I suppose I could come with any number of deep theological reasons for my usual nonappearance: the fashionable neo-paganistic pantheism of the Zeitgeist comes immediately to mind, or lingering doubts about the existence of God and the problem of theodicy, or even the usual sob story about the nuns crushing my self-esteem when I went to parochial school. All of these are perfectly valid excuses, of course, but none of them really apply in my case. First, I am not one of those pantheistic dingalings who bow down before the mysteries of Nature and Mother Earth when they should be at home taking a shower. I mean, do these people watch the Discovery Channel or even a National Geographic special every now and again, or better yet, go outside and look at Nature up close and personal? Nature does not have a whole lot to recommend it on the veneration scale, except maybe for the Grand Canyon and Mt. Everest and my cousin Stevie’s ability to stand on his head without using his hands. Nature is chock full of beauty, no doubt about it, but that beauty stands cheek by jowl with some pretty disgusting stuff like ragweed and runny noses and flatulent elephants. Nature, to paraphrase the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov, who was actually talking about New York City when he wrote this, is like a snazzy broad who spends hours fixing her hair just right and then forgets to wipe her ass. And please do not email me about the politically incorrect language, email Aksyonov; I’m just quoting him.
As for the lingering doubts and the theodicy question, well, the doubts are just going to have to linger, I suppose. Despite the best efforts of any number of priests and nuns to convince me that they could prove the existence of God using human reason, I still think the whole thing is a fifty-fifty proposition at best, but I will go along with it and hope for the best. And theodicy? Earth to people who wonder about this: some of your fellow humans are creeps. They’d be creeps even if Satan didn’t exist; live with it and support your local police department. As to blaming the nuns, I could but I won’t; it wouldn’t be true. I didn’t mind parochial school that much, given that I had no basis of comparison except kindergarten, and I usually got on well with the nuns, except when they insisted that I do my homework. I never did homework, which seemed to upset them no end, and they were forever trying to figure out why I wouldn’t do it; the answer was I just didn’t want to do it, but they thought that was just me being a smarty-pants. Sometimes the truth is right there in front of us, but we just don’t choose to see it.
No, the reason I don’t spend a lot of time in churches is that all of the most embarrassing moments in my life have happened in churches. I stay away because if I’m not there whatever it is that’s out there trying to embarrass me will have to settle for whoever’s sitting in the pews. Now, I am sure that the Catholics among you are saying to yourselves, hey, he’s exaggerating, it really can’t be as bad as all that. Yes it is, take my word for it. There was the incident at the wedding, which I recounted just a short while ago here, which thankfully happened before the dawn of memory, and then there was my one time as a fifth grade church lector, where I got so nervous while sitting and waiting at the front of the church that I forgot to get up and do the second reading from the letter of St. Paul to the collection agency telling them that yes, the check for the eight day, seven night cruise to sunny Greece aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth –MDCLVII was in the mail, although Paul thought he shouldn’t have to pay; he’d booked a trip to Greece, not a shipwreck on Malta, but bill collectors, you’ll notice, will seldom, if ever, take the larger view of things. They just want your money, they want it now, and you can drop your complaints about the crappy service you got in the wastepaper basket on the way out the door.
I forgot a bunch of other things as well, and then dashed from the church in the middle of the General Intercessions. I’d gotten as far as the sick of the parish, halfway through the list of the local lame and the halt, when I bolted when the panic finally hit like a tidal wave that missed the express train because they’d forgotten to set the alarm clock the previous night and had to take the local into the city and had gotten into work a half hour late, and then I couldn’t fight the anxiety off any longer. I don’t think I ever ran so fast in my life; I was standing at the lector’s stand at the front of the church when the congregation began the response, Lord, hear our prayer, and I was out the back door and halfway across the parking lot when they got to the word prayer. My brother not the Navy lifer told me that Father Vincent looked as if someone just trumped his full house with four aces at the sight of me bolting out the back, and Father Vincent told me years later that he’d seen a lot of odd things over the years but watching me run out of the church took his prize for the truly strange. And don’t even get me started on that whole Easter thing; there is no humiliation like public humiliation, because people will talk about it for years and years to come.
But this past Sunday I went; the reason’s not that important, except to me and I won’t bore you with it. All the same, it was nice being at Mass again, especially as nothing went wrong and I didn’t have to do anything that would make me look like a complete idiot, which I always want to avoid, although not, as you can tell, always successfully. The church looked more or less the same as I remembered it from childhood Sundays spent squirming on the hard wood pews, which are as uncomfortable now as they were then; there were a few changes here and there, as you might expect—nothing ever stays exactly the same, but in the main the inside of the church looks the same as it did back in 1970. The missals (the books giving the prayers and Scripture readings for a given Mass on a given day, for you non-Papists out there) were the same too, except for the Communion instructions on the inner cover. I don’t remember the reminders that non-Christians cannot receive Communion, nor could, with certain exceptions, non-Catholics or Catholics conscious of grave sin, and there’s nothing like a Communion reminder telling you that you can’t receive Communion if you are conscious of grave sin to make your average lackadaisical Catholic like myself conscious of the grave sin we are in. I will definitely have to get rid of that stash of Playboys from the Seventies and early Eighties soon, or at least before the centerfolds become grandmothers. There’s something incredibly tacky about that, if you ask me.
What really struck me, however, was the second collection, the collection for the black and Indian missions. I’d forgotten all about that sort of thing. I remember as a boy the occasional missionary would come in and talk to all of us school kids about the great things the Church was doing in the utterly benighted part of the world the Church had sent him (or her) to, and I remember that most of those guys looked as if they wanted their religious orders to stop sending them to that utterly benighted part of the world and reassign them to another utterly benighted part of the world with a nearby pizzeria.
As a rule, I don’t really support the whole concept of missionary work. I’ve always held that people’s religious beliefs are their own business and that spending time, money, and energy trying to change their beliefs is a waste of all of the above, and more than a little impolite as well. If some South Seas islander wants to worship YumYum, the Indomalaymesomelamicropolymilkofmagnesian rutabaga goddess then who am I to say they shouldn’t? If they were sacrificing virgins to YumYum, assuming you can find a real virgin in this day and age, then I’d say go ahead and send in the Marines and stop them, but short of that what people believe is entirely up to them, in my opinion. I realize that I am employing a double standard there, but it’s a nice double standard, as double standards go, and it needs the job, even if the benefits package is lousy. This double standard also comes without all the Western patriarchy is evil attitudinizing employed by some people on the political and cultural left when they compare Western culture to the spiritual and ecological mores of non-Western tribal societies, which usually disappears when their pet noble savages do something that outrages the left’s pet shibboleths and brings the prodigal leftist back into the all-embracing arms of the dead white European male culture from which they sprang. Strange how that works, isn’t it?
But be that as it may, I dropped three dollars into the plate for the missionaries. Although I usually disapprove of this I figured, why not; I had the money, I was there in the church, and if three dollars isn’t enough to support a missionary then it’s certainly enough for the offended savages buy some condiments and a bottle of red wine to go along with their Catholic missionary. Although I don’t think much of the concept of missionary work, I would certainly hope that the Church does not lose the heathen to Presbyterianism, for example, simply because the doctrines of John Calvin produce a missionary with more of that delicious white breast meat people want than the dogmas of Catholicism do. If this is the case then I think the Church should do something about it; I don’t know what exactly, but something should be done. While putting feeding tubes down the throats of seminarians and stuffing them like geese for foie gras may not prove popular with either the seminarians or the geese; the birds won’t like the sudden competition for their jobs; forced feeding may prove necessary if the Church is to expand along with the seminarians’ bellies. Catholicism cannot be content to rest on its laurels while other faiths move forward, taking advantage of all the newest scientific techniques, and produce a larger and better-tasting missionary. The Church can’t, that’s all, it simply can’t.