During a remarkably eloquent funeral service last weekend in a small town up north, I had a kind of earthly epiphany. It occurred to me that, in the large extended family of middle-American conservatives into which I married, I am, with the exception of my wife, the only churchgoer.
This status affords me no edge whatsoever in virtue, Lord knows; but it does give cause for reflection when one considers that this leftist retread from the heathen '60s is genuflecting on Sundays right along with the Bible-thumpers for whom the in-laws (for secular, fiscal reasons, to be sure) are casting their ballots.
What keeps me under the same vaulted ceilings as all these sanctimonious politicians and voters who offend my deepest beliefs about justice, charity, acceptance, science and equality of the sexes?
Not retention of the childhood push-button faith, certainly. Not fear of hell, nor desire for heaven, particularly. Not lockstep allegiance to the Vatican, new and improved pope notwithstanding. I mean, here's a Catholic who served as a witness in a same-sex marriage in 2014.
So how come?
Fellowship, no doubt. Hunger for the plain bread of compassion that manages to emerge from all that stone and sterile ritual. Inertia, perhaps -- fake it till ya make it.
All that -- and perhaps no less essential than any of those gravitational pulls, the literature.
I've heard it said more than once that organized religion, for all its glaring contradictions and corruption, is validated in the end by the beauty and majesty of the art, architecture, music and language produced in its name. I would add that the last creation is exceptional, in that the best of it -- from those downright sexy Psalms and Paul's limpid letters to the radical columns of Dorothy Day and the healing essays of Richard Rohr -- give no comfort to the practitioners of authoritarianism and exclusion who've made religion anathema to so many nice people in free-thinking times.
Defiance -- with reverence, and with eloquence. I'm personally drawn to the progressives -- Day, Thomas Merton, the brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Denise Levertov, our own Bill O'Rourke and Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame, as well as my late dear friend Edward Shaughnessy of Butler University.
Day, who wrote that the Catholic Church "may be a whore, but she's still our mother." Dan Berrigan, the nonagenarian Jesuit who said "You can't quit your family" after his multiple arrests in antiwar protests put him crosswise with his superiors. Rohr, who wrote (and was hardly the first to do so) that there's more spirituality in the church basement where they hold the AA meetings than upstairs around the altar. He might add that there's often far better oratory as well. Walter Brueggemann's book Finally Comes the Poet firmly enshrines art as the highest form of prayer and uses the gay pantheist Walt Whitman as Exhibit A.
We followers of the Word, who must travel with the words.
A few years ago, Fran Quinn, one of this state's finest poets and as impish an Irish-American Catholic as you'll ever trade invective with, arranged an appearance in Indianapolis by Levertov, a most worldly and surprising convert to Catholicism. As an encore to her reading, Quinn requested a recitation of "Annunciation," her version of the classic New Testament story my generation learned from the nuns. When Levertov uttered lines such as "to bear in her womb/ Infinite weight and lightness; to carry/ in hidden, finite inwardness,/ nine months of Eternity," it didn't matter whether the Sunday school story was literally true. The human saga of courage and wonder with Mary as its heroine and exemplar -- would you have accepted this job? -- made religion of literature and an agnostic grateful for an institution.
Why do politically aware intellectuals such as these join up? Levertov, for one, detested the church's encrusted biases and checkered history, but admired individual members, saw the church's power to do good -- and loved the art. And proceeded to make some of her own.
Good enough for me. And bad news to those who most loudly proclaim the Good News. So much the better. At the risk of sounding un-Christian, they wouldn't know a good book if it bit 'em on the pew end.