[Written in 1998 as part of the course “Re-Defining the Sacred” conducted by Richard McCoy at CUNY Graduate Center; edited]
“Church-bells beyond the starres heard, the souls blood, /The land of spices, something understood.” (Herbert, “Prayer” 13-14)
As a gay man I have felt myself repulsed by yet attracted to the “Churches banquet” and its exclusive offerings. I, once pronounced Protestant, separated from Catholic friends during religious instruction—then separated from all by something I could not quite communicate.—was born into a family whose faith had evaporated generations ago; only a rigid work ethic remained.
Pleasure, always deemed a dubious aim, and hard work, always seen as the true purpose of life, were strictly separate: the study of art or literature was all but inconceivable. Art became my sanctuary; I felt like an intruder in a temple, never truly at home. I pronounced myself “other” when I refused to pay the church tax deducted from each pay check without my consent.
I left my country. I am gay and am angry at the church, at the institution of marriage, at “Single” on my tax form. Still I yearn for the secrets of the mass, for the promises of “Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,” for communion—for “something understood.”
The last two words of Herbert’s “Prayer” never fail to make me weep, as they express both my longing and my not-belonging. I remain envious yet also suspicious of gay men who partake of the “Churches banquet,” men who seek the embrace of an institution hostile or indifferent toward the very core of their being.
In Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez declares his credo, shares his faith, but it is his life as a gay man, shielded by a pretentious autobiographical performance, that remains his true sanctuary. His allusion to the convert Waugh—a favorite of mine—is telling; both seem aware of my suspicion: something understood.
Now. I go to mass every Sunday. Old habits persist. But it is an English mass I attend, a ritual of words. A ritual that seeks to feed my mind and would starve my somewhat metaphorical soul. The mass is less ornamental; it has been “modernized,” tampered with, demythologized, deflated. The priest performs fewer gestures. His central role as priest–intermediary between congregation and God–is diminished. Symbols have changed. A reciprocal relationship between people and clergy is dramatized as the congregation takes an active role in the recitation of the mass. The priest faces the people, his back to the tabernacle. And the effect of this rearrangement is to make the mass seem less a prayer directed to God, more a communal celebration of the Eucharist. There is something occasional about it all, and no occasion for pomp or solemnity. No longer is the congregation moved to a contemplation of the timeless. Rather it is the idiomatic one hears. One’s focus is upon this place. This time. The moment. Now. . . .
I go along with the Kiss of Peace, but paradoxically I feel isolated sitting in half-empty churches among people I am suddenly aware of not knowing. The kiss signifies to me a betrayal of the old ceremonial liturgy. I miss that high ceremony. I am saddened by inappropriate music about which it is damning enough to say that it is not good enough, and not even the best of its authentic kind–folk, pop, quasi-trappings that discloses a different reality. I have left church early, walked out after hearing the congregation spontaneously applaud its own singing. And I have wondered how the Church I loved could have changed so quickly and so completely.
I continue to claim my Catholicism. Invariably I arrive late at somebody’s brunch or tennis party–the festivities of a secular Sunday. Friends find it peculiar that I still go to mass; most have heard me complain about liturgical changes. Amid the orange juice and the croissants I burlesque the folk-mass liturgy (“Kumbaya”), the peppy tambourine. Those listening find my sarcasm amusing. And someone says that my Catholicism is a mere affection, an attempt to play the Evelyn Waugh eccentric to a bland and vulgar secular age. (Rodriguez 101-02)
Gilbert Pinfold, Waugh writes,
had been received into the Church—”conversion” suggested an event more sudden and emotional than his calm acceptance of the propositions of his faith–in early manhood, at the time when many Englishmen of humane education were falling into communism. Unlike them Mr. Pinfold remained steadfast. But he was reputed bigoted rather than pious […]. Away from his parish he sought the least frequented Mass; at home he held aloof from the multifarious organizations which have sprung into being at the summons of the hierarchy to redeem the times. He was sometimes referred to as a leading Catholic but his leadership was not conspicuous. (Waugh 10-11)
Herbert, George. “Prayer.” The Works of George Herbert, edited by F. E. Hutchinson. Clarendon, 1941. 51.
Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory. 1982. Bantam, 1983.
Waugh, Evelyn. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Little, Brown, 1957.