The Perils of a Cashew Childhood
warning: sacrilege and profanity levels high
Well. I'm sorry about the popes. One is dead, PBUH, and the new one is clearly unsatisfactory. Though it's probably not going to affect my life much, it's a shame that we get another lock-up-the-naughty-bits old European guy, rather than one of the funner sounding Latin American liberation theologists.
Having recently become knowledgeable about the history of marital mores (certainly including the Catholic Church's opinions on same) I feel entitled to pout a little that we're getting a conservative, boringly late-model-theology Pope, not a back-to-the-salad-days radical/nutjob. Benny 16th* isn't going to take the Caths back to the good old days of the 800s when marriage was a sort of grubby alternative to ascetic life, grudgingly granted by the oh-so-virtuous clerics, for whom the Church contracted concubines, paid for with peasants' tithes. Back then, folks knew that virginity was the most exalted state, widow[er]hood next best, and matrimony a shady but necessary outlet for the discharge of bodily fluids, er, urges. These days, it's important to keep the fold fattened with darling newborn Products of Semi-Sin, given that those damned (and how) Mohammedans are outbreeding Us; therefore, off with the rubbers, on with the boo-tay! (But not in the boo-tay, that's a sin.)
Snarky authorial voice aside, I was enjoying the NYT photos of the cardinals all lined up like a Rockette tableau at the special Mass for pope-selection: dozens of redswathed old guys, charmingly rowed around the Basilica, wearing funny hats and folding their hands obediently in their laps. There are some wacky outfits in the wings too: did anyone else spot the guard-looking guy with yellow-and-black striped pantaloons and a floppy troubadour hat with feathers? Who is that guy and what the blasphemy is his job?
I enjoy the pageantry of Catholicism though feeling almost no connection to the Church. Is it odd that, growing up the surly darling of two rather oppositely-religious familysides, I so clearly understood myself to be of one faith (Judaism) and not both? I spent more time in church than in synagogue, that's for sure. It was an Episcopalian church that we went to, though. As a kid I was definitely not sold on the gory butchery aspects of the historico-biblical Jesus story. As Passover approaches I reflect that, probably more than anything else, it was this holiday that made me sure I was Jewish.
It's not really thought of as a fun holiday, not like Purim or Hanukkah, but it ranks up there in importance (and ability-to-command-observance) with the RH/YK new year whammy. Still, Pesach has for a long time been my abso-friggin-lutely super-de-duper hands-down favorite religious holiday, with a cherry on top. Combining several of my favorite things, including 1) a dinner party, 2) a philosophical kibitzing venue, and 3) a group sing-a-long, the Passover seder is a multiple grand-slam of a celebration. It was perhaps all those seders years ago that sold me: at my maternal grandparents' Jewish Nursing Home, with the medicine cups of pink horseradish and the choppily abbreviated Maggid (story) sessions, the doddery celebrants who'd perk up with the first round of Dayenu, the overwhelming sense of being a small sturdy child among many many frail elders. I felt like the hope of the future, no small thing in a perpetually-besieged religion and on a terror-filled/hopeful holiday.
Every year it's the same for me. I know the story ends with the Jews escaping Mitzrayim, but because we are reminded that "in each generation, each one of us must feel that we have personally gone out of Egypt," which is the kind of thing an overdramatic kid takes deeply to heart. It's tempting, when you're small and unpopular, to glory in this reflected aura of danger, redemption, chosenness. It's easy, as a child, to mourn also the drowned Egyptian army, to understand the hardening of Pharoah's heart. Children know from stubborn.
The rituals and aesthetics of Judaism may be weird to those who've never partaken. What's with the bobbing/bowing thing? Why matzo perforations that don't work like proper breakpoints, but serve only as taunting reminders of the possibility of rectilinear bread-of-affliction-bits? Catholicism is in some ways more aesthetically successful. The cross is the most successful logo/meme/bit of branding ever; nuns are accessible through pop culture references like The Sound of Music and Sister Act. I don't know of any singing dancing falling-in-love Talmud scholars, unless you count Yentl, and that's a drag act. Don't even mention Fiddler on the Roof, which incidentally was recently produced by a high school in Kandy, even if it does have catchy tunes. That slice of treacley pastiche represents the worst efforts of a Mormon director to bowdlerize and cuteify the work of a writer who was, paradoxically, deeply concerned with de-romanticizing shtetl life.
However, accessible is as accessible makes** and vis-a-vis the Church I always knew, always worried, even when very small, about the rather looming issue of damnation. I wasn't baptized, no doubt to the great spiritual pain of my parish-community-pillar paternal grandparents. I never seriously worried about going to the Hot Place after the Big Sleep but I was intensely aware that lots of those people thought I probably would. That in and of itself was pretty off-putting: the seders taught me that I had been born into a we, no entry-visa needed, and we had already been saved, long ago. Later on, at Freedom Seders and Feminist Seders and the like, my attention was called to the many other ways and times that we--often a larger we than just Jews--had been saved. Against that, we weren't afraid to bring up the things that God hadn't done for us, the slaveries humans permit, the plagues not lifted, the Mitzrayims still holding us.
Is that an honest spirituality? I think so. It owes more, perhaps, to the good hearts and local introspection of the people who make these seders, than to the rabbinical doctrines of yesteryear or today. I am glad to be part of a battered faith, not only in our history of persecution--which Catholics can certainly claim as well--but in our willingness to love a broken world. Passover celebrates an imperfect liberation, in which all the people suffer and doubt, and God's purpose and wisdom are obscure.
This is starting to sound like a college admissions essay. The point, I guess, is that with all the pageantry around the Vatican I'm dazzled, fascinated, but cynical. We're getting what seems to be historically a revolving-door pope: one goes through to the big lobby of Death, out pops another old guy with a big hat and a condemnably medieval agenda. (Not even medieval enough, says I: out with marriage! In with hair-shirts and ecstatic visions and dispensation-for-sale and no naughty-bit jollies!) Perhaps I'm expecting too much from an institution that gives me the cosmological willies. Still, it also gave me, indirectly, some large percentage of my psychology (thanks, Dad) and more uncles on That Side than I can shake a stick at. That's no small thing to blaspheme against.
The question I am left with, though, goes thusly: can I reconcile the rightness of faiths? Given belief in a Being Upstairs or Inside or Somehow, can I extend my goodwill to those who'd imperiously call our god Theirs? Word of the day being "henotheism" (belief in one god, reflected as multi-force/faceted worship; e.g. Brahminical Hinduism) is the Catholic God the same one who freed the Hebrews from Egypt? Historically, textually, yes: they go in for the Torah too. But is it the same force who now leads world Catholics through His loyal servant Pope Benedict the Retrograde?
We pray not. Or, we hope that He leads them better individually than He's previously led this Ratzinger chump.
*how dare he take my lucky number!
**the phrase on the bus goes clunk! clunk! clunk!