It is a puzzle and an enigma, perhaps right up there with Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa and the grassy knoll, if you are making a list of twentieth-century mysteries: how in the world did Catholics get from:
O salutaris Hostia, Quae caeli pandis ostium…
. . . All that we have and all that we offer/ Comes from a heart both frightened and free!
[tambourine fades away]
Within the space of about a decade, no less. How?
Approaches to cracking the case invariably involve a narrative framework of some sort. There are predictable narratives, too, if you are familiar with the current Catholic landscape, which then turn into oversimplified hermeneutics like this: Well, it was obviously evidence of a break and it’s not even the same Church, is it now? No, it is clearly all in deep continuity. It is all proof of how superficial Catholic life and formation was before the Council. Good intentions were hijacked. No, no—even the seeds were poisoned. Wait. It was the Holy Spirit. Of course not. It was the communists, or was it . . . aliens?
It is hard, if not impossible, to set aside our preferred narratives when considering the past. But what a circular, repetitive slog this is when a bishop, maybe even a trusted pastor in some places, is replaced, or a scandal erupts, or a new collection of disastrous statistics is released. Here we go again with the narratives, waving our colors and staking our claims and never really saying anything new, much less learning anything. It’s all terrible. It’s all great. It’s all your fault.
You would think we would be able to move on, but it does not seem that can or should happen when you are a body rooted in tradition and history—and even more so when so many of the current arguments and fault lines reflect right back to those mid-century issues. In fact, under the current papacy, all those matters seem to have taken new life, battle trenches are dug even deeper, every party determined to win the “Battle of What Happened” and the “Crusade of Where Do We Go From Here?” So, what really happened?
To answer that, to dig deeper than our favored narratives is a challenge. It is also soul-stretching. Turning to primary sources left by those who were actually there, we might find our assumptions challenged, and even shattered. Maybe things were not so bad after all—or maybe they were not as lovely as we have been led to believe? Maybe the tensions we experience in this present moment are not, in fact, so new? We might even come to a realization or two about ourselves: my faith and my spiritual priorities right now matter? Are they really so pure, so unaffected by my time and place, by the gestalt that is holding me? Oh, I am all in on the NFP, and the Catechism, and the Adoration now, but what if I had been a young adult in 1962? Where is your counter-culture now? And so, empathy. Digging and listening can stretch us and hone that virtue, and while I enjoy a jaunt through archival materials more than anyone; but why not settle into a good novel instead?
Rising an hour earlier than usual, in cold bed-sitters far out in the suburbs, they travel fasting on crowded buses and trains, dry-mouthed, weak with hunger and nauseated by cigarette smoke, to be present at this unexciting ritual in a cold, gloomy church at the grey, indifferent heart of London.
Why indeed. “They” are a group of English Catholic university students, it is 1952, and their creator, author David Lodge, will answer the question of “why” on their behalf in his novel Souls and Bodies, not only for that moment, but for the next two decades, as he brings us into their lives, shaped at every stage by their experiences of the earthquakes of mid-century Catholicism. It is by no means a perfect novel, and it certainly is written from a particular point of view, but I cannot think of a more efficient means for those of us for whom this particular past is indeed a foreign country. It is a means of peeking behind the narratives and getting at those questions of why and how?
Lodge specializes in the entertaining comic novel—all inspired by some aspect of his life, from academia to middle age and even deafness—and they are all peppered with Catholics. Sometimes they are on the edges, haunting a character’s memory and yearning soul, as is the case in Lodge’s 1995 Therapy. Here, Tubby Passmore is a television writer undergoing an extreme midlife crisis. He finds what little focus he can muster in Kierkegaard and a search for his first love, a Catholic girl (now a Catholic woman) making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
But in two of his novels, Lodge has turned his unsparing, uncanny comic vision on the Catholic world of his young adulthood. The British Museum is Falling Down, Lodge’s third novel, written in 1965, is a short, clever and hilarious book about one chaotic day in the life of a young impoverished English graduate student named Adam Appleby, married with three young children and a wife whose period is late. While he has hopes that the Church might change its teaching on artificial contraception, it certainly never seriously occurs to either Adam or his wife to do anything but live within its constraints.
Souls and Bodies, published in 1980, takes on the contraception issues as well, but far beyond 1965, through the dutiful struggles, the guilty dodges and finally, the all-in-good-conscience embrace of the Pill and the diaphragm. And while sex plays a central role in the plot revolving around these young married couples we first meet as students in that dark church, the broader framework is the massive changes the Church went through after Vatican II. Although it is set in Britain, American readers will resonate with the chain of events: the movement from pre-Conciliar certainty and its problems to a once-unimaginable freedom and its consequences seem to have followed the same course on both sides of the Atlantic.
What I like about Lodge is that while his sympathies are clearly those of the skeptic, he scatters that skepticism more equitably than most. His characters all, to a fault, blame the ban on contraception for most of their problems, and all fervently believe that not only sex, but life in general, will be so much better if they could only pop a pill and be done “with it” like the Protestants. But, as his characters also discover, that never seems to be the case.
The last chapter of The British Museum is Falling Down, for example, features an interior monologue by the wife in the story (a play on Molly Bloom’s similar passage in Ulysses) in which she drowsily confronts all of this, acknowledging that no matter what, the whole business all fraught with mystery and frustration, and no, no pill is going to fix it. She knows very well that the Pill might even make it worse. In Souls and Bodies, Lodge’s characters each confront adulthood and these issues at the same time in varied ways, but all seem to run up against the same question, whether they admit it or not: all right, they have freed their consciences, they have driven the Church out of the bedroom and can have “worry free” sex now whenever they like, but, well:
It seemed to Michael that he was no nearer grasping the fundamental mystery of sex, of knowing for certain that he had experienced its ultimate ecstasy, than he had been twenty years before, staring at the nudes in the Charing Cross Road bookshops. Then he began to shit blood and quickly lost interest in sex altogether.
Souls and Bodies is a hilarious, precise and painful account of a dismantling. How Far Can You Go? was the book’s original title, far better in my view, as it brilliantly plays on the sexual anxiety of the young men and women we meet in the opening chapter—how far can you go with your body parts before it is a sin? and then, more importantly, on the question of change and Church reform:
Our friends started life with too many beliefs—the penalty of a Catholic upbringing. They were weighted down with beliefs, useless answers to non-questions. to work their way back to the fundamental ones—what can we know? why is there anything at all? why not nothing? what may we hope? why are we here? what is it all about? — they had to dismantle all that apparatus of superfluous belief and discard it piece by piece. But in matters of belief . . . it is nice question how far you can go in this process without throwing out something vital.
I am a generation beyond this group (they would be my parents), but so much of what Lodge describes is instantly recognizable and accurate, like the frisson of the self-consciously taboo-breaking casual college Masses and the agape meals. Been there, done that. I will see your tambourines and raise you a banjo and bass fiddle played by the out lesbian head of the campus woman’s center. And the agape? I was there, too—not with a spouse in a living room, but with a bunch of other young female college students and some nuns during a volunteer summer in Harlan, Kentucky. But yes, this was essentially the way it went down:
As well as the Sunday masses in the College chapel, Michael and Miriam and their friends held occasional gatherings in their homes on weekday evenings which they called “agapes,” after the common meal or love-feast which accompanied the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the primitive Church. These occasions did indeed make Michael and Miriam and their circle feel a little bit like the early Christians, gathered together in fellowship behind the curtained windows of suburban houses, while all around them people went about their secular pursuits, sat slumped in front of televisions, or drank beer in pubs, or walked their dogs under the streetlamps, quite indifferent to and ignorant of the little cell of religious spirit pulsing in their midst. About a dozen people would be invited and, when everyone had arrived, sat round a table spread with homely and slightly archaic fare—home-baked bread, butter, cheese, dates, nuts and raisins, and wine. The host and hostess would choose some readings, usually from the new Jerusalem Bible, which had “Yahweh” instead of “God” in the Old Testament, and then, with some made-up prayer referring to the Last Supper, they would break the bread and pour the wine into a large goblet. These would be passed round the table from person to person, each taking a piece of bread and a swig from the goblet. Then everyone’s glass would be filled and the meal would continue with ordinary conversation, serious at first, but getting more lighthearted as the wine flowed.
The arguments, the trends in Scripture study, the birth of the Catholic charismatic movement all play a part and are spot on. And moving beyond the initial explosions into the 70’s, you just have to laugh in recognition at the paths these characters take: of course this couple would end up being big players in Marriage Encounter. Of course this fellow would get fixated on the Shroud of Turin.
The book ends perfectly. One of the spouses of the original student group is a BBC presenter, and he decides to do a documentary on their “Catholics for an Open Church” Easter festival. It gets everything about 1975 exactly right, from the nun who’s shed her habit and embraced the charismatic movement, to the liberation theologian shipped in from Latin America to speak, to the most liturgically and theologically conservative of the group—the gay academic, who believes the liberation theologian should be deported and Latin should be reinstated and who (we learn in the epilogue) ultimately returns to his original Anglican faith because at least they can do liturgy right.
And so, this group, which we first met gathered in darkness, shut off from the world by solid walls, leaves our view in an open field—a new dawn, an Easter People, as we like to say sometimes. One might assume, in hearing this, that Lodge is directing us to think of this all as unambiguous advance towards the eschaton. From darkness to light, from insularity to Aggiornemento? That is progress, right? Well, maybe yes, or maybe no. Because, as his narrator hints and his characters’ pains and continued questions make clear, there is more than one way to experience and interpret these frameworks. Is that old stone church insular and sheltered, or a rock, somewhat like Someone said it would be? Is that field open, or merely formless and directionless? Are we free now, or simply abandoned?
It is a puzzle, a mess of experiences, a contradiction that we can be witness to, if we would just set aside our narratives for just a moment. Perhaps we can even see it in our own lives. Perhaps it does not take a novel.
My mother stopped going to Mass in the early 1970’s, just about the time that Souls and Bodies ends. It is not that she lost her faith. It is, as she probably would have said, that her faith lost her. She just could not stand it anymore. It broke her heart to go to Mass, to be forced to hold hands and listen to banalities and hear the blustery aging cantor belt out Kris Kristofferson’s “Lord, Help Me Jesus,” she who was raised by an aunt and uncle, skilled amateur musicians who played classical sacred music on organ and violin in their small French-Canadian parish in Maine. She stopped going, she would have told you, because there was no use in confessing that she had missed Mass, since she had no firm purpose of amendment. She had no intention of going back. And she never really did, until she died in 2001, her Requiem Mass in the funeral home chapel, led by some splinter SSPX fellow from somewhere in East Tennessee, not mentioned in the obituary since they were convinced the diocese would shut it down if they heard. I doubt it, but there they were. And that was that.
And then, there is her sister in Christ with another view. I was once, a few years ago, at lunch with a bishop and his mother, a woman just a bit older than my mother and the Souls and Bodies crew. The bishop was explaining to his mother some of what he was up to those days, which included meetings with a group advocating for the Latin Mass in the diocese. She looked up abruptly from her salad.
“Why?” she asked, honestly puzzled. He explained, sympathetically. His mother shook her head. “Why?” she asked again, not angrily, simply mystified. “Why in the world would you want to go to Mass in a language you can’t understand? It’s so much better now!” And that was that.
No, Souls and Bodies does not answer the mechanics or political details of that mystery of how in the world? But it does give us a glimpse into the lives of some of those who were there. If we think the past six decades have all been terrible and we have been sold a mess of pottage by previous generations, or if we are dismayed at the conservative young Catholics we see around us who do not seem to understand how bad it was, or if we are simply puzzled and confused, Lodge’s tale might serve to challenge our narratives, and most importantly, deepen our empathy and understanding of the human factor, at least.
I am the daughter Adrian and Dorothy, of Miriam and Michael, of Adam Appleby, the offspring formed by the fruit of their newly-found freedom, by their agape meals, Stations of the Cross slide shows, and tambourines. It is easy for us—their kids, taught that everything is true, suspecting that means nothing is true, listening to all of this against a soundtrack of Simon and Garfunkel, broken rosaries stuffed in drawers, priests in turtlenecks tapping the cover of The Sexual Celibate as they eye kids sprawled in bean bags chairs late in the night—it is easy, almost natural for us to be angry and resentful and wonder: What the hell did you do and why did anyone think this was a good idea to toss it all out and leave us with nothing?
And there are our children, their grandchildren, digging out those rosaries and veils, icing saint cupcakes with Zelie and Gianna, and praying the Prayer of St. Michael, prayerfully charting their cycles, squinting back through the haze of time and wondering the same thing, perhaps not so angrily, but more in puzzlement. This is so wonderful and beautiful and true. Why would you toss it away?
But getting a glimpse of this movement, this tiny sliver between then and now, even through the lives of fictional characters, invites humility, of a sort, as well. I, too, live in a time and a place, I am swimming in a Zeitgesit. I perhaps should not be too sure of my own opinions and my own rightness. Perhaps I should be more open to self-criticism of my preferred narrative, to be particularly humble and cautious about all of it, but especially about this thing called consequences, which are always, every time, unexpected?