Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Three Books That Add Up to One Autobiography

A friend recently asked me, “So what you been reading?” I had to stop and think. The good thing about Goodreads is you can check yourself on a question like that, and so I did. I found that the last three books I have read sum up my lifelong religious pilgrimage. I didn’t tell my friend that, he’s not the religious type, but I’ll tell you.

The three books are Dakota by Kathleen Norris, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, and Brother André: Friend of the Suffering, Apostle of St. Joseph by Jean-Guy Dubuc. They really are the last three books I’ve read.

The first two were re-reads because, as I complete draft #3 of a memoir of Catholic conversion, I am taking a second look at books that influenced me when.

I read Dakota shortly after it came out in the 1990s. At the time, I was a None: a lapsed Episcopalian who had followed the gleam of a New Age teaching until the gleam proved to be a mirage. By the 1990s, I was in nowheresville religiously.

Reading Norris’s series of autobiographical essays about leaving New York City to take over her late grandmother’s farm in Lemmon, South Dakota, and thereby re-embracing her family’s Protestant faith reconnected me with my own Midwest roots. I was raised in Minnesota by God-fearing, Church-going parents, who drove me to white-spired Congregationalist worship each Sunday. There I received my first Bible, a Revised Standard Version, when I was eight.

Without embracing Catholicism, Norris meets and becomes a third-order member of a Benedictine community on the Dakota plains. It took me another fifteen years after reading Dakota to become a Catholic myself, but I can see now how the book must have sung to me then: plunging me back into a faith-filled past while projecting me forward toward an unseen Catholic future.

The second book, Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, explains better than anything why I left Christianity for a long, dry spell in the wilderness. Here is some of what I wrote about that book on my Goodreads page.

Twenty years before Bill Moyers's series of interviews with Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth,” wowed the American intelligentsia (1988), Joseph Campbell's most-read book (this one) helped strip me of religious faith (1968). I was a high school student wowed by a teacher of “Mythology,” who used Hero as the core text in his syllabus. While reading everything from the Niebelungenlied to Updike's The Centaur (which is mythological, right?) we used Campbell to tear each of these texts apart to find the same common story at the base of each. Each was seen to be myth.

Not thinking too clearly at the time, I allowed Jesus and all of Christian Scripture to be thrown into the same stewpot with Beowulf and Buddha. 

Now that I have returned to Hero, I find Campbell's reduction of Christianity appalling. And I am appalled at myself for having accepted it hook, line, and sinker. Without warrant it sank my faith. 

The very first sentence of Hero lumps St. Thomas Aquinas with “the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo” and “the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale.” All are but manifestations of “the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story.” It doesn't matter if Jesus of Nazareth actually existed on this planet. He is parallel with (reduced to the status of) every other hero dreamed up by the creative unconscious of our race. 

Campbell's world view is conditioned by Nietzsche and validated by Freud (frequently cited). Campbell lives in a world in which religion no longer guides or explains. “Today,” he writes, “all of these mysteries have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche.” The reader is left with the vague hope that, perhaps through some sort of mass Jungian analysis, we can all come back into touch with the primordial sources of myth in the human psyche. 

Sadly, the last word in Hero with a Thousand Faces is “despair.”

Buttressed by Campbell and Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, which likewise argued that all religions are effectively one and the same, I left Protestant worship and the dream I harbored of being a minister. Always searching, I followed a guru, for lack of a better term, for quite a long time—until about the time I read Dakota. 

Today a Catholic, I am planning a pilgrimage to Montreal. (But you knew that.) My inspiration is St. Joseph, my destination St. Joseph’s Oratory. Without St. Andre Bessette, there would be no there there—no Oratory to walk to. And so I read Brother André. Here’s some of what I had to say about it on Goodreads:


Since being received into the Catholic Church in 2008 and taking the confirmation name Joseph, I have been drawn to the story of Jesus's foster father and to those saints, like Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux, who had a devotion to him. None tops André Bessette, beatified in 1982 by St. John Paul II and canonized in 2010 by Benedict XVI. 

Short, slight, sickly, and shy, Brother André was a religious brother who almost failed entry into the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Taking his final vows at 28, he pursued his career as the porter (doorkeeper, errand boy, janitor) at Notre-Dame College for boys in Montreal. But then the cures began, the "miracles," and the hundreds, then thousands of visitors who flocked to see and talk with and be touched by him each year. 

[Brother André credited these cures to the intercession of St. Joseph.]

In 1896, Brother André asked the superior of his order for permission to build a small chapel in St. Joseph's honor and was denied. So he walked the wooded area on Mt. Royal where he envisioned the chapel; he strewed medals of St. Joseph on the hillside; and he turned a statue of St. Joseph toward the site so that the saint might see where his chapel would be built. Six years later, Brother André finally received permission to build a chapel. 

By the time the chapel was built, it was too small to receive the many pilgrims who came. So a larger chapel was built to seat 100 congregants. At the first mass 700 swarmed the hillside below the chapel's open doors. In 1914, when Brother André was nearly 70, permission was granted for a still larger church. St. Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal was the result: the largest shrine to St. Joseph in the world, dominating the Montreal skyline. Brother André did not live to see its dome completed in 1967. He died in 1937, still working every day at 91 despite chronic illness. 

St. André Bessette liked to say, "Pray to St. Joseph. He will never leave you out in the cold."

Though it could use some firm editing, this biography, translated from the French, will warm you to the heart. 

So from the Great Plains, I followed a hero until I realized he had no human face, whereupon I began following the Catholic Church. And on May 1, in honor of my patron St. Joseph, and the “little dog of St. Joseph” whose work inspired the Oratory, I am walking to Montreal.

There: my story in three books.

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