The Catholic Doodad Shop — not its real name — stands kitty-corner from the L.A. Fitness where I work out. It’s also about two miles northwest of the Pima reservation where I buy my tax-free cigarettes. (Though I’ve driven my monthly intake down below a carton, I still consider the discount worth the hike, even in summertime.) My parish church has no gift shop; in fact, as far as I can tell, no church between St. Mary’s Basilica in Central Phoenix and St. Tim’s in Mesa has one. For that reason, whenever I’m in need of a Catholic doodad, the Catholic Doodad Shop is a destination both obvious and accessible.
But I rarely am in need of a Catholic doodad. At baptism, I received enough prayer cards and novena booklets, medals and scapulars, to last me the rest of my life. (When I was thinking about leaving the Church, I gave away the one real collectors’ item, a prayer for vocations authored by Fr. Marcial Maciel, along with an exhortation not to buy anyone’s bullshit.) I’ve got an icon of the Resurrection and a diptych of the Madonna and the grown-up Jesus. That’s plenty for a one-bedroom apartment.
But the Catholic Doodad shop does posess one enticement in spades, and that’s atmosphere. Not all the doodads on sale are the kind devout Catholics hang on their walls and leave strewn about their coffee tables. The place also deals in sacramentals — pyxes, chalices, ciboria, monstrances, processional crosses, priestly vestments fit for every season of the liturgical calendar. If you’ve ever daydreamed about being locked in a sacristy, come, fulfill your fantasies. And don’t be put off because all the price tags are still attached.
So, yeah. Every few months or so I’ll find myself stopping, caravan-like, at the Catholic Doodad Shop, where I’ll spend from one to three hours browsing. The Catholic Doodad Shop is very browser-friendly. Unlike the staff at Barnes & Noble, the youngsters on duty — or, as I call them, the Catholic Doodad Kids — haven’t, in the hope of keeping riff-raff like me on our toes, replaced the soft chairs in the book section with forbiddingly hard ones. The greeting they give as you cross their threshold is one of disinterested nerdish warmth. When you tell them you’re just browsing they’ll leave you to get to it.
Through the PA system, they fill the place with soothing, church-type music — on my last visit, I noted a mixed quartet singing “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” a capella. No, there’s no café section, and that’s a good thing. In their own right, focaccia and sarsaparilla are just ducky, but here they’d gut the general mood of hospitality by making it too complete, too planned, too slick. In an ideal world, the Catholic Doodad Kids would start at the sight of you and rush off to slaughter the nearest calf. But no Catholic worth the name looks for ideal worlds this side of the grave.
In a work of fiction, this would make a ham-handed symbol: Having formed his worldview in a consumerist society, which reduces the life of faith to a menu of comforts to be measured out, used up, and replaced according to the demands of the moment, our antihero finds spiritual nourishment in a place of commerce. And that’s a pretty fair summary of what’s happening. Lollygagging in the big chair, skimming George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism or Georg Ratzinger’s My Brother, the Pope, I am consuming, not producing. Worse, I am consuming exactly what I want to consume — none of the Catholic Doodad Kids looks tough enough to force a copy of The Way into my hands. Worst of all, I am consuming for free. The last Catholic doodad I bought — in October of ’12 — was a birthday card that cost about half what I throw in the collection basket of a Sunday.
One afternoon I rebelled. I was attending a summer program held at a local school, which was billed, oxymoronically, as a day camp. My next class was in dissecting. At the first session, the instructor had passed out frogs, ordering us not to pity them or call them “Kermit.” Haunted by memories of her stern voice and the smell of formaldehyde, I went AWOL. Breaking into the deserted library, I grabbed a book and staked out a corner. For the next three hours, I enjoyed that perfectly stress-free state the Epicureans called ataraxia. Calvin — of the funnies, not 16th-century Geneva — achieved it through Calvinball. I achieve it through lollygagging, and I find myself best able to lollygag through browsing.
As far as I can tell, the Church offers few spaces fit for true lollygagging. Pews are hard. In an adoration chapel, it is the Blessed Sacrament that commands attention. It might not insist on everyone’s undivided attention — in my experience, adorers feel free to drop their gaze onto prayer books or other appropriate reading materials. Still, the Body of Christ has a way of staring out from the monstrance like a zoom lens from a surveillance camera, and it takes pretty much the same toll on my nerves. The Franciscan Renewal Center up in Paradise Valley has a meditation chapel, but I’ve found it to be too much of a good thing. Stocked with harem-grade cushions, lights dimmed permanently to Very Dark Day, it’s the last place you’d want to repair with a hangover, unless you want to risk being woken up hours later by a stunned retreat leader.
“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus promised. Provided they maintain an open-door policy toward lollygaggers, Catholic Doodad Shop owners and staffers have every right to look smug, since they are helping Him fulfill that promise in a literal, immediate way. If the vendor-consumer relationship is a necessary condition for creating that restful atmosphere, who’s to say Jesus wouldn’t approve? He was a small-business owner, too.