Sunday, July 04, 2010

The fear of the Lord--the wrong way

When I was younger and a lot more vain than I am now, I used to believe that I was the kind of person in whom famous people could find unqualified friendship. I believed I had no desire to be famous, after all, and believed myself incapable of vanity, so these people could confide in me without the fear that I was using them as a ladder to fame for myself.

I've long since disabused myself of the notion that I'm incapable of vanity. (If you ever find yourself believing that you possess some virtue that makes you particularly ideal as a choice for some role in life, that would be your vanity speaking.) I have more "fame" than I could ever want as a pastor, by the way, as proven by the fact that I've had people stalk me online, trying to find fault with "the man of God". I've also become jaded toward the notion that most celebrities are people with whom I would want to find friendship, were I ever to meet them. There are, however, a few with whom I believe I would enjoy a conversation over the beverage of choice.

One such man is Alan Alda. I've been fascinated by Alda for as long as I can remember. M*A*S*H began its run before I was born, but I remember watching the finale on our old black and white television. Alda's character, Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, was intriguing, even as young as I was. I certainly didn't understand everything that went on, but even I, callow youth, could tell that Hawkeye was a complex character, and the man who played him made the character believable, no matter how far-fetched the situation seemed. Age has only allowed me to see with more clarity just how rich a character her portrayed, just how brilliant his portrayal.

I recently purchased the two books he has written, his memoirs. I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised, to read that he was no longer a Christian. He had been a practicing Roman Catholic, but He departed from the faith in his twenties. He describes it this way:

I was still going to mass every Sunday, because I believed that if I didn't, I would take a one-way trip to hell. I was twenty-two, and the nuns' words from my adolescence still burned in my ears. I envied people like Arlene and her father, Simon, who seemed not to need to believe what someone else told them they had to believe. Simon was a quiet man with a twinkle in his eye and a stomach that showed a strong belief in food. Hew had a simple rule that covered politicians, clergymen, and insurance salesmen. "They're all a bunch of fakers," he would say with a sweep of his hand that gave them the official brush-off.

I couldn't take the priests so lightly. They had a list of things you could burn for, and once you had heard the word, not believing it was at the top of the list. I didn't want to burn, and I didn't want to take the chance in believing there was no such thing as eternal fire. I kept thinking of what William James said in a gallant attempt to be pragmatic about the unprovable: "Faith is a bet you can't lose." I supposed he meant that if you get to heaven after a life of belief and you find out it isn't actually there, well, nothing lost. I turned that over and over in my mind, until I thought: But what if you spend real time doing things you wouldn't do if there really was no afterlife? What about endless novenas and countless trips to the altar? What about meatless Fridays, and what about people who lock themselves up for life in a monastery? Is that nothing lost?

Still, I was locked in by belief. Every exit was blocked by a sentry in black with a wimple and three nostrils, holding a yardstick.

Then one day, the heavens opened for me.

It was a sunny Sunday morning in spring. I kissed Arlene good-bye and took the train up to Fordham, where there was a little chapel I still went to for mass. There were fifty or sixty people in the pews. We knelt, we stood, we sat, we knelt. In the hundreds of masses I had been to, I never could remember when you were supposed to stand and when you were supposed to kneel, I watched and did what the others did. And when I couldn't figure out which it was they were doing, I put my behind on the seat and my knees on the kneeler and did the all-purpose half kneel.

Then the priest reached the moment when, after consecrating the host and holding it in both hands, he lifts it above his head. I looked at it. I had always looked at it. But this time I noticed that the other people in the chapel were bowing their heads. Maybe I should be bowing my head, I thought. But, no. If you're not supposed to look at it, why is the priest holding it up? We're going to be swallowing it in a minute; why can't we look at it? This led to a train of thought I had never taken before: I wonder how many of these people bowing their heads actually believe that this is the body of Jesus? Do they realize you can't regard it as just a symbol? And suddenly, in that moment, I remembered what the Jesuits had taught me. "No matter what," they said, "you have to follow your conscience." And I thought: I don't know what these other people believe, but if I'm honest with myself, I do not believe the priest is holding anything but the same piece of unleavened bread that it was a few minutes ago. I was like the boy of fourteen again, refusing to rise from the pew, holding stubbornly to his right to think for himself.

And then I remembered a second thing the Jesuits had taught me: If you don't believe in transubstantiation, you're automatically excommunicated.

I'm out, I thought. I didn't quit; they don't want me. They let me go. I'm fired.

A ray of sunlight fell across the chapel, just the way it did in The Song of Bernadette.

It always haunts me when I hear that it is fear that has motivated a soul to practice Christianity. It's not that we have nothing to fear apart from Christ and His Church--indeed, the opposite is true. But if a man does not move from fear to joy, he will find himself questioning God, His grace, His gifts. He will bend beneath the burden of the Law. He will doubt. And then he will break. He will depart--with cynicism, or with that same fear.

It saddens me that this is how Alda experienced the faith. I hope someone has the opportunity someday to speak of the love of God, the joy of faith, the peace of God's gifts. I pray that for him . . . and for all who have departed in fear or cynicism. I am not vain enough to believe I will be that man. But if God gives me the opportunity, I'd love to try.

If nothing else, I think we could be friends.

[The excerpt above comes from pages 81-82 of Alan Alda's book never have your dog stuffed, (c) 2005, 2006 by Mayflower Productions, Inc.]

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