I have just finished re-watching the eleven episodes of the BBC series Brideshead Revisited. What I had never expected to see portrayed on television in the early 1980’s – the romantic friendship of two young Oxford gentlemen and the enigmatic Catholic life of an aristocratic British family – seemed to give public expression to two important sides of my own life. Thanks to Granada Television, I would not grow as a gay man, I would not grow as a Catholic in the same fearful isolation of earlier generations.
Among my parents’ belongings distributed among their children and grandchildren when their estate was settled five years ago, a plentiful collection of prayer books and religious medals and old rosaries surfaced. I remember some of these religious articles vividly from my years growing up, and in a family meeting the day after my mother’s funeral I had expressed an interest in some of the items. A few months later I became the unwitting – but not unwilling – recipient of almost all of them.
Sorting through the cache of religious articles belonging to my parents – some of them dating from the years depicted in Brideshead – I felt as though I were touching relics from these two Catholic lives. In a compelling study of American Catholic devotional life, Harvard professor Robert A. Orsi puts into words some of the awe I felt handling these objects: “There was something mysterious and frightening about the sacred world to me as a child, frightening because I could sense in the postures and tonalities of adults engaged with the saints secrets and stories I couldn’t fully understand, like a child trying to figure out what’s going on at an adult dinner party.” (Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, 2005) Secret places in my parents’ lives suddenly felt closer.
One of the most familiar items that came to me was a 1930 Manual of Prayers from a Catholic publishing house in Baltimore. For many years the book, bound in black leather, had accompanied my mother both when she went to church on Sunday and when she went to bed each night. Even now, in the right light, the edges of some pages reveal traces of the original gilding; among the pages whose edges show the most wear are those with a Litany of the Sacred Heart and the Stations of the Cross.
On one of the inside front pages is my father’s crisp printing of my mother’s married name, the address of their first apartment in Baton Rouge, and the request “Please return.” The book that I imagine as a special purchase on the occasion of my parents’ wedding in 1935 reached my home almost seventy years later.
In his study Orsi warns against a simplistic imagining of twentieth-century American Catholic life as a matter of linear narratives – “from immigration to assimilation, from premodern to modern, from a simple faith to a sophisticated faith.” Something richer and truer to the real life that we all live might be possible if we are ready, as Orsi puts it, “...to look for improbable intersections, incommensurable ways of living, discrepant imaginings, unexpected movements of influence, and inspiration existing side by side – within families and neighborhoods, as well as psychological, spiritual, and intellectual knots within the same minds and hearts.”
In recent months I have needed to do occasional maintenance on one of my father's rosaries from that cache of family articles. It is a rosary that I have daily carried in my pants' pockets the past few years. The wiring that connects the wooden beads had gotten loosened, and repeated efforts to untangle the resulting knots weakened the wiring and made further knots even more difficult to repair. This week I came to the conclusion that it was time to lay that rosary aside, although I have no replacement as yet for its daily company.
And, you know, sometimes you realize that living for a while without certain familiar comforts will be all right.