Monday, May 15, 2006

Faith on Faith

Last Sunday, in the baleful, relentless May rains of Massachusetts, my wife, two year old daughter and I went to the neighboring town to try out their 9:00 Catholic mass. We've been church shopping since our move from California, trying different parishes in neighboring towns.

We arrived drenched in rain, at about 8:50. The church building was small and plain. Inside, the congregation filled the pews and spilled into the aisles, where children of all ages were doing their best to behave. Near the altar were the musicians. They had guitars, a synthesized bongo drum, and voice. They were practicing their bits with the microphones turned off. There was confabulation between neighbors and parents. The priest and the altar girls were near the front entrance of the church, lighting candles and inspecting each other's vestments.

We sat in the last pew. My wife and I couldn't help but notice that the average family size in this little church must have been three children. We saw some families arrive that had five or six children. Many of the families were young. The human energy in this little refuge from the gray rain torrents outside was palpable. And loud.

- - - - - - -

We've begun looking for a Catholic church to regularly attend for many reasons. The most pressing reason is our two year old daughter, who can now speak in short sentences and recall events from a few weeks before. Her memory is astonishing. If we want our little girl to be a part of the culture from which her parents came, now is the time. Up until now, not going to church seemed logical if only to avoid the sheer hassle of her infantile months. Hardly a young lady at two, she is at least manageable, and more importantly, impressionable.

Going to church is unusual for me. I was raised Catholic, in a very conservative parish. I grew up believing, then later disbelieving. Then still later, believing alternative things, only to find them dry and unfulfilling. Religion hardly seemed like my vocation; it was more like a club where all the members would nod their heads at the same things, followed by donuts and coffee. And sometimes, not even that. Much of the time growing up in the Church, I was simply there. Nothing else was apparent, or possible.

To this day I have troubles with many facets of the Catholic faith, taken in parts. I'm just not sure what to think about the Church's absolute stand on homosexuality, celibate male priests and the role of the laity. I'm suspicious of some of the notional aspects that any religion tends to promote.

But now I am 43, and part of me thinks it'd be nice to go to a good old fashioned Latin mass, with the works: Gregorian chants; the priest standing towards the altar; the mighty pipes of the organ; frankincense wafting from the gentle chain-swinging of the priest's brass thurible. At my age, all that seems comforting in its solemnity. It respects my past, and my culture's origins. My craving for the Old Ways is like a boomerang fulfilling its 30 year trajectory, hitting me in the back of the head with a thud.

"BANG! I told you I'd be back someday."

The truth must be told, since I'm on the topic of an institution that promotes The Truth. The truth is that I'm not sure if I am looking for God, or simply taking refuge in aesthetic. It's a very old aesthetic, going back to my youngest days, and to my civilization's beginning. I now go back to tap into a deep well whose surface remains quite parched. I cannot deny my daughter these waters, though seldom do they quench my sorrows and pains. It's the sound of their trickling that suffices for now. I want her to hear the waters that I once heard so well in early morning masses. I want to give her the opportunity to drink from that well. I want to give her something richer than I alone can provide, in spite of my doubts.

"But why Catholic," one of my coworkers asked me. "You guys sound like you'd love the Unitarian Church I go to. It's so inclusive and it puts all religions on equal ground."

That does sound very egalitarian. But somehow, a smorgasbord of religions sounds too postmodern for me. It is odd, but at this point in my life I feel like a salmon who must swim back upstream to spawn -- for my daughter's sake. It may not be logical. But it is necessary. And putting all the religions on a lazy susan and spinning it in front of her is not what I want to do to her.

In these times, finding certainty can be an obsession. Religion offers the possibility of an eternal order that includes you, where you can feel protected and safe. For all the detractors calling religion irrational, looking for order and the Creator's love might be the most rational thing in the world. I take no umbrage at other people's faith, as long as it does not impinge upon my own -- or lack thereof. Unlike in my twenties, when I felt the need to shake-off a Catholicism that I felt was imposed upon me, in my forties I respect people's quest for certainty and solace.

- - - - - - -

Back to last Sunday, at the little New England church. It's 9:00. People have quieted down. The rain can be heard pounding on the roof and dripping on the outside of the stained glass windows. The building feels like a sanctuary in this weather. Then the music begins. The priest and the altar girls make their procession to the altar. Though somewhat stale, the words of the mass fall out of my mouth in familiar tones. It's all still there, deep inside of me.

In front of us is a family with a little girl, the same age as ours. They make faces at each other during the mass, fiddling with their sweater buttons and flipping the pages of the missals. I remember doing these things. I remember my father would sit in the pew, holding his missile a certain way in his hands, partially scrolled with his thumbs crossed to hold it shut. I remember doing the same thing as him, trying to be like him.

Maybe I've conflated God with religion, religion with aesthetic, with community, with culture, nostalgia and a father's need to do right by his daughter. Maybe none of those things have anything in common with each other. That is never far from my mind, and is a barrier to faith for me.

Faith is a mysterious thing. I don't know that I have much left in me. That's sad. But maybe for my daughter, I will simply have to take faith on faith.