Scales Falling from the Eyes: A Retention Experience

Eyes are basically testicles that sit in the middle of your head. Show either too much disrespect in the form of squeezing or prodding, and they will punish you for your impertinence in ways you won’t soon forget. I learned this, or at any rate the apart about eyes, on Tuesday night. The experience constituted one of those miniature Dark Nights of the Soul that, I’m starting to believe, should mark the change of every liturgical season.

For a couple of days, my right eye had been itching. A mild itch, it bothered me no more than a mosquito bite on the arm would have done. But by early evening, I decided the eye had earned a rest. (Of my two gimped eyes, Righty is by far the better and harder-working.) With the usual difficulty, I peeled off my brand-new soft contact lenses and lay down for a nap.

But sleep wouldn’t come. In part, I might have been at fault for drinking three 44-oz Thirstbuster cups of Diet Mountain Dew — cue the Bolivia song from Scarface. But I’ve managed to nod off on the high wire before, so I blame the itching eye. After rinsing Righty out thoroughly, I poured him a dram of OptiFree Pure & Moist Multipurpose Disinfecting Solution and rubbed him with a ferocity fit for a Turkish bathhouse.

I don’t guess Moe Green felt much when the Corleone hit men drilled him through his right eye. For that matter, I’d bet the Hun sniper in Saving Private Ryan floated off to Valhalla pretty peacefully after Barry Pepper put a slug through his. When Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon king of England, caught an arrow in the peeper, courtesy of Normans who’d decided to make his country snooty and class-conscious, he can’t have said much more than “Oh, scite!” before going the way of the Aethelreds. My own luck was both better and worse than theirs. After putting Righty under the knuckle for a bare 90 seconds, my head felt like someone was frying bacon inside it.

In terms of invasiveness, I’d rank an eye-ache right below a toothache, and right above an earache. That kind of pain is impossible to ignore, but pointless to dwell on. The only way to deal with it, I’ve found, is to make it the soundtrack in in an internal discussion of some subject that causes emotional pain. I had just such a subject handy, and it had to do with religion.

This late conflict between Obama and the bishops has me wondering whether I really belong in the Church. I’ve heard it argued persuasively that Obama’s revised guidelines put enough distance between Catholic employers and their employees’ use of contraceptives to make those employers innocent of cooperation in evil. Morever, since the mandate to cover contraception applies to all employers and seems, at least, to be tailored fairly narrowly, I don’t see why it wouldn’t pass muster with the Surpreme Court. For the bishops to claim otherwise, in an election year, and so stridently, gets a little close to partisanship for my tastes.

Of course, this is not how I’m supposed to see things. The bishops are successors of the apostles, princes of their dioceses, and enjoy the exclusive right to speak for the Catholic Church. I’m not sure whether disagreeing with them makes me a canon criminal, exactly, or a latae sententiae excommunicate; but it does make me a dissenter — something I’ve never particularly wanted to be. More than that, ir creates ethical dilemmas for me as a Catholic writer. Do I go on saying what I think, or do I take a dive in the name of team spirit? And anyway, where does team spirit end and careerism begin?

When I first launched this blog, I was eager to speak from the perspective of a convert who found the value systems of Church and World equally attractive and had come to enjoy living in the tension between the two. I imagined I’d be addressing a vast and hungry Catholic center — people who lacked the stomach both for open rebellion and for culture war; who wanted, simply, to form their own consciences quietly, in their own time. Judging by my numbers, these people represent a niche market, at best. At least on Patheos, the top earners are the people who — as I’ve bitterly observed to a few friends — “toss out red meat like tennis balls from a machine.”

If these thoughts flow coherently now, they did less so when I was thinking them, backed by the beat of a throbbing eye. Pain makes me cranky; to do justice to the crank factor, I’d have to re-type the last two paragraphs in caps, in boldface, having stricken all punctuation and inserted at least enough cusswords to form a paragraph all by themselves. For a couple of hours — though I could be wrong here, since pain blunts my sense of time — they replayed themselves in a continual loop until, finally, I dozed off.

When I awoke, it was still dark. The pain was still there. Righty, now swollen shut, let out what felt like a scream whenever the weakest light fell on his lid. Unable to get back to sleep, I tried to start the thought loop again, but this time it couldn’t sustain itself. Every single thought in it now bored me. All that big-font rage and anxiety had collapsed into a dull, small-font murmur.

Most people, including many Catholics, may not know this, but prayer is a great way to pass the time. The most pious period of my life coincided with the beginning of my catechesis, when I was working a second job as a night watchman at a construction site in Scottsdale. Underwhelmed by the beauty of the achitecture, I kept myself awake by smoking cigarettes and praying the Rosary. Jiggling beads seemed an insult to the uniform, and finger Rosaries were still unknown to me, so I counted out the Hail Marys on my actual fingers. By the time I decided that one job was enough for me, I’d trained myself to the point where I could say fourteen or fifteen Rosaries in the course of a single shift. (This was before I learned about spcial intentions, so if Russia takes that much longer to consecrate itself to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, well, izvinite.)

In a spirit of one for the road, I prayed. Starting out very simply, with “God, take the pain away,” I moved to “St. Lucia, pray for me,” and eventually to repeating aloud that I was joining my suffering to the sufferings of Christ. It seemed like a fair enough deal: Jesus’ eyes might have been the only parts of Him that made it to Golgotha unbruised.

Call it the hypnosis of repetition, but I went back to sleep. When I woke up, I found I was able to consider my engorged eye and its insistent pulse with a new objectivity. Light makes pupils expand — or maybe contract; at any rate, to do something that requires some strenuous movement. If the eye’s inflamed for some reason, that movement is going to hurt, much the way walking with a charlie horse woud hurt. It was a perfectly natural and predictable reaction, and there was no reason to infer from it that Righty would soon fall out of my head.

The sun was coming up then. To protect my eye from the beams slipping through the cracks in the blinds, I pulled my pillow over my head and faced the wall. As I dipped back into prayer, it occurred to me that prayer is one of those habits I was in no hurry to give up. Catholicism, for me, might not have become a series of convictions, but it has become a very thorough chain of habits and associations. It had come to form a big part of my life’s intellectual, artistic and social fabric. Ripping it out now, as I’d have to do if I were to leave the Church formally, would mean starting again, from nowhere, with nothing, and with no very clear idea of where I wanted to go.

The fact that I’m pissed off at the Church’s leadership and have nothing very relevant to say to the greater part of her reading public means I’m no less at home than I was in banking and home finance. There, I did my job, ate lunch alone and went home. Here, I go to Mass, make spiritual Communion (the equivalent, as I see it, of making salary with no added commission or bonus), kick over a few bucks and go home. Neither of these barebones approaches comes anywhere near the ideal (or the respective ideals), but both are better than nothing at all.

With my eye semi-healed — with the scales gone, you might say — those conclusions seem even more sensible than they did originally. I probably won’t be able, in good conscience, to keep blogging about the the Church much longer, but I intend to remain a member — one of those conflicted people in the pews with nothing much to say, but, occasionally, “Thanks be to God.”

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