That water without sound November 30, 2008Posted by Mark Folse in Toulouse Street.
Tags: Catholic Church, Dominicans, New Orleans, NOLA, St. Anthony of Padua, Sunday Morning, Wallace Stevens
She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
– Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens
Has the War on Christmas already begun, and no one told me? The holidays are a difficult time for the unchurched or those of no particular dogma, confronted by those who try (in the best American commercial fashion) to establish an exclusive franchise for their church. Their efforts to make of us A Christian Nation are at least a part of the problem I have with organized religion.
I was raised Catholic, like so many in New Orleans, just old enough to be the among the last who made First Communion in Latin. Outside of a brief episode resulting from watching The Robe with a high fever, which lead to a week of attending daily 6 a.m. Mass and my mother’s fervent hope that she had spawned a priest, I started drifting away in my teens. It was not just the idle rebellion of the young, who preferred to spend an hour Sunday morning lounging about with cigarettes while our parents thought us at Mass. The literature I read in the 1970s was at least partly to blame: a Baghivad Gita from a begging Krishna, all of Carlos Castaneda, the Zen and Buddhist obsessions of the Beats, Joseph Campbell: it seemed a thousand doors opened into the same space. How could only one be right?
Decades later the Catholic Church shows the same conservative face that banished the Liberation Theologists decades ago and claims a prominent place at the head of the homophobic parade running campaigns to Ban Gay Marriage. Those effort’s sole purpose is to advance the election of factions I oppose with my entire heart and soul, and the Church’s embrace of the proto-fascist edge of conservative America was just another nail driven in.
Just last week the Church announced it was dropping funding of Acorn, and the loud boors on NOLA.Com hooted and stamped their feet in agreement. I found myself researching once again the grounds for excommunication. It seems only appropriate that if I wish to formally sever any ties to such a large, persistent organization with a thousand years of closely-kept records, I should have an embossed piece of paper to file with my baptism and confirmation certificates to close the deal, once and for all.
But it’s too much damned trouble, and as one rational commenter on NOLA.Com pointed out on the discussions of the Acorn funding decision, if you’re as far down the road as researching the rules on excommunication, you’re already there. (There are some rational people on NOLA.Com, and I like to think WetBankGuy is one of them. Why are we there? Someone has to stand against the darkness). Instead of reading up on excommunication, I go read Wallace Stevens epic celebration of the question of unbelief, Sunday Morning.
In truth I can never completely sever my Catholic identify (even if I cannot recite the Nicene Creed with a straight face and an honest heart) unless I am willing to sever my head in the bargain. I was married in the Church, and carried the day with the monsignor who interviewed us for our pre-Cannan conference. With twelve years of Catholic school under my belt (stop snickering, Peter), I quickly knew the answers to all the right questions. It helped immensely when he learned I was from New Orleans. He had shared a room for a while at seminary with former Archbishop Phillip Hannan, and our interview quickly turned into old home week.
To be raised Catholic in this city is to be deeply imprinted not only with a faith but by a complex culture that goes with it. The idea of a secular Jew, someone raised in the faith and its observances who no longer follows them, is well accepted. This city is full of people like me who are indelibly marked by our faith if no longer observant: secular Catholics.
Even as I struggle with how to handle the holidays from now through Christmas–I must go to Mass, of course, for my wife is still a Good Catholic in so many ways even if only a Holy Day of Obligation–it is a time of year when my Catholic identify is reinforced not by the Church but by my family. My visiting father-in-law wanted Mass on Thanksgiving, so I got on the phone and found one not too early, then charged my daughter (who seems to be traveling the same path I did at her age, and does not go happily to church) to take him to St. Anthony of Padua on Canal Street.
The choice of church led by dinner time to a long conversation with my mother as well. St. Anthony was “her church” growing up in Mid-City, and I heard a new story, which is always a treat when sitting with older family members. The church was built by Spanish Dominican fathers, and she is a Dominican girl through and through–high school, college, the alumni association. To this day she is among the last of her circle of confirmed Dominican girls who several times a year break break with the remaining nuns of Dominican College, and if any opening to the subject comes up I will hear how this or that sister is doing. My daughter has a Dominican nun doll dressed in full habit, a gift of her grandmother, and I am sure my mom is disappointed that my daughter is at Ben Franklin and not at Dominican High School.
She told me of the young priests who staffed it in her girl hood were a handsome lot who made the hearts of young Catholic girls flutter. All those young men, she told me, were all sent to the Phillipines in the late 1930s, and were murdered by the Japanese. I don’t remember hearing of girls being enamored of priests when I was young, but perhaps that is a guilty secret they only share among themselves until it is a distant memory of youth and a story to tell the family so that it is remembered. Perhaps it is like our own adolescent discussions of whose mother was “hot”, a hermetic ritual of adolescent boys before our popular culture reached the point where MILF is a common word with no trace of indecency.
New Orleans is inseparable from its churches. Jackson Square is a typical colonial plaza, with St. Louis Cathedral central on one side, flanked by what were once official colonial which are now museums. St. Mary’s just a few blocks away was an 1845 addition to the Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter, the oldest building in the district. The Ursulines were the first women’s order to arrive in New Orleans, and their story is deeply entangled in the story of New Orleans. The tale of their prayers for victory before the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor persist to to this day and a mass is still said yearly to commemorate the event.
Every wave of Immigrants from the Catholic countries of southern Europe built their church in their neighborhood, and people are still fiercely loyal to their local. When the current leadership announced the closure of the historically prominent St. Augustine in Treme, the first parish built by and serving African-Americans in the city, led to a raucous confrontation with the Church authorities after the Archbishop’s chief henchman, the unpopular Rev. William Maestri showed up with a police escort to confront the protesters. And the more recent announcement of the closure of several healthy, active parishes in the Uptown area has lead to members occupying the deconsecrated buildings and suing in the cannon courts of Rome to have the decision overturned.
I am not fond of Maestri (if the use of the term henchman did not give this away) for his role as the Archbishops right hand man after the storm, particularly his role in the destruction of Cabrini Catholic Church. Whenever his name comes up (and as the spokesman of the Archdiocese and it’s chief enforcer, it frequently did over the last several years) she would always tell me how wildly unpopular he was when Maestri was assigned to the parish I grew up in, St. Pius X on the Lakefront.
Scratch any Orleanian and you will quickly uncover their own stories of their church. We are not so different that anyone else in this regard, but I have a hard time imagining the members of churches I knew in Minnesota or North Dakota rising up against their own Bishop to save their parish. It’s been done in Boston, but there is something temperamental to the MidWest that would likely prevent it. And living in a place that was still frontier just over a century ago, they don’t have the deep ties to a particular parish and building of people whose family has attended the same church for 150 years or longer.
I remain unchurched for the first time since I met that good Catholic girl from North Dakota. St. Anthony would be my parish were we to present ourselves and sign the register, and I will set foot in it for the first time this week when I no doubt find myself accompanying father-in-law and family to Mass. Once again I will struggle with how to respond, and find myself falling into the ritual and its recitations, but will stand silent for the Nicene Creed. It is a far cry from my mother’s wish to have from her two sons a doctor and priest.
To be unchurched–”unsponsored, free” in the words of Stevens–is not to be militantly atheist or a non-committal agnostic. One old friend detects currents in my life that lead her to invite me to join her at Samhain. I still pick up the old texts of Tao, Buddhism and Zen. The words of Jesus still stir me as they did Thomas Jefferson. It is more complex than that.
And so I will go to communion because it is expected and not out of any sense of communion, and without fear that I commit some heinous sin by taking it. It is not for me the transubstantiated flesh and blood simply because I do not believe. Whatever about the Nicene Creed or the political foibles of bad bishops troubles my mind and soul, the familiar space of Mass is something as comfortable as my own skin, and as easily taken up as required as a spoonful of gumbo. The kind teacher of love with the Sacred Heart is an image as powerful today as when it was first imagined. I will just try to let myself surrender to the moment because it is–not simply as I almost said but in a complex way–an ineradicable part of who I am.
But first, a reading for the First Sunday of Advent in anticipation of the Yule.