The joint was jumping as I entered the Cathedral of the Holy Cross last Saturday, April 17. The nave was filling for the 2010 Boston Catholic Men’s Conference, and I was attending for the first time. I didn’t expect a rockish sort of band singing faith songs in front of a video screen that flashed the lyrics or hundreds of men on their feet, sort of swaying, sort of clapping, depending on their age and level of inhibition. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself beside Dick from Foxboro and wonder what had happened to my faith when I turned fifteen.
I learned Dick’s name only later. What I was first aware of was a guy in a New England Patriots slicker, somewhat older than my 58 years, on his feet, bobbing his head, clapping his feet, and definitely totally into it, singing something about loving Jesus. I was momentarily embarrassed for Dick. Then, for quite a while longer, I was embarrassed for myself and brought up short by my embarrassment.
The music was good, the lyrics inspiring, the temperature rising—and yet there was some kind of reserve wedged between my heart and a mind that had grown skeptical, then cynical during my boarding school years. Before I left home at fifteen, I was an Episcopal altar boy thinking about becoming an Episcopal minister. By the time, three years later, that I had completed “the best educational years of my life” (as I’ve always considered them), I had been led away (e-ducatus) from an innocent faith to a sophisticated agnosticism.
What had done the trick? The 800 boys, each of whom thought he was smarter than his neighbor? The religion classes that were really an indoctrination in existentialism? Or just the wise-guy, butt-smoking smart-aleckness of teenage kids, with no parentis in loco and little available in the way of a faith experience? Our daily “chapel” was really an assembly without the pretense of devotion. Maybe we had an invocation, once, at the beginning of the year, I don’t remember.
It strikes me that becoming Catholic has turned my world view, and my self view, butt over teakettle. Because I understand now that the same seductive cultural forces that we Catholic parents worry about when we think of our children in today’s world were working their magic, 1960s style, with me, just when I thought I was getting the best education money could buy, just when I thought I was so smart.
I’m probably not shocking anyone by writing this. Unless you were raised in a strongly evangelical setting and went to a Christian college, you probably had a similar experience of adolescence. The amazing thing is that I ever recovered. Because I was an insufferable wise guy by the time I went to college, reading Camus (pictured) with a Marlboro hanging off my lip, reciting Beckett while trucking around campus with my hands thrust deep in my pockets, thinking that Kafka must have been an amazingly cool guy, mostly because I didn’t understand a word of what he wrote.
In college began my long and winding path back to the church, stretching through 35 years of midlife, my “prime working years.” I’ve documented that path before in this space. But right now, I’m back beside Dick from Foxboro wondering about that reserve, the residue of doubt and skepticism that is often (always?) still there, a lasting legacy of my Exeter years. How do I grind that doubt away? How do I fully reopen my heart and silence the agnostic in my mind, so that next year I can be on my feet from the opening bell, clapping and singing along with the guy in the Patriots slicker?
I have been asking myself these questions all week long.