Monday, August 16, 2010

True Conversions No.11: Faith Interrupted

Faith Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey
Eric Lax
Alfred A. Knopf: New York
c. 2010 275 pp. illus. US$26.00
ISBN: 978-0-307-27091-7 (hardbound)

“I came to the obvious but difficult-to-accept conclusion that my son’s perception of his religion was not at all unusual for a young person, and that what I wanted for him—a personal sense of the excitement of Christianity—was something he would have to learn for himself…. He would have to discover it and test it—verify it…and make it his own, in his own life, in his time, through his own encounter with the living God.”

So opines author Angelo Matera (Faith on the Edge), when confronted with the discomfiting knowledge that his teenaged son did not share his own religious convictions. Faith, we are given to understand, is a gift. Yet it never ceases to surprise and befuddle us that what we cannot seem to impart the essential DNA of our deepest beliefs to the next generation. The discovery and acceptance of faith must, ultimately, be a free, conscious and personal decision.

Author Eric Lax has written a deeply personal memoir on precisely this subject. He wrestles with the enduring conundrum of conscience and consciousness: that while he deeply respects the religious faith of others, he cannot accept that same faith for himself. In a way, this is not a memoir of Lax’s own faith journey. More aptly, perhaps it is the spiritual biography of the two people in his life he appears to admire most: his father and Episcopal priest John Martin Lax, and his best friend, George (Skip) Packard. The course of Lax’s narrative is partly a “coming of age’ narrative and partly a description of these parallel and simultaneous journies: Lax’s own gradual drifting away from belief, and his father’s (and Skip’s) increasing embrace of and commitment to the Christian faith.

Lax provides a loving description of the Episcopal liturgy which has framed and informed his worldview from his earliest memories as an acolyte assisting his father at Holy Communion at their parish in El Cajon, California, through his experiences at church school, then summer camp, and student years at Hobart College. Lax’s hold on the Anglican tradition is a heavily aesthetic one: the beauty of the liturgy captures his senses, imagination, and emotions. (There are several, unnecessarily long descriptions of liturgy as well as verbatim citations from the Book of Common Prayer) But, apparently, the aesthetic attraction has worn away with time. The faith of his father/s is not sufficient to address his deeper longings for meaning and understanding.

At the same time that Lax charts his own drift from Anglicanism, he records in admiring detail the growing faith of his college friend, Skip. Coming of age on the cusp of the Vietnam War, Lax struggles with the decision to request “conscientious objector” status based upon his religious beliefs, and serves a two-year stint of duty in Micronesia as a Peace Corp volunteer. Skip, meanwhile , joins the US Army, attends Officers Candidate School, and sees active combat. Upon his return from Vietnam, Skip enrolls in seminary and is ordained first as an Episcopal priest, and ultimately as a bishop.

The figure of Lax’s father, the dedicated, humble, and kindly priest, is always within close reach. Lax appreciates the depth and strength of his father’s (and Skip’s) convictions, but cannot embrace them himself. Doubt about dogma stands in the way. For his part, Lax gradually disengages from church attendance over time: the more he consults the creedal statements of the Church, the less willing he is to give assent to its doctrines. “… shortly after I turned thirty I noticed a drift away from my secure faith. It was a course of omission, not commission—of what I happened not to do rather than what I decided to do.” Lax’s stance is neither rebellious nor condemnatory of the church. It is simply a matter that the church is no longer relevant to his life: “I felt part of the Church, an insider in a genteel and socially prominent faith. Unfortunately, this meant that I found comfort more in feeling connected to the establishment than to the Holy Spirit.”

Interestingly, he seems to draw comfort and consolation from the wry wit of Woody Allen (Lax has written two books on the comedian’s life and work): “Woody’s conviction (and annoyance) is that as much as we might like there to be a personal God in a universe where wrongdoing is punished and virtue rewarded, we only kid ourselves into comfort by believing it. His aphorisms and observations about God (e.g., “I think the worst you can say about (God) is that basically He’s an underachiever.” ), religion and faith are widely quoted, in part because they’re pithy and funny and in part because they lead to reflection.”

The trajectory of Lax’s spiritual journey is not unique to his generation—women and men reared in a mainline Christian denominations who realize that the church no longer holds the hope, promise, or consolation of their formative years: “I wasn’t looking to lose it; I just suddenly noticed there was a separation I had never known. I was like a car whose tires all have imperceptible leaks. Everything runs smoothly, until suddenly four flats bring you to a halt.” The separation from that tradition and grounding elicits more nostalgia than bitterness; there is a quiet sadness and recognition of loss: “I still find myself at home in a church, but now it is more like revisiting the home in which I grew up.”

This is an honest account of one man’s spiritual experience, but it still leaves one wanting to push, delve, and discern more deeply on the nature of belief. “For all my childhood,” Lax writes, “it was as if faith were part of my DNA, determining but unseen.” “Faith, I guess”, he concludes,” is like love: It withers when unattended.”

True Conversions No.10: Faith At The Edge

Faith at the Edge: A New Generation of Catholic Writers Reflects on Life, Love, Sex, and other Mysteries
Angelo Matera, editor
Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame, Indiana
c. 2008, 224 pp. US$15.95
ISBN: 978-1-59471-140-4

“Just about every Catholic I know collects conversion stories, “ observes contributor Eve Tushnet, herself a convert. “… These stories usually have recurring patterns and themes… They’re often love stories; they’re often stories in which a sense of disturbance and inadequacy provokes a search for answers and the ‘answer’ to the questions is found in another person—or Person. They’re often stories in which an encounter with beauty forces an often unwanted recognition of a truth about oneself, one’s identity, and how one needs to relate to others.” Tushnet’s observation also serves as an apt commentary on this group of essays edited by Angelo Matera. It is a collection which on the whole describes, at times quite poignantly, aspects of both search and encounter central to the process of spiritual transformation and growth.

While not a compilation of “conversion stories” per se—themes run widely and sometimes wildly from young married life and parenthood to natural family planning, corporal mortification (!) and even a tongue in cheek consideration of exorcism—this volume nevertheless expresses in a significant way the spiritually transforming experiences of people who have in one way or another been challenged, confronted, and even surprised by faith at various moments in their spiritual journey. The conversion process here is less frequently a ‘once and for all’ struck-by-lightning kind of event, than an ongoing struggle and unfolding of actual, lived experience and engagement.

Religious experience and conversion are not the property of any one class, community or interest group. The Spirit blows where it will, whether right, left or center. According to editor Matera the seventeen writers whose work is represented in the 20-odd essays in this survey comprise “a new generation of Catholic writers.” While they may well represent part of a generation of Catholic writers, I wonder whether they actually comprise the full cohort. Many of the authors represented in this book are also in some way with the website, inspired by the Communio/ Faith and Liberation movement with its roots in postwar Italy. Their perspective is that of a self-conscious orthodoxy and identification with the magisterium (official teaching authority) of the Catholic Church. There are very few strays. “What unites the writers of these essays, “ notes Matera, “ is a singular vision: a paradoxical desire to live according to the firm doctrines of their church while at the same time freely expressing the truth of their experiences, and the judgment of their consciences.”

That said, I found this collection of essays to be at times a fascinating melding of traditional theology with a remarkably fresh and free-- sometimes even a bit too free—expressive style. The insights may be traditional, but the voices are clearly those of contemporary Americans, often well-read, articulate and world wise. In the main, they tend to be artists rather than theologians.

The (perhaps unintended) leitmotif of personal conversion in this collection is present throughout the book. In the introduction, editor Matera notes: “I remember the specific moment that sparked my interest in the Catholic Church. It came from an unlikely source—a review of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor by gay writer Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic…. Sullivan was repelled by what the pope wrote. But as a sincere Catholic he also found it difficult to resist the pope’s ‘bracing’ argument…. I was fascinated by the idea that anyone as traditional and doctrinaire as a pope could be intellectually challenging.”

“New Orleans made me a Catholic, or at least the kind of Catholic I am, “ writes Jessica Griffith in her poignant reflection on life in the Big Easy post-Katrina. “It always seemed to have body and soul—the sacred and the profane locked in constant embrace.” For Brian Pessaro, the experience of a Marriage Encounter weekend provided a spiritual epiphany: “I don’t remember much from that weekend, but I do remember one specific statement that the husband of one of the presenting teams said. ‘Love is not a feeling. Love is a decision. You have to decide to love your wife each day.” Pessaro continues later in his essay: “There was no theophany, no burning bush or pillar of fire. But over the course of the next year things began to change.” Paula Huston, describing her decision to complete the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) process for full membership in the Catholic community despite some initial obstacles, concludes “I could have gone to another church… but an easier church might not do the job, might not be able to tame this thing in me that needed taming.”

The accounts and reflections in this survey are most convincing and powerful when they come directly and candidly from the people’s lived experiences. They are less persuasive when they appear to be polemical, rigidly self-justifying, or just a teensy bit “out there.” This is a mixed bag, but the mixture is interesting and worth exploring.//