Murdered metaphor in the cathedral

It was a Sunday in late January. It was my first visit to New York and I was staying with a buddy at his place near Brooklyn College. The sky was waxing purple with sunset, and a day that had included pizza (which fell on my pants), a boat ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan (invigorating), and violin music in Central Park (awesome) was finally winding down.

We stepped out of Central Park, shivering a bit now that temperatures had tumbled from the fifties to the thirties, and walked twenty-five blocks down Fifth Avenue. First we passed foreign consulates; then we passed shops that looked like they would have gladly accepted my yearly salary in return for exactly one shoe. We crossed left at 51st, squeezed in under a scaffolding, and entered St. Patrick’s Cathedral just in time for 5:30 Mass.

I’m shy. I wanted to sit in the back somewhere. My buddy is not shy. He dragged me to the front pew, which was miraculously still empty at 5:29. We claimed it. A gilded altar canopy, studded with tiny heraldic emblems, loomed directly ahead.

A few feet away, I saw the spot where Robert F. Kennedy lay in repose in 1968. A few more feet in another direction, and there sat the throne of the archbishop of New York. And, way off to one side, I saw a flat-screen TV playing an endless loop of digitized cathedral photos for the benefit of wandering turisti.

The young, green-clad priest preached about Christian marriage. He said that Christ had changed marriage into something better than it was before he came. He said most married people needed to have more children. He said fruitful marriages were the nuclei of the social order, which would collapse without them. I wanted to raise my hand and remind him that Jesus, unmarried, had wandered from his nuclear family, who thought he was insane, to travel around with at least twelve other guys and a bunch of women to whom they were not attached.

Still, I was expecting this kind of homily. We were in Cardinal Dolan’s house. The Gospel was the wedding at Cana. It was Respect Life Sunday.

The part that threw me was the rock-climbing.

Father said that in his wedding sermons he enjoyed comparing marriage to extreme sports. I raised my eyebrows. Father, with his carefully parted hair and painstakingly modulated voice, did not immediately strike me as an extreme sports kind of guy. Specifically, he said he preferred the image of rock-climbing. It’s strenuous work, you’re tied together for safety, the view at the top is great, etc.

Here I began to cringe. Over the years I’ve endured the facile and occasionally dreadful metaphors of many clergymen: the spiritual life is like a basketball game, and priests are our coaches. Mass is like a wake, so we dress up for the dearly departed relative. God’s love is like a fire hose, a dump truck, and Niagara Falls all at once. I could go on.

But what I mainly noticed about today’s several-minute digression was that Father never slipped into a reverie about personally rappelling off the face of a cliff or gazing down from a summit. His bullet points, written on a sheet he kept glancing at for reminders, very much came across as a list of things he had looked up, or been told, about rock-climbing. In other words, the priest was teaching authoritatively about intimacies he didn’t have in terms of extreme sports he evidently didn’t engage in.

My buddy and I had spent much of the weekend discussing complicated relationships from hard experience, so we felt very put off. After Mass we retired to a restaurant that, according to a sign sitting on the table next to the Parmesan cheese, had once been patronized by the mobster Lucky Luciano. In between mouthfuls of pasta, we wondered what it would mean for our generation and its religious discontents if such priests continued to multiply, to become men of trust who are assigned to cathedrals.

My fellow CTA 20/30 member, Kate Childs Graham, recently published an excellent NCR column. It collects hopes young adults have for the next pope. Personally, I fantasize about a pope who, in collegiality with all the bishops, re-examines the priesthood. You cannot preach or teach meaningfully unless you live fully. If you are content to cordon yourself off with an altar rail, if you habitually speak of places you have never been, then expect this generation to follow other guides and seek other vistas.

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About Justin Sengstock
Justin Sengstock is a contributor to the books "Hungering and Thirsting for Justice" and "An Irrepressible Hope," both published by ACTA in 2012. His writing has appeared online at Young Adult Catholics, Catholic Majority, Chicago Catholic News, and the original blog of the Chicago Underground Library (now Read/Write Library). Justin earned a B.A. in theology from Loyola University Chicago.

5 Responses to Murdered metaphor in the cathedral

  1. Kate Ward says:

    Reading this post was as enjoyable as singing opera at the Met! Or so I am told. Seriously though, great points.

  2. I would like to see some statistics backing up this idea that more children per couple is better for a marriage or for society. Everything I’ve encountered implies the opposite; families with fewer children are more economically secure, provide better care to those children, and have healthier children. That all seems like stuff that would be pretty good for society. I imagine large families may be less likely to divorce due to the sheer economic and practical hardship of caring for a large brood as a single parent. But most research pinpoints the arrival of children as one of the biggest threats to the marital bond, so you have to wonder what the result would be times eleven.

    I personally am not opposed to large families, and I know happy large families. But the idea that every married couple should aspire to that model of marriage and family really rankles me. It’s just what you said — easy for someone to dispense advice about experiences he will never have, easy to “talk the talk” about a walk he will never have to actually walk.

    A really great post, as always. Lots to think about. Thanks for sharing.

    • Another jarring aspect of the “go make babies” theme was the way he couched it…a suggestion that fewer children per family means people have less faith these days than they used to have. Here, too, I wanted to raise my hand and bring up Jesus: this time, how while being tempted by Satan in the desert, Jesus said you shall not put the Lord your God to the test. People have financial and psychological limits, and God does not always provide. But the obviousness might escape you if you are not entrenched in everyday struggles (which doesn’t necessarily mean married priests–though I hugely support that policy change–it could simply mean living more embedded in the community you serve).

      Thanks, Lacey!

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