Ceremonies: Cynic of the Cloth

Erin Carver searches for spiritual enlightenment at Catholic Mass, but mostly just notices her fellow worshippers’ outfits.

For her New Year’s resolution, Erin will attend a different religious ceremony every month.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. National ArchivesMy mother is a staunch atheist with vestiges of Catholic guilt left over from youth, so I was raised with no actual religious instruction. But as I got older, she gave me several books about world religions and told me that if any of them seemed intriguing, I was welcome to attend a service. I grew up viewing religion as intellectually interesting, but certainly not possessing of any mystique. I never needed religion to provide me with a universal truth, and I still don’t, but in the nine months since I graduated college, I’ve found myself wondering how the backbone of so many people’s lives is faith in something entirely unknown but ostensibly possessing some enlightened insight into their world. Perhaps, in the absence of professors, I thought, I could find fulfillment in God.

I began my attempt at religious enlightenment by attending a Catholic Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in northwest Portland. It was a straightforward choice: as the daughter of a lapsed Catholic, I still have traces of the faith within me — most notably, guilt and a strong sense of responsibility to authority figures. I also love ceremony, which Catholicism has in spades. And, most importantly, I’ve attended Mass before, so my marginal familiarity with the experience made it seem relatively unthreatening. I felt I mustn’t delve too quickly into the unknown, waltzing unprepared into a synagogue or a Pentecostal glossolalial celebration.

Despite my fear of the religious unknown, however, I’ve found that every Catholic Mass I’ve attended is just too damn accessible. When I imagine Mass, I see The Godfather: stern men in shoes polished to high gloss, dour women in pillbox hats, timid children in overly starched jumpers. The tone is somber; the liturgy is in Latin. There is no reason why this bleak, incomprehensible service should be appealing, but it is. Perhaps in my unindoctrinated mind the air of antiquity lends legitimacy to a religious service, or maybe I think that religion ought to be restrained, even dispassionate, but in either case, I wanted the priest in long black robes and the incense-tossing and chanting to be done with ritualistic solemnity.

This is not, apparently, how Mass goes in modern times. I dressed carefully and modestly before I left my house, pausing only a moment to admire how great my calves looked in a silk skirt and heels, but many of my fellow worshippers slouched into their pews in track pants. Everyone warbled along to English hymns, intoned English chants: May the Lord be with you — and also with you. The priest wore robes of vivid Kelly green. Even the church itself seemed wrong: a light-filled, stucco, almost Spanish Mission-style nave decorated with bright paintings of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Then, when the priest began the sermon, the only deviation from structured, ceremonial chanting and reading, it suddenly became clear to me why I really wanted this service in Latin. The sermon was on Matthew 5: the Beatitudes, Jesus’ blessing of the unprivileged — the “meek who shall inherit the Earth” and such. The priest extolled the virtues of the Beatitudes, stressing the importance of living a life that is righteous in relation to one’s spiritual health, not simply in relation to one’s social life. The sermon set the Beatitudes in contrast to the Ten Commandments, denigrating the earlier Judaic laws in favor of Jesus’ promise to those living a spiritually fulfilled life. I felt — I hoped — that I grasped the inspirational, instructive appeal of the Beatitudes and their promotion of a Christian lifestyle: after all, they’re central to Jesus’ teaching. And I know that Christians value the New Testament over the Old.

But never did I think I would hear a religious leader say, “I’m not saying the Commandments have no value; I’m not saying they have no use. I’m just saying they don’t have much value; they don’t have much use.”

“You’re talking about God’s law!” I wanted to cry out, “Isn’t this offensive?!”

Apparently not: around me, people sighed and shuffled in their pews; the man next to me clicked through his email on a BlackBerry.

Does no one listen to what their priest is preaching? I wondered, and my internal cynic replied: Do you think they’d be here if they did?

And as for the Eucharist? That cornerstone of Catholic worship, where I undoubtedly would have found more ceremony and more mysticism than even I had hoped for? Well, I bailed. I knew that I wasn’t allowed to take Communion, and I couldn’t handle the shame of staying seated while everyone around me filed forward to the priest and received their portion of Christ’s blood, body, and salvation. So I shuffled out of the pew, too, but went the opposite direction and then hid in the bathroom for five minutes.

So much for valuing inaccessibility: when faced with the religion’s very public display of who was “in” and who wasn’t, I panicked. Apparently it’s only the idea, only the conceptual mystique, of inaccessibility that appeals to me, especially when I’m marked as uninitiated by the ceremony.

I would have left Mass discouraged by my unfulfilled expectations had it not been for one family, sitting several rows ahead of me. By all appearances, they were far from what I’d been looking for in Catholic worshippers. The young couple was dressed in Columbia fleece and jeans, looking as though they’d just come from a hike in Forest Park. They spent the service passing their golden-haired toddler — who pointed and babbled charmingly at the artwork and the pipe organ — back and forth, only one parent taking part in the ceremonial kneeling and standing at a time. But I watched them throughout the service and they seemed genuinely engaged: they sang earnestly, shook hands with their neighbors warmly, and prayed sincerely. They looked as though they truly felt connected to the service, but not in a way that was overwrought or overthought.

I was nowhere near able to access this couple’s apparent faith, but I felt comforted that there were people there who seemed — unlike me — to be there not for the sake of ceremony, and — unlike my plugged-in neighbor — not because they felt like they had to be, but because it was a way for their family to be together, experiencing something larger than themselves. It made me rethink my idealization of ceremonial inaccessibility and ritualized but personally empty worship, and might have even given me a perspective on religion that wasn’t entirely cynical. And, while I certainly won’t be converting to Catholicism any time soon, that particular shift in my expectations for religious worship was enlightenment enough for me in my first month of exploring faith.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

Erin Carver knows every line of dialogue from When Harry Met Sally and makes a quiche so good it can bring a grown man to tears. She has an English degree from Lewis & Clark College and lives in Portland, where she spends most of her time taste-testing pad kee mao.