I found myself in Toronto several months ago, alone in the city for the first time in many years. It used to be my home, but I was surprised upon returning to find how much had changed. Not how much had changed in the city: Toronto is pretty much Toronto, though I think that some of the buildings were different. The change was primarily a change in me.
When I first converted to Catholicism I recall that one of the major fruits of my conversion was that it conquered a lot of pent up frustration and judgement. I was a tremendous snob, intellectually proud, and habitually inclined to dismiss and condemn the thoughts and achievements of those whom I considered to be my inferiors. When I became a Catholic there was a brief period where this changed. I was wonderstruck at the beauty and diversity of humanity: I would stand on an overpass, praying to my newly discovered God and I would marvel at the fact that every single car passing underneath me contained at least one entire human person, a magical being with breadths and depths and an immortal soul exactly like my own. Apartment buildings were fairy castles in which innumerable human dramas were playing out. The entire city was aquiver with the ever moving breath of the Holy Spirit.
This was fairly short-lived. One of the difficulties with religion is that it presents its own set of temptations, and the greatest of these are self-righteousness, judgmentalism and spiritual worldliness. As I learned what, exactly, my newfound faith demanded increasingly that I realize that the wonderful world into which I had woken was full of terrible sins. The snake had slithered into the garden and was wreaking havoc all around. Catholics who had been aware of this state of affairs for a long time and who were battle weary from the Culture Wars gratefully welcomed me in. They shared with me their frustrations with the evils that they had seen grow up during their lifetimes, their disappointments, their fears. I served for some, I think, as a kind of beacon of hope: a young woman who had overcome one of the greatest threats to the Catholic Church in America in the late twentieth century. I was praised, and naturally I enjoyed the praise.
Which is where we come around to spiritual worldliness: the temptation to allow one’s spirituality to become a means of gaining social acceptance, a ladder to betterment in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of one’s religious peers. Slowly, I began to accept the idea that I was one of the faithful few, the chosen remnant, the saved. Oh, I was a sinner, of course. Everyone is a sinner. But I wasn’t one of those sinners. You know, the sinners who are traipsing down the road to Hell. I was one of the good sinners who knows that sin is sin, who is contrite, and who by the power of prayer and contrition and the strength of the truth is going to pull herself up into the ranks of the heavenly elite.
By the time that I moved out of Toronto I had come back to where I had been as an intellectually proud atheist. I was one of the few. I was surrounded by people who didn’t know how to think or to reason. People who were living worthless and meaningless lives guided by stupidity and weakness. People who had been duped by the chicanery of the mass media and the commonplaces of an ailing and puerile culture. Walking down the street of my city I saw everywhere the stain of sin and the evidence of evil. Strumpets on billboards, ubiquitous commercial crap, people walking around like zombies umbilically connected to electronic gadgetry. Surely the end was nigh.
I had reached a point where my spirituality had made me like one of those critics who is so jaded and so aware of every conceivable aesthetic error that they are no longer able to enjoy any actual films. In my desire for a pure ideal I had come to despise the created order, and in my desire to achieve a theologically perfect and rarefied love for idealized human nature I had come to harbour contempt for the vast majority of actual human beings. Eventually I realized the ugliness of this perspective. It struck me that I get a lot more enjoyment out of liking things than I do from feeling superior to them.
So I found myself back in Toronto, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, surveying a roomful of works of modern art that I would have hated and disdained seven years ago but which are actually quite beautiful. Those of you who have been to the AGO will know that if you’re on the top floor there’s a lovely curving staircase in a sea-shell spiral surrounded by glass windows that juts out over the city when you come out of the upper gallery. I emerged onto the stairs and looked down at the city below me, with all of its grimy streets, and its crass commercialism, and it’s cell-phone zombies.
God said, “This is my masterpiece. What do you think?”
“It’s lovely,” I answered. “Thanks for the view.”
[Reprinted from sexualauthenticity.blogspot.com]
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