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Sunday, June 14, 2015

ONCE UPON AN ALTAR BOY

I was thinking of calling this post "Confessions of an Altar Boy" but that title was already taken several times over.

Now I know what you think this is going to be about. How as an altar boy from age 10 to 14 I was sodomized and my holes repeatedly violated by priests in the vestibule before and after Mass. The bloody rogues. No. They were all very decent men. We even had a couple of Christ’s stand-ins, as they’re called (by nobody but me) over for dinner. My mom made pasta. Father Oulle sure could put back that wine. He was French, so, excused. Ruddy cherubs, the lot of them. But I'm no mind reader. For all I know . . . I'll let your imagination take it from there.

But this is not about that. This is more about the Catholic Church. The Church has many problems these days, not the least of which is the tendency of certain men of the cloth to fondle young boys. It’s about the Church’s insistence on ritual, on remaining so stiffly traditional, with its stained glass and incense and gold and towering statues, and the need to genuflect and repeat archaic sayings long since out of fashion and whose meaning is incomprehensible to the modern audience member.

It’s about the Church not evolving with the times in an age when more people than ever consider themselves spiritual. And though still more people say they are “religious” in that they align themselves, however vaguely, with a particular denomination they may not practice – like certain of my relatives, who call themselves Catholic but haven’t seen the inside of a church since Baptism - ask them what they believe and they either mutter something vague about heaven or sound more like atheists because they don’t know what the hell they're talking about.

And atheism, like spirituality, is also on the rise. Atheism, with its belief in no personal God, bears a striking resemblance to Buddhism, which derives from Hinduism, the oldest of religions and more spiritual in its essence than any of them, so I suppose these people are on the right track.  

I started attending Catholic School as a 2nd grader. I asked my parents to baptize me not because I felt any particular affinity for the Church or even for Christ (at least how the Church portrayed him, hanging from the Cross all pricked and punctured). It was because everyone else in my grade was Catholic and got to receive the wafer at communion, also known as the body of Christ, if you go in for that sort of thing, while I waited glumly in the pew. Thenceforth came Holy Communion, also in the 2nd grade. Now I was one of the club! (And if you don’t know, the wafer is dry and tastes stale. Not really worth it.) Thereafter followed Holy Confession, where I learned the benefits of omission and repetition. It was always the same sins with me. I had manhandled my brothers and failed to take out the trash and blah blah, but never had I masturbated to girl mags, oh no! Much too embarrassing. Then came Holy Confirmation, at 14. Not much to speak about here other than a kick-ass party after the ceremony, which doubled as my grandfather’s get out of the hospital after open heart surgery party, only he was hit by a car on the way home and died by the time he got to the hospital. A bittersweet symphony that's life.

And never Matrimony or Holy Orders. I live somewhere between these two sacraments. Nor Last Rites, because Sisters Francis Mary and Leonella won’t be standing over me at death seeing I make peace with Christ, because I think they are already dead, at least the latter of the two, who would be over 100 by now, and who I'm sure has made her peace, and may she rest in peace. I still sometimes have nightmares about those grammar school days. Reign of terror.
 
Anyway who am I to care about fitting in as a good Catholic? These days it has fallen out of fashion, and if I did I’d be married, but never a priest. Major personas non gratas. Except for maybe the Argentian Pope Francis, whose approval rating (do they do that for priests?) is off the charts. The guy really is holier than thou. He recently told the press he hasn’t watched TV since 1990. Let me guess, World Cup? Because Argentina did make the finals that year.

Between all those sacraments I also spent some time on the church's sanctuary, where the priest delivers the Mass and administers those stale-tasting wafers. From the 5th through the 8th grades I was an altar boy. Also to fit in, and get special treatment. We’d get to leave school early on days we “served Mass,” walk to church on our own, and take a longer lunch. The little pleasures of youth! I learned a lot about wearing an ill-fitting garment, standing onstage pretending I was super interested in the goings-on, and ringing the bell at the appropriate time, all the while trying really hard not to nod off. I didn’t learn much about what the priest said during his sermons, because as I said I was concentrating really hard on not nodding off. Do you know how difficult it is to keep your hands folded at chest level for 45 minutes without pause? By the end you have no feeling in your fingers. Mine even turned blue. I developed a technique, which was to grasp my cassock with my thumbs - and try not to nod off.

But that’s my point. We as good Catholics, me and my fellow altar servers, and classmates, and congregation, learned what to say and when so that it came as a knee jerk and sounded really pleasing to the ear; we knew the letter of Christ’s words, but not the spirit in which he said them. And when it came to the priest’s sermon, I’d nod off. What did he know about real-life advice? He was a priest, and probably a virgin, dealings with young boys excluded. I kid I kid.

But aside from the days I served Mass, church really was a waste of time. It cut into play time. Sunday Mass was about seeing and being seen with me too young to care. Yes, a lot of eligibles meet their mates (rather than their Maker) at Sunday service. I’m still single. Maybe I should have kept on going. I stopped attending church regularly in high school. Don’t call me sacrilegious, but by then it felt like the whole point of our being there was to feed the coffers. And my family were faithful donators. Movies cost 10 bucks back then, and since Mass lasts half as long, we’d usually give 5. It is after all entertainment, and gotta keep that brass shiny and those statues polished after all.

But now Christianity has fallen on black days. With all the cases of child abuse. And the tendency towards spirituality. The world, connected via the Internet, is screaming to be connected by a common creed, screaming for a world religion. Christianity could be it, or be the first religion to embrace all creeds and be inclusionary rather than exclusionary.

A universal Christianity would not be new. The Christian mystics – Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Genoa, Francois Fenelon, Blaise Pascal, Jakob Bohme and Bertrand Russell among them - recognized the similarities that Christ’s words bore to the teachings of the East, especially Hinduism, and therefore to Buddhism, as Buddha was also a Hindu, it deserves reiterating.

Mysticism may best be summed up by the ancient aphorism attributed to a 4th century bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria: “God became human so that man might become God.” And as such Christian mysticism is similar if not identical to mysticism of other major world religions, including the Hebrew (Moses Maimonides) and Islamic (exhibited in the works of the Sufi poet Hafiz).

Nor is religious reform new. Adi Shankara (b. 788 AD) lived at a time when the Hindu religious elite, the Brahmins, were bogged down in ritual, and well, in being elite. Hinduism was becoming exclusionary, limited to the light-skinned few who by high birth exerted a divine right on God. In his brief sojourn on earth (he lived to be only 32) Shankara wrote voluminous commentaries on the Vedas (the Hindu sacred texts comprising the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras) to widen their appeal and emphasize metaphysics over dogma and ritual. Adi established the Advaita school, which is nondual, seeing God in All.

The same can be done for Christianity. Christ’s words have two meanings, the literal and the symbolic. The mystics the world over have always opted for the symbolic, which is the better choice, since it gives broader appeal and makes Christ sound less like a lunatic and more like the spiritually enlightened being that he was. We have already done this with the Bible’s Old Testament, shared by both Christians and Jews and serving as inspiration for the Koran. (All the same book, people. Can’t we just get along?) As science has traced the origin of the planet earth back billions of years, the thousands that a literal translation of the Creation myth seem to imply just doesn’t hold water any more. Some zealots and southern Republicans still insist on being literal – Eve was literally plucked from Adam’s rib - and are mocked for it.

But what are Christ’s teachings? We all know the Golden Rule. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Love your neighbor as yourself, and love God above all. Love your enemy. When maltreated, turn the other cheek. All good and straightforward so far. But what of his more esoteric teachings? I and the Father are one? This would seem to showcase the unity of all creation, rather than to elevate Christ alone to the level of the Divine Maker.

There are many additional esoteric sayings of Jesus. I leave it for you to read the Gospels, or a book like Richard Maurice Bucke’s, which interprets these sayings in the cosmic sense. An entire religion, one rooted in spirituality, one that is universal, and not dependent on mindless parroting of stock phrases, could develop around such glorious teachings. Sadly, modern Christianity is not this religion. But the future is being formed, fed by the cravings of the spiritually-minded many, whose numbers are growing. Granted, this world ethos would be more private for its universality. No need to convene en masse if there is nothing to recite. And how people love to assemble.  But there is always a good 12-step program for the quasi religious person who wants to share.

Shankara’s reforms brought Hinduism to the masses of the East, and contributed in large part to the dissemination of its beliefs on a global scale. His commentaries were translated first to Latin and read by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who staunchly maintained that they changed his life. It was Shankara who said, in his Crest-Jewel of Wisdom: “When the false self [the individual personality, subject to birth and death and endless change] ceases utterly, and the motions of the mind caused by it come to an end, then, by discerning the hidden Self, the real truth that ‘I am that’ is found.”

How reminiscent of the Old Testament, where the Lord says: “I am that I am.”

What would a world be like with Catholicism as spiritual rather than religious? Would it even be called Catholicsm or for that matter Christianity? I vote for Universality. As of this writing, Christianity still is a major force. One-third of the world’s population is Christian, and over two-thirds of Americans (243 million) identify as such. One-third seems like a lot. It is after all billions of people. But it leaves out so many billions more. Isn’t it time for a world religion, something all, whatever color or culture, can gather around and embrace? It wouldn’t involve ceremony, tradition, or donations. But it would lead to world peace, since peace is its foundation. Although history would seem to indicate the contrary, with its wars of religious persecution. But see for yourself how many fights you can provoke with the “turn your other cheek” attitude. We could call it Love.

This new spirituality of Love would embrace religion. And I’m not oversimplifying when I say that all our problems would be solved. What about priests violating boys? There’d be no more priests. Done. Want an antidote for falling asleep at church? There’d be no more church, so that takes care of that.
 
Let your private prayer be Love, and practice it publically wherever you go. See God in all, and treat others the same. No need for brass and statues, stained glass and pat phrases for that.

And if you insist on the religious view, remember: The Second Coming of Christ is You.

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