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.
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.