I am probably not the likeliest contributor to a symposium on the vocation of the layman since I don’t usually do the sort of things better Catholics do, like being active in the “faith community,” the “parish family,” and suchlike.
Nor do I find myself caught up in any of the partisan movements which, to judge from the uproar, seem to be exercising the laity these days. I know Catholics who consider the clergy far too “liberal,” a few who see all priests from John Paul II on down as agents of an “authoritarian” Roman hierarchy. Most Catholics around here are foursquare behind the contras, but I know a couple who see the Sandinistas as the true Christians and point with pride to the priests in the cabinet. Most laymen are like me, glad to have any priest show up, “liberal” or “conservative,” black, Vietnamese, or Cajun. I know Catholics who think it all went to pot when we lost the Latin Mass, who roll their eyes when the choir-combo bangs out “Amazing Grace,” who look ironic when it comes time to shake hands with fellow worshippers. I know one lady who closes her eyes and goes into deep meditation when hand-shaking time comes. Others laugh, hug, and smack each other with sure-enough kisses of peace. I’d as soon hug or not hug. The only Catholics who give me a royal pain — and they’re mostly not laymen — are the Kungs, Currans, O’Briens. This is because of their intellectual pride and intransigence. But the Church has survived worse. I get along fine with all other members of the Mystical Body, liberal and conservative, Latinist mutterers and vernacular shouters, huggers and nonhuggers.
Except for taking a moderately active part during the racial troubles of the ’60s and ’70s, helping organize interracial groups, and getting Head Start going, I’m one of those passive, albeit churchgoing, Catholics like most of us. Once in a while, when the priest says “Will four men take up the collection?” and only three get up, I might grab a basket.
Actually, as a convert of some forty years, I still feel the secret, somewhat besotted, delight I felt at the beginning when, through some good fortune which God alone understands and is responsible for, I found myself alone among strangers in a big Catholic church in New Orleans, trying to follow the Mass in that old big fat black missal. Then one was alone with God, yet not alone of course, eating Him with one’s fellows, but mostly in silence, while the priest turned his back. It was all right then and it is all right now. I felt and still feel like the sly fellow in the Gospels who got wind of a treasure buried in a field, said little or nothing, connived, made a deal, got the best both of seller and realtor, bought the field — and is still secretive about his property. A true religious capitalist.
What I’m saying, of course, is that it doesn’t matter much to me whether I celebrate Mass with the local Benedictines singing plainchant out at St. Joseph’s Abbey or with enthusiastic teen-agers banging guitars at the parish church — though the former is lovely past believing. But esthetics is not the thing, can in fact distract from The Thing.
My excuse for being such a half-baked Catholic is, I guess, that I’m a writer, novelist, and essayist, and that I would hope that the secret delight transmits through my writings, however indirectly — refracts, like a pure light broken up by a prism into homely colors. Slyness is the thing here, too. The novelist’s vocation is an humble one. He is out to please his customers. As Kierkegaard would say, he does not have the authority to bear the Good News to his readers. He is not an apostle who says: here it is, I am telling you what happened and I make you responsible for believing it or not believing it. God help the Catholic novelist who gets his vocation mixed up with this sort of apostleship. Indeed, not even God chooses to help him here — which is one reason there are so few good Christian novelists these days. Slyness, cunning, craft are what count here — as they do with any other kind of novelist. The best he, she, can do, if he’s a novelist, and surely too if he’s any sort of layman, is to prize his treasure, keep his field secret — certainly not hawk it about — go about his business. If the secret delight is there, he needn’t tell it. His doing is the telling.