Thursday, August 17, 2006

one of the three things which nice people never discuss in company

All this happened 27 years ago this month.

Ok. So it's 1977 and it's August. Elvis the king, resting on his throne, is wondering why he's so tired and out of breath all the time. Me, I am 17 years old and the only unmarried non-virgin in a five mile radius.

I am at a religious family retreat that my mother has quite matter-of-factly blackmailed me into attending ( which circumstances are worth several cringe-inducing posts in theyownselves. ) Nice place, lots of trees, and not jack shit to do.

I hit the bookcase in the main lodge and started ripping through the collection. I'll read anything. They had a lot of anything.
'Hansi, the Girl Who Loved the Swastika'...I think you were required to own an edition of that if you were Born Again in the 70's...'Crossroads Collected Stories of Inspiration'...'The Billy Graham Story'...'Christy'-hoo, that was a ball of fire...'Intra Muros', a strange, self-published little book about a womans' visit to heaven that was also making the rounds at the time...and one slender volume on medieval art.

'A Meditation on Grunewalds' Crucifixion' is my best memory of the title. I'm almost certain the author was a Jesuit scholar. What this book was doing in amongst the lightweight 'Charismatic Catholic' selections I have no idea. I mean, this thing had footnotes. And despite it's somewhat lugubrious tone it made me very happy.

The type of religion being peddled on our social level was a religion of fluffy, happy niceness, where nice happy people had clean, nice houses and worshipped the Lord with upraised hands, a religion that sincerely believed that 'God never gives you any burden which you are incapable of carrying.' A religion so useless that when it happened that someone was handed a burden they couldn't seem to lift it simply went unacknowledged.

Now remember, these were Born-Again Catholics. So add to that the good ol' Catholic 'if you're not miserable you're sinning' mindset.

And yet none of it explaining how, say, infants born inside-out, for example, could have been expected by God to bear that kind of condition, or could have been 'not right with the Lord', but I digress.

I found more to admire in that book that in anything I had learned in catechism up to that point in my life.

I honestly think that Grunewald was inspired, offering up that view of the Passion . He had painted it to be used as part of an altarpiece*, for a monastery devoted to caring for people dying of ergotism, of plague, of cancer, of infection. He showed them a Christ that had suffered exactly what they had suffered, in all its appalling detail. A human Christ consumed with pain and dying, not already passed into nothing more than an anatomy study. Most importantly, in those pre-Vatican II days, the priest who served the mass had to look that Christ in the eye every every time he went to open the altarpiece. The same priest who later went in and ministered to people suffering identically, who looked similar.

So Christians did see torment. They did acknowlege the insupportable. They did think. At least
two of them had; and I had the proof in my hands.

Until that point my only comfort, or my only 'faith in faith' if you will, had been found in writings by Jews who had survived the Holocaust. Catholics romaticize suffering because life is supposed to suck at best so you work with what you get. Charismatics in practice completely denied it because life was supposed to be perfect 100% of the time and anything else meant you were on the Cannonball Express to Hell. The Jews said, 'This happened. It sucked. God was with me then and is with me now and I struggle to understand. "

It impressed me on a secular level as well. I would have never read it had I not been so utterly starved for intellectual stimulation at the time. I had never read an advanced work of nonfiction. I struggled to understand and I wished I had a dictionary, and I wanted MORE IMMEDIATELY.

In the meantime I was trapped on a ten acre tract in the middle of the mountains with a bunch of people convinced that God wanted them to go out in the woods for two weeks and act like retards. No chance of getting laid, I quickly found out.

No 17 year old wants to be anywhere with a parent anyway; it's excruciating. Now add the sheer embarrassment of watching a bunch of Catholics trying to 1. enjoy themselves, and 2. experience 'ecstatic' religiousity with no cultural referents. If I'd heard the phrase 'you shouldn't be so NEGATIVE' one more time I was going to ram a goddamn owl up someone's ass. So I dummied up and watched these (goofy fucking white people) secretaries and Taco Bell managers raise their hands and praise the Lord, throw away their medications and cast out demons and speak in tongues and perform healings and interpret prophecy and read from the 'Living Bible' and fall on the floor and knock over chairs 'fainting in the Spirit' and have to get stitches. Yes, really.
The Charismatic Movement was not pretty.

I was told that the reason for my dissatisfaction lay in being too worldly. I listened to rock and roll (that old devil!) and read too many secular books and, it was hinted, probably was not as smart as I thought I was, so maybe I'd be better off if I just stopped pretending to be better than everyone else and start joining in.

And you know, I tried. It was not in me. I hated myself, and I mentally apologised to God every inch of the way.

So in a very sideways and backwards kind of manner, I actually did increase my understanding of religion during the course of that retreat. I came out of there understanding that religion was ridiculous. I came out of there having seen what belief could be, what it could encompass, and I left knowing there was nothing worth having from these grinning dipshits singing "I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart"

And yes, I gotta say, I owe it all to Jesus. That's why I think about converting to Judaism...something which, were it not for the fact that I am bone agnostic, I would do tomorrow.
That makes sense if you're me.

with thanks to Minka and DaNator for the hotmail how-to.

*should I explain this? here goes: think of one of those old-fashioned dressers with a folding mirror attached
to the top. Replace the folding mirror with the 'altarpiece', a painting on a decoratively cut piece of wood that usually had folding doors attached on each side, and every surface decorated. Replace the dresser with a sort of lectern or small console table to be used as the altar proper. The whole thing was meant to be used for serving Mass in a chapel or a small space. The painting part was removeable so you could carry it from place to place and make an instant 'church' . The table half could then be used for something else, which is why most of them got lost over time and only the altarpieces remain.
That said, some altarpieces were huge things, made for permanent installation in a church. Some were only one panel . Some were very complicated and had many folding panels with detachable angels and statues and things to decorate it. Some were tiny and meant to be carried in a pocket, and those are called 'devotionals' . Bear this in mind the next time you go shopping for medieval art.


  1. Yes the ole - "no burden more than you are capable of handling". That explains a lot.

    Since Jews don't believe in that silly proselytyzing, may I just invite you for a Friday night Shabbat meal?

  2. I didn't even know you could get born-again Catholics. The mind boggles.

  3. Gag. Sounds like my mother's side of the family (except my mother, who is... different). A bunch of tongues-speaking snake-handlers, who evolved into abusive born-agains. I remember the one visit I had with my grandfather and cousins they spent literally two hours arguing who was going to hell with the Jehovah's Witnesses who came to the door. All I wanted to do was get away from my cousin's Stryper bootleg tapes and get to the damn Country Kitchen for dinner.

    It just seems to me, from that side of my family and the charismatic/born-again types I've known (including my mother-in-law and my first live-in gf, but that's another story), is that they're very sad and overwhelmed inside, and just want SIMPLE ANSWERS, DAMMIT.

    BTW, you wanna talk about altarpieces, you shoulda seen the Fra Angelico exhibition at the Met Museum a few months back. Not while buffeted by crowds on the last day, like we did, but hooo-jiminy!

    Loved your post. But please don't abuse the owls.

  4. P.S. My comment wasn't long enough, so I had to add more. ;o)

  5. Would you settle for the bakery's? Freshly baked of course! And if you're still here Sunday morning - leftover challah french toast courtesy of the man with the frying pan.

    By the way - did I ever thank you for that oh so perfect link to Rav Binny?

  6. I've always regarded Jesuits as honorary fundamentalist protestants that like whipping small boys.

    I don't really have a problem with religion, it's unthinking religiosity that gets on my tits.

  7. Oh my! This resonates so much with my life. Except noone forced me into it - I went there of my own accord.

    And left by the same means, I hasten to add.

  8. Oh good lord i went to school with those people! 12 years of that shit, day in and day out. We even had to go on goofy retreats into the woods. My mom finally got me out of having to attend when I was in high school by arguing with the principle that a bunch of teenagers wandering the woods during deer hunting season in the county in the state with biggest population of white tails was Extremely Dangerous, and since the school was unwilling to provide me with a neon orange kevlar vest she was clearly unwilling to risk my life. I love my mom.

  9. I had to snigger at the image of these nice , buttoned up , middle class people trying to get a bit of that 'vodoo' spirit....he he he.
    My parents are both rabid heathens and my poor uncle is a somewhat simple happy clappy church of England vicar.
    He tries to bring 'the glory of god' into the most mundane conversations in an over enthusiastic and childlike way.
    This would usually be slapped down by my mother who would snarl at him
    " why do you have to bring fucking god into everything "

    He usually looks all hurt and squeaks petulantly
    'but its my job'

    From an early age this kinda underlined to me that god wasnt lookin after his own , otherwise shurely my good old ma would have been struck down by a lightening bolt years ago

  10. I took my earthangels to see Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delight during the holidays.

    Explains it all.

    Especially the big fish.

  11. I am looking for people who would be willing to donate their mustaches for charity.

  12. billy: it was sort of a 'square peg, round hole'situation. catholics were hard pressed to believe that life could be enjoyed without it costing you 100 years in purgatory. then there was that whole 'already baptised' thing to get around. it was goofy.
    DaNator: oh crap, STRYPER. oh my yes. does anybody remember that U2 started out as a Christian Rock band???
    the owls were happy; they built nests in the large cavities provided and raised owly families.
    g: oh dang, challah FRENCH TOAST. on my way.
    binny has good sense, that guy. any time.
    garfy: rigidity and fundamentalism seem to follow hand in hand with 'brand loyalty'. that gets on my tits. all four of them.
    qenny: have you ever posted about that? if not, i'd love to read about it. you post yours and i'll post mine!
    cb; that goofy crap made it to the midwest? i thought it was a west coast hippie abberration, that charismatic catholic movement. yeesh, I am so sorry. didn't you want to wear a bag over your head when they started with that 'sign of peace' crap during Mass and people would get all carried away and start hugging and crying?
    i wish your mom would beat my mom up. cept mines dead and all. um.
    beast: that cracked me up! yes, theres nothing like a bunch of white folks trying to incorporate a little cultural misappropriation into their liturgy.
    sid: dude! howdy! why can't i post on your blog?
    in art school they let us copy from bosch one time..picture a bunch of 13 year olds sitting on the floor in a semicircle gawping up at this HUGE bastard painting and sniggering about all the bare wasn't attractive, but it was memorable.

  13. Having been born technically Jewish (mother's line) into a secular family, I do feel sorry for people who have to convert to Judaism, because they're obliged to buy into all the God stuff. Cradle Jews can take it or leave it.

    I sometimes have trouble explaining how, despite the non-existence of God and frequent embarrassment at Israel's foreign policy, I'm quite happy to be labelled as a Dead Sea Pedestrian. Maybe I'll do a post.

  14. When I'm sweeping up on the dead nights at my job I sing about that joy joy joy joy down in my heart. And dance. And then a customer'll come and I'll go 'One moment sir, I'm fighting the forces of evil with a broom and the power of song' or something... I take bets: Nervous laughter or witty comment?
    Ah yes, life as a Deli Monkey.

  15. Unfortunately those who are so hell bent on changing everyone and converting them over to their set of belief systems, they who feel so found but could not be any more lost, are just misled souls without the ability to see past the nose on their faces and think for themselves... I can definitely relate to people like that. Was raised by similar folk... religion did not play a part but that mentality did.

    Glad you were able to rise above it all FN! No wonder why this bohemian just looovess you!

  16. No Shit is my hero right about now...

  17. i was raised Episcopalian (which is often referred to as Catholic Lite) and Joel was raised as a Charismatic Pentecostal. if you knew him, you'd laugh your ass off at thoughts of him being anywhere near such a thing, but as a kid, his folks used to drag him from tent meeting to tent meeting.

    fortunatley, over the years they mellowed out (because it was *not* easy sitting through "praise Jesuses!" every time they came for a visit!) and came to settle on a doctrine they were comfortable, and in doing so, become much more comfortable to be *around*.

    Joel and i participate in no formal religion... it's not that we're agnostic, it's that we don't belive in a God who sits on some cloud passing judgement on passers by like some asshole pissing off a bridge. that said, we are very spiritual, but not in any way one would describe as traditional.

    one of the most profound books i've read, which helped move me into a place of understanding, and better "self" actualization, is The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. so simple, yet incredibly profound... his book, The Mastery of Love is equally powerful. it gently reminds us of the fact that we are the only ones who can effectively change our lives. it's beyond empowering, even as it is beautifully unimposing. at the very least, you might find it good fodder for thought and contemplation!

    as for that email that wants to be a post?? sigh. where is my own head these days? i promise i have it in the works and will be sending it along soon. have i mentioned my ADD?? and how too many blogs and/or shiney objects prevent me from my appointed tasks on any given day?

  18. oh, and count me in for some of that challah! mmmmm. and then remind me someday to tell you of the origin of "hot cross buns"! (all things yummy and/or religious can be traced back to fertility rituals, don't ya know.) xox

  19. tim: go for it. thats a pov thats new to me.
    noshit: my darling you have to stop huffing the pastrami.
    on the other hand maybe you can chase away evil with a broom and the power of song. if Regan had been exposed to the fuller brush man singing a little rogers and hammerstein she might not have had that terrible accident on the carpet, for example.
    MizB: in reading about your unique inlaws and outlaws, i wonder if they were not somehow related to my McGawdawfuls. any irishmen in the woodpile, girlie?
    Neur: she is my hero ALWAYS.
    muchas smooches to my goonybirdie! hugs and love for you.
    neva: oh dang, the 'praise jesus' punctuation! my mom did that only it was 'praise the lord!' like tourettes.
    hot cross buns, pretzels, challah, that greek bread with an egg baked into it, anything i cook...yeah. it all goes back to the horizontal thang!

  20. I'm thinking about converting but have the exact same objection. However I'm told that Rabbi Romaine of Maidenhead Reform Synagogue does not require you to believe in God but that somehow seems plain wrong.

    sorry I don't comment more but (embarrassed) the typeface is too small for me...