I’d like to begin by taking a journey into the foreign country of my past. I came up with that idea recently, when my father called to tell me that a friend of his had read a column I’d written in Commonweal. “Your son must be a very committed Catholic,” the friend said. My dad laughed. “Last I checked,” he told his friend, “Rand was a very lapsed Congregationalist.”
So I’m finally outed! A fake Catholic! In fact I’ve had a long career as a Protestant interloper in the world of Catholicism—going back to seventh grade and St. Joseph’s School, in New London, Connecticut. Little did my parents know, when they chose to send me there, that they were starting me on an encounter with Catholicism that would last a lifetime. Tonight I want to offer stories and insights gleaned from my years as an infiltrator, first at a Catholic school, then at a Catholic magazine. In the process, I’ll use these two concepts—Protestant and Catholic—to sketch differing ideas about the self in its relation to existence and to other selves, and offer up some thoughts on what I’m calling American Loneliness.
Let me first describe the Protestantism I lapsed from, as my father said. He himself grew up in Philadelphia, in a white, working-class, Protestant, and Republican neighborhood. His parents were Episcopalians, but in his career he became a surgeon, and his religion turned out to be those twin materialisms, science and upward mobility. Like faith itself, atheism can come on you suddenly, as a revelation, or gradually, while you’re not paying attention—or maybe even trying to avoid it. When I was a kid my father was looking to recuse himself from churchgoing—but as quietly as possible, in the hope that somehow my mother might not notice. This all blew up one memorable Sunday when I was ten. We were coming out of church, my mother and sister walking ahead on the sidewalk as my father and I lagged behind. I had torn off my clip-on tie, unbuttoned my strangulating dress shirt, and was reveling in that post-church feeling of liberation. Maybe I could sense my father felt likewise.
“Dad,” I asked him, “do you like going to church? What do you really think of it?”
He glanced ahead. “Don’t tell your mother this,” he confided. “But I think it’s a crock.”
“Maaaaaa!” I yelled, racing up the walk. “Dad says church is a CROCK!”
Religion to me was our church, Second Congregational. A graceful stone building on a big green lawn, it was lovely, but severely under-occupied, like the baseball stadium of a chronically losing team. Religion was the museum-like somnolence of Sunday service, my mother nudging me when I fidgeted, and discreetly handing me a mint to pacify me. It was the clink of the Communion shot glasses—no communal slurping from a shared chalice, but individual Protestant portions, neat and hygienic—rattling in the deacon’s tray. I’d while away the time by wondering if the words “doxology” and “dachshund” might be related, or by trying to count the little carved crenellations on the oak paneling above the choir pews. Everyone around me was lost in some strange private zone, surfacing to mumble a halfhearted prayer, then subsiding again as the minister, Rev. MacLeod, droned on about our obligation to help those less fortunate.
Religion above all was a private thing, individual and inward. My mother’s faith was focused on obscure spiritual yearnings, and on the pastor’s sermon, which she expected to be moved by—and later in her life she turned into quite a church shopper, always on the lookout for a more inspired minister. (“Oh, I’m through with him!” she’d say, breezily, when we came home from college and asked about her latest church.) The church as community not only didn’t interest her, it vaguely repelled her. Years later we joked that what she truly longed for was the Church of Leave Me the Hell Alone.
The notion of church-and-pastor shopping reveals the modern, very American impulse to treat religion as a consumer good—something to compare, select, change... or discard. Our Protestantism was a belief, yes, but one you could try on, like a jacket. If you didn’t like it, you could wear a different brand...or none at all. Religion was optional and individual; you pondered and made your choice. There was a certain self-destructing aspect of Protestantism; built into the very core of the faith was a mechanism for rejecting it.
That mechanism came into play in the deal I cut with my mother over confirmation: I’d take the weekly class with Rev. MacLeod, but the final decision to be confirmed was up to me. This resulted in the crass absurdity of a thirteen-year-old American kid announcing to this learned and authentically reverent man, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School—a man who had studied theology at Tübingen, home of Hegel and Hölderlin—that No thanks, I don’t buy it, I don’t think it’s true.
The appropriate response would have been, “Who cares what you think? The church doesn’t care, I don’t particularly care, and I’m certain God doesn’t care!” But Rev. MacLeod couldn’t say that. Not just because he was polite, but because his brand of Christianity had that decisional action built into it. So for me it was goodbye to the green lawn and graceful stone building, goodbye to the pastoral voice echoing its drowsy invocation to do good, as our nuclear family passed through untouched, a lark, another Sunday outing.
In the middle of this, my parents sent me to St. Joseph School. No religious reason, they just didn’t think the public schools were doing the job: I was coasting, I needed some rigor. It was a huge shock to my system—an over-indulged smart boy from an upwardly mobile Protestant family colliding with the world of 1970s small-city Catholicism. As I quickly discovered, St. Joe’s was the opposite of the green lawn in almost every respect. The school was a dark and ancient brick building where nothing had been improved for decades. The grounds were a half-acre prison yard of fenced-in blacktop, not a single blade of grass anywhere. There was a hole in the chain-link fence where, if the teacher wasn’t watching, you could escape at lunch, then hustle up the block to the pizza place, cram down an Italian sub and make it back by the bell.
The schoolyard pastime was a rough tackling game that began with one boy standing in the center of the blacktop, facing a line of thirty or so others. At a shout of “Go,” the line raced across to the other side, and the one in the middle tackled someone; the next time, those two tackled two more, and so on, until a few last crossers faced a mob of gang-tacklers. The game was brutal, with all sorts of vendettas enacted in the pileups. Girls, those merciless arbiters of manliness, stood watching on the sideline. You had to be tough, or at least act tough. But I couldn’t. I was secretly sensitive, and my memories of St. Joe’s are full of smothered, shamed bursts of crying. My grades were too good. I had a baby face. I wouldn’t fight. The girl I had a crush on was also a good student, and when I walked her home, tough boys followed us, murmuring crude suggestions.
The school was staffed by lay teachers and nuns. Nuns were completely new to me; the only one I knew was Sally Field, the “Flying Nun.” Well, the nuns at St. Joe’s were not only not flying, some were barely moving—like Sr. Catherine Mary, who sat statue-still in the world’s tiniest library, a converted maintenance closet; she was so old, and moved so little, she was rumored to be dead and embalmed. Religion class was taught by Sr. Thomasina, a baffling experience. Every day began with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Hail Mary recited in rapid succession, as if they were cheers for the same squad, reflecting the motto carved in stone on the front of the school, FOR GOD AND COUNTRY.
St. Joe’s brooked no iconoclasm—we were sternly warned not to listen to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which I treasured. Academically, the school was not exactly achievement-minded. When I wrote a term paper on New York’s Attica State prison uprising, my social-studies teacher, Mr. Farina, accused me of plagiarizing. More hot secret tears. Sr. Susan, my homeroom teacher, kept me after class one day and tried to probe my unhappiness. Was everything OK at home? Did I need any help? I sat there, exploding with misery, staring at the clock on the wall and wishing I could be anywhere else.
The clocks at St. Joe’s were antiquated models, square clocks with Roman numerals, that ticked off the minutes discretely. I was fascinated by those clocks. How could time, which was continuous, be broken down into stackable, tick-tockable building blocks? This kind of thing makes an impression on a future writer, and every time I’ve written about St. Joe’s, I’ve included those clocks—as in these paragraphs from a short story called “Heroes of 1974.” Here the adult narrator is recalling being called to the principal’s office because of some troublemaking offense:
One afternoon I was summoned down to Father Connelly. He kept his office in a tiny room crammed with books and diplomas, electric candles, and Jesus dreamily agonizing on His cross. Father Connelly talked to you through the steeple of his fingertips, pressed together in front of his mouth. I was entering a stage of life, he told me, where I would need to be mature. Star athletes were mature. Jesus had been mature, which was why he accepted his Father’s will even though he didn’t like it. And our school’s patron, Saint Crispin, he was mature, giving up all his possessions to make shoes for the poor. He wanted to help others, which is what mature people did.
I stared at the wall clock—the school’s clocks were ancient relics that tocked off the minutes mechanically—and avoided his gaze. Father Connelly went on talking. Maturity, he pointed out, didn’t mean you had to be a shrinking violet. “Take St. Crispin,” he said. “The Romans tortured him. They pulled out his fingernails.” He leaned forward. “They boiled a cauldron of fat and tar and dunked him in. Can you imagine that?”
The story didn’t make sense to me. “If God was so all-mature and everything,” I said, “then why didn’t He help Crispin?”
“Ah, but He did.” Father Connelly smiled. “In fact, He gave him a great gift. He made him a soldier for goodness.” And that was his question for me, Father Connelly said. Clearly I wanted to be a soldier. But what for?
It wasn’t the kind of question you answered. I sat there. On the clock the big hand trembled, as if it might move backward, then clicked ahead.
The passage conveys some essential impression Catholic school made on me. Early adolescence is when a person begins to tangle with the imponderables: mortality and time, our consciousness, our purpose. For me, the very harshness and decrepitude of St. Joe’s conduced to thinking along these lines. The school exerted a powerful, even oppressive sense of time—of how minutes pile up into hours, then to days, months, years, and lifetimes; and beyond that to the collective lifetime of history and finally to whatever mystery lay beyond that. One’s individual existence—my individual existence—was being placed in a different perspective from what I was used to, with different attitudes toward authority, achievement, and individuality. There was an eye fixed on the eternal, and a premium placed on obedience and sacrifice. Being Catholic, at any rate, was not about expressing yourself, and certainly not about your personal views on God. And so St. Joe’s delivered the message that Reverend MacLeod couldn’t. Who cared what you thought about God? Better focus on what God might be thinking about you!
In some ways the school seemed the least religious place on earth. It wasn’t exactly suffused with sacramental energy. I recall the day Sr. Thomasina had classmates list saints to adopt as confirmation names...and Steve Stefano and Albert Annibalini listed “St. Popeye” and “St. Bozo.” Instant ticket to Fr. Dempsey’s office. And worse, I’m sure, when they got home. At St. Joe’s a great deal of correction was ladled out, yet recidivism was high. The focus was not on our personal development, with concerned parents called in to confer; rather, daily life at school wove a tapestry of crime and punishment, sin and penance: two complementary strands; two necessary halves of a basic deal.