I was not raised in the faith. Neither in the Western tradition nor in the Byzantine tradition which I now follow primarily. Sometimes I thank God for this. Considering the abysmal state of catechesis and religious education in the modern Church, a Catholic childhood could have condemned me to the depths of complete and total ignorance the true religion. Still, there are times when I find myself perplexed at some of the things cradle Catholics hold so dear, even those who have not kept the faith particularly well. Things like saying grace before meals – something with which every cradle Catholic would be familiar – are still an utter mystery to me.
I cannot get excited about First Communions either, or Confirmations. This may be in part due to my Eastern inclinations which would prefer to see all three Mysteries of Initiation administered at the same time, but I think my indifference to the celebrations which overwhelm Catholic families when these rites take place is also due in part to the fact that I did not experience them myself as a child. First Communion seems very precious and, God-forbid, sentimental. Confirmation seems to me much like a Bar Mitzvah, Quinceañera, or other such dreadful rites-of-passage. Of course I know intellectually that Confirmation has nothing to do with coming-of-age, but it sure seems like a lot of people treat it that way.
These difficulties lead to a certain sense of deprivation. Somehow, some way, the convert must discover the Catholic Ethos and make it his own. By “Catholic Ethos” I mean those things which are not the faith in and of itself, but are inextricably grafted onto the faith by centuries of tradition, culture, and custom. For example, in order to be more Chestertonian, I recently bought myself a new pipe.
G.K. Chesterton, like fellow English Catholic intellectuals J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, and Hilaire Belloc, loved his tobacco. Chesterton is reported to have said, “The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar.” Indeed these men saw something almost sacramental in the smoking of pipes, cigars, etc. The body is a temple and every temple needs its incense. Tolkien of course famously make pipe-smoking the favorite pass-time of his Hobbits and their Istar friend Gandalf (by the way, the tobacco seen above is called “Shortcut to Mushrooms” from a Middle-Earth themed tobacco sampler I found on line).
I have tried to get into the habit, as Chesterton did, of making the Sign of the Cross over the bowl of the pipe with the match while lighting the tobacco. The fire symbolizes Christ, the Light of the World. While making the Sign of the Cross with the match, I like to whisper the line from St. John’s Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” There’s a wonderful physicality to this. And so by pipe smoking do I avoid the errors of the Gnostics and the Puritans.
In my woebegone attempts to become a cultural Catholic, I’ve also tried to take up Pysanky decoration. Pysanky are died Paschal Eggs from Ukraine. Like in the West, Ukrainians dye eggs at Easter time, but they have developed an elaborate wax-resist method of coloring which allows for some of the most beautiful artwork you’re ever likely to see.
I’m afraid I’m not very good at it though. And it does require a LOT of work and time. Not a combination which becomes my decadent and often lazy demeanor.
This past week I had the privilege of visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the District of Columbia. That place has the Catholic Ethos is spades. Completed in 1959, the Basilica is a monument to a meaty, savory Catholicism of a very brief moment in American history. For about twenty years, between 1940 and the death of John F. Kennedy, Catholicism finally became an acceptable religion in the American consciousness. Movie stars, particularly Bing Crosby in his role as Father O’Malley, made what was once an exotic import from barbaric region like Ireland and Italy a faith which was palatable to American sensibilities. Maybe this was a good thing and maybe it wasn’t, but during the 1950s converts poured into the American Church.
The Basilica, in all its Neo-Byzantine enormity, is ostentatiously Catholic. Dare I say, more Catholic than the Pope who will celebrate Mass there is less than a month? The exterior is white, causing it to glow as one approaches it. Eventually you have to squint as you walk up the steps to the door because the reflected light is so bright. Inside the Basilica is fantastic. Underneath the main Church runs a crypt almost as impressive as the Basilica itself. The crypt is filled with small chapels running along under the nave – 70 in total – dedicated to various Rites, devotions, and Marian apparitions important to American Catholics.
Both the upper Church and the crypt Church have complete ambulatories (something I thought we had lost) with fifteen altars in each. The altars in the upper Church are dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary. The altars in the crypt Church are dedicated to various female saints. It is quite impressive. The Basilica inspires a sense of the holy like few other Churches I’ve ever stepped into.
A visit to the nearby Georgetown University got me in the mood for The Exorcist. The Exorcist understand the Catholic Ethos even if it doesn’t quite understand the Catholic faith. The film’s protagonist, Fr. Damien Karras, S.J., has lost the Catholic Ethos. He is a victim of his time. In 1973 the Church was in a bad place. Choking on the confusion following the Second Vatican Council and stagnating in an ecclesiastical quagmire created by the inaction of the wishy-washy Pope Paul VI. Everything about Father Karras bespeaks failed Catholicism. He is depressed and worldly, with hardly an ounce of supernatural faith. His expertise in psychiatry only makes him less equipped to deal with the evil spirit which taunts him.
Fr. Karras is contrasted with the elderly Fr. Lankester Merrin, played by Max Von Sydow. Fr. Merrin is obviously a vast intellect, but his approach to life is very humble and simple, and he has no tolerance for the mental gymnastics of the modern Church which try to explain away demonic possessions. When Fr. Karras confronts him with psychobabble about the possessed girl’s multiple personalities, Merrin cuts him off. “There is only one.” Frank, short, and requiring no further clarification or explanation. Fr. Merrin is the Catholic Ethos incarnate.
At this point this post has become long and meandering and I’m not even sure what I’m talking about any more. In closing, let me quote the aforementioned Hilaire Belloc, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine/There is always laughter and good wine./At least I’ve always found it so./Benedicamus Domino.”