Saturday, April 17, 2010


I’m a Southerner, born and bred, and born in a place, at a time and into a society in which speech betrayed origins and affiliations, class and culture. One of the sideshows at our local county fair was always a fellow who claimed to be able to tell within 50 miles where a persona had been born by listening to him talk--sort of a low-budget Henry Higgins among the rubes. Naturally, there was a bet on the line, that escalated with each increasingly small geographic circle he used (50 cents to place you in one quadrant of the county, $5 if you were willing to bet he couldn’t locate you within 50 mlles.) The fellow was a trained linguist of one sort or another s well as a carnival artists of the first rank, part salesman, all showman. He’d give his mark a series of cards to read, listening for particular cues: the “oo” of the Upper Peninsula and Virginians when they say house, the way folks from Massachusetts broaden “a” and tack on “r” where it doesn’t belong.

I had an early facility with language and looked forward to challenging the fellow. In what was probably an early venial sin, I lurked around the stage, listening to accents, filing away bits and pieces until I thought I was ready, finally walking away with the prize of the evening. To this day, I am convinced it was my stellar--and completely affected-- distinction of the words “merry, marry and Mary” that threw him. He never once suspected I was little Alabama girl from the tag end of Lookout Mountain, and tagged me as being from Wisconsin.

Southern accents are music to my ears, familiar and comfortable, and as varied as flowers in a field. There’s as much difference between the soft gentility of an uppercrust Atlanta accent and the muddled-to-the ear syntax of a third generation resident of a Blue ridge holler as between Princess Diana and LIza Doolittle (pre-Professor). I heard an accent today I haven’t heard for many years, the melodic and rhythmic cadences, overlain by a middle-class, mid-Southern drawl that was, in my youth the unmistakeable hallmark of the itinerant revivalist. Only this time, I heard it in the context of the mass.

If I closed my eyes during the homily this morning (risky business), I was immediately transported to the revivals of my youth. Southerners raised tent-preaching to a fine art. It takes a lot to keep people interested on a sultry night, in a crowded canvas tent, with no air-conditioning, lots of mosquitoes and only funeral-parlor fans to keep you comfortable. In general, Catholic homiletics can’t hold a candle.

There’s a tantalizing intimacy to the way in which a good tent preacher will raise and lower his voice, exploiting rhythm and pitch, sound and silence, to bring an audience to its feet--and then its knees. Only this time, the message wasn’t the usual fire and brimstone message aiming for a good altar call, it was a reflection on the establishment of the diaconate. Nice to hear a home-grown priest, one who certainly must have seen and heard and known some of the same things I did, for we are of an age and I recognize the region of his accent as not too far from my own childhood stomping grounds, eighty miles from where I sat. It is wonderful to know how catholic the Church is, but it was nice, too, to know hear those familiar tones that reached back beyond my Catholic experience in to the deep reaches of my childhood. And I smiled to myself when I realized that I took those very sounds to be Protestant, just because of my experience. In my mind’s ear, the sounds and the message didn’t match.

Later in the day, I would be in an Episcopal church two hours away, for the funeral of an old friend, and again, the sounds and the message would not match, but this time, because of my recent past, not my distant one. As they laid my friend to rest, I heard the elegant language of the traditional Anglican rite. Five years ago, the responses of that liturgy were so familiar, I had to work to remember the differences in the Catholic liturgy I was starting to attend. The words of the creed, almost he same, but not quite. The doxology not tacked right on the the end of the Our Father. Ever so slightly different Gospel acclamations. Today, I found that I had forgotten the words I once knew so well. Now I stood out because I ended the Our Father fourteen words too soon. I found myself asking why I reflexively genuflected as I entered the pew, especially since there was no way to know what particular Episcopal notions of the eucharist this parish subscribes to, or whether the parish embraced such high-church customs, and realizing with a start that the reason I genuflect in a Catholic church didn’t apply here. I found myself missing the crucifix. I was off balance and disoriented.

Most of all, I stood out because I was the only one in the entire church who did not receive communion. As a Catholic, I was, in the ecclesial sense, the closest of relatives and the most distant of strangers. I found myself listening to the liturgy with some detachment and sadness, for I knew that, once the liturgy of the table began, I did not belong, despite the invitation from the celebrant that it was the Lord’s Table at which all are welcome. Words that once embraced me now kept me at arm’s length.

I’ve read the admonition in the back of the missalettes that invites those not in communion with Rome to take the time to pray for Christian unity. I didn’t expect the shoe to be on the other foot. It pained me to be there to celebrate the life of my friend, and to mourn her passing, and to know that a great gulf, of human making, separates Christian from Christian. Though I was there, I was not fully a part of what was happening and could not be. It was uncomfortable to hear words so familiar, and so similar to the words I had heard that very morning, and to respond to them so differently. The words of the service sounding so Catholic, the separation that kept me as a Catholic from participating so large and growing daily.

As I have made my journey of faith, I have come to see how terrible is schism. The fact that Christians do not kneel at one altar, one flock with one shepherd, in one visible, united Church as Christ intended is scandalous. As I stood an outsider inside of that little mountain church, I remembered the words of my morning prayer: offering my joys, my sorrows, all that I do, all that I am. My joy at hearing the accents of my childhood and my sorrow at standing on the other side of the Tiber from my friend at her funeral to You, Father, please, that one day, we may all be one as You would have us to be.

1 comment:

  1. I read both First Things and Touchstone, two ecumenical magazines, the former with a Catholic viewpoint predominating and the latter with a Protestant viewpoint forefront. From this post and your background, I suspect you might like some of the articles, many of which yearn for the unity you wrote of here. First Things, under the leadership of its recently deceased founder, led a number of efforts which produced some progress, like the document on Catholics and Lutherans United.