Our Lady Smokes a Hookah

May 24th, 2017

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people that you do.” – Ann Lamott

“Without the voice of reason, every faith is its own curse.” – Sting


St. Stanislaus Catholic Church is in Anderson, Texas. It’s an old church. It’s old enough that you have to walk across the parking lot to get to the bathrooms. The building itself is beautiful, and it is surrounded by huge oak trees. Inside the church there are stain glass windows showing various saints. The names of the saints are written in Polish. For instance, the window holding the image of St. Paul says, “St. Pawel” underneath. The window with St. Andrew says, “St. Andrej”. It’s an old school parish founded generations ago by pious Poles, who somehow thought that Texas resembled the Old Country.

Karin and I try to go to daily Mass. Whenever possible, we did so on the endless road trip. Since we often stayed at retreat houses or at monasteries, this was not usually an issue. When we were staying with Hans, we had to look around for a local Mass. St. Stanislaus had one on this particular day at noon. We got there when it was already hot and sunny.

I should have picked up on the weird energy. When Karin and I arrived at the church, we noticed a family whose members were all dressed the same. The kids all seemed to be in uniform. I figured that they were from a local parochial school. It turned out that they were from overseas, Venezuela or maybe Colombia. This isn’t a big deal. Hell, Karin and I came from Wisconsin, which is damn near as far away from Texas as South America is.

Most Catholics do not go to Mass on a daily basis. Most American Catholics don’t even go to Mass on Sundays. Daily Mass attracts a strange breed. That includes Karin and myself. Most people who go to Mass each day simply have made it part of their core practice. It is like when a Muslim prays five times a day, or when a Buddhist sits zazen each morning. The Mass becomes part of the rhythm of a person’s spiritual life.

Daily Mass also attracts a certain portion of the Catholic fundamentalist population. That’s a tiny slice of the Church, but it exists. Often these are the people who long for the return of a religious golden age, a time when the Mass was celebrated in Latin and the priest faced away from the people. They are convinced that Vatican II was a hideous mistake, and that nothing has been right in the Church since the 1950’s. These folks are not necessarily old. I have met young fanatics. There is a quiet ferocity about these people, and a rigidity. They can be very friendly, at least until the moment arrives when they realize that you don’t agree with them. Then things get a little tense.

People were reciting the rosary when Karin and I entered the church. The rosary is a beautiful prayer. The first time I met the abbot of the Zen Center, he remarked on what a good meditative practice the rosary was. That’s an interesting comment coming from a Buddhist. Even just listening to people praying the rosary helps put a person into a more open frame of mind.

After the rosary, I noticed that there were quite a few people in the church, more than I had expected. One family was there with young girls. The mother and her daughters were all wearing veils. I’m betting that the kids were being home-schooled, seeing as it was still May and these children were not in a classroom. Just before the service starting a couple men carried in a rather large statue of Mary, and placed it near the altar. This particular service was in honor of the 100th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima.

It would take too long to explain what is all involved with Our Lady of Fatima. Suffice it to say that in 1917 three small children in Portugal had a vision of Mary, and they received instructions and prophecies from the woman in the vision. After that, things get very complicated.

The priest welcomed everyone to the church. Karin and I had been with him before at his church in Navasota. He was a short, stocky man. He was originally from the Philippines. After the reading of the Gospel, the priest gave his sermon.

The homily started off well. The priest spoke about God’s love and the amazing story of three children being visited by the Mother of God. He gradually grew more agitated in sermon, speaking more loudly and more quickly. Then he kept talking about the evil in the world, and about human sinfulness. Things started to get intense when the priest began talking about the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Apparently, the woman in the apparition had ordered the Pope at the time to perform this consecration in order to usher in an age of peace on earth. After one hundred years, we aren’t quite there yet.

The priest just went off. The sermon turned into a full-on rant.

“Why hasn’t Russia been consecrated to Our Lady after one hundred years!? Why the delay? Why do the bishops and the Pope not obey the Blessed Mother? Do you know what apostasy is? It is the denial of the faith! Even popes and bishops can be apostates!”

Wow. That sounded a lot like this priest had just accused Pope Francis of apostasy. That’s pushing the envelope. I didn’t think the priest could go much further, but he did:

“And you! Do you and your families pray the rosary together every day as Our Lady told us to do? We have all this evil in our world because families are not praying the rosary! Why do you ignore the words of Our Mother?!”

Well, Karin and I don’t pray the rosary together. Maybe we should. However, I can’t imagine getting our children together with us to do that. I can’t even imagine getting our kids together in the same room without the possibility of a fratricide. That’s just not going to work.

The priest went on, ”There will be an accounting! We cannot ignore the will of God without eternal consequences! And I must speak out about these things! If I do not, God will hold me accountable!”

I was ready to bolt for the door. Karin was nervous. I glanced at the other people in the pews. I didn’t notice anybody else appearing to be uneasy. They all seemed to be totally into it. I had the impression that this is exactly what they wanted to hear, and what they had expected to hear.  I had the feeling that everyone besides Karin and myself was looking forward to the Apocalypse. This was an End Times kind of crowd.

The priest ran out of steam. Moral outrage requires enormous amounts of energy, and the man looked worn out. Fortunately, the rest of the Mass followed a specific formula, and there was no room for editorial comments. That’s the beauty of ritual.

Karin and I left the Mass drained. A few people greeted us and hoped that they would see us at next service. Yeah, for sure. We got into the Toyota and drove to Yankee’s, where chicken-fried steak, large salads, and cold beer awaited us. Karin and I spent a great deal of time discussing that liturgy. The whole episode was kind of scary.

It’s strange. During the course of our journeys, Karin and I stayed at four monasteries, a convent, and three retreat houses. We spent time with monks and nuns, and with other people who have given their entire lives to God. Never, not once, did we hear any of those folks talk like the priest in Anderson. None of the monks and nuns showed any anger or bitterness. They never judged us. They were consistently friendly and hospitable. They showed us love.

On our last day in Texas, my sister-in-law, Shawn, wanted us all to get together at the Babylon Café in College Station for supper and hookah. I had never smoked a hookah before. I have never smoked much, period. Shawn was excited about it, so Karin, Hans, and I met Shawn at the café.

“Ahlan wa sahlan” (Welcome) was written on the window of the café. I was pleased that I recognized at least that much Arabic. We went inside and sat on cushions around a low table. Shawn ordered a hookah for us all to share. She decided to try a flavored tobacco called “Sex Goddess”. Why not?

Shawn’s daughter, Roise, was with us too. We ate and talked and smoked. I can see how a hookah could be addictive. Its smoke is smooth and water-cooled. I told Shawn that I would feel more natural if I was wearing a fez, like Sidney Greenstreet is Casablanca. Oh well, I made due without it.

Shawn and I discussed the incident at St. Stanislaus. She told me something interesting. Shawn said that the Catholic churches in Texas seemed to be gradually getting more conservative and traditional. It’s like the Catholics are following the lead of the local Protestant fundamentalists. Since Catholics are notorious for being biblically illiterate, we can’t get hung up on Scripture. However, we can obsess about prayers and ritual and all the other things that really don’t matter. Apparently, that is what is occurring among some of the southern Catholics. It’s like we have to prove to the Protestants that we can be hardcore too.

Shawn and I agreed that it is strange that this should be so. “Catholic”, by definition, means “universal”. The Church is supposed to be open to all sorts of diverse ways of finding God. Unity through diversity. It is good that some people are devoted to Our Lady of Fatima. It is good that other people actively pursue social justice for the poor and oppressed. There should be a place for everyone and every talent. The Church is at its best when welcomes all the varied gifts and traditions of humanity.

I bet Our Lady would smoke a hookah.


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