I can’t believe I’m saying this openly, but last Sunday, for the first time ever, the Novus Ordo Mass started looking cheesy. My reaction did not reflect any evolution in my liturgical tastes: the previous week, I’d fled a church whose ambience was wound so tightly that I expected the priest and altar servers to march up the aisle to “Preussens Gloria.” Probably, some blame should go to the band, which was frankly awful. (Since I’ve been to St. Tim’s, Nashville of Christian contemporary, I know what I’m talking about.) But the larger share should go to the parishioners, who looked very bit as shabby as the band sounded.
This might sound strange coming from the guy who recently declared his preference for dressing down for Mass. I now realize I expressed that preference with an unexamined assumption that I really should have examined — namely, that casual dress can and should look stylish. Simply adopting plebian wear means nothing unless you also adapt it for respectable use. Match the right jeans to the right polo, and you’ll create the same effect the Prince Regent created when he affected Highland dress — that of a daring hipster. Choose the wrong ones, and you’ll actually look poor. Well, these people did, and it was because they were. And it freaked me out.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, since America had no hereditary aristocracy, “there is hardly anything left but money which makes very clear distinctions between men or can raise some of them above the common level.” I pray God he was wrong. I make barely enough to live in greatly reduced circumstances. If money were the only mark of worth, I’d be half a notch below a sans-culotte and half a notch above whatever the Hindus call guys who shovel corpses into the burning ghats at Varanasi.
My precarious finances should have propelled me toward a radical egalitarianism of spirit, and in a sense they have; I can’t help but identify with the poor. But, like members of both the popular elite-bashing movements of our time — the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street — I’ll stop well short of identifying as poor. There’s a big difference: one means coming to see yourself as a broad-minded, open-hearted person; the other means coming to see yourself as a failure. Lady Poverty? No thanks, St. Francis. I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too thin for me.
So what I do is cling bitterly, not to a gun or the Bible, but to whatever small accomplishments distinguish me from the gum-smacking masses. I’ve got some book-larnin’, a fairly extensive reading list and some travel stories. Do those suffice to make me a solid citizen? No? Okay, how about this — I speak in the American equivalent of received pronunciation and wince at the sound of an accent from any region away from Beacon Hill. Not good enough? Please, cut me some slack. Trotting out my support for gay rights in the hopes you‘ll assume I have an interior decorator is the lowest trick in the book, and I‘ll do anything not to resort to it.
At first, this quaint class identity crisis put only the smallest crimp in my faith life. By luck or instinct, I found my way into a church — not yet a parish, but soon to become one — connected with the local university, my alma mater. Most of the parishioners were either students or alumni; a few were faculty or administrators. Apart from their intellectualism, which puts them in a class by themselves, academics tend to reflect the values of the upper-middle class. They prefer to display their success and their piety in a low-key, off-handed way, which is also how they prefer their humor. Their rejection of ostentation is so complete, it’s almost ostentatious.
The ones I met at church, at least, seemed to share a largesse of spirit I’ve always associated with the run-down manor house, the country parsonage. What a man did or how much he earned mattered less than whether he’d read Dark Night of the Soul, whether he could find El Salvador on a map, and whether he knew the taste of sweet-potato fries. I did, so — provisionally, at least — I was in.
When the parish changed hands, driving about half of its manpower out in search of new worship spaces, I visited a conventual church in Paradise Valley, possibly the most chi-chi neighborhood in the Metro Phoenix area. It was a terrible mistake. With luxury sedans and SUVs jamming the parking lot, the place looked like the scene of a mafia funeral. A number of parishioners left immediately after communing. Though their clothes pegged them as nouveaux riches, they managed to make their impatience seem seigneurial. It was not at all hard to imagine them damning the priest under their breath for a impudent, canting fool, and swearing to horsewhip him the next time he kept them so long from their hounds and claret.
Realizing I’d gotten above myself, as they used to say, I never went back.
Fortunately, I’ve found a very comfy comfort zone in Vigil Mass. Most of the attendees are senior citizens, who still look to me like a class, a race and a species unto themselves. Common sense dictates they sport their own class signifiers, but I’ve no idea what they are. Frankly, I doubt I’d be very impressed if I learned. I’m (relatively) young; they’re old. In this happy century, the advantage is, for once, all mine.
I wouldn’t mention any of this if I thought I were alone here. It’s well known that many Catholics go parish-shopping. Most of the reasons I’ve heard people cite have to do with the style of the liturgy or the personality of the pastor or whether a good school comes attached. But many have also mentioned “community,” a term that translates roughly to “people I can get along with,” or at worst, “people I don’t want to kick.” If communities aren’t mates or friends, they belong in the same big sphere of voluntary associations. It’s impossible to believe that the same tribal instinct that has made a success of E-Harmony — which proposes romantic matches based in part on demographic similarity — doesn’t also lead people to choose St. X’s over Our Lady of Y’s.
I wonder, too, what will happen as the middle class continues to shrink. Will the newly declasses have the sand to go on worshipping with their former peers? Or will they form their own parishes and networks, like the White Russians did after coming to grips with the fact that the Bolsheviks were in Petrograd to stay?