After a childhood filled with Catholic doctrine, ritual, and festivals, I left the Church in the years following the Second Vatican Council. I didn’t leave because the reforms struck me as too liberal, but because they weren’t liberal enough. I left because in sexual matters the old conservatism still reigned, specifically the prohibition against artificial birth control.
I was glad but not surprised by the Church’s turn towards ecumenism, which seemed to me a shift in form rather than substance. I had always been taught that salvation was available to all people of good will, no matter their religion or lack of it. The notion that a just God would bar someone from heaven because she had never heard of the Catholic Church or chose to worship elsewhere was patently absurd. I was dismayed, however, that in the new liturgy Latin was replaced with English, Gregorian chant with random folk tunes, and ancient rituals watered down for the sake of “relevance.” But the main reason I turned away was that I didn’t want to run the risk of having a baby every year.
For a long time I thought I’d gotten off scot free. I had shed Catholicism like an old skin, and embraced my new secular existence without reservations. Most of my friends and colleagues, whatever their upbringing, had gone through a similar process. In academia, where I worked, open reflection on spiritual matters was not likely to ease the road to tenure. If you had concerns of a religious nature, you kept them to yourself.
However, in my sixties I started to suspect that all those years of rosaries and masses and confessions, genuflections, communions, and benedictions had left their mark. I had banished my old religion and it had left a void. So I pussyfooted around, in a spiritual sense, reading about Buddhism, taking up meditation, learning about the revival of contemplative prayer and its links with Eastern practices. For a while I attended a Unitarian Church, that haven of lapsed Catholics and Jews, and was there introduced to the “earth based religions,” namely Wicca, whose ecological and feminist roots attracted me. Something always seemed to be missing, though, and every once in a while I wondered what it would be like to wander back to Mass some Sunday. But the Church’s official condemnation of birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women kept me away.
The post-Vatican Catholicism of my twenties, with its seemingly kinder, gentler gestures covering up the old proscriptions wasn’t what made me think about going back. I wanted the Church of my childhood, in an ancient, preferably medieval, building, with candles and ritual gestures and serious music, and Latin, please. But that Church had ceased to exist.
Or so I thought, until this article in the New York Times informed me that here and there across the land churches had returned to the “ancient” worship. As I read on, however, I learned that the congregations at these churches consisted largely of people with staunchly conservative views about same-sex marriage, birth control, and the rest of it. Furthermore, to my horror, surveys showed that 60% of Catholics who attended mass at least once a month had voted for Trump.
According to the article, in addition to the right wingers, the old Mass also attracted some “aesthetic traditionalists.” Is this all I am, I wondered, an amateur of pomp and ceremony? Or is there more to the vestments, the rituals, and the chant than meets the eye and ear?
Joseph Campbell thought there was. He believed that the hieratic gestures, the ritual use of Latin, the sacred music all pitched us out of what he called “the field of domesticity,” i.e., the world of everyday life, and into the realm of myth, where humankind’s longing for the sacred is fulfilled in ways not accessible to the rational mind. I think that Campbell is right. Half a century of immersion in strict rationalism had left me with few answers, and prey to gusts of existential despair. I guess I was missing myth.
So now that I know that it exists, what is holding me back from heading for the nearest Latin Mass? It’s fear, of course. Fear that I am one of those tradition-loving aesthetes who like the sound of Latin. Fear that what I am seeking is merely a return to my childhood, a kind of Proustian experience, with the Host in lieu of the madeleine. Fear that the congregants in the pews, and worse, the priest in the pulpit, might disgorge sociopolitical views that will send me running for the exit.
So I dither, lamenting the tension between traditional ritual and open-hearted, ecumenical, liberal attitudes. But I often imagine myself opening the church door and genuflecting before the altar as the priest intones In nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti, and my hand flies up all by itself to make the sign of the Cross.