Sunday, March 22, 2015

My Primal Catholic

Mark and I were sitting on the patio outside our room at our hotel in Palm Springs on Friday evening. We had come for the weekend for a wedding. Suddenly (or so I’m sure it seemed to him), I looked up from the book I was reading and turned to Mark and said, “There’s something about spring and the Easter season that awakens my primal Catholic.”

He looked up from writing in his journal and gave me a quizzical yet somehow knowing look, smiled endearingly, then unscrewed the top of his Mont Blanc pen and began writing again. He knew to leave it alone. 

The book I was reading is entitled The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell. Quickly climbing the New York Times (hardcover fiction) Bestseller list, the book is a mystery thriller that plays out amidst intrigues in the Vatican. A couple of weeks ago, I finished another Vatican-themed thriller, The Confessor by Dan Silva. I loved/am loving both.

At another time of the year, I might not be inclined to read such books, but this is spring and Easter is approaching, and my primal Catholic is stirring. I say “primal” because I left the Church when I was still in high school, and though I later (including within the past several years) flirted with it - and at one point even considered entering the priesthood – I did not and could not re-embrace it.

So what is it about this time of the year that stirs something deep within me? The simple answer is that I really don’t know. A more complicated answer would probably involve childhood memories of a time when Lent really meant something in our family. A time when the Latin mass was still said. A time when there were Palm Sunday processions around St. Theresa’s Church in Salem, Illinois where we lived. A time of Stations of the Cross. A time when the statues and altar crucifix were draped in black on Good Friday. A time of deep mystery and catharsis, much more mysterious and wondrous and primal than the Christmas season.

The answer would also surely include memories of a trip I took in the spring of 1982 to Europe. I joined a college friend in Paris. We attended Easter mass in Notre Dame Cathedral. The next day, we boarded an overnight train to Rome. When the sun came up, we were somewhere in northern Italy. Soon, we were snaking down the sun-basked peninsula with the Mediterranean on our right. Flowers were blooming. Trees were leafing out. When we pulled into Rome and in the days to come, I saw wisteria everywhere. That was the year I fell in love with spring. Up until that point, I had been strictly an autumn man, thinking that a love of one necessarily excluded love of the other.

I also fell in love with Rome. I wasn't a practicing Catholic, but I loved being in St. Peter's. It wasn't so much a spiritual thing as a historical/cultural thing. And it was spring, and the weather was nice, and life seemed lovely there in sun-kissed Rome.

It was also in spring – the following year – that I experienced a crisis in my life and found my primal Catholic again turning to “Mother Church.” In my confusion and need for some sense of direction and certainty, I turned to prayer and felt God was calling me into the priesthood. But after I shared my thoughts and feelings with my then-employer – a Mormon – she put on a full-court press to get me to join the Mormon Church, an effort in which she was spectacularly successful.

Interestingly, my father also came to a point in his life when he seriously considered entering the priesthood. (Actually, I have come to realize that my life is strikingly similar to my dad's in some important ways.) He was raised Methodist, and there wasn't a Catholic in his family tree for hundreds of years. He converted when he was in college at the University of Illinois. He talked to the monsignor about seminary, and he counseled Dad to go home to the farm for the summer and think it over. In July, Dad met my mother on a blind date and married three months later after a long distance courtship (again the similarity to my life).

My mother was religiously raised as a Catholic by her German grandmother, whose father had been baptized in a church in Sasbach at the edge of the Black Forest, and whose mother - the daughter of immigrants from Lower Franconia near Frankfurt - was christened in St. Peter's Cathedral in Belleville, Illinois. Mark and I were in Germany in 2012, and the lead photo is of the interior of the church in Sasbach.

Four years ago, another spring saw me leaving Mormonism. My primal Catholic again stirred, but I couldn't see myself at that time going from one anti-gay church to another.

In the years since then, I have learned to live with my primal Catholic. Instead of trying to extinguish it or pretend it’s not there, I accept - even welcome - its presence. But I also know that one of the definitions of “primal” is “relating to an early stage in evolutionary development.” I have evolved since my childhood and youth, since that trip to Rome, since that flirtation with the priesthood, since leaving the Mormon Church; and I continue to evolve. But what is primal will remain, and I suspect I will always associate spring and Easter with my Catholic origins.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying The Fifth Gospel.

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