Featured Image: Carved limestone screen in rear of Nave, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Newark, NJ
Most foreign students of African Diaspora traditions have treated Christianity as an overlay, a “mask” that allowed slaves to practice African rites unbeknownst to overseers and spies. (Leslie Desmangles’ Faces of the Gods is an excellent exception). But Haiti overthrew its overseers and slavers centuries ago. The Mambos of Port-au-Prince and Brooklyn proudly celebrate their African traditions: they have no need to hide their Black spirits behind a White Madonna. Yet they attend fets (Vodou parties) on Saturday and Mass on Sunday. And if they smile and nod while the Priest cautions against sorcery and superstition, they are following a long lay Catholic tradition of honoring Church teachings in breach and observance.
The Priye Gineh which begins every fet opens with the Annunciation. Before any spirit is served the congregation proclaims the Savior’s coming and sings “Veni, mon Dieu, veni!” St. James the Greater is saluted simultaneously as the crusading saint and a manifestation of Ogou, the Yoruba lord of warfare and iron. When Rome broke with Haiti in the Revolution’s wake, the people hired defrocked clergy, seminarians and anybody who could speak some Latin as prets savannes (bush priests) to perform a semblance of the Mass. Vodou’s interpretation of Catholic theology might not pass muster at the Vatican but Vodou’s African and Roman Catholic roots are inextricably intertwined nonetheless.
I found a similar interplay at work in New Orleans. New Orleans Voodoo is a quintessentially American religion: it started out as entertainment for the tourists and became a local spiritual tradition. But there is definitely magic afoot in New Orleans outside the Voodoo shops and tourist traps. You can go to the Shrine of St. Roch and see the canes and crutches left by people who were saved by St. Roch the way he saved the city from yellow fever in 1867. You can visit Our Lady of Prompt Succor and thank her for saving New Orleans from the British in 1815. Though not known for its piety, New Orleans is a Catholic city. They take Ash Wednesday seriously in the Big Easy: that’s why they get all their debauchery out the day before.
It’s difficult to overstate Roman Catholicism’s influence on the modern world. Much of that influence has been deleterious, and many Church leaders have been and are morally corrupt. But the age which gave us the Borgia Popes also gave us the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel. Charles Martel hammered out Christendom’s western border at Tours: Catholic missionaries and merchants opened up a New World. And so, on a chilly Christmas Eve in Anno Domini 2019, I find myself pondering how the Faith which shaped my ancestors on both sides for over 1,000 years has shaped me.
Freud went his entire life without sensing the Numinous. I have never been able to look away from it. That has led me to several decades’ study in various mystical and occult traditions. The East is widely known (some might even say Orientalized and exoticized) for its rigorous and sophisticated mystical tradition. Yet always I have found myself returning to the West and to Rome’s vast body of mystical literature. MacGregor Mathers and Aleister Crowley had less to offer than the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Positive thinking was less useful against depression than St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. And no circle-casting or banishing ritual ever left me so grounded and centered as the Rosary.
For decades Neopagans have sought to breathe new life into their “Old Religion.” But who does more honor to the Great Mother, a bunch of drunk festival goers partying for an archetype or a hundred kneeling worshippers praying the Rosary before the Madonna? Who honors the Ancestors, a hippie tearing down politically incorrect monuments or a Church who honors its venerated dead as Saints? (And while Neopagans love to talk about justice and equality, the Church has always honored beatified beggars, prostitutes and peasants alongside its holy kings and warriors).
Today Chaos Magicians talk of egregores and spirit constructs: they claim the concentrated force of human attention has breathed life into icons like Spider-Man and Bugs Bunny. The age of Mass Media has ushered in a bold new Aeon of gods made in the image of man and built to serve his purposes. But what armies have marched under Superman’s banner? Did Luke Skywalker inspire George Lucas like the Sorrowing Mother inspired Michelangelo? And while Disneyland may be a towering corporate achievement and fitting monument to our times, it is no Notre-Dame de Paris. Catholicism inspired masterpieces like Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Chaos Magic inspired a few dozen sorry-ass Industrial bands.
Ultimately, I have found that modern secular mysticism is not just an oxymoron, it is ineffective. They confuse the Numinous (what Rudolf Otto defined as “a feeling…of the creature’s nothingness in the face of its Creator…a mysterium tremendum…a feeling of awe and shuddering”) with the Nebulous. They confuse awe with “Whoa!” and shuddering with “That was awesome!” This is unavoidable in any mystical practice lacking a structure by which the acolyte can incorporate and understand visionary experiences. My ancestral tradition has been building that structure for over 1,800 years.
In 2015 I realized something was terribly wrong with my country. By 2019 I knew my daughter would grow up in the last days of the American empire. I also understood more clearly the toxin which had sent us spiraling into an abyss of hedonism, nihilism and despair. Annamaria attends a Catholic school. There she is taught that Sin and Redemption are equally real. She is taught that chastity is a virtue, not a hang-up. She is taught that good and evil is a more complicated affair than “whatever you can get away with.” In time she may come to reject the Church’s teachings: there is certainly a rebellious streak in her bloodline. But she will learn to play tennis with the net up before and if she decides to take it down.
(I hear the jokes already. The Church, certainly the Archdiocese of Newark, is aware of the pedophile priest issue. They have taken steps to fix the problem including education for teachers and students; mandatory background checks on employees and aides; a robust reporting system which involves civil and clerical authorities. If you have any honest criticism or suggestions lots of clergy and lay folk are happy to hear them. If you’re here to troll, go back to the Chans).
Annamaria’s classmates come from all ages and all walks of like. Many are first-generation Americans from Latin America and the Caribbean. They learn the Pilgrims were brave and the Founding Fathers heroic. They receive the lessons many other Catholic immigrant children learned before them. Like those children they learn that love of one’s country is a duty, not a moral failing. I believe unchecked immigration is a threat to America’s social stability and to American workers. But I also know we have always been and always will be a multiracial and multicultural country. We have not always lived together peacefully or equitably, but we have always lived together and we will always live together. (If you think otherwise get back to me with what you plan to do with 100 million people, along with the resources and personnel required for your final solution).
I find it telling that those who have pushed the hardest for open borders have also pushed for a “re-evaluation” of our Founding Fathers and a rewriting of our history. They wish to bring in new Americans while tearing down the beliefs which allowed previous generations to make the transition from the Old Country to the New World. I have seen those who deny the power of the Cross cringe before it in terror and loathing. Nobody hates that which they don’t also fear. And nobody seeks to destroy that which they love. I love my country and I love my people. And so as I came to Rome to shield my daughter, now I come to Rome for weapons.
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.
“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,” the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.
“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
So have I come back to Roman Catholicism? I never went away. You can be an angry Catholic atheist railing against Rome. You can be an ex-Catholic who knows everything you like better about your new religion. You can be a Catholic decadent looking to outdo Baudelaire and de Sade (trust me: you can’t). You can be a lapsed Catholic wishing you believed in something, anything, the way that grandmother praying the Rosary believes. But no cradle Catholic ever walks away from Rome. You can leave the Faith but it never leaves you.
In 312 the young Caesar Constantine I stood outside Rome: his arch-nemesis Maxentius stood within its walls. Inspired by a vision, Constantine marked his soldiers’ shields with the sign of the cross. The next day those outnumbered troops took Rome and started Constantine I on his journey to becoming St. Constantine the Great. In 313 Constantine ended anti-Christian persecutions with the Edict of Milan: in 325 he called bishops from across the Eastern Roman Empire to the First Council of Nicea. There they hammered out a statement of faith which remains the standard for over one billion Christians today.
The Nicene Creed is very clear about the nature of Christ’s birth (of the Virgin Mary), death (crucified under Pontius Pilate), and subsequent events (rose again from the dead, will come again in glory). This is, of course, ludicrous. Parthenogenesis and resurrection are the stuff of fantasy fiction. We can even see traces of the Jesus Legend in neighboring myths of virgin births and resurrections. Today most people – including most Christians – look for the mythic truths behind the story. For them Christ is a World Teacher, a holy man, an inspiring hero, an archetype, a symbol. The idea that he was the Only-Begotten Son of God who rose from the dead is silly in light of all we know today. Except that the Nicene Fathers didn’t see the question as silly. For them the Virgin Birth and Resurrection were historical, not mythological events.
I am mystic enough to believe St. Constantine had a vision. I am historian enough to believe he created it for dramatic effect. I am pragmatist enough to assume the real story involves a little bit of both. But while I was not there I have seen the fruits of that vision. I have enjoyed the work of many greater minds who came before me: even when I have disagreed with Church doctrine I have found valuable insights in their arguments. But I stumble at the final gate. I cannot say I believe that on Anno Domini Uno (give or take a year or two) a child was born of a Virgin by the Holy Spirit in a small town in an obscure Roman province and that this child later rose from the dead. The faith granted to my daughter and to that old grandmother has been withheld from me.
It would be a small enough matter to smile and nod. As noted earlier, there is a long Catholic tradition of smiling and nodding. Many Catholics smile and nod today: quite a few are even ordained. But the power and meaning of our Church, the foundation on which the entire edifice is built, lies in believing that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate. The First Nicene Council was a response to the Arians who said otherwise. Condoms and vegetarian Fridays may be negotiable: the Virgin Birth and Resurrection are not.
And so at the end of all my exploring I have arrived where I started. Do I know the place for the first time? I am as puzzled now as I was then. But I know that I stand before a tremendous mystery and I recognize my nothingness in the face of my Creator. I know that on an October day in 312 St. Constantine threw a Hail Mary pass that kept a dying Empire alive for over 1,100 years. I know that the Light which shone in Bethlehem still shines today. And I know that whether I stand outside her gates or in her throne room I was, am and always will be a citizen of Rome.