fur -wearing lady went up to the priest and said  " Your homilies are so wonderful: I learn so much!"

                                  Today  was rainy, very rainy. Mom made delicious apple pancakes, with hot buttered syrup. I watched Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and a few of  the morning political talk shows. I asked her if we were goiung to brave the deluge and drive to church. Her reply was that we would honor God by cleaning up the house. On reflection, she has a point.  Despite what that old British agnostic and misanthrope Philip Larkin said, one does not always  need to go to "serious house on serious earth", to feel serious on a Sunday morning.  Perhaps this often confused Catholic will get back into the church-going habit someday; he is just not sure when.


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