I woke up at 8:35 to go to mass this morning, I brought my camera thinking there might be some good pictures but of course I was over ambitious… I’m not going to take pictures during a church service. I did take a video, though. It was of the choir from Porto Vecchio singing during the mass – it was apparently a special occasion to have them there, so I’m glad we caught it. The service would have been pretty dry without, I’m sure.
I’ve been unimpressed with this church. I guess I shouldn’t have expected much since we are staying in a convent – it’s not going to be revolutionary – but there seems to be an enormous disconnect between the Fathers and real life.
Father Joseph was skeptical of me at first, probably because I rang during lunch, but then he warmed when Azure showed up. I told him we were here to learn. I think when I said that he understood me to mean that I wanted to learn about Christ and Christianity. Of course I’m way more curious about the life of a Catholic priest living in a convent, but it didn’t translate.
I asked whether he’d studied Judaism and Islam, two religions based on the same god and the same core texts. He said he had, but he was dismissive of them, saying essentially that the Jews had missed the boat and then he downplayed Mohammad’s importance. It sounded silly from where I was sitting. Here’s how he sounded from my perspective: A guy handed people a book from god and it was ok at the time. Then another guy came along and amended that book and added his own stuff and only fools didn’t follow. Then a third guy came along and amended that book and added his own stuff and only fools did follow. It sounded childish, narrow-minded.
I told him we were going to a prehistoric site that day and asked if it was good. “Well, it’s fine if you’re interested in rocks and old stuff.” (Which, actually, I am). I asked him what he was interested in. He pointed to the beautiful blue sky and the sun.
His lectures to us were in line with what I understand of traditional Christianity: “People say that the earth was created long ago and life formed slowly, but what force drove it? There must have been some force.” “I live to serve others. You need to ask yourself, are you doing something for others or for yourself? If it’s for yourself, it’s egoism.” “Some people think that when you die that’s it, you disappear, but I believe part of us lives forever.” “My life is about knowing god. I aim to reject all material comforts.”
We got one glimpse into their part of the convent and it felt like sneaking into the teachers’ lounge. Everything was extremely clean, extremely organized. He showed us the sun room and it took our breaths away – the sun room had the best view we’d seen of the town and valley, and it must be the best you can find without renting a helicopter. The convent is perched on the side of a hill and the priests’ quarters stick out a little farther for unobstructed 180 degree views. The sun room was bright when the rest of the convent was dark, but what caught our attention was on the table and window sills – there were a dozen orchids staring at us appearing simultaneously fragile and stately and defiant and precious. It didn’t seem right for him to have orchids after what he repeated about materialism.
His office, actually, was the only place that wasn’t neat. Papers were spread on the desk as he prepared his Sunday sermon. I asked what the sermon would be about. “Well, it’s about the gospels.” Well, what’s the subject? “The teachings of Jesus… here,” he handed me a small book, almost a pamphlet. “Every church in the world follows this book so every Sunday you get the same message no matter which church you go to.” I opened the book which was organized by date. It was just excerpts from the bible, as far as I could tell.
This happened again and again when talking to him – I’d ask for perspective or an interpretation or insight and he’d defer to something like, “Well, I reject materials and try to live simply. I’ve made my choice to follow God. Other people make other choices, but you can’t go around changing your mind.” That last statement, ‘you can’t go around changing your mind,’ got under my skin. It’s either ignorance or stubbornness.
The first piece read at Mass today was about Adam and Eve getting expelled from the Garden of Eden for choosing to pursue knowledge. I looked at our, “we just want to learn” statement a little differently. I have two aims when I travel: To learn and to experience (which teaches). It makes my life look incredibly at odds with the aims of the Church. If the apple represented the forbidden fruits of knowledge, then humans were rejected from the Garden of Eden for satisfying their curiosity (learning) and lust (experiencing).
The Mass was bland, uninspiring, he didn’t say anything about real life and in general it looked like he was trying to project authority. Here are the quotes I wrote down: “Readjust your attitude during these 40 days.” (before Easter), “You are made in God’s image.” “Separate your heart from materials.” “Spread the Good News to your neighbors.”
The Mass was conducted in such simple words that I could understand almost everything. The message I received from our week at the church is one that I wasn’t expecting: “Don’t question things. Let God take care of it.” I’m open to talking about religious philosophies (it’s where the rubber meets the road, after all) but not if it’s without critique. Not if I’m simply told to “have faith.” I guess I don’t.
(By the way – If anyone [like Fred, especially] has some insight on the apple story I’d welcome critical comments).