By Patricia Snow - New Haven, Connecticut, USA - Lent/Easter 2011
. . . there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake
and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time. . .
On the razor-edge of this promise, the Church puts itself to
the test. . .
Only one scene in "Bright Star," Jane Campion's film about John Keats' chaste love affair with Fanny Brawne, takes place outside England. When news of Keats' death reaches Fanny in Hampstead, Campion shows us a horse-drawn hearse, leaving Rome's Spanish Steps. The famous Steps are deserted; the pre-dawn light white and cold. Watching, I remembered my own first trip to Rome, and the small museum and library in the pink house in the background where Keats died.
When I became a Catholic in 1996, I believed I was finally leaving my past behind. No one of my acquaintance was Catholic. I had no experience of the Church growing up. My mother had been Catholic, but left the Church when she married my father. If in every mixed marriage there is a hidden struggle for ascendency, the contest in my family was seemingly won by my father. My mother became Episcopalian, in which religion I was raised. But behind this visible church there was another religion in my father's family, promoted by my paternal grandfather and cobbled together from Transcendentalism, Romanticism, Nature worship, and Poetry.
My grandfather was a professor of literature and a minor poet. He was a politician and a public person, a friend of Robert Frost and Charles Olson, a disciple of Emerson and Thoreau. He was a patriarch in a peculiarly American sense, with five headstrong sons and a stoic wife. Summers he spent in Maine in a primitive camp on the shore, where there were boats moored off the rocks, a writing shack in the woods, and a fireplace in a grove of spruce where the Financial Section of The New York Times was ritually burned. In this world a mild form of Episcopalianism was tolerated in my grandmother, but Nature was the place where God was preeminently encountered and enjoyed, artists constituted the elect, and the poet especially enjoyed the status of the saint.
My father, taking Christianity seriously, struggled to gain perspective on his gifted, often mesmerizing father. Taught by my father, I learned to notice my grandfather's egotism and mischief; I became aware that he was charismatic in the dark as well as the bright sense of the word. Still, like the rest of my family, I grew up under his spell. Only after I married did the certainties I had been raised on give way, when my health collapsed and my grandfather died, and the family that had been held together by the magnetism of his personality broke apart.
Years of renunciation and disillusionment followed. I had suffered the kind of health crisis that calls everything into question, and for years the movement toward the answer to the question seemed a movement away from everything else. I had to leave graduate school and never worked again. I gave up dreams of writing and summers in Maine. Increasingly, I lived on the margins of culture and society, learning about midwifery and macrobiotics, Waldorf schools and herbs. I had two children, and raised them in a kind of exile. Divorce swept through my extended family like a scourge.
Finally, at a charismatic healing service in an Elks' Club in Danbury, Connecticut; in a landscape empty of every idol of blood and culture I had been raised on; in a furnace of wind and fire that was my own personal Pentecost, I encountered Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
More years passed, as I slowly worked out the ramifications of what I had received. Through the provinces of Christendom I followed the thread that had been placed in my hand, through Episcopal churches and evangelical churches, healing ministries and prayer groups. For ten years I searched -- without understanding what it was that I lacked -- for the Body with the same DNA as the Head that I had encountered, until, like Theseus finding the Minotaur at the center of the maze, I found the Catholic Church. The thread ran out and the genetic match was made, in a place wholly unexpected and as terrifying to me initially as Theseus' monster must have been to him.
What would my grandfather have thought -- !
"This woman takes comfort in ritual," I remember him saying about my grandmother, in a pitying tone. "I never could."
I had been raised to be skeptical of authority and to value original, unmediated experience. I had absorbed from my father's family a deep, unreasoned aversion to Catholicism. As eccentric as I felt myself when I became a born-again Christian, there is more or less a straight line between Emerson and American Pentecostalism, and I hadn't fallen so far from the family tree as I thought. But if I became a Catholic -- ! Then, surely, I would place myself outside the gate and beyond the pale.
In fact, because my mother had been Catholic, my arrival at the Church was an example of what Freud called the return of the repressed, but I didn't experience it that way in the beginning. I felt like Abraham, leaving my people behind. The class that prepared me to enter the Church felt like a year-long Purgatory; Paul's "loss of all things"; a discipline of renunciation greater than my illness had required. Not even my children could automatically follow where I was going. Finally, in the course of my preparation, my previous baptism turned out to be invalid. So the last rope was cut, the break was complete, and I came in naked and unaccompanied as a newborn.
Then I was inside, and the dust began to settle. I looked around and began to realize that the outcome was different than I had expected. The gate -- the neck of the bottle -- had been narrow, certainly. But inside, the Church turned out to be vast and various, a place of unexpected correspondences and unlooked-for restorations, as if, once I came in, a householder began taking out from her storehouses for me things that were old as well as new.
My pastor, for example, had been an Episcopal priest. He had also been at Yale, as I had been. There were converts from evangelicalism who knew people that I had known. There was an organic farmer. There were women who had had home births. There were people from every tribe and tongue, every people and nation, and this is only to speak of the visible community! . . .
I expected when I became a Catholic to be blessed in the Church's sacraments. It was everything else that took me by surprise. For a year after my baptism, I scarcely strayed from the Church proper, so seemingly fathomless were the offerings inside. But by the beginning of the second year, I had begun to go out. Anyone who has made this journey for himself can attest, experientially, to what Andrew Greeley proves statistically in his book The Catholic Imagination: the privileged relationship between Catholics and the larger world. The Church, I began to realize, was everywhere. I could go and remain; explore and abide. Fortified by daily Eucharist, I began to go further and further afield, until, by the time my immediate family was received into the Church, I was ready to go to Rome.
For someone with my health history, this was a daring idea. But I had a strategy: we would stay close to the Vatican.
Our first days in Rome, that is what we did. We attended a papal audience and spent time in the Vatican's Blessed Sacrament Chapel. We climbed the steps to St. Peters' Dome, and visited the Sistine Chapel. In the heat of the afternoons, we rested in the shade of Bernini's vast colonnades, feeding the pigeons and drinking Schweppes limone, watching the water blow in sheets off the rough pitted fountains. The atmosphere of the Vatican turned out to be both private and public; separate from the world but also open to it. On the other side of the stone columns -- like on the periphery of St. Patrick's in New York City -- the world teemed.
So again, there was a movement out. We visited other churches and Ostia Antica, the Colosseum and the Roman Road. We rented a car and drove to Castle Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence high above Lake Albano, an aerie of apricot walls and blue views. In a shop on the deserted square, a girl sold me a suitcase to replace mine that had split on the flight over.
"Look!" she kept saying, as she unzipped another zipper and the inside of the suitcase expanded again. "Look!"
Back in the city, after another morning at the Vatican, we visited the Spanish Steps. On the Via della Vite, there was a macrobiotic restaurant -- even my privations were taking on a cosmopolitan flavor. From there we walked to the English bookstore, and afterwards to the Piazza di Spagna.
By this point, I was falling in love. Everything about the city was delighting me: the saturated colors of the stone; the public fountains of clean water. I felt like the nurslings in Isaiah, carried on the hip, fed from abundant breasts. While my family went looking for gelato, I stayed behind on the Steps, and while I waited I saw the small plaque, and Keats' name.
Warily, I climbed the narrow stair to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, expecting, on the basis of my experience, a rival chapel to the Vatican's Blessed Sacrament Chapel: a shrine to man, poetic hubris, and aestheticism.
On the second floor, the small rooms of the museum were quiet and almost empty. I found the room where Keats died, and stared at his death mask. I read about his death and was moved to tears by its pathos: by Keats' loneliness and tremulous courage, fierce truthfulness and delicate consideration. On another wall, in a plain frame, there was a manuscript page from "Endymion," that begins:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness. . .
And as I read this, in the room where he died –- as the holiness of beauty realigned itself in my life with the beauty of holiness -- I experienced what I can only call a miracle of restoration. A whole strand of myself that I had banished in despair was suddenly pulled back into the whole, and I was aware of my grandfather, very close to me in the quiet room. . .
I was in Rome in June. In November of that year, on the night of the Feast of All Souls, I dreamed a vivid dream. In the dream I was on the second floor of a three-story house, preparing supper for my family. My family was out and the other floors of the house were uninhabited, when suddenly, overhead, I heard a terrific banging at regular intervals. Dropping what I was doing, I ran out into the stairwell. Listening, I realized that my long-dead grandfather was pounding on the floor of the attic.
"Grampabill!" I cried in dismay, running partway up the stairs. "What is it?"
Then I woke up. And as I woke, in the ringing darkness, the answer flooded me: He wants me to have a Mass said for him.
It was early November, the Catholic month of the dead. At Mass the readings were from Maccabees and in the sanctuary, under the altar, baskets were overflowing with envelopes on which parishioners had written the names of their deceased relatives. It was the third time since I had become a Catholic that these November traditions had come round, but to this point, they had simply gone past me. I hadn't understood about the envelopes, and I had certainly never had a Mass said for anyone. It hadn't even occurred to me yet that as the only practicing Catholic in my family -- those uninhabited floors in my dream! -- it was my responsibility to pray for my ancestors.
Only very gradually, as a convert, does one assimilate the Church's treasures.
The day after my dream, I requested a Mass for my grandfather; another for my maternal grandmother; a third for a friend who had died. And as my world expanded to include the saints when I was baptized, so it expanded again, to include the whole realm of the dead.
In the Keats-Shelley Memorial House I received a grace of integration, but a private, interior grace, intended for myself alone. Only in November, when I began offering prayers and Masses for the dead, did I grasp the whole meaning of the word Catholic.
Our last morning in Rome, we attended Mass at Saint Peter's. We were late, or unsure of the time, and we ran from Ottaviano station almost all the way to the Vatican where there was the usual bottleneck at the entrance, an uncomfortable crush of pilgrims. Squeezing in with the others, I felt the Spirit, like wine from grapes. "The narrow gate," I whispered in my small daughter's ear. Her eyes widened, we were inside, and she broke and ran from me on the vast floor.