Innocence lost

I often stand in awe of children and those who make fresh discoveries. Their sanctuary is one to be left pure and above all undefiled by those who took their bite of the Apple and were banished. Notes on the domestic church in the clouds by Arturo Vasquez.

Religion looks fresh and exciting from just outside the door, everything at a distance. Probably the best view of High Mass is from the organ gallery! Like Arturo, I stumbled into religion through music and the side of the Church that entices – the sugar cube and not the big stick!

Can the good things of life be appreciated without a yearning and sense of the transcendent? And where is the sense of transcendent found? The local parish church? The cathedral? The abbey in the bottom of the wooded valley? I remember a priest of my old Institute saying – at least the Communists have an ideal and fight for it. Most people just wallow in their selfishness.

Those of us who have been through the machine find it difficult to reconcile Palestrina’s Missa Papa Marcelli with Pope Pius V sentencing men to castration and burning at the stake for sexual immorality, monks chanting the Salve Regina with a few German bishops in the 1930’s raising their right arms and exclaiming Heil Hitler!. Admittedly, many bishops in the Third Reich resisted – heroically – and paid for it with their lives.

As much as religious authorities want to make an act of virtue, beauty, or truth evidence of their institutional narrative of the cosmos, there are a thousand other interpretations and a thousand other phenomena that say other things. That is really the problem we live: before, the religious institution (the church, etc.) could control human experience through prisons, torture, indexes of forbidden literature, general societal taboos, etc.

Jekyll and Hyde – the Church has been capable of the most sublime, but yet stooped to the lowest parts of hell. Arturo, with whom I occasionally correspond, has always laid emphasis on “popular religion”, which may not always be “orthodox” monotheism but a form of natural religion, paganism or pantheism. Man seeks what will liberate his soul from the enslavement of men in control, social systems, religious teachings and our very bodies racked with the effects of age and ill health.

I went to see and hear Verdi’s La Traviata with my wife last Sunday, for our wedding anniversary. If we humans are just machines to eat, sleep and reproduce, then why music, art, emotion, the instinct and aspiration to transcend death and suffering? One way or another, we will seek the transcendent. If we don’t find it in churches, then we will look for it elsewhere – in a boat on the sea, in the mountains or forest, or in a concert hall or the opera.

This is one thing most of us are up against – finding the transcendent in the parish church where there is little other than noise and absence. In time, we all become jaded and weary with things that cease to convince or attract. Jesus indeed said that we have to come to the Kingdom of Heaven as little children, to be born again. Being born again usually means the Sacrament of Baptism as the culmination of our conversion and long probation at the door of the Christian community. To some Christians, it means a conversion experience that sets the believer and forgiven sinner on a permanent way of salvation – which can be more or less a euphemism or a caricature. Innocence is harder and harder to cultivate as we see through the caricatures and false witnesses. Perhaps this renascità (rebirth in Italian) can take many forms as the soul seeks to go higher and higher to the Light. The Church itself is transcended.

The comments to the post often reflect the brutes who plague many a blog combox. Spiritual individualism is a temptation and so often an illusion. After all, I don’t exactly pray in my boat – I tend the sails and steer my course, ever watching out for the “devil” of broaching (a physical phenomenon caused by a wave of the sea or the wind that upsets the balance of a boat and causes it to capsize). Seamanship is understanding these forces, being able to anticipate them and handling the boat in consequence. You want to swan around safely in a motor yacht – you learn in a 420 in an 18-knot breeze and a six-foot swell at sailing school! There are some times when the sailor is simply dwarfed by the greatness of the sea that surrounds him and humbled by the greatness of God’s creation. But the moments of marvelling are brief, since lack of attention – like when driving on the road – brings difficulty and sometimes a catastrophe. Prayer is a discipline acquired by practice and asceticism, and no one should be under any illusion. It just isn’t given to all.

Perhaps we have to decide whether the quest for the transcendent, at least for most of us, is not an illusion. I which case, there is little point in a church, being redundant to everything provided by secular states and humanitarian organisations. These are things we have to weigh up for ourselves as rational adults.

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