Last Wednesday, the student in front of me who was lining up at the little campus cafe in the building next to mine put what looked like a pre-packaged chicken Caesar salad on the counter. While reaching for her card to pay, the cashier said, “It’s not chicken, you know. It’s tofu. “WHAT?” shouted the student. “It’s Ash Wednesday. We are not allowed to serve meat on Ash Wednesday or Friday during Lent. The exasperated student left her unwanted tofu Caesar salad on the counter, mumbling “that’s fucking bullshit” as she passed. Maybe so, but it always helps to understand the lay of the land, as I learned a long time ago. I remembered a similar experience from a few years ago.
As I stood in line at the Dunkin’ Donuts campus, I was truly thanking God that it was 9:15 a.m. Friday morning. Not because of the usual TGIF, although Fridays are generally good. In my life at the time, 9:15 a.m. on a Friday morning was great because it meant I was done with my weekly 8:00 a.m. appointment at the Concannon Fitness Center, where my personal trainer, Kevin the red-haired Nazi, m gave me experiences that I couldn’t have survived fifteen years earlier.
“The usual coffee (medium black with a shot of caramel – a shot, mind you, not a swirl) and a turkey sausage sandwich on an English muffin,” I told the young woman behind the counter. “No meat today! It’s Friday!shouts a disembodied voice from the small desk to the side. “Shit!” I was thinking. This shouldn’t include turkeys – as a friend of mine once said, chickens and turkeys are just plants with weak root systems. “Then I’ll have a vegetarian egg white dish” (even though I didn’t really want it). “It really sucks being a non-Catholic on a Catholic campus,” I commented to the young woman as she swiped my card. “Tell me about that,” she replied without making eye contact as she returned it.
I guess it shouldn’t be that bad, since I’ve been doing it, first as a doctoral student and then as a professor, for thirty-five years. No one could have guessed, given my background – especially me – that I would spend my professional life with Catholics. I grew up in northeast Vermont – we called it “the northeast kingdom”. Even though my town was only about forty miles south of Quebec and there was undoubtedly a French-Canadian (therefore Catholic) presence all around me, I did not meet a Catholic, or at least someone publicly presenting himself as such, until my beginnings. adult years. My world was die-hard Baptist, fundamentalist-the-Bible-is-the-inerrant-Word-of-God-evangelical-all-who-is-not-like-we-go-to-hell-heart.
I was a preacher’s child; my father was the founder and president of a Bible school, for God’s sake. I knew there were Catholics around – they had a stone church across town that was much more impressive than the community center where my church met. I had no more idea what went on in that stone church on a weekly basis than the ancient Romans did. on the secret meetings of the first Christians.
But I knew whatever it was, it was nothing like what was going on in my church, so they were all going to hell. In fact, it seemed like just about everyone, other than my nuclear family, my extended family in upstate New York and western Pennsylvania, and the 50 or so people who came to my church were going to hell. The God I believed in was quite picky.
Once I met and married Jeanne, a birthplace Catholic who had drifted away from the Catholic Church in her early adult years, I learned a lot more about Catholicism than I really wanted to know. Down the street from our apartment in Milwaukee where we lived while I was in my PhD program at Marquette University was St. Sebastian’s Catholic Church, where we first befriended with the organist, then with the priests. Shortly after, Jeanne was the occasional cantor on Sunday mornings, sang the occasional funeral, I played the organ a few times, and I started to think that Catholic stuff was pretty cool. I had fallen in love with liturgical worship through being exposed to the Episcopal Church and then joining there many years earlier and didn’t really see what was different here. The dean of the cathedral where I was confirmed as an Episcopal had said several years earlier that he had become a priest because he liked to play “dress up” and called the Episcopal Church “Catholic Lite.”
San Sebastian, along with the intelligence and terror of my Jesuit professors at Marquette University, led me to believe that Catholics were pretty normal after all. I knew that it was technically against the rules for a non-Catholic Barbarian to receive Communion in a Catholic service, but I got used to the Episcopal attitude that anyone with a pulse is invited to Communion. The priests of San Sebastián made a point of letting me know that I was welcome to communion, even though they knew that I was not a Catholic.
I had no idea at the time how “out of the box” it was. My first teaching job after graduating from Marquette was at a small Catholic college in Memphis, where I innocently and ignorantly went with my somehow Catholic wife to the occasional communion. In truth, my internal resonance with the liturgy probably made me more in tune with things Catholic than Joan’s years of work beyond her Catholic upbringing made her, but as the scriptures say, God looks at the heart and we look at the outward appearance.
The outward appearance of a known non-Catholic receiving Catholic Communion was too difficult for one of my colleagues to accept. Soon I received an anonymous note in my campus mailbox consisting of a photocopied page from a Sunday bulletin from a local Catholic parish which, in pious and sympathetic words, basically said that “if you don’t you’re not Catholic, we don’t want to share our communion with you.” “Fuck you, Bob,” I thought in my best non-Catholic tongue (I knew exactly who dropped the “anonymous” note in my mailbox). “I don’t want to go to communion if you’re there anyway.”
But I learned my lesson. When a few years later I was hired at my current Catholic college in Rhode Island and we managed to escape from Memphis, I asked the head of the department who had just hired me, a Dominican sister, what would happen if, as non-Catholics went to Communion at the campus chapel. She responded with what I’ve come to recognize as a typical response on the subject: “I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but there are some on campus who probably would.” Since these “some” probably included a few of the Dominican priests in my new philosophy department, I decided discretion was the greater part of bravery and chose not to try it. I’ve never had Communion on campus in twenty-eight years.
And it went well. I even made it a point to attend mass once in a while and be one of the few people out of hundreds who didn’t go to communion. Since many students don’t know that there are such things as non-Catholic Christians, this is a good time for “show and tell” and learning. But the problem arose once again unexpectedly ten years ago when, while on sabbatical for four months, I found myself praying several times a day with a group of Benedictine monks. During those months, I experienced a lot of internal spring cleaning and scrubbing; my spirit was waking up and I was discovering inner resources that I had ignored all my life. As I awakened to a new perspective, I realized that not sharing communion – something that had been haphazard to me for years – with these new Benedictine friends was becoming a problem.
One Saturday at dinner, I asked one of the senior monks, a physicist who had taught at the university attached to the abbey for decades before retiring a few years earlier in his sixties, what what I had to do. “Wilfred, I would like to receive Communion at the Abbey,” I said, “but I’m not a Catholic and I know it’s against the rules for me to receive. What do you think?” “I’ll tell you what Kilian (an even older monk at the next table) always says,” Wilfred replied. “Our policy is ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ” “But I just told you.” “And I forgot what you said.”
The next day I stood in line to receive communion after several weeks of sitting on the pew while others went to the front. “The body of Christ”, the Abbot told me with a big smile, holding the host in front of me. “Welcome.” Over the years that followed, I returned to the abbey many times, usually unannounced. Every time after the first morning, noon or evening prayer I attend, Kilian looks for me and gives me a big hug. “Welcome to the house.” That’s exactly how it feels.
In the middle of the 16th century, while his French compatriots were being swept away by the violent storm of the Wars of Religion which followed the Protestant Reformation, Michel de Montaigne had a simple observation to make about our ridiculous human pretensions. know the mind of God. While Protestants and Catholics regularly killed each other in the name of orthodoxy and just worship, Montaigne wrote that
Nothing is so firmly believed as what we know least about. . . For a Christian, it is enough to believe that all things come from God, to accept them by acknowledging his unfathomable holy wisdom and thus to take them in good part, in whatever form they are sent. . . . It is difficult to reduce divine things to a human scale without trivializing them.
Good to remember, whenever we get upset about who may or may not be in our party or who gets upset about such things. I remember a song I heard many years ago in church, a song with a boring tune but an important text: “The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but justice, peace and joy.
And oh, no meat on Lenten Fridays on campus, that’s not so bad after all – that means the soup of the day in the cafeteria will be the New England Clam Chowder. Impressive.