June 20, 2009

Correcting a Misimpression, and the Charitable Speaker

Justin Katz

Between the Friday morning talks of Maggie Gallagher and Joseph Bottum, I was asked in the presence of a notable personage about my conversion to Catholicism. It took some time — well past the cessation of the conversation — for my mind to catch up to the realization that said personage's response indicated that I had inadequately characterized my emotions about the circumstances that brought me to the event in question.

My pithy summary was that, having had no experience with religious faith, I found myself within a year graduating from college, moving to a new apartment, pursuing employment, getting married, commuting for over an hour each way to and from work, and inhabiting a gray cubicle for the better part of every weekday, and I realized that something within my belief structure (more accurately, my non-belief structure) was not functional. The distinguished gentleman suggested that only the long commute and gray cubical were dispiriting aspects of the life that I'd described, and it still bothers me to think that he might not have understood how integral to my meaning precisely that actuality was.

What I'd meant to convey was that the rapid succession of these life-changing events seemed to have as their consequence a lack of success so profound that it couldn't even be called a failure. My great sprint through the final years of youthful development hadn't left me falling because unable to fly; rather, they'd placed me on a treadmill (the walls of which, I might add, were not only gray, but of such a design that it seemed as if a previous occupant had taken up the habit of checking off the days of his captivity). Furthermore, I had no basis to expect anything other than the continuation of that treadmill until my ultimate collapse into oblivious death.

Thence religious faith, which gave me a context by which to understand that, even if phony cloth partitions were to become the sum of life's setting, its real texture spread to spaces inherently unaffected by them.

Which brings me to the afternoon speech of New Criterion editor and publisher Roger Kimball.

Mr. Kimball gave an exquisite, if negative, description of the sign of peace moment in Roman Catholic Masses (stream, download) in which he lamented the disruption of "the mood appropriate to the celebration of the awful mystery of the Mass." The aesthetician does not like the moment, to say the least, but I'd propose that it makes a difference which threads are setting the mood.

My first trip to Mass as a might-be believer (rather than mere accompaniment for my wife) was made alone to an old urban church in Fall River that was, at the time, under construction, making it dark and close, with boards on windows and scaffolding constricting the pews. To this day, I remember how suffused was the service with the invocation of the quality that my days were desperately lacking: internal peace. And the moment at which that message's light managed its first wink into my psychological darkness came when the small boy behind me held out his hand and wished for it to do so (albeit with no great enthusiasm).

There may be something, here, of the distinction between those who've had faith and those who are approaching it. Kimball went on to describe the delight that Bill Buckley took in life (stream, download), and I can't imagine that he (or Mr. Buckley) would object to the observation that there are prerequisites to delight. Among them is that internal peace.

That is to say that one profits nothing from concentration at Mass if one's mind is a chaos of despair. A handshake can only be disruptive of prayer if a person's very thoughts are not a prior disruption. As one who knows neither man, and for many years knew not peace, I find Kimball's reference to Buckley's spiritual generosity significant (stream, download); how conducive to spiritual advancement it would be were one to find Mr. Kimball or Mr. Buckley among the randomly proximate churchgoers reaching out across the pew with a smile.

Speech after speech, this week, made the case that WFB was generous, indeed, with his smile, so it's odd that he would share Kimball's aversion to offering it during Sunday worship. Perhaps he needed that time for his own rejuvenation. I'll confess, however, that my newly Catholic eyes (relatively speaking) do not see the difficulty in reformulating that rejuvenation to the minor degree of affirming the importance of the church community as a constituent part of one's own, personal, and humble relationship with God.

Toward the end of his speech, Kimball spoke of time's internal complement (stream, download): taking away moments, while still providing the substrate on which achievement can grow. Just so with that non-traditional practice that he so loathes. Just so the presence of traditionalists among parishioners who don't know more than a garbled phrase or two of Latin.

Just so, as well, was it an act of spiritual generosity for Roger Kimball to offer his thoughts for our audience's consideration, facilitating the sort of discussion that — even if online, and even if without response — draws participants into the mechanics of the faith such that, by focus of the intellect, they almost do not notice that they have moved more deeply into belief.