Sometimes life is like a poem. (Read: mysterious and really difficult to interpret). Two experiences can work like two images juxtaposed by the poet, working off of each other, challenging each other, challenging you. Like this oft-quoted line by Emily: “I heard a Fly Buzz–when I Died.” Strangely, she pushes two images together, a commonplace one and the ultimate one: a fly buzzing and death. You have to deal with that weird juxtaposition throughout the rest of the poem.
Anyway, being an English teacher/English major, I’ve been thinking about an interesting juxtaposition that happened to me, and juxtapositions within that larger juxtaposition.
The other day I went to a Chicago White Sox game. Sitting behind me and my friends were two couples, probably in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and inevitably I heard most of their conversations during the game. Eventually they began discussing their future children and whether or not they wanted to send them to Catholic school, comparing notes on their own various Catholic school and public school experiences, and joking about whether the expense was worth it. (Little did they know that four Catholic school teachers were sitting in front of them, but, tempted as we were, we didn’t turn around). They talked about how their years of education had funded all the rich mosaics of “St. Pete’s” in the Vatican. They recalled the crazy, strict morality of Catholic school, but the liberal immorality of their Catholic school friends. “They did worse stuff than my public school buddies!”
Then one of them said,
“But I mean, the Catholic Church is a big joke, right?”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m Catholic, but I’m not Catholic.”
I almost turned around. Not because I was angry, though. And not because I wanted to. I didn’t want to.
But I should have said something.
That was image number one. It already includes lots of strange juxtapositions within itself.
Then, yesterday, I was sitting outside reading and enjoying the beauty of the Notre Dame campus. A man came up to me and asked me if I worked for the music department, or if I knew anything about it. And then he noticed my book: The Return of the King. And that started a long conversation. Apparently he had applied to the ACE program years ago, but was not accepted ended up doing a different teaching program in Baltimore. Teaching was not for him, however, and he asked me very kindly about my own experience. There he was, and there I was.
As always, I was surprised to find myself engaging in a rather intense conversation with a complete stranger.
Somehow our conversation turned to faith, and it turns out that he had discerned the priesthood and visited various monasteries, but about ten years ago had had a conversion experience in which he had joined one of the pre-Vatican II groups of Catholics who believe that the Catholic Church, during Vatican II, had apostatized.
He talked a lot about the Third Secret of Fatima, and how the Vatican had been covering it up. How it’s easy to tell that the Lucia presented by the Church is clearly not the “real” Lucia. How the events of the book of Revelation are occurring as we speak. How it makes sense that the Anti-Christ would come, not seeking political power as some predict, but rather spiritual power, leading souls away from Christ by the very institution that was originally supposed to lead them to Him. How the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon because she has been unfaithful to Christ.
I told him politely that that’s what some Protestants call us, too.
He gestured at the basilica, and said how he never goes in there. But he comes to Notre Dame frequently, and enjoys the library, where he has looked at many old (Pre-Vatican II) documents of the Church. He told me how strange it was.
“That must be very painful,” I said.
He agreed. “It is very beautiful here,” he said. “I do go to the Grotto sometimes. Do you have a devotion to Our Lady?” I told him that I did. He prays the rosary daily, all fifteen decades, but of course not the Luminous Mysteries, the ones introduced by Pope John Paul II. He walks around campus and talks to people, and it is so strange for him because “ten years ago I was like you.”
The church he goes to an hour away belongs to the Society of St. Pius X. But he, and others, actually don’t belong to that society, but a group that split off from that society.
I said that it was strange, because that’s what seems to happen so often with the Protestant Churches, too.
He asked me a lot of questions. He suggested a website for me to look at if I wanted to learn more. He was very kind, and very polite. Twice he apologized for interrupting my reading, and gave me many opportunities to close the conversation if I wanted to. But I liked talking to him.
At the end, I asked him to pray for me and I told him I would pray for him, too.
“What intention do you want me to pray for?” he asked.
I was a little surprised, but then I said, “For the unity of Christ’s Church. I know you and I disagree about what that means, and maybe we’ll end up praying for opposite things, but that’s okay.”
He said that he would.
He said goodbye and went to get a drink of water, because the air was very humid. “Nothing like in Louisiana, I expect!” he said, referring to my time there.
I thought about him kneeling at the Grotto to pray even though it’s part of a university belonging to the Church he believes abandoned the true faith. Lighting a candle with us. Juxtaposition, no?
I admire him because even though I don’t think he’s right, I think he really is trying to do what is right.
And I thought about the people behind me at the baseball game, and this man, and how hard it is to be Catholic, and how so many people struggle with what that means. How I struggle with what that means. And how easy it would be to roll one’s eyes at the people who think that the Church is a just a big “joke,” and others who think she is the “whore of Babylon.” And the people who think of the Church as some sort of corporation, making all sorts of human decisions. The Church of the old white men oppressing women, people who are gay, minorities. The big rich Vatican Church ignoring the cry of the poor. The out of touch Church. The “spirit of Vatican II” Church who moves with the times and who has abandoned tradition. The traditional Church who refuses to move with the times and clings to tradition.
Chesterton also noticed such juxtapositions of images that did not quite fit, that challenged each other. And he does a good job reminding us that the result of juxtaposition, whether it is in a poem or in your life, isn’t about striking a “happy medium,” or even Aristotle’s “golden mean,” exactly. Life and poems are too complicated for that.
As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness.
[…] It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out. A thing might have these two opposite vices; but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape. At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.
[…] And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.
[…] The Church swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
(G. K Chesterton, excerpt from Orthodoxy)