Monday, November 19, 2007

The varieties of religious experience

We are all shaped by our early experience. In matters of religion, especially, we like to think that as adults we have arrived objectively at "the truth," but the vast majority of us end up affirming the faith into which we were born. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and all the rest hold with equal conviction their natal religion as the one true path to God. Even an old agnostic like me was surely nudged to my present position by influences over which I had little control. Recognizing this sobering fact should cause us to show rather more ecumenical tolerance and humility than has been the norm.

I am a Catholic agnostic.

The quintessential religious experience of my youth was kneeling alone in a church lit only by the red glow of the sanctuary light, reciting rote prayers and feeling guilty for my mostly imagined sins. Or serving Mass. Introibo ad altare dei, I mumbled, knowing it meant "I will go into the altar of God," but having little sense of a divine presence. As for the rest of the Latin prayers I rendered from memory, they might as well have been the Swahili alphabet. But the rites and rituals had a solemn dignity about them. I loved holding the canopy over the Blessed Sacrament as the priest processed around the church at Benediction, all of us singing the Tantum ergo in magnificent voice. And if that didn't stir up a sense of divinity, there was always the soul-stirring Dies irae of the Requiem Mass. There seemed to be something grandly medieval about it all, as indeed there was. I loved it. Still do.

But, hey, this was Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the late-40s and 50s, and there were other religious experiences on offer. I had a Baptist girlfriend who took me to a BIg Tent revival meeting. We sat on rickety chairs in a back row where I harbored the forlorn hope of hanky-panky. She got carried away with the general pandemonium, leaping to her feet and clapping and praising Jesus while I sat there mooning over her cute little bottom. For weeks afterward she was born-again virtuous while I lined up for Confession to declare a seriously underestimated number of "impure thoughts."

And how could I forget the snake handlers. I sometimes spent summer weekends at a friend's family cottage in Mentone, Alabama. One night we went to a snake-handler church in the shadow of Sand Mountain. First we hung out behind the church where a couple of grizzled rednecks tended a big box full of copperheads, which they were happy to take out -- carefully -- and show us. Later we sat in a back pew while the sweaty preacher took the serpents into his hands, men on the right, women on the left, all in a state of apparent transport. Those of the congregants who felt sufficiently possessed of the Holy Spirit passed around the venomous reptiles. If we took away a subconscious lesson from that night it was that one person's religion is another person's madness.

But none of that sank in then. I had to go though some madness of my own as I tried on a conscious, elective Catholicism for the first time. I put pebbles in my shoes and sand in my bed, and lived the sort of confused muddle of asceticism and carnality that characterized the stuff I was reading, such as Georges Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest, or watching, such as Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was madness, yes, but at the time it seemed a divine madness, and even now lingers as a sweet melancholy.

In the end I made my peace with science. What appealed to me about the scientific way of knowing was its emphasis on achieving an empirically-based consensus that reaches across cultures, religions and politics. That is to say, I trust the global scientific consensus more than I trust the accidents of my birth and upbringing. No longer did I worry about parsing miracles: Do I believe in heaven, but not purgatory? Do I believe in purgatory, but not limbo? Do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but not the assumption of Mary? Do I believe that the Virgin appeared to Bernadette, but not in the image of Jesus on the damp church wall in Brooklyn? Do I believe in praying for rain in drought-ridden Georgia, but not in picking up copperheads? Every religious person parses miracles, and ends up somewhere along the spectrum between agnosticism and fundamentalism. As for me, it was accept the whole ball of supernatural wax or none.

So I chose none. I rely on non-miraculous natural science as the most reliable guide to "what is." But I bear the welcome marks of a Catholicism that goes deeper than Creed and miracles. An abiding awareness of Mystery. A regard for the sacramental tradition. An attachment to sacred history, art and music. A respect for liturgy grounded in the diurnal and annual solar cycles, and in earth, air, fire, water, bread, wine, incense, chrism and wax. Prayer of the heart, as Merton calls it: attentiveness and silence. A nostalgia for the journey of the soul through the dark night. And, of course, the thing that every Catholic carries like the sign of Baptism -- the delicious, heart-wrenching, unshakable equation of sex and sin.