Sunday, December 25, 2011

Catholics Anonymous

The Battenkill River rises in East Dorset, Vermont, and flows south through the outlet city of Manchester before turning west and finding its own outlet in the Hudson River.

I drove up along the Battenkill yesterday, glancing left at Equinox Mountain, which looms west of Manchester. A light snow cover made the gently undulating ridge look like a Christmas loaf, dusted with powdered sugar.

Up on that mountain somewhere was the only Carthusian monastery in the United States, the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration. Ahead of me, upriver in East Dorset, were the birthplace and final resting place of Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the graceful early-afternoon light I had a happy, momentary sense of triangulating two sites dedicated to anonymity—each in its way more remarkable than screamingly public sites like the J. Crew and Brooks Brothers outlets in my rear-view mirror.

Some Catholics are apt to be anonymous about their faith, as though it were a disease. In my four years as a convert, I have learned why: Proclaiming “I just became Catholic” does not have quite the same effect at a Boston-area cocktail party as proclaiming yourself a Red Sox fan. 

The new evangelization called for by Pope Benedict asks us Catholics to be anything but anonymous. But there is something to be said for anonymity, in the right time, place, and spirit. It is a strategy of self-preservation, of course, which is one reason I have stopped proclaiming my conversion at cocktail parties. But it’s also a strategy of the spiritual life.

Any so-called twelve-step program like AA has twelve traditions as well. The twelfth of these usually reads something like this: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions…”  It’s easy to understand how anonymity could be a vital strategy for the alchoholic, to avoid ostracism, especially in the early days of AA, but how exactly is anonymity the spiritual foundation of anything?

The Carthusians are the Navy Seals of the monastic life. According to the website of the Charterhouse, from which I took the picture above, they don’t allow visitors or even retreats, unless you are ready to enlist. When a man enters the Charterhouse, he takes the veil of anonymity, although helmet with night-vision goggles is a better metaphor. You will not find the monks’ names or faces on their website, any more than we know the names of the guys who killed Osama bin Laden. Anonymity has its place in military ops, and in the spiritual life as well.

It has its place for us civilians too.

Last night, I attended a Christmas Eve service at the local Congregational Church (left). As in many small Vermont villages, this white-clapboard structure serves as a community center and gathering place, and on Christmas Eve it offers just the right combination of caroling, festivity, Scripture, and moral uplift to draw an SRO crowd. We knowingly arrived one hour ahead of time and found half the pews already reserved. The service started ten minutes early because the legal capacity of the building had long since become something to joke about.

While the spirit was merry and the fellowship hearty, the service was anything but anonymous. Everyone was there, apparently, and my aging mother seemed sad to realize that she knew so few people now. Her generation is well into its dying-off phase.

The cherubic barefoot minister was dressed in white, and a sparkly, angelic headband held her hair in place. She was hard not to notice. She moved about directing the final preparations of the musicians and choir, then gaily greeted guests, or congregants. When the time came, it took her a few moments to call things to order, since so many of the locals were circulating and pressing the flesh and offering good cheer. As the minister settled behind the pulpit, or lectern, I noticed the creche in front of her, garlanded with pine. I did not see a cross.

This morning I will attend Mass at St. Paul’s in Manchester, and I’ll be grateful for the moments of quiet before the celebrant enters, with a crucifix in the lead. No one will know me there, except for family by my side. I will be anonymous, and I will be happily Catholic.

Merry Christmas.


  1. what beautiful story telling. You painted such vivid images, and the insights are profound.

  2. Social self preservation is in and of itself just vanity. However the truth is true no matter the cultural cache. I believe it's worthwhile for whomever you are talking to to witness, talk, or even argue on their own turf, for their sake, without using words or doctrine that would just inflame them and cause them to reject everything you say out of hand.

  3. Usually, Vincent, there's no doubt about what you're saying. (Usually it's directed at me.) Here? I have no idea what you mean . . .


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