Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) spends some time at a Presbyterian cemetery and listening to repentence and the possibility of redemption on the radio. It seems that Conyers has a lot of that, provoking me to begin what will probably be a two part thought exercise (continuing with my next post on the Monastery of the Holy Spirit) on spirituality. I might have written about it once before, but what else do we talk about if not politics, religion and sex (and not necessarily in that order)? Click the tiny map at right to see the exact spot of the cemetery where LHM ate breakfast. Also, let me know you're out there - we've had over a thousand unique viewers this past month. Thanks for reading! Comment a hello!
"That morning, down on route 20 near Conyers, Georgia, while I ate breakfast in the Smyrna Presbyterian Church cemetery, I read the Scotch-Irish names on tombstones and listened to the radio. A stained-glass voice beating repentence into the ungraced at 95.6 megahertz a second may have influenced what happened next."
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 17
I can't remember if I wrote much about religion and my relationship to it in any previous post. I've done so many now, what I remember doing and what I've actually done may be two different things. The reason I bring it up now is that this post and the next post, based as always on the book quotes I cull from Blue Highways, will have to do with religion and spirituality and the reflections and thoughts that the quotes pull from me.
LHM briefly describes sitting in a cemetery in Conyers, in the Smyrna Presbyterian Church to be exact, eating breakfast and listening to a Christian radio station. His choice of words is pretty meaningful..."beating repentence into the ungraced..."
The facets of religion fascinate me, and sometimes repel and horrify me. It's amazing to me that a Christian faith that emphasizes the most empathetic, tolerant and compassionate responses to most any human situation (pretty much everything that Jesus Christ taught) and at the same time the most violent, petty, and vengeful responses to what are often relatively minor infractions (pretty much most of the Old Testament), can exist in the same faith. It helps explain why within the Christian faith a man like Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church (warning - the link to Westboro Baptist Church may be deemed offensive and does not represent the views of this writer) can protest at the funerals of Iraq War veterans with the twisted logic that America's tolerance of homosexuality has brought God's punishment and wrath upon us, AND produce the beautiful service to humanity performed by the likes of Mother Teresa and others.
Christianity is a large tent, but the religious airwaves tend to resound, like the political airwaves, with the most conservative voices. These are the voices that argue that if you're not Christian, you are destined for a horrible afterlife. These are the voices that emphasize that the only true way to redemption is through acceptance of a particular Christianity, a particular Christ. These are the voices that harangue, listing the horrors that befell people who did not believe, did not accept, and did not practice their Christianity and elevate their Christ.
As a person who is a somewhat practicing Catholic, I find these voices have gained strength in my own Church as it responds to the changes in the secular world by pulling in on itself. Suddenly, it seems that there are litmus tests within the Catholic Church. A true Catholic accepts what an increasingly conservative heirarchy deems to be important. When I was growing up, the Church was a loud voice speaking out for justice for the poor, against militarism, and always for the common good. Now, it seems that the Church speaks loudest against abortion, whispers against the death penalty, turns a blind eye toward militarism, minimizes its own mistakes and criminal actions (pedophilia) and generally conveys a "with us or against us" attitude. How else can one interpret refusing communion to politicians and other notables who express their personal feelings on issues, silencing important thinkers within its ranks, and refusing venues to those whose opinions may be counter to the official opinion of the Church on various issues? While the world embraces democracy, the Church remains mired in its opposite.
How interesting that LHM begins this brief exploration of spirituality in Conyers, a city that has evidently experienced mystical apparitions of Jesus and Mary - years after LHM passed through. Christ may be the Son of God and Man, but in Catholicism, Mary is the uber-woman. She was the virgin mother of Christ, and her compassion for humanity, even after her death, has elevated her to the highest levels. Catholics pray to her for her intercession on their problems. People have seen her in visions that have appeared throughout history; for example, to Juan Diego in Mexico as La Virgen de Guadalupe, or the apparitions in Medjugorje, Bosnia & Herzogovina. It can be fodder for jokes, but people claim to have seen her visage on burnt tortillas (click here for a likeness on a cheese sandwich sold on EBay). Her statues have been claimed to weep blood tears. In Conyers, a housewife named Nancy Fowler claimed, starting in 1990, to receive visions and messages from the Virgin Mary. Pilgrims flocked to Conyers to hear Mary's words, which alternately admonished and offered prayers for humanity, and warned of violent conflagrations to come. Ms. Fowler's visions and messages lasted until 1998, when they suddenly ceased.
Where do I stand on such issues? I consider myself spiritual, and try to be a good person. I fail sometimes, but I like to think I succeed more often than not. I'm less enamored of the rites of my Church than I am in the actions of people within it. I am of the opinions that humans create their own realities, though I don't question the power of faith to help guide our actions and ease our burdens. I try to resolve the inconsistencies of messages between the Old and New Testaments by focusing on the New. But I am uneasy with the direction my Church is going, and it shows in the fact that often I am indifferent to what is considered my Church's most important obligation - attending Mass. I usually don't find much to inspire me in the proclaimings of a priest on the pulpit, though I can be pleasantly surprised. I'm not a person who prays regularly, and I am skeptical of the visions and apparitions - I don't disbelieve those who argue that such things happen to people, but I am not sure they are products of divine intervention. Perhaps it's my academic training in the sciences, or perhaps it's a deep questioning. Or perhaps, I just don't like being told that I am wrong for exhibiting that most human of characteristics - exploring my relationship to the world and the universe and not just relying on what I'm told.
If you want to know more about Conyers
Next up: Monastery of the Holy Spirit, near Conyers, Georgia