I love small town America. I have a little vacation time and I am sitting on the veranda of a country-style coffee shop in East Aurora New York having my breakfast and looking out into a different world of a lazy hazy summer far from the maddening crowd of my normal place of work. This is so different than my everyday rush and bother and the confused world of a metropolitan area. There are “traditional” families having a 10:00 am weekday morning breakfast together with teenagers who look like they are actually happy to be with their parents. I don’t see anyone texting or checking their emails. In fact, I am getting a bit self-conscious about sitting here with my laptop even though I am alone at my table. Across the street is the white clapboard Presbyterian Church with its tall New-Englandy tower and Palladian widow. A large American flag hangs from the tower. I know the time because the bell in the Episcopal Church up the street just sounded the hour. Lawns are green and tightly clipped; summer gardens filled with hollyhock and painted daises and pink cleome and hydrangea. This is a world in which the issues of post-modern U.S.A. seem totally removed. I am sure there are same-sex married couples somewhere in this town, and probably some of these nice ladies in their garden-hats having their coffee and laughing with one another have a Salvadoran of questionable legal status cleaning their homes, and there probably are a few children of color in the in the public schools, but it is all hidden from sight and duly out of mind. One might think that Dwight Eisenhower is still President and June and Ward Cleaver live just around the corner. I grew up in a somewhat idyllic world in which everybody went to Mass—and the ladies wore hats and gloves to do so—and divorce was an unknown quantity. Yes, there was some domestic violence and even more alcoholism and the man across the street wore his wife’s underwear but it wasn’t talked about, at least in front of the children. Sunday dinner was a roast and we could play outside until dark without anyone worrying. I miss that world. In retrospect it was an artificial world: closet doors were nailed shut and to reach the age of reason meant to buy into the web of ever-bigger lies, but it was all so simple as long as you didn’t rock the boat. And it is wonderful to retreat into a facsimile of that world if only for a few days of vacation; but that world is gone and gone for good. It was only a frame in social history and despite the efforts of those who wish to see their children and grandchildren safe and secure in their own particular variant of colonial Williamsburg, the toothpaste won’t go back into the tube and we Christians know that our discipleship must face the challenges of today’s world and not hide in some magic wardrobe among the tattered silks and shabby furs of Grandma’s day.
I think this is the stumbling block for today’s Catholic neo-cons. The memories of pre-Vatican II Catholicism represent for them a safer, less complex world of back-porch ice-cream and rosary crusades where one didn’t have to look at life’s complexities so squarely in the eye. We didn’t have to question then, we could just trust the powers-that-be to keep us safe and free. It all began to come apart when Camelot collapsed and we were left with Viet Nam and Civil Rights. At first it all seemed so clear and many of us even climbed on the liberal bandwagon. We wanted to protect our Little Brown Brothers in South-east Asia from the grasp of Khrushchev and Mao. Who knew that a law that required us to serve lunch at the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter to Miss Savannah, the Black lady who cleaned Aunt Ethel’s house, would one day require us to bake a wedding cake for a Gay couple? Oh, J.Edgar tried to warn us. Yes he did. Martin Luther King was a communist and the Kennedy brothers were sleeping with Marilyn Monroe—but did we listen? No. And our whole world began to unravel. There were the Beatles and the Beatles led to Pot and Pot to Coke—and I don’t mean Cola—and then all hell broke loose at Woodstock. And those protestors against Viet Nam began to question our government and the next thing you know we had Eugene McCarthy and Eugene McCarthy led to Walter Mondale and Mondale to Clinton and the next thing you know we got ourselves a Kenyan in the White House. And all the walls have come tumbling down. Why I have a doctor who is half-German and half-Korean! And my niece married an African American (but he can passé blanc and fortunately their child looks like us.) And my uncle divorced my aunt after 35 years of marriage and is living with a woman whose brother is a priest and he goes over to their house for dinner and on vacation with them! And two lesbians just bought the house across the street and have come over to ask if they can take a clipping from the fig tree in our yard. If I give them a clipping, will my pastor deny me Holy Communion? I just love being in East Aurora—it is the next best thing to the Tridentine Mass for forgetting that it is 2015 and following Jesus isn’t as simple as it used to be.
At the end of the day—or the vacation—Colonial Williamsburg Christianity is not Christian Discipleship. If God wished us to live in 1950’s America he would have had us born a generation or two earlier. We are placed in our specific time and place to make the Kingdom of God a reality in that specific moment and location in history. While the Christian is not called to embrace the peculiarities of culture, we are called to evangelize in the everyday world in which live. To do this we need to live in the world around us and not to try to take refuge in our memories of an easier, better day.
I think the single most memorable—and “shaping”—book I read during the entire course of my education was Creative Fidelity by the French Existentialist, Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). Marcel’s thesis, at least as I remember it and as it has shaped me, is that faithfulness (fidelity) requires change. As the world around us changes, so too must we change if we are to keep our values fixed on the unchanging. To fail to change is to be the servant who takes his silver coin and buries it for fear of the returning Master’s wrath. Let me explain it this way. I am on the people-mover that carries pilgrims past the tilma containing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that hangs over the altar in the shrine of the same name in Mexico City. If I am to keep my eye on the image of Our Lady I have to constantly shift my position as I stand on the people-mover as the carrier moves me along otherwise my eyes will see only the blank wall as I move beyond the space directly below the image. This is what John Henry Newman meant when he said: “To live is to change and to have changed often is to have lived well.” I am enjoying my time up here in small-town Americana; it’s letting me off my tilt-a-whirl world with all its complexities and challenges, but going to Mass yesterday and hearing the priest remind me about the challenges Jesus faced surrounded by people whose hunger was not just spiritual reminds me that I need to go back into the realities of life and meet people where they are at and not where I think they should be.