Monday, January 29, 2007

Are you afraid of the Catholics?

The Catholics are so mysterious.

Or, what's up with the Catholics and their mysteries?

Or, I don't get Catholics. They're weird.

These and other statements are not merely dramatizations. No, people actually think this way.

Growing up as a Catholic, I didn't encounter much of this, and I wasn't exposed to anything else that might force a confrontation with my religious habits.

Now that I'm a non-practicing Catholic, venturing beyond the altar to other denominations and religions, suddenly it's clear that outsiders know as little about Catholics as I did about them--and possess any number of stereotypes.

Here's what insight I can offer: Catholics are ceremonial. Their method of worship is ritualistic and not studious. It is about recitation, not consideration (that is more personal and not shared with the congregation).

I have been to several non-Catholic services as a curious pilgrim. A few, such as the Methodists and the Lutherans, are reflections of the more delicate pageant of the mass. Those denominations have variant theologies, which set them apart. They're close relatives. The rest take a much different approach to church. Here is what defines Catholicism, as far as I can tell:

*Call and response
*Proclamation of the word (as opposed to examination)
*Memorized prayers
*Biblical hymns (as opposed to worship music)
*Transubstantiation (the literal altering of material substances by the Holy Spirit)

You know that your religion is a strict ceremony when you find yourself faced with a slight alteration or addition. I was in Idaho, at my aunt and uncle's church. Their mass was, as to be expected, the same as any other I've been to. Except, it included an optional prayer, a Marian devotion known as the Angelus:

"V. The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
R. And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, etc.

V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
R. Be it done unto me according to thy word.

Hail Mary, etc.

V. And the Word was made Flesh.
R. And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary, etc.

V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.


Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection. Through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen."

This prayer arose in the eleventh century. There were several monastic customs involving Hail Marys recited at intervals throughout the day. It was standardized in the seventeenth century. In many countries it is still practiced as a thrice daily devotion, signalled by the toll of an Angelus Bell. I was not aware that it could also be part of the mass.

Nice bit of trivia, Nick. I bring this up as an example. Notice how formal and theatrical it sounds. For Catholics, the power of religion is in practice. Through a common form that is quickly learned and rarely altered, their faith and convictions can be renewed each week. Study of the word, discussion of ideas, personal expressions of worship and discovery are relgated to other arenas than the mass. Music, prayers from the congregation, readings from the Word are all elements of a larger rite, and they reflect its structure. It's like going to the opera--and fifty years ago even more so: you'd have had to settle for an old Italian language.

So yes, there is mystery, and yes, one feels estranged at a Catholic mass. That's the point. It's in the doing, not the understanding. This does not work for everyone, and I might include myself. However, it's not that what Catholics do is so mysterious--check it out for yourself, it's pretty transparent: a tour of the new mass (since the 70s). It's that Catholics are more concerned with the mystery than with knowledge. This, of course, appeals to me. How it applies to one's life...that's the bigger question, and that's why I do what I do.

More soon.

A standard deviation . . .

I cannot consider myself a prodigal.

There's been no uncommon recklessness to my lifestyle, no overtly wasteful habits or deplorable actions filling my hours (at least not by my standards), what I've experienced over, well, the past seven years is more of a giant digression. I've found myself eager to peregrinate, to ramble, and this isn't just a physical longing.

I'll pause for a moment. Yes, "peregrinate". The word stood out to me in the thesaurus like the dark punctuation of a hawk in the sky. What have I been up to? Eyes open. Sight extended. Hunger like a raptor. Distance like a bird above the water. No rest. I think at about 18 I realized my childhood had been the equivalent of one of those falcon-trainer's bags over my head. Its removal showed me blue, an expanse of atmosphere that I knew could be traversed...there's so much of it, I haven't even covered half a mile.

Thus arose my pilgrimage, because sitting on a limb during college, interesting as it is to survey, included no wind or peril or exhilaration.

Why did I stop almost four months ago? What, if we look at them as a journey, were these accounts in the blog leading up to? And where do I find myself now?

Hello again, readers or friends (both?), I'm writing to you once more. I'm writing because again I feel that wanderlust, I know that in my heart, post-modern surface living doesn't fly. I can't survive in this day and age on dollars and donuts. I can't wake up with a routine schedule, reading about the problems of the world and leave the larger questions unexplored. I may have feigned objectivity as I reported on my institutional and community experiences at Seattle churches, but, just as one could infer a food critic doesn't just write columns about vinagrettes, fondues and wine-pairings for scholarly interest but because she loves to eat and she gets free meals, so one could surmise that I go to churches for other reasons than my expertise about them. I need to sip my coffee.

You all know Socrates. Yes, the critic of the "unexamined life", that's who I'm referring to--what was he about? Questions. So many questions, that man had. I have a few myself. Actually, I have more than a few. I have questions about ritual, questions about doctrine, about myth about sin about predetermination about...maybe too many? Where do faith and questions coexist? On what path of living do we rest calmly in our trust of God while constantly resisting the status quo of human ideas and traditions?

I'm taking up the pilgrimage again. This time, however, you'll probably sense more of my own journey in the posts. Many people have asked me if this project was about finding a church, finding a wasn't, not in the beginning. It is now. I'm still curious about how others worship, about how they seek the I'm also looking for my own pratice, what can function for me.