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

Friday, December 8, 2023

The Curse, Glory, Sanctuary, And Trap Of Religion - What Would We Do Without It?

Billy Pease knew that he had a religious calling at a very young age, eight exactly, and receiving First Communion was not the Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, his sisters' crinoline dresses, or the ice cream and cake party afterwards, but a vision.  When Father Brophy raised the host in consecration and the priest turned to the communion rail with golden chalice and fine livery, it was a special event. While too young to appreciate the miracle of transubstantiation, the very presence of Jesus on the altar, or the mystical significance of the Bach cantata sung by the church choir, Billy was transformed. 

Priests were God's anointed, altar boys their acolytes. The nuns who taught Sunday catechism were God's priestesses; and the statues, icons, and Catholic remembrances that filled the vestibule, the nave, the altar, and the chancery were symbols of His power and glory.

At least these were Billy's reflections long after he had left the Church and was tempted to return. His long middle period of spiritual denial and religious defiance had been satisfying in its rebellion against authoritarianism and proscription, but as he grew older, the comforts of the litany, the Mass, and the sure, steady tone of Father Brophy were remembered fondly, and even something to be recaptured. 

The Church of course had changed.  Vatican II had transformed the mystery of the Latin Mass into a congenial, Protestant affair.  English sounded crude, elementary, and secular.  The order of the mass was abbreviated, and before you knew it, the recessional was played, and Jesus put on hold for another week. Priests were lecherous men to be kept away from children, and the whole Catholic business was just one more box to be checked in an increasingly secular life. 

Yet, the pull of the Church still had its hold - Billy was sure he was being appraised for suitability, judged by a supposedly forgiving God but one who banged away at his conscience at the most inopportune times - a permanent killjoy, a stern moralist who never let him forget his years of confessional neglect. 

As much as Billy had tried to shake it, the Church was always there, Jesus always in the wings, and the ferocity of Father Brophy's sermons on sin still echoing loudly.  Although his secularization was complete - Harvard campus radical, early deconstructionist after his reading the first, tentative musings of Derrida and Lacan, peace activists, and finally an unconditional race-gender-ethnicity advocate and elder statesmen of the Left - the Church still niggled, scratched, and irritated. 

Why so? he wondered.  Tolstoy mused that Jesus had sold Christians a bill of goods when he defied the Devil in the desert.  'Man cannot live by bread alone' was nothing more than a sop to the faithful who wanted only miracles, mystery, and authority, and by so saying, Jesus paved the way for a Church of cant, pomp, circumstance, and belligerent autocracy; and Billy had simply fallen in line, toed it, and only through persistence had he at least loosened its ties. 

Or was there something more to it?  As much as he tried, he could not forget that moment at the communion rail on the day of his First Communion, eyes shut as he was told to do so as the priest placed the wafer on his tongue, and he swallowed the body and blood of Christ and felt his youth for the first time. 

Bah, humbug! Miracle, mystery, and authority - the early indoctrination of the Church had worked yet again, and this innocent, credulous, naturally spiritual child had been kidnapped, educated, transformed into this little Soldier of Christ. 'Brilliant', the mature Billy thought, having parsed and deconstructed imperialist kingdoms, caliphates, and dynasties from the Aryans of Mohenjo-Daro to the Romans, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot. The Church was not one of a kind but one of many - all of which had ruled in the same way. 

Tolstoy's A Confession told of his lifelong search for God; a search which included a study of history, biography, science, art, literature, philosophy, and culture.  When after decades of dedicated, serious, and increasingly anxious work he still had no answers, he gave up.  'If tens of millions of people have believed in God, then there must be something to it', he said, backing into faith rather than walking in the front door. 

The historian in him forced a harsh appraisal of God's work - Mohammed's militant march out of Mecca, across North Africa, to the Pyrenees; the Crusades, the rise of radical Islam and the bloody expansionist vision of a universal world caliphate; the slaughter of millions of Hindus and Muslims after Indian partition, the perennial civil war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the squabbles and internecine warfare among religious sects, the millennial Doomsday cults, serial murders, sectarian hate.  How could anyone say that religion has been a positive, unifying, forgiving, redemptive force in human society?


But of course it had been so for hundreds of millions of faithful Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews who took the Bible, the Koran, and the Vedas as God's words of injunction, hope, and promise. Willingly or unwillingly duped perhaps, but undeniably faithful; a belief which gave their lives center, clarity, and meaning. 

So in these latter, last years of his life Billy Pease fumbled and stumbled his way back to the altar, assuming all the tricks of the trade - meditation, Stations of the Cross, summers at La Grande Chartreuse, a monastery high in the French Alps where monks practiced complete silence and private devotion; and pilgrimages to San Juan de Compostela. 

After many months and many miles he like Tolstoy was no closer to the truth than where he was at the start - confused, befuddled, and dispirited.  Was religion the biggest scam in human history? Or the inevitable search for a real, undeniable divinity?  Plenty of fodder on both sides.  Money, power, and influence were to be had thanks to religion.  It was a convenient cover for conciliation and compromise.  What would Jesus do?  But it was also a solace, the only place to turn when all else failed; the one stabilizing thing at the terrifying moment of death. 

So, exhausted by his search and ending up with nothing, Billy took a breather. The search, wrote Tolstoy, as enervating as it was, was worth it.  Better to have loved and lost, etc. etc. he implied, but Billy wasn't so sure; and besides, that scratchy nuisance of a conscience simply wouldn't shut up. 'Religion', he thought. 'What a pain.' 

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