Catholic Envy ~ Jeffrey Hammond

Having wandered away from my parents during a family outing, I have just climbed a long flight of steps up an artificial mountain with an enormous golden dome at its peak. Now at the top, I’m gazing out at the surrounding fields — when suddenly I hear low voices behind me. I wheel around to see three men in long robes staring straight at me as they chant in a strange language. Frightened and embarrassed, I slink to the side and creep back down the steps.

I was seven when I found myself standing between three priests and the outdoor altar at the Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Ohio. The incident upset me for weeks until my mother finally claimed that she had run into one of those priests at our town’s most popular lunch spot. He was, she said, a very nice man who was not angry with me in the least. Only years later did it occur to me to question her story. Not only was the Carey Shrine fifteen miles away from our town, but we were Methodists. How likely was it that after nearly a month my mother would recognize — let alone chat with — a Catholic priest whom she had seen only once, and from a considerable distance? When I finally confronted her, she confessed that she had made the whole thing up in the hope that the story would let me put the incident behind me.

My mother may have felt responsible for what happened. Passionately interested in religion, she was the one who had suggested going to see the Carey Shrine and its park, which featured an outdoor altar surmounted by a gilt dome and a statue of Our Lady of Consolation. Even before the altar incident, the visit unsettled me. Disturbed by the Basilica’s display of crutches, casts, and photographs testifying to healings that had occurred there, I felt left out of something very important. Why didn’t anyone get healed at our church? Even if I had not wandered between those priests and their God, I would have been quiet during that ride home.

* * *

My friend Lanny lives across the street. I have avoided going into his house ever since his father died, but today I find myself standing in his living room while he searches for his baseball mitt. I keep thinking that death has visited this house – an awareness sharpened by his mother’s home altar, which I am now studying for the first time. It is bedecked with candles and ghostly pictures of Jesus, Mary, and various saints. The picture of Jesus is especially scary: backlit by an eerie glow, he has a red flaming heart on his chest. Partly from fear and partly from a sense that I’m violating the family’s privacy, I force myself to look away.

That home altar wasn’t the only sign that Lanny’s family practiced a more serious religion than ours. Shunning meat on Fridays was impressive, especially in the consumerist 1950s. So was attending church every week, which I assumed all Catholics did because Lanny and his mother did. Lanny also went to his own school, where he wore a uniform. His bike had a protective medal, his forehead was sometimes smudged with ashes, and one time he showed me a little book of his mother’s that contained writing in a language that I couldn’t read. Naturally, I had questions. Lanny explained why Catholics ate only fish on Fridays: fish, lacking eyelids, were the only animals that couldn’t look away while Jesus was being crucified. He also told me about Confession, which took place in a secret booth. If you took Communion without confessing your sins, he explained, you’d go to hell. If you died without being “absolved” of a “mortal” sin, whatever that meant, you’d go to hell. If you took Communion at a Protestant church, you’d go to hell. We Methodists believed in hell, too, but we weren’t too clear about what would get you there.

Naturally, I got defensive whenever Lanny insisted that his church was the only real church. I couldn’t refute him, though, because whenever I made the comparisons, we Methodists always came up short. Pope Pius XII, with his stern face and flowing robes, even looked religious – a far cry from our minister, who smiled a lot and preached sermons about being a good person like Jesus. This was a perfectly good message, but there was no mystery in it. In fact, mystery seemed in short supply generally in our church. Our Communion consisted of stale croutons and shot-glasses of Welchade; our crosses had no Jesus on them; and at our services we did little but hear sermons and sing hymns – or mouth along with the few people who could actually sing.

Most of all, we Methodists didn’t have holy things. It didn’t seem fair that we had to get to heaven on our own, with no home altars, missals, or St. Christopher’s medals to help us. There were no crucifixes on our walls, no Jesuses on our dashboards, and no St. Francises in our yards. It worried me that I owned only three objects that could be called “religious.” The first was a set of personalized pledge envelopes – but given how often our family skipped church, they kept piling up in a silent reproach. The second was an old chalkware Nativity set that I, as the youngest child, was charged with putting up each Christmas. The third was a presentation Bible with my name stamped on its cover in tiny gold letters. When I received it in fifth grade and was encouraged to read it for myself, I couldn’t make much headway – and so my Bible became a silent reproach, too.

Some Catholic things, like Jesus’s exposed heart and those abandoned crutches at the Carey Shrine, were scary — but there was something right about that, because God and Jesus were scary, too. I also associated Lanny’s religion with a mystery that was even scarier than God and Jesus. Because of Lanny’s father, I linked Catholicism with death. He and his mother were doing as well as anyone could expect, and I wondered if their home altar was responsible for that. I knew that if my father were to die, our house contained nothing that would help us cope.

Having already absorbed the Protestant disdain for “superstition,” I didn’t want to believe that their altar had any real power. But then again, what if it did? A nagging suspicion that our church actually wasn’t real made me wonder if I had been born on the wrong side of an important line, cut off from magical objects that could keep a kid out of hell. I knew I could never become a Catholic – I was too far gone for that. But such knowledge did not keep me from developing a severe case of Catholic Envy.

* * *

I am seven and Christmas is coming. I open the cardboard box that contains our Nativity set, pull out the small wooden stable, and carefully remove the wadded newspapers in which each figure is wrapped. The figures are fragile, and their colors have faded to faint pastel tints. The angel has lost its wings; one wise man has a brown seam where his head has been glued back on; and one of the shepherds has a chipped base, though he can still kneel. I begin to arrange the little people and animals: Mary and Joseph go next to the manger, but the other figures can go wherever I want. Once I’m satisfied with how everything looks, I plug in the small lightbulb under the stable roof and gaze at the results for nearly an hour.

As a child I was being patently unfair to John Wesley: wasn’t comparing good Catholics to lukewarm Methodists like comparing apples to oranges? Maybe what I’ve really always had is a more general malady: Religion Envy. If so, I came by it honestly. My mother was a self-described “seeker” whose spiritual journey consisted of a via negativa defined by “common sense”: a gradual rejection of everything that she considered inconsistent with reason. This winnowing process began with the notion of hell, which she discarded while we were still Methodists: it didn’t make sense to her that a loving God would condemn anyone to eternal suffering. Several years later she became an Episcopalian because they seemed less sulfuric and more socially responsible. At this point, in her mid-forties, Mom discarded the Resurrection as a literal event – a casualty, once again, of her insistence that religion make sense. If Jesus knew, as he surely did, that he would rise from the dead, why go through with the grisly charade? And why would a loving God kill his own son to begin with? In her late fifties she concluded that Jesus was not God’s son after all, but just one of many “wise teachers” who had angered the authorities. Finished with Jesus as a god, she became an avid Unitarian.

By her seventies Mom was through with God as a god, too: centuries of abuse of what she began calling “the G-word” had rendered the term not just useless but offensive. Still, she steadfastly refused to call herself an atheist: wouldn’t that label signal that her search had ended? In retrospect I’d call my mother a nonsecular humanist, if there is such a thing: she retained her belief in “something,” but refused to define what it was — only what it was not. Her rejection of Christianity culminated in an oddly rigid fundamentalism of her own: a dogmatic rejection of everyone else’s dogmas.

As a child I rebelled against my mother’s rebellion. Though she was able to dispense with hell fairly easily, I was too rabbity to follow her lead. And while I kept trying to be a good Methodist, this was a challenge for a child who found Jesus terrifying. Not only was I supposed to believe that he rose from the dead, but I was expected to love him – the equivalent, as I saw it, of embracing a ghost. My presentation Bible was somewhat more manageable: the better I got at reading it, the more interesting it became. I preferred the Old Testament because the New Testament whipped up my anxieties about Jesus. Seeing the movie The Ten Commandments sparked a particular interest in the Exodus narrative, which in turn sparked an interest in Egypt and the ancient Near East. Thus began a lifelong fascination with the Bible: not as a source of belief, but as a window into the exotic world of antiquity.

* * *

It is my senior year of high school. I am standing in the parish gift shop of St. Michael’s Church in Findlay, Ohio, peering uneasily at a shelf lined with rosaries, medallions, crucifixes, and figurines of various saints. I am chatting with my friend Eileen, who volunteers here on Saturday afternoons. We’ve gone out a few times, but we’re not serious. Our “dates” have consisted mostly of cruising Main Street in my 1959 Rambler and playfully refighting the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. We’re not on the theologically neutral turf of Main Street now, though, and it doesn’t feel right to debate religion here. When I ask Eileen if non-Catholics are even allowed to be in this shop, she gives me a puzzled look and replies, “This is the Church. Everyone’s welcome here.”

My fascination with the Bible as a quasi-historical document prompted me to choose anthropology as my major in college, with the goal of becoming an archaeologist of the ancient Near East. My uneasy interest in religion persisted as well, causing me to perk up whenever class sessions focused on what our textbooks were still calling “primitive” religions. Striving to be a conscientious ethnologist, I respected those religions even though they were nothing like the Methodism of my youth. With their rituals and their use of sacred objects, they actually seemed more like that mysterious religion that Lanny and his mother practiced.

I wasn’t alone in making that connection. The propensity among early anthropologists to label indigenous religions “primitive” reflected a modernist bias against extra-rational experience stemming from the Renaissance. This scientific method, based on observation and reason, demanded a rejection of the unseen and the irrational – a rejection that influenced religion in the form of the Reformation, which sought to rid Christianity of the “superstitions” that it had developed over the centuries. At root, the Reformation applied Renaissance humanism to the realm of faith: Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” shifted the focus from the collective salvation of communities to the personal salvation of individuals. Seeking to restore religion as heartfelt personal experience, the Reformers rallied around two mottos: sola fides and sola scriptura. While the first insisted on the centrality of personal salvation by faith, the second extolled the Bible as the sole source of genuine revelation. Sola fides also denied the salvific efficacy of good works: if you had saving faith, you would inevitably do good works – but they were the effect, not the cause, of your salvation. Sola scriptura placed a nearly exclusive emphasis on the written Word: reading the Bible was extolled at the expense of other facilitators of worship, like art, music, and ritual.

This ecclesiastical austerity made its way to twentieth-century Ohio, where it stoked my boy-Methodist anxieties about our unadorned crosses, our dreary singing, and that puzzling book with my name on it. With the exception of that book, we Protestants were supposed to go it alone. However well-intentioned the Reformers’ call for spiritual rigor may have been, I resented it. How could I not, when it created expectations that defined me as a spiritual washout, a non-participant in one of humanity’s most basic and universal experiences?

* * *

It’s Christmas Eve, and everyone else in my family has gone to bed. As I’ve done for the past two or three years, I am watching the Mass being televised from Vatican City. This time I’m listening with new attention to Pope Paul VI’s words: I’m taking first-year Latin, and I want to hear the language being spoken. As always, I am transfixed by the vastness of St. Peter’s, the beauty of the singing, and the colorful robes of the participants. My Latin class provides an excellent excuse for watching this — but what about last year, and the year before that? And is it right to keep watching something that I’m not really supposed to see?

Studying the Reformation as a grad student in English helped explain why my childhood religion felt so bland and unhelpful. Had I known this history then, I might have had better debates with Lanny and Eileen. I might even have concluded that I wasn’t left out of something important after all. We Protestants had as much “stuff” as Catholics did: it was just that our stuff was internal and invisible.

While the Reformers opened the Bible for all to read, they eliminated almost everything else central to Christian devotion, especially those elements which Catholicism seemed to share with the so-called “primitive” religions that I studied in college. In their mistrust of ritual, Protestants shifted their focus from the altar to the pulpit: the Eucharist became secondary to sermons focusing on the exposition and application of Scripture. They abandoned a prescribed liturgy because it encouraged rote performance, and they condemned the veneration of saints and their relics as a distraction from focusing on God. They also scrapped centuries-old devotional practices: saying the Rosary was thought to bring misguided attention to Mary, and the granting of Indulgences seemed like an attempt to bribe God. This paring down of traditions also included sacred objects, which the Reformers saw as pagan-like obstacles to genuine piety. The belief that
stained-glass windows, painted images, and statues could themselves become objects of worship had heartbreaking consequences in the 1640s, when Puritan zealots destroyed thousands of pieces of religious art in English churches and cathedrals.

Those Protestants who believed that the Church of England wasn’t Protestant enough would have had a field day at the St. Michael’s parish gift shop. The bonfire of the vanities raging in St. Michael’s parking lot would have consumed all those pamphlets, holy cards, missals, crucifixes, religious pictures, and figurines of the Virgin. Nor would the mob’s fury end there. I can see them marching down East Sandusky Street, where they would find a home altar in a living room and, across the street, a Nativity set stored in a box in a basement. If I saw those Puritans coming, I would naturally try to save the little figures that I loved. I would wonder, as I frantically buried them in the back yard, what kind of people could destroy such beautiful objects? Eventually, of course, it would hit me: those are my people.

* * *

What the heart lacks, the mind supplies – or tries to. A vague desire to redeem something from my Methodist boyhood may have prompted me to become a college teacher specializing in the literature of the New England Puritans, those uber-Protestants of Anglo-American culture. In time my obsession with religion migrated back to long before the Reformation. A growing interest in Christian origins led me to the study of New Testament Greek and to my current scholarly project: an analysis of the Gospel of Mark as a script for ancient Mediterranean worship. I guess the old saying is true: if you can’t beat them, join them – or in my case, study them.

If we replace the patronizing term “primitive” with the more neutral “ancient,” those anthropology textbooks were right. Not only are the traits shared by Catholicism and indigenous religions substantial, but they seem to lie at the heart of what religion actually is. Religious experience is, by definition, not reducible to ordinary experience. My mother did her best to do just that, stripping away one violation of “common sense” after another until she was left with belief without any content. By reducing the Bible to a historical text whose significance I could wrap my head around, I ended up with a lot of content but no belief. This was our shared mistake as congenital Protestants: religion is not meant for people to wrap their heads around. That’s precisely what makes it religion, and not philosophy or history.

Today the Roman Catholic Church is facing a crisis, and rightly so. But this should not allow us to forget what the Church has always done very well: recognize and embrace mysteries as mysteries. Its ability to do so reflects the fact that Catholicism grew out of a time when what we Protestants dismiss as “the supernatural” was an accepted dimension of human experience. Miracles, apparitions, magical utterances and ritual actions were part of a cultural landscape shared by first-century Jews, Greeks, and Romans. Ancient Mediterraneans also agreed that the sacred was best dealt with by specialists: prophets, seers, and priests. These specialists did not tell ordinary people what to believe about the gods so much as what to do when encountering them: which rites to perform and how to perform them. Ancient religion was less a matter of conviction than of practice — a fact reflected in the word “liturgy,” which comes from the Greek leitourgeia: “the people’s work.” In the ancient world worship was not an individual mandate: it was a source of communal identity.

Preserving this ancient construal of worship has always been central to Catholicism. Belief in the salvific efficacy of good works derives, in part, from the ancient belief in the efficacy of ritual. The demands placed on the priesthood, especially celibacy, preserve the ancient notion that specialists in the sacred should be set aside from ordinary people. The traditional lack of stress on individual Bible study, especially in contrast to Protestantism, reflects not only the ancient view that sacred texts were the preserve of these specialists, but the fact that ancient literacy rates were, by modern standards, extremely low. These conditions survived in the traditional Catholic view that the interpretation of Scripture is best left not to individuals, but to the magisterium – the collective wisdom of the Church. The Protestant in me naturally recoils from so blatant an infringement on individual freedom, but in fact the Bible is hard to interpret. An anthology of often conflicting documents written and compiled within a variety of cultures spanning a thousand years, the Bible alone cannot provide – for most of us, at least — sufficient entrée into spiritual experience. Humans need more than a collection of ancient texts. We need performative and sensory aids to worship: tangible words, actions, and objects by which to access and express the intangible.

When it comes to Protestant constrictions on the religious imagination, John Milton is the exception that proves the rule. Though a staunch Puritan, Milton managed to transcend the sensory limitations of his faith by turning to Homer and Vergil, the poets who dominated the pre-rationalist world in which Christianity was born. By fitting biblical content into classical forms, Milton did an end-run around the aesthetic strictures that hampered his co-religionists. Of course, not everyone was a Milton. In addition to lacking his extraordinary verbal gifts, his fellow Puritans in New England lacked his confidence to use pagan literary models safely. Committed believers in sola scriptura, these people struggled, especially in their poetry, to find language for generating and expressing religious experience without succumbing to biblical mimicry that would be un-heartfelt and thus dangerously “Papist” in spirit. Relentlessly appropriating biblical themes, motifs, personas, images, and phrases, they arranged and rearranged these elements until everything looked right. A few early New Englanders, like Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor, possessed genuine poetic talent, but because they adhered so tightly to the Word, their artistic options were limited. It’s as if all that they had to work with were the figures that are included in a crèche.

* * *

It is early October of 1979. I am in the second year of my first job out of grad school: teaching early American literature and technical writing at a large state university in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D. C. Although I have papers to grade, I’ve taken a bus downtown to see Pope John Paul II. How could I not? When will I ever get another chance to see a sitting pope? In Farragut Square I’ve joined the excited crowd lining the street, many of whom are waving tiny white-and-yellow Vatican flags. I am once again an outsider, though an excited one. Suddenly the cheers swell to a roar as the Papal motorcade races by. I catch a brief glimpse of the pope standing and waving – and then he is gone.

The pope is, among other things, a contemplative object: the tangible symbol of a worldwide faith. We Protestants sometimes have trouble thinking globally because we lack the notion of an ecclesia universalis: a world church. Before the introduction of vernacular languages, a Roman Catholic could attend Mass anywhere in the world and find an identical service, right down to the Latin words. The language of the homily varied, of course, but that only underscored the fact that Catholicism has always pitched a mammoth tent. Even though we Protestants are also a diverse bunch, we are definitely not unified. On the contrary, our history reveals an endless process of dividing and subdividing. While the principal dynamic of Catholicism is centripetal, pulling adherents inward toward the pope as a unifying center, the dynamic of Protestantism is centrifugal: a doctrinal tribalism that produces ever smaller groups. The logical conclusion of this process is strikingly expressed in Thomas Paine’s famous declaration that “my own mind is my own church.” Paine’s one-person faith ended where the Reformers began: with the sola fides of an individual believer.

Protestantism fosters a need to go it alone culturally as well as theologically. In America, Catholicism has traditionally been seen as the “immigrant religion” – a vital marker of Irish, German, Italian, and, more recently, Hispanic origins and identity. Among these groups, religion has usually been regarded as inseparable from culture, meshing seamlessly with customs, cuisines, language, and selfhood. As a child I felt no such link. Attending a Methodist church was something that our family occasionally did, but it did not define who we were. To be sure, this gave us considerable freedom in what we could think about God and Jesus – but because I was terrified of thinking wrongly and going to hell, I found this freedom disturbing.

I’m tempted to curse the Reformers for ruining my childhood — but how can I, when my entire being is permeated by the spirit of Luther, Calvin, and the rest of that unsmiling lot? On good days I can take a measure of pride in my Protestant independence. The high bar of spiritual intensity set by the Reformers demands courage and persistence, as does the effort to separate human superstition from divine revelation. The anti-authoritarian strain of Protestantism also seems useful for citizens of a democracy, which requires a critical mass of people who don’t like to be told what to think. This kind of independence backfires when it comes to religion, however, because religious experience transcends what we think or don’t think. At heart, we Protestants are the quintessential post-Enlightenment Westerners. However much we might wish to connect with transcendence, we have rejected the ancient, pre-logical tools with which human beings have traditionally done so.

* * *

When you went to Confession, did the priest know that it was you? What were you taught about the “miracle of the sun” at Fatima? What if you forgot and ate a hamburger on Friday by mistake? I ask The Catholic Woman lots of questions like these. She’s the real deal, too: an Italian-American product of a Catholic education straight through college. Although she is infinitely more knowledgeable than Lanny ever was, she lacks his smugness. She is also a little reluctant, sometimes to the point of impatience, to gratify my curiosity. Why, she asks, am I so interested in a Church that I’m clearly not going to join?

The very existence of “lapsed Catholics” – and they are legion — has always puzzled me. Although I have lived with such a person for nearly thirty years, it’s hard for an outsider to imagine how this all-encompassing institution could ever fail to “take,” deeply and irrevocably. A lapsed Catholic, however, is not the same as an ex-Catholic. Among the many things that the Catholic Woman has taught me is that Catholicism very often “takes” in ways that are not immediately obvious. It is precisely because she is still a believer that my curiosity often strikes her as prurient: bad-faith probing from someone who secretly seeks to mock her Church. Usually, though, she patiently answers my questions, including ones that are sensitive and even disturbing, at least to me – questions about miraculous cures, stigmata, statues that weep, the incorruptible bodies of saints, apparitions of the Virgin. The Catholic Woman is surprisingly casual toward such matters. She has taught me that not every Catholic believes every Catholic thing with stereotypically Catholic fervor. While I have been following the alleged appearances of the Virgin at Medjugorje with considerable interest, the Catholic Woman has not.

To me, such things are as exotic as if they emanated from Delphi or the Valley of the Kings. For The Catholic Woman, of course, they were simply there when she was growing up. As a child she was surrounded by a myriad of stimuli, some more compelling than others, for imagining transcendence at work in the world. While she did not embrace every sign and wonder that came her way, she felt no compulsion to reject any of them, either. She still doesn’t. She understands, as my mother and I never did, that religion is not a matter of intellectual acceptance or rejection.

The Catholic Woman also reminds me that an outsider who feels cheated out of prompts to the religious imagination needs to resist idealizing the Roman Catholic Church as its perfect vehicle. A great deal of attention has been paid recently to its flaws, many of which are Old World flaws from which the New World has always offered an escape. The Church’s concern with continuity can congeal into an appalling rigidity: its traditional inflexibility on social and cultural issues continues to harm millions of people worldwide. Its hierarchical structure, created in imitation of the Roman Empire, promotes a top-down authoritarianism that is easily abused, and its respect for mystery can degrade into the obsession with secrecy that is appearing constantly in recent headlines. The staggering proliferation of Catholic “rules” – those endless admonitions and prohibitions — can foster a cynicism toward all rules, even indispensable ones. And finally, the prominence of its liturgical dimension – its stress on ritual language and performance – can have the very effect that the earliest Reformers most loathed: a routinized faith.

And yet, it is precisely a stress on ritual language and performance that aligns Catholicism with religion as it has been practiced from human beginnings. What I encountered in Lanny’s front room was not so different, really, from the home altars found in the ruins of countless ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern dwellings. The Rosary, holy water, medals, and ashes all illustrate the universal human use of material objects to evoke spiritual realities. There are few Protestant equivalents to these items, in part because of Protestant difficulties with the material/spiritual paradox central to the Incarnation. We have these difficulties because of our near-Gnostic separation of the flesh from the spirit and our consequent tendency to devalue “this world” in favor of the next. There is no corpus on Protestant crosses because we are expected to imagine a risen Christ, not a dead Jesus. Catholicism, by contrast, allows for a fuller integration of the physical and the spiritual. The body – including Jesus’ body – is incorporated more meaningfully into religious experience. This includes objects that appeal to the bodily senses — statues, paintings, vestments – as aids in transcending ordinary reality. Even to enumerate these aesthetic aids intensifies my Catholic Envy, because I could have used some of them as a child. What kid is able to imagine a risen Christ?

* * *

Carey was the first American shrine to Our Lady of Consolation, patroness of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Four years after the parish church was established in 1868, Father Joseph P. Gloden, an immigrant from Luxembourg, came to Carey from St. Nicholas Church in nearby Frenchtown Township. Father Gloden soon arranged to have a copy of the statue of Our Lady of Consolation in Luxembourg’s cathedral shipped to Ohio. According to the Shrine’s website, a violent storm surrounded the seven-mile procession that brought the statue to Carey from Frenchtown Township in 1875 — but not a drop of rain fell on the statue or any of the marchers. This story, along with a growing reputation for healings, soon made Carey a popular pilgrimage site.

A violent storm in which nobody gets wet makes for a wonderful story, at once mysterious and accessible. I would love to believe it, but I was fated to be an outsider to all such stories. Like that other Protestant who was my mother, I am hard-wired to believe that things must make sense in order to be true. Religion is religion, of course, precisely because it does not make sense. Religion has never had to be “true,” either, in the sense of being empirically verifiable: by definition, it resides beyond proof or disproof. Finally, religion is not something that we were meant to figure out on our own. In most times and places throughout human history, religion has simply been part of who one is and what one does, more like a native language than a notional conclusion.

The frightening epiphany revealed to me six decades ago at the Carey shrine has come to hold a twofold significance: first, mysteries are powerful; and second, I will never get enough of them. We need mysteries, not least because they counter the human habit of arrogance: that’s why my mother was wise not to specify her beliefs beyond the fact that she possessed them. We need community, too — a necessity that I concede even as my Protestant roots make it difficult to embrace. The obvious solution, of course, would be to convert to Catholicism – but wouldn’t that be an empty gesture for a congenital Protestant: a spiritual loner who is anti-ceremonial to his bones? The most I can do is reflect on the mystery-filled grass that lies on the other side of the ecclesiastical fence. Maybe this kind of reflection will count toward getting into heaven — assuming, of course, that there’s a heaven to get into. I wouldn’t know, because I was never shown anything tangible enough to allow me to imagine it.

What I can imagine is a retired priest – he would be in his late eighties now — who dimly remembers a child wandering up to the outdoor altar at Carey a lifetime ago. He probably remembers many such child-generated incidents over the years, some a lot more disruptive than a boy creeping silently away from an altar. Some of those incidents were amusing and some were frustrating, but none of them kept him from his prayers or dulled their efficacy. This old man knows this for a fact – and I envy him that.