Lest we forget what Easter is about, The New York Times Sunday Book Review provides a sharply eloquent review by Jack Miles of National Book Award winner James Carroll’s new book, “Practicing Catholic.”
It’s a scholarly assessment, serious, thought-provoking and alas, relieved by a delightful smirk of gas from James Joyce:
O Ireland my first and only love
Where Christ and Caesar are hand and glove!
O lovely land where the shamrock grows!
(Allow me, ladies, to blow my nose.)
Joyce, as the reviewer notes, “had no faith in either Christ or Caesar (or in Ireland, for that matter), and Carroll does.” Miles, who is general editor of the forthcoming “Norton Anthology of World Religions,” writes that there is no nose-blowing flippancy in Carroll’s “anguished denunciation” of Pope Benedict XVI as “the chief sponsor of the new Catholic fundamentalism, enforced with no regard for the real cost to human beings.”
Whew. That is heavy artillery compared to the usual late-night debates over heaven, hell or the existence of either one (e.g. in Atlanta at Manuel’s or George’s Deli after politics and sports are put to bed).
Carroll, who writes of the austerity of his Catholic upbringing — “a feeling of unworthiness is the core of my selfhood” — is a product of Paulist seminary training. He is the author of “An American Requiem,” “Constantine’s Sword” and “House of War,” as well as several novels. Miles depicts him, with admiration, as clinging to the hope that American Catholics are on the right track. That Rome’s claim to supreme ecclesiastical authority will ease enough to allow enlightened conversation about clerical celibacy, birth control, the ordination of women, and the reconsideration of marriage annulment. In other words, Carroll clings to the hope for “a new kind of Catholic identity.”
The reviewer calls that “a brave but faded hope.” But I’m with Mr. Carroll. Evolution is real, if slow, and hope just means we don’t know where it’s going.
I offer thoughts (but no answers) in two poems from Nobel Laureate poet Czeslaw Milosz, who wrote in his book, “Unattainable Earth:” “There is only one theme: an era is coming to an end which lasted nearly two thousand years, when religion had primacy of place in relation to philosophy, science and art; no doubt this simply meant that people believed in Heaven and Hell. These disappeared from the imagination and no poet or painter would be able to populate them again, though the models of Hell exist here on earth.”
If There Is No God
If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.
How spacious the heavenly halls are!
Approach them on aerial stairs.
Above white clouds, there are the hanging gardens of paradise.
A soul tears itself from the body and soars.
It remembers that there is an up.
And there is a down.
Have we really lost faith in that other space?
Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell?
Without unearthly meadows how to meet salvation?
And where will the damned find suitable quarters?
Let us weep, lament the enormity of the loss.
Let us smear our faces with coal, loosen our hair.
Let us implore that it be returned to us,
That second place.
— From “Second Space: New Poems” by Czeslaw Milosz. Ecco. 2004