Wow, it has been a while since I posted anything. And I had been starting out so well. Alas, life gets in the way of art, and getting to the computer is often the last thing on a very long list of things that require my attention. Anyway, I’m still alive, and excited to hear that — slowly — new readers are finding this little corner of the web. I hope that you will all find cause to return again soon. Certainly I plan to be back much more often than the past month has allowed me to. It is hard, at the end of a long and often utterly draining day, to find even a few words to string together in a form that is worth sharing with the world. All too often I am best served by simply going to my sleep. So forgive my long silence, and check back soon; I have hopes for substantive utterances in the very near future.
Today I received an invitation to my ordination.
Not really, of course. I just celebrated my second wedding anniversary, my wife and I are happily raising our four-month-old son, and I wouldn’t change any of that. But the fact that I spent almost four years in a Catholic seminary, traveling nearly halfway to the priesthood, is something that is always in the back of my mind. And this year the memories are especially poignant: had I stayed the course, I would be receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders this summer. In a parallel life, where I discerned a different vocation, I would be a priest in six weeks.
I have two classmates getting ordained in July. I have not seen either of them in almost five years. We have not kept in touch. They have been studying at a seminary in Rome, far away in a different world, a world I once lived in, too. I trust they are happy. I am excited at the thought of the priests they will be; they are good young men, and they will serve God and the Church well for many years to come. I am looking forward to being there in the cathedral when the bishop lays his hands on their heads and the power of the Holy Spirit comes upon them, making them priests forever.
But it will be a sad day for me, too; another bittersweet reminder of how I used to be on the inside, and am now forever on the outside looking in. This is difficult to write about, because I find myself dancing a razor-thin line: on the one hand, I do not wish to give the erroneous impression that I regret my decision to leave priestly formation (I do not), and on the other hand I do not want to come across as a bitter young man whining about his failure. I am a happily-married young Catholic man with a deep attachment to the (extremely formative) time I spent in preparation for a lifetime in service to my God and to my Church. The reality is that I discerned — through much prayer and heartbreak — that my heart was not being called to the ordained ministerial priesthood. But the reality is also that, ultimately, I remain no less called to serve the People of God; I am just still finding the precise how.
So I am looking forward to being there in some back pew as two young men take the final step and devote themselves, body and soul, to the service of God’s People. I will probably cry, clutching my young son as my wife puts her consoling arm around me. I will hold them close, my family, my vocation, and I will pray for my two friends as they follow their divine calling. And I will pray that all of us, together, can build the City of God with peace and love.
I need an audience to be able to write. This is a fact that I sometimes try to change, or ignore, but it is a fact that doesn’t allow itself to be changed or ignored, and I have learned to stop trying.
What does it mean for me, this need for an audience? I have felt it for as long as I can remember. When I was a little boy, I would create fantastic tales, and recite them to my beloved mother, who often indulged me further by acting as my stenographer, bridging for me the frustrating gap between my rabidly-fecund creative mind and my utter paralysis when confronted with the project of converting those creations into any kind of written form. I still have a file folder of those early works, and I know that she has a much larger one at home. I was a creative little prisoner to my own perfectionism, and it was a long and painful journey to escape. I am still not sure that the escape is complete, but I keep running, just in case.
Throughout my high school years I kept a diary, primarily as a record of my already-bizarre dreams, but also filled with adolescent hopes, fears, dreams, and the like. From the very first pages my very private prose assumes an audience, or at least posterity. This usually took the form of direct apologies to my “dear readers” after long gaps in my entries, although the pages are also scattered with editorial remarks and clarifications in the form of footnotes and marginalia.
Once I left home, it was as a student pursuing a degree in English; my audience — in the form of professors and classmates — came with the package. And when this was not enough, I started publishing my own newsletter about, what else, me.
The Floating Egg was an amazing era for me, and while I hesitate to declare that chapter closed, it is increasingly apparent to me that the Egg will probably never again be what it once was, and if it does live on, it will be in some highly evolved form (e.g. this blog). Some other time, perhaps, I would like to explore the history and evolution of that shameless little publication, but for now I think this acknowledgment will suffice: the Egg made me into the writer I am, both by feeding and fueling my need for an audience, and by allowing me to develop — sometimes with excruciating awkwardness — my voice, and the confidence to write with clarity and flair about my real experiences. I shared myself in those pages, and it felt good.
And I continue to create my own audience today. This blog is read by no more than five or six people that I know of (although none of you have been commenting on anything yet, so it is hard to really know…), and yet this new venue is one of the highlights of my life right now. I love to write, I love being a writer, and I don’t ever want to stop. And as long as I can believe that people out there are reading the words I put on this or any other page, I will never have to.
I have officially lost it.
Five years ago, when I first began this job, I used to love being a bookseller. And even now, with my recent bitterness toward the higher levels of the corporation, with my disappointment at the direction the company is turning, and any hope I may have once had for a future with this company dwindling to nothing; with all the rage and hate that I have been keeping bottled up, unreleased, inside my poor abused soul — with all that, I have all along consoled myself with the knowledge that, at the bottom of it all, I was still, in principle, at least, doing something I enjoyed and took pride in. Selling books was intrinsically, something worth doing, and no amount of capitalist shenanigans could wholly eclipse that glowing truth.
Until today. Today I realised that, while I still firmly believe that bookselling is a noble calling, I personally can no longer even pretend to do it. And that is a cruel truth to absorb into my already overflowing soul.
It is the day before Mother’s Day, and the store is busy. A boy comes up to the information desk. He is perhaps 12 or 13 years old, and is visibly nervous, painfully so. It is quite all he can do to get his question out, even though I am sure he had rehearsed it a hundred times:
“Where would you have books for someone who likes Jane Austen and Iris Murdoch?”
Obviously the lad wanted to find a nice gift for a mother whom he truly loved, and he wanted my help. No, worse, he needed my help. And I had nothing. I knew I should be able to point him toward at least a handful of recommendations for him, but I just couldn’t think of anything. I feebly pointed him toward the Sisters Brontë, and he was grateful. But I was crying inside, and I only felt worse the more thought I gave it. This poor unsuspecting lad had put his trust in me, and I had been entirely undeserving of that trust. I was no longer a worthy bookseller; I was a fraud, and — melodrama and hyperbole aside — that was putting innocent people at risk, not of physical harm, perhaps, but certainly disappointment and even heartbreak. That is no way to live, and I can’t do it anymore. I can’t do it myself, and I can’t do it to unsuspecting others, either. It’s just not fair…
As I begin to elaborate in writing on my experience of twenty-seven years of Catholicism, it is increasingly clear to me that Church politics are almost entirely inaccessible to the uninitiated. As something I grew up with, and then actively involved myself in, it all seems so straightforward, so natural. It is a matter of course for me to say that the focal point of the conservative-liberal divide was the proper celebration of the Mass; it is like saying that social unrest in Latin America is about economics — both are ridiculous simplifications, but at the same time they are accurate enough to go on with. Yet one of the biggest obstacles I have run up against in my early work on my projected seminary memoir is the difficulty in explaining to ‘outsiders’ just what exactly we were so worked up about. And when the audience isn’t even quite sure what I mean by ‘liturgy’ then it becomes clear to me that this is going to require much more than mere passing references and glib insider parlance to adequately convey the true passion of the liturgy wars of the past forty years.
Where to begin? As I sit down to tackle this, I realise that, while I am personally familiar with the various positions in play and the consequences of the unending conflict, I have very little sense of the actual history of the conflict, the ideological sources of the two camps, the developments in the past decade, or above all how to express the polarising rage that I personally experienced — a rage that perhaps is the most characteristic feature of the whole divisive history of the Catholic Church over the past four decades.
Well, let me take this stab at this. One of the most visible results of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) was the drastic reform of the liturgy, the rituals of public worship for Catholics around the world. Celebrated for centuries (I don’t really know how long) exclusively in the Latin tongue, the Council fathers suddenly pulled the rug out from under the faithful by not only mandating celebration in the local language, but also dramatically revising the entire order of worship, simplifying the rituals in an effort to restore the act of communal worship to its most fundamental structures, and in so doing rendering the weekly Sunday celebration of the Mass almost unrecognisable to countless Catholics.
Almost immediately there arose a traditionalist resistance movement in the Church, clinging to the familiar Tridentine Rite — the liturgy as established by the Council of Trent (1545–63) — and rejecting the “New Rite” wholesale as a modernist degradation, or worse. Everything continued to fall apart from there, with attitudes toward the liturgy becoming indicative of how individuals stood in regards to other contentious issues in the Church, setting neighbours against each other in often-bitter strife, and so we reach the seemingly-unreconcilable polarisation that paralyses the People of God today.
That, at least, is a thumbnail of my understanding of the situation. But I have no specifics, no names of key players, no timeline, no historical or theological background for the opposing positions. This is just my impression, and it may well be erroneous (though I have lived and breathed this for so long that I will be severely disoriented if that is the case). What I am looking for, now, is some feedback from anyone who may have some or all of the information I lack. Can someone out there point me toward books or other resources to help me put together all the specifics and acquire the depth of knowledge that will enable me in turn to explain this tragic conflict to future readers? I would deeply appreciate your assistance!