SILVER LAKE, L.A.
You know the type. The type who, when it comes up that you go to Mass, get a pained expression on their face, lean in as if they were talking to a not-very-bright infant, and say "Oh. You see, I think everybody should be allowed to sit at the table." The type who believe that THEY are the "free-thinkers," THEY are the truly compassionate ones, they are the ones who are performing the hard, HARD works of mercy (preferably in a way that is highly visible and garners them lots of praise) while the rest of us naive children who have not yet grown up and experienced the real world go to church.
Nothing delights these folks more than a priest who has broken his vows, unless it is seeing the Church pay out millions of dollars to sexual abuse victims and, say, having to close a parish (though they will then make a great show of parading back to Mass every so often with the defrocked priest and both taking the Eucharist, triumphantly “flouting the rules” and thereby establishing, as one of these folks put it, “The Better Church”).
No, literally, I reacted to the phrase as if I’d been shot: moaning, and writhing about, and all but foaming at the mouth. The Better Church? Don't you mean the actual Church? I wanted to say. No-one stands at the door of a Catholic church and says you can't come in if you're poor, if you're cheating on your husband, if you're addicted to internet porn, if you're having gay sex, if you're a drunk or a prostitute or a charlatan or a swindler or a pederast priest or an arms dealer or a venture capitalist, if you're insane (thank God, or they would never have let me in). No-one stands at the front of the Communion line with a ledger and demands, Are you a sheep or are you a goat? Have you gone to Confession? No one asks, or even knows, in a city anyway, whether you're Catholic.
The problem is not that the Church is exclusive; the problem is that we are. What bothers us is not that everybody can't sit at the table; it's that everybody is allowed to. What bothers us is that the Church tells us what love looks like, then leaves us entirely to the honor system, to the individual conscience, and we all tend to feel that our conscience is more finely honed than anybody else's. I certainly lean, or have historically leaned, to the left. So I am partly speaking for myself--in fact, let me speak only for myself, before I converted--when I say the people who refuse to attend Mass on principle are the last people who want everyone around the table: they want themselves and "the poor." What they can't stand is the thought of being associated with the wealthy, the Pharisees, the war-mongers, which would lower them in the eyes of their peers, which would be a terrible blow to their identity, which would require them to actually try to love their enemy.
To try to make up our own church as we go along, to believe that we can have our own private church with our own rules, our own whims, our own laws, our own desires, our own truth, is to have a parish of one. That is the Church Without Christ established by Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, whose integrity, in the end, consisted in blinding himself with lime, pilgrimaging the roads of the rural south with bits of broken glass in his shoes, and dying in a ditch. And make no mistake. O'Connor wasn't saying that Hazel Motes was grotesque: she was saying that we are: trying to make our own way by our own wavering, false light.
Part of the genius, the subversion, of the Catholic church is that it continually gives the lie to our sentimental notions of compassion. We think we're compassionate but we tend to be compassionate to those we think will be compassionate back. We think we love but the love is often about us and the image we like to project. We think we're radical but we are deeply conservative, deeply frightened of The Other, deeply desirous of the first place, the place of security, the place of prestige, whatever prestige may mean to us and our peers.
That is why to be a follower of Christ is always to be on the outskirts. That is why to be a practicing Catholic is always the most radical, the most counter-cultural, the most scandalous place to be. It requires us to stop pointing the finger at everyone else and to try and understand them. It requires us to admit that no one of has the whole picture, the whole answer, and that every single one of us is integral to the coming of the Kingdom. It requires us to acknowledge that while we're "putting up" with them, they're putting up with us, too.
Perhaps the real genius of the Church is this: no matter how we lean politically (and more and more, my impulse is not to lean at all), nothing shatters our egos like worshiping with people we did not hand-pick. We might think we're all about subversion, but the last power we want subverted is the power of "control" over what we worship, over the Person or thing to which we give our bodies, our hearts, our souls. The ignominy of worshiping with people who seem to believe something very different from what we do! The distastefulness of sitting in the same pew with people who would not say hello to us on the street and to whom we would perhaps hesitate before saying hello back! The humiliation of discovering that we are to be thrown in with extremely unpromising people!--people who are broken, misguided, wishy-washy, out for themselves. People who are...us...
We don't come to church to be with people who are like us in the way we want them to be. That is a club, a civic organization, a movement, not a church, or rather not the Catholic church. We come because we have staked our souls on the fact that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that the Church is the best place, the only place, to be while we all struggle to figure out what that means. We come because we cannot live, breathe, work, love without the Eucharist. We come because we hunger for the holy, because we yearn with all our hearts for the invisible to be made visible, to suffer with him, sit in the Garden at Gethsemane with him, eat with him, sleep with him, pray with him, live and die with him, spend eternity with him. We come because we believe he knew what he was doing--all evidence sometimes seemingly to the contrary--when he said: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
We come because we'd be hard pressed to say which is the bigger of the two greatest scandals of God: that he loves us--or that he also loves everyone else.
|CLOISTER WALK, OF SORTS|
SILVER LAKE BOULEVARD UNDERPASS/SUNSET BOULEVARD
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