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Terribly Catholic...


I'm a bad Catholic. An awful Catholic. Not chop-up-priests-and-put-their-collared-heads-in-the-freezer bad, but certainly not good in any measurable Catholic way. (And you think there isn't some way to measure devotion? The Church has had centuries to suss it out. And believe me, I don't measure up.)

A Good Catholic goes to church.

A Good Catholic prays. Sometimes more often than when their life is in danger.

A Good Catholic doesn't say, "God damn!" when they get a piece of particularly good news.

A Good Catholic doesn't imagine Jesus singing lead vocals in a band called, "Jesus and the Hard-Spankin' Disciples."

You see? Person who follows those rules? Good Catholic.

Me? Not so good.

Funny nun. Very funny nun.

It became blatantly clear to me because Friday night I went to see a fantastic show called "Late Nite Catechism," in which an actress who plays a nun does this funny one-person performance where they conduct a class of the audience members and educate them, as if they were going to a catechism.

First sign I was a Bad Catholic going to this play? I didn't know what a "Catechism" was. And I didn't bother to look it up.

The play was hilarious, not only the content, but how audience member responded to it. It's big on audience participation: people answer questions as if they were back in Catholic school and are given little rosaries and funny souveniers.

People who went to Catholic school, let me just say... y'all must have had some serious knuckle rapping to remember all that stuff. People at the show who went to those school recited stuff that Stephen Hawking wouldn't be able to remember. They knew that an "ejaculation" was actually a kind of small prayer, and not something very, very naughty. They knew the names of proper saints. They knew the difference between the Holy Birth and the Immaculate Conception (there's a huge difference; it's not even the same person being born in each of those!). I always thought that Jesus was born during the Emancipation Proclamation

I don't feel bad that I didn't go to Catholic school. I've said before that I've wished I'd had a more theological upbringing, but given that I didn't stuff those priest heads in the freezer or join the mob, I think I turned out okay. I try to do the right thing and after years of going around telling people that I'm agnostic, I can finally upgrade myself to Lapsed Catholic. Do I get any air miles with that?

Telling people you're agnostic is a little bit like telling someone you don't have a favorite NFL team or that you're bisexual. You're all of a sudden the object of lots of questions and not a little bit of suspicion. It's spiritual fence-riding, and for many years, that worked for me. It even sounded a little bit wise, like I was this Serious Thinker who was not content to stick to one organized religion. I was a theological free agent, a spinner of my own religion, Omieism, in which I'd cobble together my own set of ethics from the best of all the religions. It would be this big great cobbled-together Ball of God, a personalized belief system for one.

The great flaw in this plan, of course, was that the number of religions that I actually knew anything about numbered in the fractions. But damned if it didn't get me through college.

Now, after seeing this show, I'm back to thinking about my life, my religion, where I'm going, who I'm going with, what kind of car we'll ride in, whether there'll be any toll fares, how much gas we'll need, where the rest areas are. You want to have something solid around you, you know, a Volvo or a Buick, something that won't fall apart when poked with the dipstick of skepticism.

But at "Catechism," Catholocism made sense for a little while. It didn't seem arbitrary and hypocritical, absurd and historically oppressive. It felt like something that a lot of very good people care very much about and make part of their life. It felt like a solid ride.

This does not, of course, mean that I'm suddenly a Good Catholic. Quite the opposite, in fact. I've never had my knuckles rapped hard by a ruler, and I think that's part of the deal when you sign up.



The next night, I saw Suzanne Vega play a small Austin show. I'd forgotten how much I loved her voice and her lyrics, her ability to write about the small and the epic, sometimes in the same song.

She didn't play a lot of songs I'd have liked to have heard, but I was still inspired by her stories and her claps, the most solid claps I've ever seen a stage performer use. She cups her hand and makes this popping sound. It's unbelievable.

I don't know anything about her personal life except that she was married and got divorce before her last album, but I felt like I was having another spiritual experience at her show, a window of understanding into something. Not her life, I don't think, but just this glass pane of her music, a little bit of wisdom in what she writes and how she sings.

I've tried to construct little moments for myself, maybe in a way to make up for a spiritual hole. Most of the times it's come from writing, other times it's been through hearing a particularly moving piece of music or being affected by a film or a conversation, a kiss, even.

Suzanne was Saturday night church for me. I left the show lighter than when I came in, floating on a feeling of connectness with the world.


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