Catechism Culture

by Tom Watson
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A couple of weeks back, I met a friend for lunch downtown and wondered at the choice – an East Village UK-style pub, replete with an iconic red phone box out front. Fair enough, but an interesting choice of venue. I was early and perusing the menu when I realized at an instant why we were there. The famous fish and chips, halfway down the menu.

Of course. It was Friday. In Lent. And we’re both Catholics.

Not the daily Mass sort, yet the culture is so strong, so nearly biological, that it still persuades secularists to traipse at least at least an extra subway stop to avoid a meaty midday repast during the period of Lenten sacrifice that will conclude next Sunday. Palm Sunday is tomorrow, and Holy Week follows – concluding that particularly New York version of the liturgical calendar that adds the green of St. Patrick’s Day to the purple of the passion play.

On Ash Wednesday, one of my favorite bloggers, Lance Mannion, wrote about his formal break with the Catholic Church, noting that he’d been “holding onto my faith by the threads of a frayed alb anyway.” Lance’s post plumbed some of the gnawing away of formal church-based hierarchical religion in this country, but I was also struck by one of the comments: “I haven’t been to Church in years. But I’m STILL a Catholic.” And that blend of personal cultural and religious self-identification, which riles traditional (and conservative) Roman Catholics, hasn’t lost its power. Reading Lance’s Lenten post (and it was a Lenten post because Lance is still a Catholic) called to mind the lyrics of punk poet Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy from 1980:

And they can’t touch me now

I got every sacrament behind me

I got baptism, I got penance

I got communion, I got extreme unction

Man, I’ve got confirmation

I was a Catholic boy

Redeemed through pain

And not through joy

And now I’m a Catholic man

I put my tongue to the rail whenever I can

Patti Smith, the force behind Carroll’s angry, poetic record, was a Jehovah’s Witness – at least until she hit New York, and quickly adopted Catholicism (the cultural variety) as the perfect canvas for poetry. Is there a more Catholic opening line to a song from 1970s than Smith’s iconic “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine?”

That the song was a reinvention of Van Morrison’s Gloria added to the hymnal quality – Patti clearly leaning on the in excelsis Deo side of the double meaning, fresh from posing as Mary Magdalene for Robert Mapplethorpe, himself an Irish Catholic divorced by sexuality yet entirely married in culture and personal reference. This was a common formula in 1970s New York. In 1973, Staten Island Catholic boy David Johansen asked with mock incredulity: “Then all the old ladies they are on their way to the church…yuh go ta church?” That same year, St. Rose of Lima Catholic grammar school graduate Bruce Springsteen cracked, “Nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin’ immaculate conception” in Lost in the Flood.

I grew up on this stuff, in the years just after my service as an altar boy, and the incense never quite abandons the cultural DNA, even after the orthodoxy has fled; I’ve observed the same phenomenon among non-observant Jews who’ll still place the pebble on the headstone every time. You can’t shake childhood, and in middle age, it’s surprising what remains of the old relationship with the cassock and the ritual. Skinny young heretics like Bruce Springsteen harbor second thoughts in the years of thickening middles – witness his 2005 conversation on Devils & Dust:

In the garden at Gethsemane

He prayed for the life he’d never live,

He beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove

The cup of death from his lips

Now there’s a loss that can never be replaced,

A destination that can never be reached,

A light you’ll never find in another’s face,

A sea whose distance cannot be breached

Well Jesus kissed his mother’s hands

Whispered, “Mother, still your tears,

For remember the soul of the universe

Willed a world and it appeared.”

Another of my favorite bloggers, M.A. Peel, also had an Ash Wednesday post at the beginning of this Lenten season, linking this period of contemplation for Catholics to the world’s crisis: “Avarice is a mortal sin – the wisdom of that classification is now sadly clear.” And she posted a video and lyrics to the song Hallelujah by the brilliant singer/songwriter Rufus Wainright, culturally Irish Catholic on his mother’s side and quite conscious of it:

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

As my own children make their sacraments and some days are a struggle to reconcile their upbringing with my thin personal faith and disdain for the patriarchy of the formal religion, Wainright’s words ring like communion bells. The shadows and doubts and reason are all our own. I’m not alone, I think, in harboring an entirely personal relationship with a formal religion – or thinking the blaze of light is my own. No less of a  church-goer than John Updike riffed on that individuality of faith and identify when he accepted an award as a prominent Christian writer by a Catholic magazine in 1997:

“St. Augustine was not the first Christian writer nor the last to give us the human soul with its shadows, its Rembrandtesque blacks and whites, its chiaroscuro; this sense of ourselves, as creatures caught in the light, whose decisions and recognitions have a majestic significance, remains to haunt non-Christians as well, and to form, as far as I can see, the raison d’être of fiction.”

Updike’s identity, his Christianity, was portrayed in doubt and human failing wonderment, in the brutal light of clear-eyed observation and realism (very Catholic in practice). On his deathbed, in what may be the most moving pages of verse to grace an American magazine in a century, Updike didn’t shy away for a moment from either the doubt or the faith:

We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tong reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely – magnificent, that “surely” –
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the ays of my life, my life, forever.

When I was in Oxford last week, I stayed in student lodgings at Trinity College that were nicer than any hotel room I’ve ever seen in London. Trinity College was founded by Sir Thomas Pope in 1555. A devout catholic with no surviving children, Thomas Pope saw the Foundation of an Oxford college as a means of ensuring that he and his family would always be remembered in the prayers and masses of its members.

The gardens at Trinity are very beautiful, but one border of the College harbors a little secret: the gates constructed along Parks Road are purely ornamental and are never opened. Tradition holds they’re only swung open when a Jacobite monarch resumes the throne of England (and presumably ends the reign of the Church of England as the state religion). While I was there, the news was full of talk about PM Gordon Brown’s move to overturn the part of the 1701 Act of Settlement that bans Catholics from marrying into the royal family. Maybe the gates of Parks Road will be opened sooner rather than later, I thought, my Catholic upbringing going off like a ring tone set to the Angelus.

Flying home last week, I found myself 40,000 feet over the North Atlantic, wedged into what American Airlines dashingly refers to as a “seat” and holding onto sanity only by dint of the seatback video movies. The dinner cart came along. It was Friday. The choice came: “chicken or pasta?” And there, in some pain and without a conscious inkling, the DNA of the catechism kicked into autopilot:

“Pasta,” says I, only vaguely aware of my current timezone.

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