"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 17, 2012

Brighton Memories - Church

“May the Peace of the Lord be with you”, intoned Father Brophy, pausing to adjust his magnificent vestments – his flowing silk chasuble, gold crucifix and chain, and gold and silver rings embossed with the emblems of The Holy Father, the Vatican, the Third Crusade, and The Blessed Virgin Mary.  He tugged at the sleeves of his surplice so only the ruffled lace of his alb showed from under his robe.  He dabbed at his lips with a silk handkerchief, and continued, “Today I want to talk to you about sin”.

“Oh, no”, I said to myself.  “Not again”.  Sunday after Sunday, jammed between parishioners smelling of aftershave, cologne, and whisky in the airless church, I was forced to listen to Father Brophy’s sermons on sin.  Sins of the flesh, sins of omission and commission, sins of thought, word and deed, blasphemy, fornication, bestiality – we were regaled and harangued with more sins than I ever thought possible.  He began slowly in a measured, moderate voice, slowly but progressively upping the amps.  After ten minutes he was exercised.  His clerical collar was soaked through and jagged dark stains appeared down the emerald green vestments.  His face was beaded with sweat which dropped onto the pulpit.  After fifteen minutes his face was red and apoplectic, his eyes were turned to the ceiling, and his face contorted by grimaces.  It was though he was looking into his own pestilential world of vipers, fire, and brimstone; flesh-eating devils of sin.  It was horrible but compelling to watch.

Then, predictably, he took his foot off the gas, for he, peering out of his tortured reverie realized that he was bumping up against a far more evil world – that of the Bible-thumping Baptist preachers of his native Alabama.  The tachometer dipped out of the red and into the calmer green, then idle, then stopped.  Sweating, spent, disheveled, and disoriented, he looked out over us and said, “Go with the Lord”.  It was over.

I should say, the sermon was over, but not the Mass; and I had a good half hour more of my own purgatory of bowing and scraping, ringing bells, consecration, and communion.  Communion itself added at least ten minutes to the Mass, for by the time the Brighton faithful had rolled their way out the pews, up the aisle to get ninety-year-old Father Brophy’’s saliva-dripping palsied fingers jammed down their throats with the Host, and back again we still had twenty minutes at least to go.  The only words of the Mass I paid any attention to were Ite Missa Est – Go, the Mass is ended; but in fact there were another five minutes to go with end-of-ceremony blessings, crossings, and good will until at long last, the organist tromped his feet down on the base pedals and blasted out the Recessional.

My sister, however, never made it to the sermon.  She turned a bleached parchment white and tipped over onto my mother after ten minutes, and my father had to carry her out to the car.  My parents tried everything – the lightest, airiest dresses, cold compresses, and psychological preparation and support (“Boy, isn’t it cool in here?  So nice and breezy.”), but nothing worked.  Like clockwork my sister turned white and tipped over.

I was only ten at the time, so I dutifully accompanied my parents for another five years until I went off to Lefferts.  No one was watching there so I never went to church, unless you count the obligatory daily chapel and the eternally long full-blown service on Sundays.  It was bad enough, I thought, that I had had to undergo the torture of Catholic Mass, I now had to endure a Protestant brand of suffering. 

I escaped the misery of the Sunday service only once.  The chaplain came up to me one day and asked if I could give a short sermon.  “As a Catholic”, he said, “you must have a lot to say to us”.  I agreed, and my friend – who had grown up in the Southern Baptist churches that Father Brophy abhorred – helped me prepare a fire-and-brimstone sermon that would, he assured me, shake these unbelievers to their roots.  It was based on Jesus’ admonition, “Ye hypocrites.  Ye generation of vipers”.  We knew that there was enough adultery, fornication, and slovenly drunkenness to go around, so that the hypocrite theme would be appropriate.

I was a very good speaker even then, and given this dramatic opportunity, I was superb.  Besides, I had a good teacher in Father Brophy.  I started slowly, quietly, almost serenely.  I welcomed the congregation, humbly thanked the chaplain for the opportunity to speak, and then began.  Bruce had given me his family Bible and it was floppy and well-worn, and the viper passage was bookmarked.  I preached with passion, modulating my phrasing, ascending waves of feeling, then descending into a quiet, but penetrating silence.  I fulminated.  I looked directly at the teachers we knew were the greatest sinners and transgressors.  “Hypocrites”, I spat, “Living a Christian life on the surface, but debasing yourself in sin”.  You could hear a pin drop.  I had them.  I was only seventeen, and I was a Bible thumping preacher.  People came up to me on the way out and thanked me, they held my hand with both of theirs and looked me in the eye.  “Thank you”, they said.  “Thank you”. 

Of course word got around that it was all bullshit, that Bruce and I had concocted the whole thing, and the teachers were pissed; but they could do nothing, because I had, after all, spoken the word of the Lord. 

When I got to Yale, I decided that I would give the Church one more go and arranged to meet a young Catholic chaplain, a Yale graduate and not much older than me.  I told him that I had left the Church, but was open to reconversion.  He had been chosen to be a chaplain because he was a Yale graduate.  He, the New Haven diocese reasoned, would be exactly the right person to talk sense into godless undergraduates.  However, just because he was convinced that he could speak our language, he chose exactly the wrong battlefield and armaments – logic and reason.  He invoked St. Thomas and St. Augustine who had laid the intellectual foundation for Catholic faith.  Both had come to God through reason, the chaplain argued, and so should I. 

In session after session he skirmished, sallied, and charged; but my berms and battlements held.  Finally he realized his mistake and sadly gave up.  He was apologetic, but he had come to his senses more than I had.  Religion will always be more a matter of faith than reason.  Amen.

I vowed (alas, Father Brophy is still with me) never to set foot in a Catholic Church again, and was true to my word until about five years ago I agreed to go to a big Catholic wedding.  Not just any Catholic wedding, but one presided over by the Archbishop of Houston and assisted by clerical representatives of the Papal Nuncio.  The bride’s father was a prominent Catholic with ties to the Vatican, and the Pope himself wanted to return the favor of his untiring support of the Catholic Church.

It was a ceremony of high pomp and circumstance.  Father Brophy’s vestments were nothing compared to that of the Archbishop, the Papal delegation, the acolytes, and minions.  It was like a Renaissance pageant, the glory of Venice.  I loved it.  I even had patience for the Mass itself – a high mass where the liturgy is chanted and sung.  After much pageantry, the Archbishop ascended to the pulpit.  “May the Peace of the Lord be with you”, he began; and then after the same familiar adjustments of his chasuble, cassock, cross, and rings; and after a few desultory remarks to the bride and groom, he continued.  “I want to talk to you about sin today”.

I couldn’t believe it.  There was no way to avoid this perpetual onslaught of sin and damnation.  I hung my head, but not so low as my Jewish friend next to me.  He hung his head down past the missals, and held it in his hands, pushing his thumbs into his ears so he wouldn’t have to listen.

That was it.  The Catholic saga was over.

The Christian saga, however, was not.  I attended church more in Eastern Europe than I ever had in the United States.  I loved the dark mysticism, the very Oriental rituals, and the energetic participation of the faithful.  They wandered freely through the church, kissing icons, crawling over and under the sarcophagi containing the bones of Orthodox saints, watching the priest and his retinue prepare for the Mass behind the gold iconostasis, then emerge, censers clanking, filling the church with the fragrance of frankincense.  I thought this would be a great place for kids, especially the crawling around part.

During my many years in India, I attended many Hindu ceremonies.  If fact, they were hard to avoid.  India is the most religious country in the world, even more than the United States because there religion really is a part of your life, every day.  There are traditional places of worship like the great temples built by the Gujaratis in Bombay, the temples along the Ganges in Allahabad and Benares; but there are shrines everywhere – shrines to Vishnu, Siva, Ganesh, all the gods in the Hindu pantheon.  There are parades, floats, and ceremonies, invocations and devotion.  I loved the music, the flowers, the incense, and the offerings. 

My travel days are pretty much over, and if I go to church it is for a special occasion – a guest pastor honoring an American playwright or poet who has an affiliation with the church or a wedding in the family.  I take whatever I see with great equanimity.  I feel I have been around the Mass-and-Service block many, many times.  I occasionally meet clerics, pastors, priests with whom I have spoken at length.  I remember a Muslim imam in Dhaka with whom, over tea and biscuits at his noisy residence in the old part of the city, we talked about Islam and Hinduism.  Or the Methodist minister in Tuscaloosa who discussed the Bible with me as a work of literature and faith, and compared it to the very spiritual work of Tennessee Williams or the unbelievable insightful theatre of Shakespeare.

My most vivid memories, however, are those of the apoplectic Father Brophy, turning his eyes to see his own viperous personal hell, fulminating, hectoring, charging his sweaty way through the congregation of St. Michael’s Church in Brighton, Connecticut.

1 comment:

  1. ...wonderfully written on your observation as an adolescent Catholic communicant...you may want to try The Episcopal Church, the clergy in that Church are the most educated of all the denominations according to the WSJ...or you may want to follow me to East Tennessee and visit the churches in the hills and hollows where they hold snakes in the pulpits... now that will keep your attention...Halleluiah brother!


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