Ship of No Fools

To the guard patrolling the big parking lot at Tempe Marketplace on the night before Thanksgiving, I must have seemed less Rosa Parks than Ignatius J. Reilly. When he spotted me from his golf cart at the beginning of his circuit, I was sitting on the bench outside Pier One Imports; by the time he finished, I hadn’t moved. It was getting late, the place was soon to shut down, and there was no bag by my feet bearing the logo of any of the shopping center’s stores. In his judgment, these circumstances made me a loiterer, and none of my pleas on behalf of my sore quadriceps did a thing to deter him from his appointed duty of summarily bouncing me from the premises.

Actually, I doubt I could have explained why I had committed myself, with hardly a spare dollar in my checking account, to a ten-mile round-trip hike whose midpoint and highlight was a shopping center. The fact is, nothing puts me in the holiday spirit like a festive atmosphere, and no atmosphere ever seems so festive as those connected with commerce. Maybe it’s a Manhattan thing. Where I grew up, a department-store chain sponsored the parade that kicked off the season. The largest Christmas tree in the city stood in front of (and was dwarfed by) GE’s corporate headquarters. At astronomical costs, the window displays down the street at Bergdorf-Goodman and, of course, F.A.O. Schwartz, offered seasonal eye-candy to anyone unable to furnish his own.

You might call me a beneficiary of a trickle-down theory of holiday cheer. At this point, for various reasons, I’m scarcely better able to afford a baseball leather bottle koozie from Pottery Barn than I am an Alexander McQueen dandelion skull pendant necklace from Saks. Nevertheless, I catch a buzz by hanging around people who can afford one or the other. At a safe distance, they look like people who have achieved a certain degree of success as convention measures it, and by extension, a certain degree of happiness. The saints have been able to see Christ in the face of the poor, but I see someone else: me. In Barbara Ehrenreich’s words, all my peers and neighbors are sick and tired of being sick and tired. I love ‘em, I identify with ‘em. But sometimes I need to take a break from us all.

On Black Friday, I treated myself to a little commerce tourism, wandering through Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall at high noon. Maybe, in arriving so late and without a shopping list, I missed the event’s most disfiguring and definitive features, such as shoppers lunging for the doors like ANZACs assaulting the Nek. Instead, I saw a patient, gently-spoken sales associate offering to return the sweater I’d tried on (pointlessly) to its rightful pile (which I’d managed to lose). I also saw a father guide his five-ish daughter into the changing stall for safekeeping while he tried on pants. She told him he was silly and fat; he agreed, and the two laughed together, oblivious to the hubbub. My opinion of humanity survived the day intact, and may even have risen a notch.

This is not the popular Catholic view. St. John Chrysostom once asked a wealthy audience whether they paid such honor to their excrements as to receive them in silver chamber pots when their brother was suffering in the cold, and the down-with-commercialism crowd has been taking the same tone ever since. True, it would be nice if American Catholics (not least me) could work ourselves a little more into a lather over the global war on Christians and poverty in our own inner cities. But I’m not sure morally flogging us out of our own comforts is the best way to make it happen. Self-reproach can give birth to new charitable impulses, but it doesn’t always. It’s just as likely to fester, or to metastasize into full-blown scrupulosity.

Knowing this, I just can’t find it in myself to fault Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, who blogs as Fr. Z, and ChurchMilitant TV head Michael Voris, who thinks like Francisco Franco, for headlining a cruise baptized as a “retreat at sea.” Here I part ways with Katrina Fernandez, who points out that St. Maarten and St. Thomas, among other ports of call with less churchy-sounding names, are running pretty low on holy relics and sites of spiritual interest. She also has a problem with the cruise’s timing — it takes place during Lent, maybe not the best time for the “plush lounges, swanky casinos and dance clubs” promised by the promotional literature.

Let’s assume that neither Voris nor Zuhlsdorf nor any others planning to attend will have renounced daquiris, blackjack or the bump for Lent. The ship has no clothing-optional sundeck; she’s not putting in at Negril. Guests are being promised daily Mass and the Sacrament of Confession. More wholesome than this fun in the sun just won’t get until Mitt Romney brings the summer Olympics to Salt Lake City. Lent lasts 40 days; the cruise will take up seven. I think it not only charitable but reasonable to suppose that any of the seafarers can round out the season in a properly penitential frame of mind. If this is when their schedules happen to be open, we do them no disservice by wishing them fair winds and following seas.

As for calling it a retreat — well, I’m not sure either Zuhlsdorf’s readership or Voris’ audience could be coaxed aboard under any other pretext. Both men bill themselves, in one way or another, as defenders of true religion against all enemies, foreign and — maybe especially — domestic. Zuhlsdorf has declared war on the National Catholic Reporter, which he calls “fishwrap” (something he may soon find himself in need of). Voris, if anything, outpaces him, damning Earth Day advocates as “earth-worshippers.” Their messages resonate with people determined to see the devil everywhere.

It occurs to me now that they might also be overly quick to see the devil in themselves. A few weeks ago, I was browsing through the columns Simcha Fisher’s written for the National Catholic Register. Time and again, she finds cause to re-iterate one simple, very profound message: don’t go crazy with the self-suspicion and self-blame. Some Catholics might be comfortable saying, “Yeah, I’d like to get half-crocked, lose some money at the slots and swap Chesterton quotes with a couple of Catholic media heavies,” but not all, by any means. Certainly those friends of Simcha Fisher’s who insisted they were celebrating Halloween “ad maiorem Dei gloria,” need a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down.

Hearken to me, retreatants. Landlubber that I am, I hope to serve as an example here. A few times between now and Christmas, I am going to visit posh shopping malls, experience the thrill of buying nice stuff vicariously, and look ahead — realistically or not — to the day when I might buy some for real. This Lent, have your own fun — schmooze, overindulge a little, raid the gift shops. Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Or, better, don’t do anything I wouldn’t write about.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat/ The Crescat

    We have we ever been of the same “ways” :P

  • Billy

    Wow, Max. I guess I just can’t get over the idea of a Lenten cruise.

    Spring Break occurs during Lent, which presents some non-penitential opportunities even as a parent. If I went to Cancun for Spring Break, I think I could observe all the Lenten rules, but there’s no way I could tell myself it was about Lent, even if I went to daily Mass.

    On the other hand, if I went to Rome during Spring Break, I could pretend it was about Lent but would fully expect to have A Very Good Time.

    So in my heart I remain unconvinced by what you said. But my head says you may be on to something.

  • James Stephens

    After having served in the Navy and worked as a seagoing geophysicist in the oil exploration industry I’ve always thought anyone who would actually pay to go on a cruise must be crazy. Going to sea can indeed be very penitential. But I have to share your suspicion of this seven day retreat.

    [Bless your heart of oak. Other people may find the cruise suspicious, but I, personally, am okay with it. My own nautical experience is limited to reading Hugh O'Brian on the Staten Island ferry, but I figure shipboard life and the bounding main have got to be a lot more fun when you don't have to stand long watches or mainline coffee.]

  • Cordelia

    I’m still with Kat about the cruise – but I absolutely loved your festive vicarious-shopping anecdote! Rework it a bit as a fictionalized short story…and you could have Christmas classic on your hands.

  • Nina

    ~sigh~ Schwarz

    Back in the day, saying or writing “Schwartz” was a firing offense. It’s German, not Jewish, and before it was bought out by a big conglomerate, owned by Nazis.

  • http://theocoid.blogspot.com Bill Burns

    “Or, better, don’t do anything I wouldn’t write about.”

    Now, just what is it that you wouldn’t write about? I’m not sure I really want to know, but from what I’ve read of you, the list is fairly short.

    The timing of the cruise is rather odd, but my guess is that it makes it more affordable for many people (being off season and all). It’s not worth more than a raised eyebrow followed by a shrug.

  • Joe C.

    Just curious: where does the painting come from and what does it mean?

    [That's Michelangelo's rendition of the Flood. The people in the foreground, crying, are the people not allowed on Noah's ark, the Bible's first cruise.]

  • Jo Ann Elder

    I’m with you Max. I’ve never been on a cruise, but I have lived within an hour of the beach most of my life here in Florida. One thing many of our generation and our children’s generation suffers from is “nature deficit.” (Someone wrote a book about it, but I cannot remember his name.) Maria Montessori used to say that exposure to the wonders of the universe will give a child a better understanding of God, humanity, and their own place in the scheme of things. In my experience, there is nothing like the expanse of ocean and sky for realizing how insignificant we truly are and how immense and powerful God is. That seems quite Lenten to me, just sayin’.

  • DWiss

    If Noah’s Ark was the story of the Bible’s first cruise, then Paul’s shipwreck was the last and should have put and end to the idea of cruising for God. The instigators probably go for free, not that that has anything to do with the choice of retreat venue. (Before anybody jumps all over me for defaming the cruise planners, I’m just kiddin’ here. Calm down.)

    Having been a regular reader of Catholic bogs for a few years now, I’m lately having a “jump the shark” experience. I think everything worthwhile has already been said, probably more than once, and so the blogs are getting loony and screechy. Did the Barefoot & Pregnant lady really just smack down the Bad Catholic guy for comparing Catholic sexual love to BDSM, or something? Yes, she did. The smackdown was deserved, but I would have preferred that BC’s idoitic misfire had been allowed to sink on it’s own, quietly, without comment. Things can’t be unread.

    But I really like the beginning of this little essay, Max. I’m not poor like you, but I do provide the common element in my over-priveledged, over-funded bedroom community of San Francisco. As I like to say, “Yes, I live in a diverse community, but I’m the diversity”. In my own way, I feel your pain. Anyway, you were on to something good about the meaning of Christmas, which I do think has become – muddled, and I wish you had continued in that vein instead of bringing up the lenten cruise. Unless you were equating “lenten cruise” with “commercial Christmas”, in which case you nailed it. Right on, bro!


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