Suddenly, we may receive a son—a six-year-old, our first child—and we may get him in weeks. My small worries grow immense.
Some background on one of them: My husband and I have what has been called a “mixed marriage” (sort of a hot dish, like franks and beans). He is firmly Catholic; I, by upbringing, Protestant: a lukewarm Presbyterian, dropped off at Sunday school, in my youth; a more staunch Episcopalian in adulthood. We worship together, alternating churches, and enjoy it. (So we aren’t your textbook conservatives.) I love the old enclaved Roman Catholic tradition he grew up in (“I was 18 before I knew there were people in the world who weren’t Catholic, Bohemian, and Democrat,” he brags, not a bit sheepishly), and he likes the intimacy of my small church in a state rife with large, unwieldy Catholic and Lutheran congregations. I chose Episcopalianism because it seemed to offer all the ritual I hungered for, all the history and pomp and tradition, yet lacked the few Catholic beliefs that kept me from converting.
Still, I often deplore—loudly—what I see as a growing horizontality, a sideways thinning, a puddling, of tradition and, with it, religious conviction. (My husband is concerned, too, but he’s not a complainer.) My grievances have become cliches to be found in nearly every conservative journal in any given month. In my husband’s large, modern church, few “hymns” that we sing were written before 1979, it seems (when we come across an anomaly dating all the way back to the 1960’s, he elbows me, points to the year, and smirks), and no one has bothered to make them rhyme—or scan, for that matter. They’re unmemorable, strictly for sanctuary use, not for humming in the car. There are no quiet times unmolested by guitar or organ or singer or “commentator.” We are requested to sing a ditty as we kneel in preparation for receiving the Holy Mysteries and as we make our way forward. We play the whole service by ear. At my little church, which looks as if it has been lifted in rapture from the English countryside, the situation is similar: Oh, we sing the great old hymns most of the time, but have the irritation of unrestrained children running amok in the aisles to “worship” noisily in their own way, sometimes with balloons. (To his credit, my priest has never held a Clown Mass, although he has allowed teenagers with guitars from time to time, after whose “performance” we must clap.) At neither church do we waste much time on confession or meditation.
But, as I say, this is old news, the long-standing but mainly private objections of mainstream America, those of us too polite or embarrassed or cynical to grumble out loud. Joining a particular church is like marrying: One doesn’t get a divorce just because one’s husband’s relatives lack aplomb—and the Bridegroom is ever constant. Annie Dillard, in her wonderful “An Expedition to the Pole” in The Yale Literary Magazine’s anniversary issue, was the first to make me question my own convictions: If little things like inane lyrics and the inescapable messiness of human fellowship could get in the way of my healthy communion with God on Sunday morning, I really did have a problem. It’s easy to love one’s neighbor and concentrate on prayer when one’s surroundings are aesthetically pleasing. I happen to love Bach on a booming organ and the terrifying silence that follows, and to despise fourth-rate guitarists and church applause and constant chatter. . . . I could go on. Dillard, making me ashamed, writes, “A taste for the sublime is a greed like any other, after all,” and, “Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter.”
And, to be honest, I glean hope from the belief that all this will pass, that it’s a fad, albeit a tenacious one. The verticality, the up-and-down sense, of worship and our relationship with God will return, perhaps even stronger than it was before we learned we could lose it; and meanwhile, maybe, we’ll learn to love each other better. Maybe.
But I’m still worried, because suddenly I’m going to be a mother, and it occurred to me, as my husband and I knelt one Sunday morning and tried to raise our thoughts above the surrounding chaos, that today’s children have had no chance to develop a “taste for the sublime.” If they meet it, will they like it? When the old way comes back—and it will, because sooner or later we’ll rediscover that to focus on this life is prodigal—will it seem alien and constrictive to young folk who grew up having fun in church? What will the priesthood mean to them, the relinquishing of this world? If a child learns to expect disorder in worship and clatter where there might be peace—if he knows hand-clasping and absolute familiarity (a friend of mine calls this the “Jesus is my pal” syndrome) but nothing of terrible grandeur or the sweet relief of true, if momentary, humility, of saying Thy will be done—what will he make of Chartres or Notre Dame, of St. Thomas and Belloc, of most of Western civilization?
Dorothy L. Sayers writes of being “filled with the solemn intoxication that comes of intricate ritual faultlessly performed”: ritual is a tool, nothing more or less, which helps us to DO holy things even though we can’t BE holy. Liturgical predictability takes the intellect out of worship—and with it the ego—and lets us participate even if we don’t particularly “feel like it.” Is ritual in worship, like ritual in craftsmanship, a lost art, to be tolerated smugly but not encouraged?
I don’t know. Our children are laboratory rats in this experiment, as they are in all experiments where a monolith of tradition is intentionally chiseled away in an artificially short period of time by those with ulterior motives—usually a latent atheism—as the rest of us let them. Perhaps the old way of worship lasted so many centuries precisely because it was the most natural, the most helpful to us in our lives, and our children will go home to it like the prodigal son to his father. But the more I consider, the more I understand that we have only one right in this life. It is not the “right” to ride in the front of the bus, or to not go hungry. It is not the “right” to privacy or to bear firearms or to worship as we please. God gives us none of those “rights,” and what man gives, man can take away. The only right God gives us is truly inalienable: the right to glorify Him. That is why He made us and the Sabbath, and why we used to make cathedrals. And this solitary right of ours is the very one we’re not teaching our children these days.
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