yesterday’s post, I knew that I would have to write another. In it, I implied that I had once been liberal and spiritual, and that now I was conservative and religious. In fact, this is true. Today, I am a practicing Catholic and far more conservative than I was, say, thirty years ago, when I thought that Ronald Reagan was the second coming of Mickey Mouse.
But I didn’t say why. How did the liberal in me become conservative? Why did the spiritual person become religious? What changed?
Maybe I reverted to childhood, possibly prematurely. And if so, didn’t Jesus urge us to do so?
About that childhood. When I was five and ten, I went to Sunday school each week, and I learned to sing hymns alongside my father who couldn’t be outsung. When I was thirteen (see photo), fourteen, fifteen, I was as devout as it is seemly for a teenage Episcopalian to be, an acolyte (altar boy) who thought of being a minister. Cleaning out my office this week, I verified this. A bio published in a summer theater program when I was eighteen said that I was “aiming for a career either in the ministry or as a mailman.”
Then came Watergate, and then, at least where I was concerned, the Dharma came west. Which is to say that public political confidence collapsed around the debacle of the last days of the Nixon administration and mine with it. Meanwhile, I discovered Eastern spirituality. In adolescence I had read Tillich and Buber. Now I read Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Idries Shah, and (so painful to confess today) Werner Erhard.
I did not attend church regularly—at all, really, except for weddings and funerals—between my mid-teens and my mid-50s. Like the Jews, I spent forty years in the wilderness. Nowadays, I attend Mass every day I am able, and I try to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church.
On the political side of things, I voted the straight Democratic ticket from my first presidential election (McGovern) to my last (Obama, sigh). Having now endured a complete four-year cycle as a Catholic, I am debating whether to vote for Mitt Romney or to write in Mickey Mouse. I live in Massachusetts, and as we say in the theater, I’ve seen Mitt’s act. As we also say in the theater, the guy really knows how to improvise.
So what changed? Here’s a short list:
I became disillusioned with easy answers, and less certain of my certainty. This is a cagey, over-general way of saying something about which I don’t want to say much. That is, the Eastern path(s) I followed ultimately led (me) to dead ends. After thirty-some years of looking inside myself meditatively, I began to think that there might be more to reality than me. Which runs counter to much of the New Agey self-help cant (like Erhard’s est) that grew out of those early genuine gurus (like Gurdjieff) who were so attractive to my generation. Meanwhile, on the political side—well, you’ve seen what has happened on the political side. Can you spell polarization? Can you spell gridlock?
I saw the world do a 180 and get worse. I know this statement will evoke howls of derision, but I’ll make it anyway. I have gone from “Ozzie and Harriett” to “Will and Grace.” And that’s putting it mildly, and stopping short by fifteen years. A culture that valued traditional marriage and family life when I was a child has thrown out the bath water and is still throwing, even though the tub is empty. Conservatives like me worry that the baby is gone with it. Liberals—well, let’s be candid, some of them don’t care about the baby. The results of this radical cultural experiment we are conducting—while violating many teachings of the Catholic Church—are still not in yet. We have much higher divorce rates, we know this. The underclass that was supposed to disappear in the Great Society is as far down as ever. But, hey, we’re now free to kill babies in the womb, and we may soon be free to kill ourselves in the sickbed. Let’s see how it all plays out, is what I say. Sadly, if it plays out badly, our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences.
My father became my best friend. When I was twenty, I thought that my father, the lusty hymn-singer, was a conservative nut job. By the last ten years of his life, he had become my best friend and basically my idol. I have said many times that if I get to be half the man my father was, I will die happy. Unlike me, my father voted the straight Republican ticket—until 2004, when he voted for John Kerry. I admired that open-mindedness. He said he just couldn’t pull the lever for Bush, though they were both Yale men and businessmen who had family connections to the same town in Connecticut, and I think that, given what we now know about the Iraq war, Dad pulled the right lever.
I got old, and then got young again. I know that many people grow more conservative as they age, and this natural process has probably happened to me too. But not everyone converts to the Catholic Church at age 56, or discovers the fountain of youth in doing so. I learned that throughout history Catholics have been the smart ones, the ones who founded universities and gave us musical notation and fine art and cathedrals—before music, art, and architecture divorced themselves from religion. Becoming a Catholic, it is as though my recurringest good dream has come true: I am a college freshman again, but now instead of studying modern physics and 19th-century social thinkers and Eastern philosophy, I am studying Waugh and Undset, Catherine and Teresa. Aquinas is still over my head, but I can always aspire.
I have met some convincing Catholics, including many remarkable women. The most convincing thing about the Catholic Church is its people. Yes, I know, you can find bad examples. But would you abandon democracy just because it has given us some bad politicians? No, you wouldn’t. The most convincing Catholics, of course, are the saints, and it was these strange men and women who really brought me into the fold. But since arriving, I have found that I share this shelter with some truly remarkable people, especially women. For all that the world thinks the Catholic Church is unfair to women, I think those critics should spend a few hours or days inside the Church before making that summary judgment.
I still struggle to understand the position of the Church on some issues, and I sometimes think that my perceived conservatism has alienated some people who once felt much closer to me. But in becoming a Catholic, I made what feels like a final choice to me, as in a vow, like marriage, that I will keep for as long as I live. The choice is to follow something other than my own gleam, bliss, impulses—call it what you will. The choice is to follow the one institution that has outlasted all others, that traces its origins to Jesus Christ. As Robert Frost said, one could do worse.