When I say I have a crush on Thérèse of Lisieux, I’m two-thirds joking — but only two-thirds. The fact is, she reminds me of a woman with whom I carried on an extended flirtation just before leaving grad school. Both wrote beautifully, but in such girlish voices that it never occurred to me to feel threatened. Both had a talent for making themselves the heroines in their own melodramas, but without going completely off the diva end. (With a temperament fit for a lyric tenor, I got to do my share of vicarious living.) Both were — um, let’s say, sacramentally unavailable. At times, like Rhett Butler, I’ve had a thing for lost causes, and I mean that frankly, my dear.
Years later, after entering the Church, I tried explaining this to the woman I was involved with. I realize now I must have been trying to make her jealous, because I asked: “Let’s say there was a big Catholic book-signing, with each Doctor of the Church installed at his own booth, autographing copies of his work. Thomas Aquinas, poor guy, would attract a few brainiac geek types, but Thérèse would be mobbed. The faithful would be jumping the velvet ropes. To keep order, the Carmelites would have to call in the Fruit of Islam. Once we got to the head of the line, when I went in for a hug, would you give her this look like, “You even touch my man, I’m-a cut you!”?
“No,” the woman said. “Absolutely not. She’s a saint, Max, and this whole thing is weird.”
Is it, though? I’m not convinced. Whenever Catholicism has taken root in strange soil, someone’s done his best to familiarize it, to draw parallels, however rough, with whatever was there to begin with. The Vatican has proclaimed the apparition at Tepeyac “worthy of belief,” but even those who write it off as a pious myth will have to admit the Aztecs became a lot fonder of Jesus once they were able to picture His Blessed Mother dressed in their national costume. My own pre-conversion life could hardly have been further removed from Catholic culture if I’d run around sacrificing people to the Smoking Mirror. If the people of the New World deserved Mary in a green mantle as training wheels, then I claim my own training wheels: comparing Thérèse to an old (unconsummated) love interest, and imagining her with an hysterical fandom.
This kind of cultural accommodation can look irreverent. It isn’t necessarily, but in my case it sometimes is, since I come from a culture of irreverence. Late 20th-century American culture cuts grandeur down to size. This leveling isn’t always in bad taste, or for that matter, in an un-affectionate spirit. In Blazing Saddles, when Mel Brooks, playing an Indian chief, tells his war party, “LOS IM GEHEN!” (Yiddish for “Let ‘em go!”), he’s tearing down the mythic images of Native Americans as noble and ignoble savages. He’s also reminding the world that Native Americans, even bonnetted war leaders, were regular people. Like his own immigrant parents, they had their share of tsuris.
There may have been a touch of this spirit alive in first-century Judea. When Nathaniel asked whether anything good could come out of Nazareth, he spoke in a tone that suggested he’d answered the question for himself a long time ago. In Jesus’ approving response — “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” — it’s possible to read a rherotical flourish. He’s holding up a negative as a positive in order to stigmatize a worse negative, as Patton does in the movie when he tells the napping soldier, “Go back to bed, son. You’re the only man in the outfit who knows what he’s trying to do.” But Jesus must also have spoken with some real sympathy. Ruled by Herod and the Romans, dominated by Pharisees, gulled from time to time by a false Messiah, the Israelites were right to regard Him, until otherwise convinced, in the most homely, un-exalted terms.
Jesus’ original audience had the advantage of seeing signs performed firsthand. Considering how many ignored them, the advantage might not have been that great after all. But people in faith formation today don’t even have that. Our faith, such as it is, really is blind. And it helps, really helps, to have people around who will understand and laugh along as we jab with our canes. Once, I told an older, liturgically conservative fellow parishioner that Communion rails reminded me of blackjack tables. He gave me with a look that said he might have swung on me if he’d been 20 years younger. The exchange taught me to mind my manners around him, but did nothing to erase the comparison from my mind. If they ever do bring Communion rails back, I’ll kneel half-expecting Father to deal from a shoe.
It must be sheer grace, but I’ve never had to roam very far to find kindred spirits. One good friend of mine is a re-vert, a cradle Catholic who returned to the Church only after putting in time with the Episcopalians and gnostics. We’re both seekers by nature, which means we both know the pull toward skepticism; in today’s climate, both of us sometimes feel like reporters embedded in the Church militant. She once told me: “My first time through, irreverence was faith, and recognized as such. But over the years, the baby got thrown out with the baptismal water.” We’ve formed, at times, a pious community of two, which means the Holy Spirit can’t be far away.
It helps, of course, that we find some of the same things implausible, off-putting, or just plain bizarre. Once I told her, “For St. Joseph’s own sake, I wish he’d awoken from his dream and wrestled with the angel like Jacob till he got his rights to his wife back. I can picture him saying, ‘Do what you like to my hip. I’m a carpenter, not a Ballanchine dancer, as you’ll presently discover, sir.’” She screamed, “Yee-haw! Go, Joe!” It was one of those consciousness-of-kind moments when we realized we were on precisely the same wavelength. My friend knew I wasn’t really revising the story to suit my own interests. She saw I’d probably spend the rest of my life trying to figure out why things turned out the way they did. That’s another thing about an irreverent mind. It helps me to see where my own desires and constructs fit so badly, they’re downright laughable.
Thérèse and I would never have worked out. She had consumption; I consume Pall Malls at the rate of 40 per day. I identify strongly with my father’s people, the Jews; odds are good she was a ferocious anti-Dreyfusard. That’s my irreverent mind talking, reminding me that some causes are better left lost.