Opinion / 10 October 2019

A Flirt with the Church

A really, really brief one

… faith cannot be even one hour old!  

- Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities



A previous piece, “My Heathen Family”, affirmed my secular-humanist roots, so it may come as a surprise that I once joined the Roman Catholic Church. 

As a condition of marrying my wife, a “cradle Catholic,” in her childhood parish church, I agreed to raise any resulting children as Catholics. I had no problem with that. At worst, they would have a tradition of bizarre authority to rebel against, something I hadn’t had. At best, they would know a lot more about Christianity than I did. 

I took advantage of the church so my wife could have the wedding she wanted, and the church took advantage of me by laying claim to my offspring. This mutual exploitation made me curious, and I wanted to understand my new wife, so in the first year of our marriage I took religious education at the Newman Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I was attending graduate school. My wife came along too. 

Our instructor was a woman named Mary who wished she could be a priest, which meant she was a devout but unhappy Catholic. She was less interested in proselytizing than in exploring the powers and limitations of faith. I learned a lot. I’m sure I came out knowing more theology than your average Catholic churchgoer whose religious training ended with confirmation. I was not tempted to join. 

Some 18 years later I had an 8-year-old son who, as agreed, was getting a Catholic upbringing. He attended St. Aloysius Catholic school, which was preparing him for his first communion. His mother sang in the church choir, so she couldn’t take him to mass every Sunday as required. She asked me if I would do that. Week after week, the boy and I sat together in the pews, running through the liturgy and listening to his mother’s choir. 

What did I experience there? A community of people who all knew the ritual, who sang and knelt and stood up together and, prompted by the priest, shook each other’s hands and wished each other peace. There was a high ceiling, rousing organ music, and a whiff of holy smoke. Singing with a group is heartening. The sign of peace after the Lord’s Prayer is a liturgical obligation that becomes an actual friendly encounter. An hour or so of ritual, contemplation, and rote intonation is mentally invigorating. 

All these things drew me in and made me look forward to weekly mass. A bit of context: at that time I was about twenty years into undiagnosed depression, with episodes growing more frequent and severe. This friendly, sacramental place of communing humanity felt like a relief to my irritability, anxiety, and hopelessness. Whatever else the Church did, it stressed hope. An anti-depressant! I decided to join. 

I reasoned, irrationally, that without exploring them from the inside, I couldn’t judge the outlandish teachings enumerated in the Apostles’ Creed: conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin, rose again from the dead, right hand of God, will come to judge the living and the dead, resurrection of the body, life everlasting. I started RCIA, which stands for “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.” To the weekly masses I added weekly evenings of Bible study, initiation into ritual, and discussions of faith. The class leader, Robin, was kind and reassuring.

I was not unprepared for my foray into religion. I had spiritual interests. Besides my Catholic classes, I had studied mysticism in German literature, including Meister Eckhart and Angelus Silesius. I knew Musil’s contemplative “other condition” and his wish to drive a truck down the mystical path. I was becoming familiar with Zen Buddhism. And then there was my sole experience of revelation. 

A few years earlier, my sister had called to tell me our mother was in intensive care with peritonitis and a 30% chance of survival. After the news, I sat down and spontaneously started meditating. Instead of getting stuck on my mother’s possible death, my mind let that thought pass through unattached. 

I sensed profoundly, without words, that my mother’s death would be a minor, ordinary occurrence within the course of the universe, and a catastrophe only to my small self. I was consoled, but even more, I felt like I had contacted the Big Self. Later I tried out the thought that this was some kind of an encounter with the Holy Spirit, but this metaphor, like the tropes of doves and rushing winds, was only a clumsy approximation. My mother recovered and lived another fourteen years, but this intimation stayed with me.

My wife and son, of course, were the reason I chose Roman Catholicism for my experiment in organized religion, but I was also attracted to the experientiality of the mass. I’d spent my life using words to try to get to truth (and conquer melancholy), so the collective ritual, repetition, and music of the mass, and the drama of the eucharist, appealed to me (although I couldn’t swallow transubstantiation). Protestant homiletics wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go; it’s harder to refute what you live through. The Easter Vigil of my baptism and confirmation came close to transcendent. I continued attending mass with my son as he now prepared for his own confirmation. 

The next fall, I went back to Salzburg to run my university’s year-abroad program. I “outed” myself to an Austrian friend, an intellectual and writer. He couldn’t quite grasp what I’d done, allying myself with a power-hungry, deeply corrupt institution. I justified myself to myself by thinking that Catholicism in America, long the religion of the downtrodden and ostracized, was different from the European brand, with its history as the handmaiden of imperialism.     

It’s hard to identify a moment at which I started drifting back to my heathen heritage. For one thing, I started medication and therapy. I also came to realize that the community I aspired to was a closed group, that cradle Catholics share cultural and familial connections, group memories, that I’d never have, and that these, apart from any theology, were essential to their Catholic identity. This also involved counting the ways they were different from and better than rival religions. I was never good at team sports. 

And I should not have been surprised that the faith I encountered in discussion groups – one of which my teacher Robin actually asked me to lead – often entailed a crude personification of the deity that was quite remote from the Big Self I’d once stumbled upon. 

So eventually I returned to my comfort zone of discomfort, my own cultural and familial secular humanism. We are a smaller group who are smug about not being so smug as to think you can make a deal with a god by constantly flattering him so he won’t let you suffer so much.

Sometimes I think I ultimately joined the Roman Catholic Church just so I could be an apostate. That’s a cosy old shoe I’d never had the pleasure of wearing. 


Geoffrey C. Howes

Geoffrey C. Howes is professor emeritus of German at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, USA, has published widely on Austrian literature and culture, as well as book-length translations of Robert Musil, Jürg Laederach and Peter Rosei, and many shorter translations. He is assistant editor of No Man’s Land.