A fine dusting of faith

Religion worn lightly is a beautiful thing.

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click to enlarge A fine dusting of faith - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
A fine dusting of faith

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies,

And that much never can be obsolete…

We have a friend we've known since high school who has the rare ability of combining a serious religious attitude toward life with a love of gently ribald jokes. He's a retired minister — though I suppose ministers, like writers, never really retire, but become ministers-in-residence or pulpit pinch-hitters (he'd raise his eyebrows at the "pinch" part). I know he keeps busy.

When he and his wife lived near us, we often had holiday dinners at their house. Before dinner — unlike at our secular table — we would all hold hands while he'd say a short prayer or homily, at the end of which the youngest of their three children once piped up, "Amen. The End. Kerplunk." Debunking high seriousness was a family enterprise.

We thought about these things during our short stay in France, a secular country with a fine dusting of Catholicism. While most French citizens may still be nominal Catholics, they've heeded the warnings of their forefathers much more than Americans have. Voltaire (1694-1778) — not an atheist but, like many of our founding fathers, a deist — urged them to keep the Church out of government, at all costs: "Écrasez l'infâme!" Crush the infamous. As a result, French politicians aren't pushing to add prayers while banning books from their schools. Nor do they feel the need to refer to the Almighty in every public speech. When our leaders, no matter what hypocrisies they've been spouting, conclude with "And God bless the United States of America," it sounds like aggressive pandering.

France has its cathedrals to remind them of the power of spiritual mystery. In Paris, a few blocks from our hotel, we'd walk over the Pont au Double around the majestic facade of Notre Dame, and back over the Pont de l'Archevêché (Archbishop). From every side Notre Dame is imposing, serene and surprising.

Later, we skeptics would sit, inspired, at Les Deux Magots, with a glass of wine or café crème, gazing across the plaza at the dignified classical tower of St. Germain des Prés, Paris's oldest church (582 — built when St. Germain was still a meadow ["prés" means "field"]), a beacon for writers and philosophers like Albert Camus, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; the surrounding area's still a center for art and bookstores. I'm not sure what this inspires, but it's not meanness. Seriousness, maybe; thoughts of doing better. Picasso lived nearby.

The Tea Party demonstrators are serious, too, and clench their fists and want to force religion into our schools and constitutions, banning not just abortion and gay marriage but "anti-Christian" books (like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five). They know what's good for us, and are hot to impose it. The St. Germain abbey, which has survived many plunderings throughout the centuries, seems to tell us hang in there, be helpful, don't shout.

Religion worn lightly is a beautiful thing. The world is confusing and full of unspeakable evil — read any Elmore Leonard or James Lee Burke thriller (my airplane reading), not to mention the daily newspaper — but there's no doubt that there are countless men and women of various faiths who believe what seems to others to be simply crazy. And out of these beliefs they produce compassion, beauty, generosity, goodness and creative energy. For which, at Christmas-time especially, we should all be thankful.

Amen. The end. Kerplunk.

...Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.

—Both quotes from "Church Going" by Philip Larkin (1954)

Peter & Jeanne wish Creative Loafing and all its rascally readers a very merry Christmas.

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