Saint Louis, where I was born and where, at last, I live again, is at its heart a Catholic town. One of the city's nicknames is "the Rome of the West"; the St. Louis Cathedral downtown was the first cathedral west of the Mississippi, and the archdiocese has been the mother church for many of the other Catholic parishes throughout the country. Catholic churches, many built in a fabulously intimidating style reminiscent of Gothic and Romanesque churches in Europe, are everywhere. The Cathedral Basilica's emerald dome can be seen from miles away; the building is as distinctive as the Arch. It's impossible to live Saint Louis without figuring out one's relationship with the Catholic Church, even if—perhaps especially if—one is not Catholic himself.
It wasn't hard to find people this past week walking around with gray crosses drawn on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday, announcing the start of the Lenten Season. (Sadly, although St. Louis does have a sizeable celebration of Mardi Gras, that Dionysian herald of somber Lent, the festivities happen almost entirely on the Saturday before, and have been progressively sanitized over the years. It's still fun, but it's a far cry from New Orleans—and considering the point is to get all the sinning out of the way before Wednesday, in practice a Saturday Mardi Gras just adds a few days to Lent.)
The Catholic kids at my high school always fascinated me on Ash Wednesday. At that age, I was starting to become more cognizant of my own Paganism and the boundaries of my Pagan identity; I was beginning to ask myself important questions about how willing I was to "go public" with my religion. Could I wear a pentagram? Could I tell my teachers? What kinds of girls could I date? (Answer to that last one: probably not one who showed up to school with an ashen cross on her face.) So much of growing up Pagan is learning how to negotiate these boundaries, figuring out who can be trusted and who needs to be kept out. Most Pagan kids learn how to lie by omission pretty well by the time they're 14—it's a survival skill.
I could stare at the Catholic kids in wonder for hours. They were so brazen; they literally marked themselves out as different, as special, walking around with a sign on their faces that identified their allegiances (and, conversely, identifying everyone else as being something else). I can't say for certain what signals were genuine and which were just my own paranoia coloring my perceptions, but it felt like every nod the Catholic students shared acknowledged the solidarity of their religion. On the other hand, every glance in my direction had a little edge to it, an implied superiority. None of this was said overtly; many of these people were among my closest friends. But every conversation had a third participant—the ashen cross, silent, but demanding constant acknowledgement. I was always silently glad when Thursday came, when the primal differences between my friends and I would no longer be literally staring me in the face.
With Ash Wednesday come and gone, we are now in the season of self-denial. It's funny to observe the ways it creeps in at the corners of daily life: all of the fast food restaurants have ad campaigns for their fish sandwiches, for example. None of the ads mention the C-word or the L-word, but the motivation is clear. It amuses me how far they will go to avoid stating the obvious: "Hey, Catholics! You can still come to Arby's on Fridays—we got cod!" How different life must be to one whose religion commands such a cachet: the peculiarities of the Catholic diet forces every fast food corporation to shift their plans for forty days, and more than that, forces them to shift without ever acknowledging why they are doing it. Lent is invisible, at least in my part of the world; its rites become part of the accepted way of doing things for everyone. That's a kind of cultural power that I've never known.
One of those ashen-faced friends from high school grew up to become a high school Theology teacher; we have had an ongoing friendly argument about religion since we were both 15 years old. The argument concerns the disposition of my soul. Oddly enough, my friend takes the position that I will go to heaven as a result of my good deeds and generous spirit (qualities of mine that I think my friend sorely overstates). I, on the other hand, insist that, if we are playing by Catholic game rules, I will be fitted for a red jumpsuit shortly after I pass away. Perhaps my works are good, but belief counts too—and certainly I have had many offers of grace, and politely refused them all. I doubt I would even qualify for the Virtuous Pagan exemption Dante granted to Cicero and Homer.
"God wouldn't send someone like you to Hell," my friend says. "Maybe you'll just end up in one of the middling sections of Heaven." I imagine this as being sort of like staying in one of the cheap hotels at Disney World. Sure, it's a long tram ride to the Magic Kingdom, but Mickey loves us equally, regardless of the quality of our resort package.
I appreciate my friend's thoughts; really, I do. Despite his commitment to his faith, he has never begrudged me mine, nor has he ever tried to convert me, nor has he ever tried to frighten me with tales of my inevitable damnation. But one thing I have noticed is that our friendly argument always assumes that ultimately, he's in the right. When we play, we play by Catholic game rules.
I live in Saint Louis. A lot of things are like that here.
3/4/2012 5:00:00 AM