I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years.
The Hound of Heaven.
When the altar boy rang the bell we slid from the pew seats to our knees. We kept our heads down. We didn’t have to but that’s what was done. Older people would groan and grumble over the stiffness in their bones but this was the high moment of the Mass, the Consecration, and God Himself was up there on the altar.
He wasn’t there metaphorically or symbolically . He was there in person or all three persons, the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. The wine was His blood, the wafer His body and if we sneaked a peek we saw the priest raise the wafer, the Host, to the sky and we heard all around us the sighs of the grown-ups, their quiet rejoicing in the presence of the Lord. We might have been small, barely past First Communion and heading for Confirmation, but we knew we knelt in the presence of a great mystery and we asked no questions.
In our adolescent years we might have discovered inconsistencies and contradictions in Catholic teaching but if we asked questions they were brushed aside. If we didn’t understand the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary body and soul into heaven we were told it was a matter of faith so drink your tea and shut up.
We didn’t hear much about a loving God. We were told God is good and that was supposed to be enough. Otherwise the Irish Catholic God of my memory is one the tribes of Israel would have recognized, an angry God, a vengeful God, a God who’d let you have it upside your head if you strayed, transgressed, coveted. Our God had a stern face . When He wasn’t writhing up there on the cross in the shape of His Son, He had His priests preaching hellfire and damnation from the pulpit and scaring us to death. We were told the Roman Catholic Church was the One True Church, that outside the Church there was no salvation. Then the collection plate or the mite box was passed around for the foreign missions. If we didn’t drop our pennies into the collection those little black babies and yellow babies would burn in hell.
We might want to know why. Surely it wasn’t their fault they weren’t born Irish Catholics. We were told shut up, drink your tea, stop asking questions.
In all the churches there were pictures of God. He usually sat on a throne with angels flying around His head in various states of undress. And He was stern, merciless. You wouldn’t want to come up before Him on charges of stealing a bicycle . In two minutes you’d be roaring in the flames of Hell, calling for your mother.
Still, there were pictures in books of a Michelangelo painting where God is reaching toward Adam with an eloquent finger. There were pictures, Italian, of a maternal, almost voluptuous, Virgin Mary with a happy Infant Jesus at her bosom. The Virgin Mary statues and pictures in the churches of Limerick seemed disembodied. She seemed to be saying, Who is this kid?
I sat in the Carnegie Library in Limerick dawdling over those books on Italian art, thinking that, all in all, I’d prefer the Italian expression of Catholicism to the Irish. Our faith was mean, scrimped, life-denying. We were told this was a vale of tears, transitory, that we’d get our reward in heaven. If, that is, we followed the path of righteousness and stopped asking those damn questions. Our faith was gray, damp and smelled of the crypt.
Was it the weather? Did God change His aspect as He moved from the chilly north to the vineyards of Italy? (Didn’t He save the day once in old Israel when He changed water into wine?). When Saint Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity they took to the rocks in droves to fast and chastise the body. I don’t recall anything as monstrous in the history of the Church in Italy. Saint Francis and Saint Clare renounced the world though the world kept coming to them with food and wine . Only the foolhardy would dare venture with such allurements into the cave of a grim Irish anchorite.
At 19 I left Ireland with images of two Gods in my head, the Irish, the Italian. Of course I knew there were other religions, other Gods, and I knew they were false. I had thumbed through books on India, astounded at the variety of their gods and goddesses and shocked at their behavior. There were pictures of deities wrapped wildly around each other and I still don’t know how those books ever escaped detection by the virginal and virtuous librarians. When I sat gawking at these pictures it was hardly my spirit that was aroused.
I had skimmed the books and their descriptions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, knowing, as a member of the True Church, these were false religions, that their adherents were doomed from the day they were born. I believed in the Catholic Church because that is what I was told to do. I didn’t have the intellectual equipment to think otherwise. Unlike James Joyce I couldn’t utter a lordly Non servi am—I will not serve. When I sinned, and oh I sinned in New York City, I suffered. I tried to drag myself to confession but I was so far gone in depravity I was sure the priest would drive me from the church.
God in America was a spiritual smorgasbord, offered everywhere, open 24 hours a day . In the U.S. Army I lived with Jews, Muslims, lapsed Catholics—Irish and Italian and the whole rainbow of Protestants, Episcopalians, Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists. Apart from the devout and the fanatic there were few who were ready to die for the faith.
And I was confused. I decided I’d spend certain weekends with God, all the Gods. I went to Mass in churches predominantly Irish or Italian or Spanish and still preferred the Italian. I attended Norman Vincent Peale’s church and heard his sermon and felt sorry for him and his congregation. I still believed they were all doomed. They looked like respectable people, clean, successful—but doomed. I had a friend take me to a Reform Jewish temple and came away wondering. After all, Judaism is the father of all Western religions so how could Jews be doomed?
Drink your tea and stop asking those questions.
I had to ask questions after I’d attended a Baha’i gathering, a Seventh-Day Adventist service, a Japanese Baptist service near the United Nations. Surely Mother Church wasn’t going to tell me they were doomed, children and all?
I had to ask myself along the way if I believed in God at all and if I did what was He? I remembered a book I’d read when I first came to New York City, Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. Now, in my early thirties, I realized that I hadn’t really understood Merton’s spiritual journey nor Saint Augustine’s Confessions, which I’d kept under my pillow in the Army like Alexander the Great with his Homer. While I felt myself drifting away from the Church I wanted to know why certain people drifted in: Saint Augustine, Merton, Cardinal Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene. I wanted to ask them: When you think of God what do you see? But the more I read the more I realized how childish the question was. I had to find refuge in the admonitions of the priests of my childhood: God is a mystery. That’s what they said, yet they couldn’t, wouldn’t stop talking about Him, threatening us with Him, dangling Him before us like a carnival prize.
But the mystery remained and that’s what I encountered when I became a teacher. The literatures of England and America are God-haunted and my teenage students tossed the predictable questions at me: Is there a God? What is He/She like? Is God merciful?
And so on.
Public school teachers are told to tread delicately in the matter of religion but how can you when the literature is suffused with it? Whenever a question was asked I answered with a question or referred the student to the literature of the religion or to a teacher.
The teachers who fascinated me were the devout, observant Jews. I’d drink coffee with them in the teachers’ cafeteria while they ate kosher food brought from home. They seemed to be in this world but not of it, or of this world but not in it. They seemed to have faith and certitude and I envied them . For them, like Robert Brown -ing , God was in His heaven—though all was not right with the world.
I’d ask, Do you think Judaism is the true faith? and they’d laugh.
So I wrote a book and when I go around the country talking about it people ask me if I’m still a Catholic. Well.., in a way I am. I drop in to churches. I talk to Saint Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila, my favorites. I light candles for people’s intentions.
But I don’t confine myself to the faith of my fathers anymore. All the religions are spread before me, a great spiritual smorgasbord and I’ll help myself, thank you.
COVER STORY - December 1998.
TIMER-WARNER Web site: www.lifemag.com
E-mail LIFE at: firstname.lastname@example.org
AFTER READING FRANK McCOURT’S wonderful essay ‘When You Think of God, What Do You See?” (page 63), many of us here at LIFE agreed that we’d rarely read such a personal, heartfelt dis-cussion of faith in a mainstream magazine or newspaper. We ran a little test: We checked the Lexis-Nexis news database for stories about God that had appeared in the United States in the previous week: 501 was the answer. Stories about religion: 510. Stories about faith: 399. Then we asked for stories about sex: “This search has been interrupted,” said the computer screen, “because it will return more than 1,000 results.” What about “politics”? we asked. Same reply. And again for “food.” You guessed it!
Faith is a subject worthy of the evening news when it collides with politics. Or when it can be bloodlessly packaged as “science,” as earlier this year when there were so many stories about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. Or when it can be presented as a freak show: when a reporter treats those who have seen apparitions with the same visible skepticism with which he treats those who say they have seen flying saucers. Or when it is a footnote: An athlete, a survivor, a politician, gives thanks to God. But when was the last time you saw a show or read a story that dealt seriously with the issue of faith? That asked, and answered, What do we believe?
It is an odd phenomenon, this agreement to exile the most important thing in life from public discourse. And it’s hard to understand why it has happened. As Mr. McCourt makes perfectly clear, this is, after all, one nation under God. Or under Gods, perhaps . In daily life, we speak of faith constantly. “What church do you attend?” “God willing,” “God be praised,” “God help us.” “Thank You,. Jesus!” So why would faith not permeate the media?
We are doing our small part. To illustrate McCourt’s thesis, we have images from all over the country of Americans at worship. Look at these faces, all these people from their different communities, all wearing expressions of rapture. Look at the statistics we have gathered. Faith is not merely present, it is growing. And with that good news, we wish you Happy Holidays and a Joyful New Year in 1999.
Isolde Motley, Managing Editor
Isolde Motley, Managing Editor
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