Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: catholicism

My first memory in relation to religion is dropping a cross.

I was an altar boy at the time, all of probably ten or so. If that. I was in grade school, and I might have been in fourth grade.

Here are some pictures from way back then:

When all this becomes a book, I might just have to make these the cover.

Which just goes to show that even back then, I had awesome hair (I’ll give you a moment to finish laughing. No worries; you’re laughing with me at this point).

The top picture is, I’m pretty sure, of the very first morning I ever served mass.

That wasn’t the day I dropped the cross. Wasn’t far off, but it wasn’t that first day. But here’s the story: as an altar boy, and sometimes the only boy serving any particular mass, I led the priest up the aisle. Normally, the person up front carries the a cross, but the problem was that I was really small. Tiny, really. Which meant, instead of the cross, I usually carried a candle, simply because the candles’ holders were shorter, and I could replace them more easily.

But the day my church got a new crucifix was a big deal, and my priest wanted to use it. And I was the only altar boy serving, which meant I had to carry it . . .

It was fine while I walked up the aisle. I was fine, in fact, until it was time to replace the cross on its holder, the base of which came roughly to my chest, while the cross itself had a two or three foot handle.

You can see the sort of trouble this spells.

I tried. I swear I tried. I tried to hold the bottom to balance the top, but ultimately that heavy cruciform proved too unstable. The entire church discovered, first-hand, the utterly discordant sound of wood and metal against marble; it may well be a miracle on the levels of loaves and fishes that brand new, brass-and-wood crucifix didn’t break. One of the congregation members in the front pew stepped forward to help me, and together we got that cross back on its base.

When I walked back down that aisle, I carried the candle. It would be at least a year before I even attempted to approach that cross again.

A few years ago, I would have said a more skilled writer than myself would draw the metaphor here, but I didn’t go to school at USC to underestimate myself; there is some parallel between my journey in faith and that cross, and on several levels. I dropped the cross, but it never broke; I lapsed away from Catholicism and Christianity for many years, but ultimately I came back, in some roundabout way, to Christendom. For many years I never could carry that cross, favoring instead the candles more appropriate to my stature; there is something to be said for shining unto tomorrow rather than carrying a misunderstood symbol–in the end, I’d rather light the way than pray to an idol.

I am, personally, happier carrying the candle. I don’t pretend to believe I light any way for others; I merely intend to shine more light on mine. Which is why, of course, I take you back to my first memory. I don’t remember my first holy communion. I don’t remember the first time I stepped into a church.

But yeah, I remember when I dropped that cross. I’m sure just about everyone else who was in that church probably does, too.

I’ve mentioned religion and faith a couple of times before, albeit in extraordinarily roundabout ways; I remember the first was simply to note that I had completely missed the fact that Ash Wednesday had come and gone and Lent was nearly already over, Easter more than halfway here. This isn’t really because I’ve rediscovered Catholicism after a many-years lapse–rather, I think I often just saw people with ashes on their foreheads. This past Ash Wednesday, I don’t think I had occasion to go anywhere or see anyone, and so I didn’t notice.

I bring this up because faith was one of the things I wanted to explore in greater detail when I started this blog. I was raised Catholic, and though I’d lapsed by high school, still I went to a Jesuit college, where I studied biology. The life sciences. Physics and chemistry and genetics. While I will note that I never had a priest for a science teacher, back then, I will also note that I remember all my teachers wore their ashes proudly when Wednesday came around. I learned about phylogeny recapitulating ontogeny (or vice-versa; truthfully, I can never remember, because truthfully, I never actually understood what it meant) from a woman who took communion. When I studied theology, Robert Kennedy taught not just the Bible from Genesis to Revelations but also Hobbes, Hume, Dante, and Joyce. I actually read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a theology class.

My senior year, I began work on a novel about time travel. I had an idea for where it would end, but for a long while, never for how it got there; when I realized that Jesus of Nazareth might have a role as a character, I fought it–I didn’t want the book noticed for its controversy rather than for its story.

One of the most formative moments of my life was when one of my characters surprised me and I realized I didn’t have any choice in the matter. Not just because it was the first time a character didn’t merely take on a life of his own so much as actually fought with me, but also because it forced me to go back there. Back to Jerusalem (however metaphorically speaking), back to Jesus and the crucifixion. In order to get it right, I did a lot of research, reading just about every Jesus-related book I could find.

During the process, I became closer to the idea of Christ and God. Not in the Biblical sense of either word, but both ideas as I perceived them, and in that distinction there is, I believe, a very crucial difference.

I’ve been reading a lot about the recent spate of anti-religious books by guys like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. A lot of books that seem to speak about the evils of organized religion but ultimately fail, I believe, to address why faith exists in the first place.

Faith, I believe, is a story. It is one we construct by living, and I think, like all stories, it has come over the years to tap into our deepest realms of psyche. I think these books fail, finally, to explore faith, focusing instead on the negation of belief, religion, and dogma, which, while arguably a worthwhile goal in the day and age of extremists of all kinds, does not actually engage the topic in the meaningful fashion it deserves.

Where they failed, however, they left room enough for someone to try, which is what I plan to do.

I’m still slightly offput; I think this is the first year, ever, that I didn’t realize it was Lent already. Used to be I’d either see people with schmutz (I mean the term endearingly, mind) on their forehead, or I’d hear it was Mardi Gras.

It came so early this year it’s already halfway over.