To continue the Numéro Cinq religious threads, I offer the following. (An ablution, perhaps? A burnt offering?)
I used to be an altar boy in Christ the King Catholic Church in Worcester, Mass. I have no sordid tales of degenerate priests. The priests I knew were kind, serious men. They understood rituals and sacred spaces in a way that made church seem magical and removed from the mundanity of life in the working class neighborhoods where I grew up. My favorite time in church was when I prepared the altar for mass; when the church was empty and quiet, when I lit candles, placed unblessed wine and water aside before the prayerful arrived. The poet Rodney Jones says that his sense of the religious springs from a recognition that Sundays have a different feel from other days. In the introduction to his poem, “Life of Sundays” he says the following:
“I’ve written a number of poems at the edge of a long study of religion. This is probably a poem that comes from my reading of Stevens as much as my understanding of an individual life of a person like myself who’s not a believer and yet who maintains some sort of superstition about Sundays. I think I could recognize Sundays from any other day if I came back from the planet Mars.”
I have drifted far from the faith of my youth, yet one of my favorite places to go is an empty church. Jones speaks directly to me about this.
Later in life, at the U.S. Naval Academy, I found a similar sense of the sacred in the military rituals. Annapolis imposed rigid institutional codes to instill in me a sense of duty, responsibility and service. We (the midshipmen) were somehow different, somehow set apart from the rest of the world because we believed in those codes. The inevitable drift towards war seemed, somehow, beside the point. The rituals of that life informed the decisions we believed in: the honor code, the sense of duty, the pride in service.
Yet in both of these formative experiences, something lacked. Both (the religious and the militaristic) somehow served only to exclude. Only those on the inside could be admitted, accepted. The rituals of church and state demanded an adherence to singular principles. You believed in Christ. You believed in Country. Outside of these narrow confines was the enemy.
Literature (I think, I hope, I pray) offers a broader view of the sacred. Literature grapples with similar structural concepts, with ritual and meaning, but not towards a single answer. The artistic search scatters as it meanders toward a destination.
In a very elegant, brief essay, “Degenerates,” (Found in The Best Writing on Writing, Vol. 2, edited by Jack Heffron) the poet (and Benedictine oblate) Kathleen Norris talks about the connections between monastic life and writing. Norris lives with monks and talks about how monks and writers (poets) face a similar challenge: to live outside a world devoid of a sense of the sacred.
I told the Trappists that I had come to see both writing and monasticism as vocations that require periods of apprenticeship and formation. Prodigies are common in mathematics, but extremely rare in literature, and I added, ‘as far as I know, there are no prodigies in monastic life.’ This drew a laugh, as I thought it might.”
Norris goes on to describe her life living with the monks and the similarities to the writer’s life.
I was recognizing the dynamic nature of both disciplines; they are not so much subjects to be mastered as ways of life that require continual conversion. For example, no matter how much I’ve written or published, I always return to the blank page; and even more importantly, from a monastic point of view, I return to the blankness within, the fears, laziness and cowardice that without fail, will mess up whatever I’m writing and require me to revise it. The spiritual dimension of this process is humility, not a quality often associated with writers, but lurking there, in our nagging sense of the need to revise. As I put it to the monks, when you realize that anything good you write comes despite your weaknesses, writing becomes a profoundly humbling activity.”
I take comfort in being an apprentice, that the beatings I’ve endured at the hands of certain elders of the ‘church’ (read: certain, unnamed VCFA advisors) are going to temper my faith. (Please note a benevolent sarcasm in this.) Norris puts it this way:
Poets and monks do have a communal role in American culture, although it ignores, romanticizes, and despises them. In our relentlessly utilitarian society, structuring a life around writing is as crazy as structuring a life around prayer, yet that is what writers and monks do. Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems. That is what others expect of us, because if we are doing our job right, we will express things that others may feel, or know, but can’t or won’t say.