Among the new Infidels

After a fortnight of reading the words “First Class” in my Saint Andrew’s Missal each day — violet fading through black into white — we come to Low Sunday, and thus back to a life that is “normal,” if anything in the Easter season can be so. The contemporary Catholic, insofar as he is observant — and many will at least observe Easter Day, as we saw last week in the packed-out churches — may feel “churched-out” eventually. The more if he had made a passing effort to fulfil his modest Lenten covenants, and had been living slightly hungry. Three hours or more, of the Easter Vigil, after Tenebrae, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the frightful blank of last Saturday morning, on hardwood pews and kneelers, is enough to finish off a person who spent his earlier life not attending church, except for certain social obligations. (Marriages; funerals; perhaps even a baptism once upon a time.) And we, the converts and reverts, are the ones with the zeal.

We lack the stamina of the early Christians, who filled the entire night before Easter with their vigilant devotions, timing the baptisms for dawn. Those who have tasted the Christianity of the East may have some notion how this works in practice. In the West, too, there are chance survivals: I have seen people with their knees on concrete floors for hours without break, in a state that resembles a fugue. I look on in amazement. Some of the Filipinos in my Parkdale parish are of their spiritual company. They make me feel not only very Western, but quite inadequate.

The notion that “one ought to go to church” is not dead among us. It revives wherever the faith has been rekindled, in its otherworldly (“Ghostly”) way. It perishes among those who have made their concessions to the world, and to its “values,” so that the Church exists only for her value in political schemes. Hence the common atheist desire to have some sort of church-like organization, for the pleasure of delivering homilies to a captive audience. Or so they imagine, for as I’ve seen in our own “liberal” parishes, the audience for “Sandinista sermons” soon disappears; and not even canned Beethoven could hold the loyalty of Unitarians I once knew. In the absence of sincere belief in the practice and presence of Our Lord, playing dress-up starts to feel silly.

Instead, that irrepressible sense of awe is transferred to, for instance, high-class restaurants, with the candles on the table and the reverent “servers” chanting, almost liturgically, items from the menu. For the religious impulse will never go away, with its longing for a certain elevation and tone. If not foodie, every man and woman born will find something holy, and be outraged by blasphemies against it. The codes of speech and gesture that now govern our public behaviour are “spilt religion” of an obvious kind. Those who dare breach them are the new Infidels.

This distinction between religion still in the vessel, and spilt over the side, follows us through the narthex. Our motives for entering a church are often mixed.

A priest, whose remarkably short homily I heard some days ago, provided the simple explanation. There are those who, perhaps from some neurotic suspicion that Christ is really there, feel bound to drop in on Him once in a while, as one might visit the oldies occasionally in “the home.” And there are those who understand that, whether or not they are currently in the mood, Christ wants to see them.