Onward Christian Soldiers - A ConfirmationMonday, April 13, 2009
As a little boy I often saw my grandmother saying her Holy Rosary in silence. I could discern the syllables of the padre nuestro and the ave Marías on her lips. This was the reverent side of religion of which my grandmother taught me a lot. But there was an irreverent, almost comical, side of her Catholicism that even as a small boy I found funny. When my mother or grandmother lost some precious or not so precious object they would make a bargain with St Anthony of Padua. If this saint, the patron saint of lost objects, would come through, they would then paylots and leave said some at his box at the local church. But he would get nothing if the object remained lost.
In the general and then predictable order of my Catholic life, Confirmation was the second sacrament I received after baptism. My grandmother made it plain that this sacrament made it a duty for me to be a defender of the faith. I enquired about that heroic tune that my father and I would sing in bed, Onward Christian Soldiers, and she told me that this was not really what confirmation was about. “You have to be able to explain your religion to strangers, who may ask, defend its tenets verbally and by example. Only then will you be a proper Christian soldier."
At the time I found this most boring as singing Onward Christian Soldiers and My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean was much more fun. The prospect of hitting some uncouth heathen on the head with my wooden sword and forcibly entering them into the bosom of the Mother Church was much more exciting.
Four years at a Catholic boarding school in Texas, St Edward’s High School and four years of excellent and detailed instruction of Catholic doctrine (courtesy of Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C) complete with forays into Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, made me truly a Catholic soldier that my grandmother was proud of.
It all unraveled (or at least in hindsight it seems to have done so then) sometime around mid April 1966 in the Buenos Aires zoo. The April 8 Time Magazine had on its cover the shocking question, Is God dead? I was dressed in my Argentine Navy whites and I was sitting by the tigers (like Borges used tod do) reading my copy of Time. In those days I read the magazine every week and only missed a few that the Argentine Junta deemed insulting to their benign rule.
It was in the late 60s when talking to my mother that I seriously began to doubt some of my beliefs. My mother suffered from an advance case of vertigo Ménière. Besides a constant ringing in her ears that was making her deaf she had terrible dizzy spells that had the whole world moving under her and she would hold on to her bed for dear life. By then my mother was in her late 50s. One day, one I will never forget, she told me, “I no longer believe in a God that cares. I believe that my prayers a wasted on a being who created us and then left us to our devices. I believe in a remote and selfish God.”
Years before around 1963 my grandmother and I had been against her being wooed by a pleasant but balding man, a Mr. Medrano, we nicknamed “Poco Pelo” or Little Hair. We did everything possible to scuttle the relationship until my mother finally gave up. I look back at that event in my life with deep shame particularly when I remember what my mother told me right after her concept of her selfish God.
“Alex, I am 57, I am still a sexual being in spite of my Ménière’s. I have lived in loneliness since I left your father in 1953. I want more of my life.”
I was speechless and had no comforting words. She left me in depression when she added, "I have lost my faith in the power of prayer."
Since those days I have dabbled in the works of Spinoza, Hegel and Spengler. The Time article on God pointed me in the direction of Nietzsche. I have found some comfort in the notions of non existence so calmly explained by Epicurus.
As I lay in bed last night after our successful Easter dinner with our guests, the Stewarts, I asked Rosemary, “We have been married for 41 years. How has all that time passed without us really knowing? Where are we going?” Rosemary was silent. I was troubled because of a 1927 silent film I had seen a few hours before.
Last night I finally saw in its entirety, Cecil B. D. Mille’s The King of Kings. After filtering out of my system some of the over dramatic acting I enjoyed the beautiful camera work. I instantly dismissed D. Mille’s “Christ trick” of using an ever present backlight and a soft focus filter. These two factors when combined with Christ’s (H.B. Warner) white toga made him fluoresce like magic. Add to this little fluorescent-white trained doves and the effect was rather campy. This film is well worth watching for two performances. One is by Austrian born Joseph Schildkraut (Judas) and the other by Victor Varconi as Pontius Pilate. Schildkraut in later years made wonderful films (The Man with the Iron Mask) where he played a hateful villain. In The King of Kings he played an uncommonly handsome and complex Judas to matinee idol perfection. Varconi, as Pilate without the advantage of sound, was a Pilate who truly knew this man, this Christ was innocent. The path between him trying to save Christ to his eventual washing of his hands is a silent tour de force.
The film left me empty. It was like watching a magician when I was 8 and believing that what I was watching was pure magic. The magician was truly swallowing that string of Gillette blades. Many years later I marvelled at films that showed pianos playing without the help of human hands. I could never get the thrill of watching the keyboard of my Smith Corona PWP-40 magically type out my letter after I had pressed, “print.”
As my St Ed’s High School reunion looms in June I am thinking of going a day early. I want to sit with Brother Edwin and chat. Do I dare ask him about his beliefs? He gave me all the intellectual tools to make me a perfect soldier of Christ. Or should I just let those days of soft focus magic remain and just soldier on as I am now?