On the infrequent occasions when I visit a Catholic church, I always feel a little uncertain about my motives as I dip my fingers into the holy water and make the sign of the cross. The same internal dialogue replays itself in my head about whether doing so makes me a fraud or somehow complicit with an institution whose history and dogma is often contrary to my sense of what is good and true.
In the end, I do it because I find comfort in old observances, because I retain an abiding appreciation for the effect that the place has on me, and because it’s what I would do if my grandmother were present. Not exactly a sturdy philosophical platform, I know. You get what you pay for, I guess.
Last week, I stopped by the church I attended as a kid for a little peace and quiet. As I sat in the amber light that paraded through the windows, it occurred to me that I hadn’t genuflected upon entering the aisle. I decided, after only momentary consideration, that this was just a casual visit. You can be polite without acquiescing.
Sometimes we’re called upon to join people of faith when they pray. For folks of a certain disposition (which is to say, anyone subscribing to a belief system other than the one being invoked), this can be mildly uncomfortable. You can always just close your eyes and politely nod at the end, and most do just that.
Alternately, someone like journalist Christopher Hitchens would say that in these situations, to submit to, indeed to do anything but attack the ultimately violent trajectories of dogmatism, is to engage in irrational cowardice and dangerous folly. Hitchens is painfully intelligent and, I sometimes think, correct in his worldviews. He’s also a total dick, and I wouldn’t want to have supper with him anyway. A spirited drinking session ending in a half-hearted fistfight would seem more appropriate.
I think that prayer, loosely defined, can be helpful for everyone, even lapsed or non-believers. Distilled to its basic elements, prayer is just a brief meditation on intentionality. By and by, the idea that people might take time, systematically, to think about what they’re doing and reflect on what they hope to achieve seems one that’s past due. It’s just a matter of whether you want to name names while you’re doing it.
In those situations when I get a little cagey about people praying for, with or near me, I always note that, in prayer, most people are petitioning for things like health and safety for loved ones, and lobbying for greater communion, one for another. It’s hard to argue with that.
Still, there are times when it is distinctly out of place and when its practitioners refuse to extend to me the same courtesies I extend to them.
Armchair citizens, myself included, have become content to merely yawn with mild distaste as governmental institutions and functionaries regularly tread all over what is purported to be a constitutional separation of church and state. The disregard for this ideal, carried out with routine impunity, has been institutionalized, and the din of protests surrounding it has become as inaudible as a television left on in the kitchen. Dissent is rendered passé and sophomoric. Huzzah.
As I watched KET’s coverage of the governor’s budget address last week, I couldn’t help but note how the standing up and sitting down, the effortless flow of call and response when names were invoked, the pounding of gavels, and the observation of other old conventions was similar to the liturgy itself. And when instructed, those gathered bowed their heads and kindly allowed themselves to be lead in prayer.
Briefly stated, the prayer was an unfortunate, almost well-intentioned piece of public speaking that failed to even wink in the direction of inclusiveness. It was out of place, poorly conceived and ham-fisted, especially in light of the topic du jour.
The earnest entreaty that our “Holy and Righteous Father of Mercy and God of All Comforts” pilot us through stormy waters, assist the folks in Haiti, and the rest of us who are contending with “our own moral, financial and spiritual earthquakes” served as a prelude to Gov. Beshear’s balm for the wounds of our commonwealth: namely, video slots.
It was an unfortunate convergence of hallowed tradition, unavoidable prayer topics, and pressing fiscal business. But damn.
Well, would Jesus vote for expanded gaming in Kentucky?