Not Weird Enough
Anna Keating is Catholic. Don’t forget it. She lives with her husband and kids above their furniture workshop in Colorado Springs. And she just wrote a book with her mother, Melissa Musick—a plausible contender for the kind of necessary encyclopedia that every thoughtful Catholic of a certain generation should prominently display on a living-room bookshelf. The spine, thankfully, is far more attractive than those of Richard P. McBrien’s Catholicism and (hands down) Catholicism for Dummies.
The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life is the long-awaited fruit of Keating and Musick’s eponymous blog. Its subject is the craft and lore of everyday life, drawn from traditions well-enough forgotten that they will seem to many Catholics like new. But in the strangeness and plain wisdom of these offerings, Keating claims, there is something for everyone. They come from a tradition too often wasted on the faithful who don’t let its weirdness run free. Perhaps Catholics need non-Catholics—testing out the recipes in this book—to remind them what they’ve got.
The name “Catholic” itself includes a claim to universality. There are so many cultures and sub-cultures contained in the faith. How much of it can you claim to catalog? Where does one even begin?
The book is not intended to be a definitive account. The religion is over two thousand years old, and many of its practices—for example, ritually cleansing one’s hands with water before prayer—are much older than that. It would be an endless task to try to write an exhaustive account. That wasn’t our aim.
This book is meant to be a door, a way in. It came from the heart, and is rooted in personal experience. There’s not a recipe, or a craft, or a devotional practice in the book that we haven’t actually tried. Except, now that I think about it, consecrated virginity. Never tried that.
We couldn’t cover everything, even from our own perspectives, let alone all of the sub-cultures contained in Catholic Christianity. But we knew we had to cover the basics. The history and meaning behind the sacraments (baptism, confession, anointing of the sick, etc.), and the seasons of the liturgical year (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, etc.). And it was important to me to include some of the more esoteric stuff that’s just fascinating. For example, the tradition of Mary gardens, or Christ rooms, or bonfires on the water for St. John’s day, or Catholic tattoos (a tradition that goes back thousands of years in Egypt).
“American Catholicism needs to resist the suburbanization of consumer culture,” the poet Dana Gioia once said. “Keeping in touch with one’s ethnic and cultural roots is an essential form of resistance to social homogenization.” I think that’s right. I don’t think Christianity is in danger of being too weird. I think it’s in danger of not being weird enough. If it’s about being “nice” or keeping up appearances, what the hell is the point? Let’s learn about radical hospitality. Let’s learn how to chant the psalms. Let’s learn about Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the Eucharist.
Start with one practice that fascinates or frightens you, and go from there.
For instance: Rosary as necklace. Ready? Go.
The first album I ever bought in the sixth grade (back when people still bought albums) was Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection, so I’m torn here. I did dress as her for Halloween that year, complete with a rosary around my neck.
I understand why people are concerned about cultural appropriation and disrespecting sacramentals. I think when it comes to sacred art or objects intended to facilitate prayer, from our own tradition or someone else’s, we should generally be respectful. If you’re entering a Buddhist temple, you take off your shoes. Don’t be a jerk. Always err on the side of respect.
That said, it’s a difficult question. Nuns wear rosaries on their belts because they pray them all day. And no one knows what’s in anyone else’s heart. Who knows how the rosary tattoo on the girl you see at the gym is working on the person who’s wearing it?
When my son was two, he used to wear his rosary as a necklace and would cry when I took it off, so I let him wear it, even though he looked a little Jersey Shore. But his heart was in the right place. He liked how it looked, and he also liked to kiss the cross. It was beautiful, if a little awkward to explain at the park.
Christians have to be careful not to shrink-wrap Christianity and put it in a museum. When you do that, you keep the dust out, but keep the light out too. If these practices are going to continue to exist, they’re going to be adopted and reinterpreted by actual people.
It’s common for non-Hindus and non-Buddhists to engage in Hindu and Buddhist practices like Vipassana meditation and yoga. How cool are you with non-Catholics appropriating our stuff? Who is allowed to get one of your recommended Catholic tattoos?
Walker Percy once wrote, “98 percent of Americans believe in God, and the remaining 2 percent are atheist or agnostic, which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker.”
This is a book for seekers. Most of the stuff in the book can be done by anyone. Anyone can practice Lent, or pray night prayers, or go on a Catholic road trip or pilgrimage, or get a cross tattoo.
It’s not “our stuff,” after all.
Still, my non-Catholic relatives and friends who come to Mass with me don’t get to share the big meal.
In every world religion there are certain practices reserved for those who are practitioners. In Catholicism, those are the seven sacraments. Participating in them requires a period of religious training. Most people get this. You wouldn’t just jump into the baptismal font at a baptism, or ask to also be bar mitzvahed at a bar mitzvah. Some practices require preparation.
So be curious. Be playful. Be a seeker, but also have humility. Simone Weil said that just as it takes a lifetime to become fluent in a language, it takes a lifetime to become fluent in a religious tradition. Just because I’ve meditated at yoga doesn’t mean I’ve necessarily understood a Hindu or Buddhist practice. I’m a neophyte.
At the same time, in a post-secular world, it’s pretty amazing that people can encounter mindfulness and meditation at their local YMCA.
We’re still waiting for the YMCA—which used to offer stations of the cross.
People need to experience this stuff. Karen Armstrong says religion is a form of practical knowledge, like swimming or dancing. You have to jump in. So come to Mass. Come to eucharistic adoration, try making and praying with candles in your home, but don’t be afraid to read up a little bit first, and ask questions along the way. It helps make the experience more meaningful. Hence, a field guide.
Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.