Abrupt Climate Change, “Creeping Socialism”, “Red Pope”, Billy Graham, Capitalism, Christian Fundamentalists, Christianity, Climate Change, Climate Change Denial, Consumerism, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Gustavo Gutierrez, Kevin Kruse’s “One Nation under God: How Corporate America invented Christianity”, Laudato si', Liberation Theology, Marxism, Monotheism, Neo-Paganism, Nikki Manaj, Pantheism, Papal Encyclical, Polytheism, Pope Francis, Rev. James W. Fifield, The Catholic Church, The Evangelical Right
As a young boy raised in the rigid catechism of the Catholic Church, I was no stranger to contradiction and non sequitur.
The high, arching vaults of cathedral whose vertical volume is designed to put man in his place among the towering edifice of the saints, the superimposed almost miniature scale of the pews, the oppressive silence of a vast and empty church.
The looming spectacle of towering oak confessionals, hushed inside with heavy curtain, and black, pitch black, it takes a few moments to find the kneeling pad and to position yourself near the thin fabric partition panel, a wooden core perforated with small holes from which movement and shadow emerge.
A rustling ensues and an invisible door slides open, exposing the partition to the priest’s chamber on the other side. You cannot see but you can hear.
The priest speaks in a thick Irish brogue, first in Latin then after an appropriate incantation, in English. I tremble in the darkness as the sins of a 12 year tumble out, slowly and haltingly at first, then uncontrollably. A tidal wave of transgressions, the bad words spoken, the stolen candy, the parental disrespect, the poor scholastic performance, all of it comes out. There is no consolation, no hope of salvation, the depths of hell soon to open up and engulf me, the oxygen is gone and I begin to suffocate, the pregnant pause and heavy silence of the invisible priest validates the certainty of my demise.
The priest pauses, taking it all in, his mind weighing the calculus of just penance for such sins of the living. Venial and mortal are weighed against gravitas and malign, the 20 century old calculator passed through the ages whirrs and crackles, and the penance is announced:
“Two laps around the rosary beads and six Hail Mary’s will settle the accounting nicely. To be completed immediately.”
I emerge from the dank confessional into a beam streaming from stained glass clerestory windows, light in step and free of heart, the banality of the exchange from sinner to winner lost in the eager imagination of a 12 year old.
For this is the story of a centuries old institution, full of hypocrisy and theology squandered through the millennia, as it attempts to rehabilitate itself.
The Church occupies a precarious space between irrelevance and populist hypocrisy on the one side, and the frothy wrath of conservative thinking, chaired by Capital on the other. Chastened by its post-Enlightenment fall from grace, the Church tentatively sought out the meager ground of allowable existence bifurcating these two forces.
As a result, the Church’s positions are filtered to maintain an uneasy equilibrium between these opposing dictates.
The Church long ago decided that a post Enlightenment bias toward hypocrisy and irrelevance was preferred, as at least survival was possible. Tangling with the forces of Capital in its unwavering march of exploitation, both of labor and of environment, was clearly a more ominous undertaking than offending suburban church ladies by turning a blind eye towards meaningful social commentary.
But the fetters of Capital were but a primer for the existential challenges the Church has always faced since time immemorial. The conservative Church has millennia of expertise at a very deep level in not only understanding external threats, but in countering them- effectively.
These existential threats come in several forms, but one of the most damaging comes from the positioning of Man within Nature.
The essential premise is the concept of Dominion, a stated Church philosophy that Nature is under the dominion of Man, entirely subservient to and dictated by Man. Dominion taken literally asserts mastery or control over a subject, the fundamentalist view takes this further into (theological) Dominion of government and other religions not compliant with Christianity. Taken in this form, Dominion reflects a dangerous authoritarian system- even fascist- means of societal structure.
The Roman Catholic interpretation allows for Dominion in the context of the greater good, a collectivist view which is not absolute. This is drastically different than the fundamentalist view which has no room for greater good considerations.
We can see the slippery slope emerge and morph through the ages until the intersection with Capital and its attendant system of value production. Herein we see a definition of the “greater good” that becomes increasingly influenced by Capital until it becomes entirely subsumed to represent any conceivable exploitation of the environment in the pursuit of profits.
The Church’s liberalized interpretation of Dominion becomes its own worst enemy.
Another significant factor in the theological scrum of ideologies is the notion of monotheism, versus pantheism and polytheism.
These concepts juggle the position and relationship of Man to the Environment, and a central objective of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular is displacing these alternative theisms by a singular omnipotent and externalized God.
This displacement is essential to establish Christian dominance in all matters-science, and sociology included. Christianity wants no competitors, no sharing of power, no interference from pagan idolatry, it insists on a zero tolerance policy.
Pantheism in particular has a much more integrated understanding of the relationship of Man and Nature by deifying aspects of nature, a position considered heresy by the mainstream Church.
Acknowledging that elements of Nature are sacred is a concession to neo-paganism- an existential threat to the Church which has spent millennia trying to unravel these alternative belief systems.
The Church systematically dismantled these pluralistic options to establish, maintain, and control theological dominance- a strategy that remained effective for 1600 years, notwithstanding a few religious wars and dust-ups along the way.
But what we are left with is a dismissal of Nature, and enforced subservience, and an attack stance towards any belief system that suggests any outsized importance for Nature beyond relying on an externalized God.
These manifestations are relatively benign in a pre-Capitalist world with insignificant populations, but an explosion in population coupled with the intersection of Capital proves to be a poisonous elixir.
Merger of Capitalism and Christianity
The constraints of dominion and a subservient Nature pass through the millennia, benign at first with (relatively) small numbers of humans embedded in a vast tableau of Nature, then exploding into crisis with the intersection of Capital and the Industrial Revolution.
Against the backdrop of the Industrial revolution, the ascendancy of Capitalist value production, and importantly, the tectonic shift from an agrarian lifestyle of self-sufficiency to a wage labor economy, there arises an increasing and profoundly powerful exploitation of the environment.
This manifests in two dimensions, firstly, on the input side as natural resources are extracted at an increasing rate in support not just of an exponentially increasing population, but of the added and significant burden of creating profit for profit’s sake, for which there is no end and no demand limits.
On the output side, the waste products of unlimited value production are unleashed on the environment as recklessly and wantonly as possible, so as to avoid any reduction in surplus value. Controls and environmental regulations are criticized as “job killers” and discarded, a not so subtle reminder that your ability to eat is dependent on their ability to profit.
But the cognitive dissonance of these conditions are painfully obvious, and Capital needs a compelling narrative that will support its ceaseless plunder.
It finds a willing if unlikely partner in the nascent American Christian movement that arose during the early to mid-20th century.
While Catholicism held back from full throated endorsement of the robber baron business model, the Christian fundamentalist and Evangelical movements exploded onto the scene with full endorsement.
In retrospect, the alliance between Christian fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and Capitalists should have been easy to foresee as inevitable. The Catholic Church’s long standing focus on the plight of the poor, and its ascendancy in American society became troubling to many on the Right. The size of the Catholic constituency began to grow within American culture to the extent that the dream of a parallel, Catholic society become feasible to implement, and in fact the Catholic Church did just this, with thousands of Catholic schools built and staffed by (mostly) clergy and nuns.
In and of itself this parallel culture of a differing and more restrictive moral fabric was not especially concerning to conservatives, the focus on the plight of the poor however was very disturbing.
After all, several hundred years of caring for the poor, providing sanctuary within Church buildings, sheltering refugees, etc., one might begin to ask why are these people here, and what conditions exist to precipitate this plight.
And there are more than a few folks who would very much like that these questions not be asked- because they are very afraid of the answers.
In response, the Right girded its loins to prepare for a campaign of discrediting and aggressive preventative measures, posturing against recognizing systematic exploitation of the poor, and eventually, applying the same tactics to environmental exploitation as well. In this fashion, fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians founded a counter offensive against the as yet unspoken undercurrent of Marxist underpinnings buried deep within Catholic theology.
As chronicled in Princeton professor Kevin Kruse’s book “One Nation under God, How Corporate America invented Christianity”, Capital, fearful of the burgeoning support for New Deal policies, began to associate itself with Christianity to establish a moral imperative for so-called free market business practices.
Back in the 1930s, business leaders found themselves on the defensive. Their public prestige had plummeted with the Great Crash; their private businesses were under attack by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from above and labor from below. To regain the upper hand, corporate leaders fought back on all fronts. They waged a figurative war in statehouses and, occasionally, a literal one in the streets; their campaigns extended from courts of law to the court of public opinion. But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity.
The two had been described as soul mates before, but in this campaign they were wedded in pointed opposition to the “creeping socialism” of the New Deal. The federal government had never really factored into Americans’ thinking about the relationship between faith and free enterprise, mostly because it had never loomed that large over business interests. But now it cast a long and ominous shadow.
Every Christian should oppose the totalitarian trends of the New Deal.
It wasn’t until Billy Graham mobilized the Evangelical right in the early fifties that the movement really took off.
They all believed religiosity, if widely and officially deployed, would be a mighty weapon in the battle against collectivist liberals at home and Communists abroad. As their ally, Billy Graham, preached in 1951 at one of his ever popular crusades, Americans urgently needed to rededicate themselves to “the rugged individualism that Christ brought” to the world.
Accordingly, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders marketed a new ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti-federal libertarianism. Powerful business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers led the way, promoting this ideology’s appeal in conferences and P.R. campaigns. Generous funding came from prominent businessmen, from household names like Harvey Firestone, Conrad Hilton, E. F. Hutton, Fred Maytag and Henry R. Luce to lesser-known leaders at U.S. Steel, General Motors and DuPont.
Rev. James W. Fifield, pastor of the elite First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, led the way in championing a new union of faith and free enterprise. “The blessings of capitalism come from God,” he wrote. “A system that provides so much for the common good and happiness must flourish under the favor of the Almighty.”
Christianity, in Mr. Fifield’s interpretation, closely resembled capitalism, as both were systems in which individuals rose or fell on their own. The welfare state, meanwhile, violated most of the Ten Commandments. It made a “false idol” of the federal government, encouraged Americans to covet their neighbors’ possessions, stole from the wealthy and, ultimately, bore false witness by promising what it could never deliver.
This malignant coupling of commerce and Christianity was hugely successful, culminating with the addition of the words “In God We Trust” on all US paper currency in 1957. The stage was set for the usurpation of Christian principles with Capitalist principles, as the saints and martyrs of Christendom were exchanged for the imprint of US president’s faces on US currency.
A new religion was born.
******************************************************************** Liberation theology
The problem with focusing on the plight of the poor is that sooner or later, the threads of class consciousness begin to emerge.
The rise to prominence of Latin America within the Catholic Church in the ’60’s and ’70’s brought forward a disruption to the fundamentalist juggernaut operating at full steam in North America.
Led by Gustavo Gutierrez and other Catholic intellectuals, the nascent movement of liberation theology emerged, informed by the subtle undercurrent of Marxist class struggle embedded in Orthodox Catholicism.
At its core, liberation theology re-emphasizes Catholicism from the perspective of the poor.
A more detailed examination of the principles of liberation theology nets some surprising tenements. It turns out much of the first few centuries of Church teaching viewed the poor in a much more sympathetic light, and directly associated exploitation as causality for the condition, and further, assigned a series of accusations of sinfulness at to those who were doing the exploiting.
Hence, one of the primary missions of the Catholic Church was not just to eradicate sin, and to provide recompense for those that succumb, but importantly, to side with and defend the exploited.
The underpinnings of this renewed focus on the poor from early Church teaching reveals that the response to poverty from those more fortunate, should not be just charity giving from surplus, but giving from sustenance as well. In other words, personal sacrifice, but also a rejection of material possessions even to the point of personal suffering.
Further, liberation theology makes a significant breakthrough in our understanding of right and wrong, it legitimizes the concept that sin is not just an act of individual moral failure, it can also be an act of organizational failure, e.g. not only can people sin but institutions, governments, and economic systems can also be sinful in their very existence and practice.
These points may seem obvious, but they represent a profound contradiction within the mainstay of Christian Conservativism off all stripes, which demands fealty to the rigid dictates of individuality, only individuals can sin and therefore only individuals have accountability.
This represents an existential threat to right wing Christianity, and as easily anticipated, the full court propaganda press goes into warp drive to head off any traction that may be had by such musings. These arguments are particularly troubling to American Christians in general, and Catholics in particular, as these types of viewpoints obliterate and contradict the central thesis of America’s religious consolidation with Capitalism. Indeed, the National Review published an article “The secret roots of liberation theology” which claims this was concocted by the Russian KGB. We just can’t have this gaining any momentum, so one should expect a flurry of these types of smear articles as the Pope’s encyclical becomes more widely distributed.
This does symbolize a renewed battle of ideologies chaired by strange bedfellows, now apparently led by a new champion, the Catholic Church
Is the Church struggling for relevancy? Is an activist posture forthcoming that activates 1 billion lumpen proletariat into the vanguard, through a coupling of class consciousness, ecological destruction, and limits to growth?
The Red Pope
Nikki Manaj’s preposterous attire symbolizes the tongue and cheek rebuttal of a “Red Pope”, as a communist sympathizer who embodies in his recent encyclical, a call to “un-American” action theories, a Pope who overextends his position and segues into science, economics, and other topics far afield of his domain expertise.
After all, he calls for an end to endless growth, rampant consumerism, excessive consumption by the wealthy, and cessation of environmental destruction.
How dare he!
Everyone knows the American dream, that indefatigable strain of individuality, the boot strap mentality to step over every obstacle at any and all costs, that deepest reliance and valorization on the individual, this as anyone knows, is the very cornerstone of spirituality, after all God wants you to be strong and rich!
But the Pope, in the encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ says not so much.
In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule”.
A challenge to the free market ideology? Why, this is blasphemy. But we have seen similar observations in the previous exhortation, wherein the consumerist free markets were challenged for the first time with papal authority. This encyclical, however, goes much, much further.
To be sure, most of the controversy and commentary on ‘Laudato Si’, is focused on the destruction of the environment. Readers of this blog will find nothing new or interesting in these claims, as they are self evident, and although they are a strong and recurring theme of the encyclical, I find other elements much more interesting.
Perhaps the most powerful thrust of this Pope’s directive is the restating of Christian priorities from social to economic. The Christian right has seized on the culture wars of women’s reproductive rights, same sex marriage, women in the priesthood, etc. as not only central issues, but the very backbone of a ideological spectrum that extends to denial of racism and denial of climate change. These superficial cause celebres, distract and deflect attention away from critical issues and rely on principles of substitution to activate fundamentalist solidarity.
In contradiction to these movements, the current Papal encyclical as well as the previous exhortation resets the priorities to elevate inequality, climate change, and ecological destruction as a by-product of value production, as the key topics of concern.
This substantially deflates the Christian Right’s standing and values, and sets into motion a conflict and dialogue that ultimately may not end well.
These top level contradictions quickly devolve into further disagreement, especially in subjects such as property ownership.
We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).
I’m guessing John Locke missed this part.
But the real issue, long since lost in Capital’s co-opting of biblical principles is the notion of an equity position for all inhabitants.
One of the more interesting comments in the encyclical, although not covered extensively, is the concept of a Jubilee, a long standing biblical reference to a resetting of the ownership economy approximately every 50 years.
……. Finally, after seven weeks of years, which is to say forty-nine years, the Jubilee was celebrated as a year of general forgiveness and “liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (cf. Lev 25:10). This law came about as an attempt to ensure balance and fairness in their relationships with others and with the land on which they lived and worked. At the same time, it was an acknowledgment that the gift of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone. Those who tilled and kept the land were obliged to share its fruits, especially with the poor, with widows, orphans and foreigners in their midst: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner” (Lev 19:9-10).
Yet it would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace……….
Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective Catechism of the Catholic Church, which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone”. These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man”. He clearly explained that “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them”.
Consequently, he maintained, “it is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favor only a few”. This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.
This would appear to be a pretty straightforward indictment of the rentier class, again with disruptive conclusions regarding property rights.
The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good
If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”.
Clearly there is a pattern emerging centering on strong critique of our socially accepted concept of property rights, linkage to ecology and use for the greater good, and the continuing acceleration of vast inequality.
With this linkage established, the encyclical moves into discussion of root cause responsibility, which is named generally as “consumerism” but when explored in more detail we see commentary specific to excessive consumption and overproduction.
Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy. Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.
Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery. The financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth. But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world. Production is not always rational, and is usually tied to economic variables which assign to products a value that does not necessarily correspond to their real worth. This frequently leads to an overproduction of some commodities, with unnecessary impact on the environment and with negative results on regional economies.
In perhaps one of the most powerful passages in the encyclical, the endless cycle of consumerism, inequality, and environmental destruction is laid bare:
Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals. Romano Guardini had already foreseen this: “The gadgets and technics forced upon him by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself. To either a greater or lesser degree mass man is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just”.
This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.
The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes “a seedbed for collective selfishness”. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume.
It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs. So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.
I believe the encyclical has touched on some critical founding principles in its pursuit of re-establishing relevance to the Catholic Church. First, considerable text has been devoted to the walking back, rehabilitating even, the concept of Dominion over Nature. Much of the previous definition had been exclusionary of any meaningful deification of Nature as noted earlier, and was ultimately co-opted by Capital to allow a profit driven land and resource grab with appalling veracity. Coupled with Evangelical and fundamentalist Christian support, this was cemented into American thinking and remains a formidable intellectual obstacle.
Will the encyclical succeed in resetting environmental priorities to a restorative, rather than profit driven cycle? Of course the answer is no, and even if it could, it is likely too late.
Considerable text has also been allocated to the discussion of the integration of science and technology into Church teachings. This represents a good step forward, although it took quite some time (400 years!) to come up with a way to reconcile science with the necessary mysticism of a religion. Rather than considering science as the enemy (with apologies to Galileo) the pope has instead embraced science to ultimately support a morality statement in mobilizing against climate destruction. I think this is a pretty clever way to take the position.
If I permit myself a bit of altruism, one might see in the encyclical a roadmap to a different world, a different place and a different outcome. Surely if this prescription were followed as suggested for 21 centuries we would have a better place? I think the answer to this is yes, but it requires a revisionist perspective, to overlook the 16 centuries of power dominance and various and sundry atrocities of the Church, the take-no-prisoners approach to leadership which contributed greatly to the world we have now.
But I suspect the greatest impact of the message is not directed to the 20% of the world participating in excessive consumption, who will likely never change of their own volition.
Perhaps it is meant for the 1 billion who are not. The 1 billion who will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. What might they do with this information?
The dawn of the second day of the Easter Triduum came for me with a strange mission- stewardship of the Vigil Candle. As a 12 year old altar boy, I had been bestowed the symbolic responsibility of insuring the lighted Vigil candle remained that way during my shift.
The lighted paschal candle symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit, in that darkest of days between Crucifixion on the cross (Good Friday) and the Resurrection (Easter Sunday). As a lay person one might conjure this a period of instability, indeterminate, a body lying in state with no clear connection to either world, an ethereal space between the earthly bounds of sin and exploitation and the soul cleansing transition to afterlife.
The fragility of the flickering candle light represents that it can go either way.
In the pre-dawn hours I walked alone the familiar route from my house to the church. Alongside the church was the entrance to the priest’s chambers, down a long path bordered by Calla lilies and lush elephant ferns to the rear of the church. Inside chambers was a veritable forest of dark baroque woodwork, neatly organzied apothecaries, hanging vestments and the strong lingering odor of incense. There was a small closet with altar boy gowns, it was first come/first serve to find a usable size, and I was fortunate enough to find one that fit.
I was noticed by the poor sap with the earlier shift, he needed no encouragement to leave his post on the altar, shed his gown quickly and head for the door.
I took his place on the altar, kneeling for what promised to be a long three hours with my eye on the flickering candle.
For a 12 year old, spending the pre-dawn hours alone in a darkened church, lit only by flickering candles under the watchful eye of various saints and church luminaries, is not an assignment that one relishes. The mind wanders, reflecting first on memorized phrases from ritualized catechism, from other worldly repose the minutes and hours while away to more traditional boyhood daydreaming- anything to stave off the fear of impending doom.
Shocked from my reverie by a sharp jab, I turned to see an elderly woman poking me frantically. There was no speaking allowed on the altar, she was no doubt one of a small army of lay persons that brought flowers and attended daily early mass- apparently from lack of anything better to do. She gestured emphatically towards the vigil candle.
The flame had gone out.