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

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Church Of The Little Flower - The Great, Wonderful, Happy Three-Ring Circus Of Religion

Bandy Wallace stood in front of the Church of the Little Flower and wondered where the name came from.  Who was the Little Flower? Perhaps another name for the Virgin Mary who was always bedecked in flowers, at least when displayed in grottoes in Italian churches.  Or a saint who transformed something into a flower, or who is the patron of flowers like Saint Francis of Assisi who is the patron saint of birds and is always shown in religious pictures with birds on his arms and head and eating out of his hand.  That’s why people in the park feed the pigeons and mumble on about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he concluded.

He always wondered about the religious numbering system.  He knew that Christian Science churches got at least up to The Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist; and the Baptists up to nine.  Where was the first one?  In Jerusalem, maybe; although the Christian Scientists were not that old and the founder didn’t have a Biblical name like Isaiah or Ezekiel or Ecclesiastes.  It was something simple and American like Mary Baker Eddy or the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith.

Bandy had always thought that real churches had to be founded thousands of years ago, not in Upstate New York or Wyoming; and the high-numbered Baptist churches were modern-day inventions, put up quickly like a barn-raising and given a numeral.

The South had more churches per square mile than Bandy had ever seen.  Not only were there hundreds of Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches – enough to provide pew space for every soul in the Delta, on the Black Prairies, in the Piney Woods, up in the hollers, on the bayous or in some canebrake or other – but there were hundreds of storefront churches.  Churches of the Light, The River Life, The Gospel Way, The Beacon Light Fellowship. 
Every Sunday in the summer when the doors of these former gas stations and petticoat stores were wide open you could hear the hollering and yelping, Praise the Lords, and the bellowing out of hymns. 

The parking lots of the mega-churches were full up.  Inside the preachers spoke of repentance and salvation in front of a TV screen as big as at Verizon Center.


Atheists were always a fascination. They were not simply indifferent to religion but fought hard to defend atheism, and to criticize church, belief, and piety. Being an atheist in America must awful, Bandy thought.  At every turn there was some attempt to corrupt the pure secularism of your vision. 

Christmas was a circus sideshow and nothing more, atheists sniped, and Easter was just as bad.  It was not just the impossible myth of resurrection, that most elastic stretch of the imagination, but the baby chickens, eggs, palm trees, and once-a-year piety that exercised them.

Bandy had to admit that there were aspects of churches that he liked.  He had been told by a priest that there was a saint’s relic entombed in the altar of a Catholic church.  When he asked what constituted a relic, the priest told him that it could be any part of the saint – bits of bone, usually, because that is what survived the centuries; but it could also be bits of hair or toenails.  Bandy wondered how the Church managed this since there were so many parishes in America alone; but assumed that if the bits of nose or ear cartilage were small enough, there should be plenty to go around.  Here is what Bandy found on a Bible website:
Every Catholic Church’s altar has a relic (a piece of bone) of some saint in it. If possible, the relic is from the saint that the Church was named after when it was built. If not possible, then the Vatican sends the relic of another saint.
The next time you’re in a Catholic Church, ask the priest to show the place where the relic is placed in the altar. You may not be able to see it, but you will be able to see where it is embedded in the altar.
What a relic is: A relic is either part of the physical remains of a holy person after his or her death, or an object which has been in contact with his or her body. The most important relic is that of the Cross of Jesus Christ, which is traditionally held to have been discovered by St. Helena during her famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326 A.D.

Non-believers find it strange that the bones or pieces of someone’s dead body should be embedded in an altar - very primitive and pagan and far from the supposed illumination of the Early Church Fathers and the Holy See.  The reference to ‘an object which has come in contact with his or her body’ was included later when the Church expanded and thousands of new altars built.  Saints touched thousands of objects in their lives and there should be no shortage of relics.  So, who knew what actually was in the altar?  It could be a spoon, a trowel, a shred of cloth.

Bandy, however, was delighted at the sheer showmanship of the Church.  The mystery of the Mass, the invocation of Jesus Christ himself on the altar, the wonderful chasubles, miters, gold censers, finely-carved crucifixes, the resonant voices of 100-men choirs were wonderful. Not only was Mass a spectacle of sound, light, costumes, processions, and  music, congregants were in the presence of God himself.  Only the great Mesoamerican pagan religions could possibly match that.

For the Orthodox, saints are an even more important than for Catholics.  Every church has icons which are kissed; and sarcophagi with saints’ relics to be touched and embraced.  Priests who look like Magi emerge from behind a gold iconostasis, swinging incense-filled censers and chant solemn, resonant chants. 

What a wonderful place for children.  So many things to do and see!  They get to watch a great parade led by the priest, all dressed in magisterial robes and gold miters, followed by his acolytes holding candles; crawl under saints’ tombs, run around the nave and see who can cross himself the fastest and the most often.  Bandy wished that he had been brought up Orthodox.


Bandy had no religion, but he was neither agnostic nor atheist; nor was he a seeker, rummaging through Eastern religions for a match.  He was simply nothing.  He had no spiritual aspirations whatsoever.  If he passed a church and had a desire to go in, it was to see the goings-on.  In fact, he rarely passed up the opportunity.  Church was the big top, burlesque, vaudeville, rock concert, and county fair all rolled up into one.  Where could one see such costumes? Such melodrama and low theatre? And the music! Whether it was a giant pipe organ playing the processional at High Mass, amateur off-key choirs, the remixed Christian soft rock announcing the arrival of the preacher, the solemn litany chanted by the priest, or the thundering hymns of the congregation, it was wonderful.

India was his favorite country for the sheer inventiveness of Hindu ceremonies.  The  kumbh mela is a celebration that takes place every six or twelve years at one of the seven sites in India.  Over 70 million people participated in the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in 2007. It was staggering.  Just the crowd management alone was impressive. 


He wished he had been raised as a Hindu, for it was a child’s fantasy.  There were monkey gods, elephant gods, great battles between armies of good and evil, bells, incense, flowers, offerings of coconut milk and rice, naked sadhus, rings of fire, and three-day weddings with horses, garlands, music, and pageantry.  What child wouldn’t like it?

Surprisingly, churches could be funny: 






There were never any of these signs in front of Episcopal churches since they have always been at the top of the social pyramid, home to the 400 Families or the WASP elite, understated and reserved. No theatre there like in the black Baptist churches of the South.  An Easter Sunday at any one of them is pure finery, women dressed to the nines especially the hats:






Unitarians seemed to have no humor and no pageantry at all. No floppy hats.  Very serious.  The fate of the world was at stake.  It wasn’t really a religion but a meeting place for thoughtful and socially conscious individuals.  He found this precept of a Unitarian Church in Riverside, California.  OK, California gives it more of a hippy-dippy appeal, but still:
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals and plants. I vow to live simply and practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. I will not steal or posses anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, and I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth. I will not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the world.
Bandy Wallace was very happy that America was one of the most religious places on earth.  There was a lot of politics that got mixed in with belief, and it was hard to tell the difference between a politician and a preacher; but the country would be a lot duller place without church. 

The mainstream churches were hurting for congregants, he had read, losing market share to the storefronts, megachurches, and televangelists; but this was a good thing.  The old-line churches were becoming dull and ossified– too much liturgy, common prayer, and patriarchy.  What people wanted was video-game entertainment, American Idol enthusiasm, game show hopping, skipping, and laughter.  And blood-and-guts hell-fire and damnation.  They wanted to smell the sulfurous fumes of hell, see the ghoulish face of Satan, and have room to jump up and down in rapture.  What was the point of religion if there was no rapture, ecstasy, and transformation?

Bandy Wallace in his long life never felt the tug of belief.  He had no desire to believe, was never tempted by belief, was perfectly happy knowing that he had been one of the random events occurring in an infinite universe; or that he was imagined, or imagining.  He didn’t want to die, but never was afraid because who could be afraid of nothing?  His indifference to religion was liberating.  He saw Jewish guilt, Catholic guilt, all kinds of sexual repression, anger, hostility, and twisted psychotic passion because of religion, and was glad he didn’t suffer from those ailments.  He could talk easily with pastors, priests, rabbis, and monks without the slightest bit of anxiety.  Most people avoided them outside of church because they thought they were being judged; but Bandy knew they were just plain folks, especially when he saw them taking out the garbage or heard them fighting with their wives.

He thanked his parents for never subjecting him to any of the religious fol-de-rol surrounding them.  They were as at home in their indifference as he was.  They never encouraged or discouraged religious inquiry.  Although they could never be true members of the community because of their lack of any expressed faith, they never were hostile to those who refused them entry.  “Very Christian”, observed one of Bandy’s friends about his parents’ tolerance and forbearance.  “Not at all”, said Bandy. “They just don’t care”, an attitude which of course exiled them even farther to the social periphery.

“How can you understand Western art?”, asked a college friend, “when you grew up with no religion.  So much of it is based on the Judeo-Christian tradition”.  Nonsense, thought Bandy.  One could study and understand the influences of Christianity on art without believing in it.  People also misjudged his intentions because of his eagerness to attend religious ceremonies.  They were surprised and a bit offended that he was going to church but did not believe.  At first they thought that he might be converted – that their particular church out of all the rest might be the one that brought him to the light, and that his interest came from the soul - but when they understood that he simply loved the costumes, the music, the emotional engagement, they asked him not to come.

Bandy was a happier man than most because he took things as they came, never judged or criticized unduly, and was more tolerant of politicians, preachers, and schoolteachers than anyone else.  So in the end, religion – or in this case his indifference to it – had an impact on him like everyone else.

Which is why America is the most religious country in the world.  You simply can’t get away from religion, no matter what.

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