Monday, March 12, 2018

Comfort zones

Go outside your comfort zone, and where does it get you? I went outside mine a few weeks ago, to borrow from the library a novel written in the 21st century. Normally I have a theory and rules about that, i.e., they're not that good so don't bother.

I am sure this particular novelist is a lovely person but her novel confirmed my theory and rules. I abandoned it after thirty pages. It was familiar: written as if by someone who had attended too many writers' workshops, and been mentored and edited by people who had done too much the same. I believe -- another theory -- that they are all taught to fill pages by minutely describing action. She crosses her legs, the slick polyester lining of her knock-off wool pants catching at her unshaved legs. Lord, had it been that long? Since Matt left? That's me, not her. But you see how it goes.

When you borrow a clutch of novels from the library and the rest are Georgette Heyer and Norah Lofts and Barbara Pym, and yes I do read men novelists sometimes and yes I can see why Barbara Pym's seventh was rejected by her publishers since it does very much resemble the previous six, lots of middle aged scholarly women fluttering about the vicar, still, -- when you borrow books at least fifty years old and then this new one, you spot a change. I think you spot a depletion in educational background, in a depth of material to write about. More importantly, you spot a change in what I might call the effort of tone. "Attack" perhaps, as musicians are said to attack their instruments as they begin to play. You miss the sense of a writer merely transparently struggling to describe, in beautiful language, what has never been seen just this way before. What you get instead is the trained, workshop voice: a consensus having assured the novelist "just describe anything, once you get going it's all interesting and true." Meanwhile, because she has not dug into her own ideas, her soul if you like, we meet no people in her first thirty pages whom we can really see, and see no houses we can really enter.

Norah Lofts, to take a random example of fifty years ago, is different. She effaces herself from the story in Which Way to Bethlehem? (1965), sketching natural scenes of generations of people building a road by dropping stones in a muddy path each time they go to the well to fetch water; or of an old slave woman in ancient Korea trying to earn a little money telling fortunes, and unwittingly telling such accurate ones that her angry clients pay her almost nothing but lie awake all night aghast. Georgette Heyer, well, she is just Georgette Heyer. In the past I have abandoned her, when her downmarket characters' dialogue becomes too annoyingly well-researched to be borne. But one forgives her for her titles -- Regency Buck! -- and her ability to have a lofty lady on page one respond to deadly insult by lifting a lorgnette and exclaiming " 'This is indeed the language of the theatre!' " Things like that. I promise I will still try the occasional modern novel, but for a long time they have seemed so predictable. They just don't go well.

Part of the reading for the day happened to be -- the day's reading. Have you ever looked at the "Readings for the Week" in your parish bulletin (of course you have) and wondered, mercy, what holy rollers read the Bible just any old day? The readings are very specific and relate to each other, having been chosen for the purpose by whatever group of scholars assembles the Lectionary. On Monday, March 5, you might have read from the Gospel of Luke about that time the ex-neighbors tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

No kidding. We pick up the thread at Luke 4:27. He is in Nazareth, talking about no prophet meeting faithfulness in his own country.
"Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed but only Naaman the Syrian [we had just read that story, from the Second Book of the Kings]." When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away. 
This is the sort of thing you encounter when you are either a convert or a returned prodigal. You dig, perhaps partly to distract yourself from the awareness of being outside a comfort zone. And this brings me to the topic of the newest Catholic internet sensation, Lizzie. Have you met her? She's a delight really, all of 23 years old, having been on YouTube "since I was sixteen, in 2011," and now having converted to Catholicism and, in tears of happy anguish, told all her hundreds of thousands of subscribers so. She's on the cover of Catholic Herald, which is a bit like being on the cover of Rolling Stone I suppose. She pulls nervously at her long bicolored hair while marveling to the camera how amazing Eusebius is. She is also planning to produce a video all about her upcoming first confession, which I hope someone will dissuade her from doing. Surely that would mean breaking the seal of the confessional. The recompense for this new obedience, however, could be that she may add it to the sparkling list of new sacrifices and obediences which she has shouldered already. I don't smirk, I think truly if the Holy Spirit is working astonishingly in anyone in this internet age, it is working in her.

Now at my end of the Catholic involvement spectrum, life is a bit more humdrum. On a clear late-winter night with the constellation Orion still reigning high overhead, I drive out to a local parish and find my way (with help) through cavernous dark "multipurpose rooms" and big stairwells to an upper conference room, where two women wait to give a talk on the characteristics of a vibrant church. How do we reach the non-churchgoers, the people who are content to be "spiritual but not religious," especially the young who tick the Religious Affiliation box "none"? They are kind and good but they explain the empty churches. And (one lifts one's lorgnette perhaps), can they be really happy?

Three more women enter. And that is all. We congratulate ourselves on the advantages of a small, intimate group, and get underway. As the hour or so moves on, I probably make a bit of a nuisance of myself by remarking the confident, counter-cultural "truth claims" of Islam, and by noting what we all look like to the kind, good "nones." We look sweet and out-of-touch. Why are we attracted to this meeting but no one else is? And never mind reaching the spiritual but not religious, what about the happily non-spiritual? I remember reading very recently that "it is always Satan's desire to persuade us that life with God is half a life." Is that persuasion easier now than ever?

Perhaps not necessarily. One of the women told us how many ex-Catholics are to be found at the rock-and-roll megachurch down the street. How do we get those people? They have found a vital comfort zone. So have our Muslim neighbors who, one of the women testified, begin training their children to memorize the Koran at age four, and whose mosques are filled. A silence. "Serve coffee," the nun joked. For that night, under the cold glittering spread of Orion, that was the best we could do. 

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