Sunday, April 12, 2009

Practicing Human

"If things are so bad, why don't you just leave?"  No matter how often you hear such things, they always sting--in part, of course, because there are enemies and scoffers you don't mean to comfort--but more deeply because unusually detailed criticisms imply an unusually vivid idea of how things might have been; they occur, typically, to people who have had their lives changed by moments of revelation and romance, when things that seemed painfully contradictory seemed reconciled--when something like "identity" took shape. To be asked why you don't leave feels like being disinherited.

This is a round about way of saying why Jim Carroll has been as much an inspiration as a friend for nearly 30 years, and why I so resent the odd review of his new bookPracticing Catholic, in today's Times. More than anyone I know, Jim has criticized the church out of a relentless desire to live out what he knew it could be; to hold dear its history, grandeur and gifts, and yet finally move it beyond the grotesque infallibility of its clerical hierarchy. The reviewer of his book, Jack Miles, a good man and a fine writer in his own right, is asking Jim why, in view of all his criticisms, he remains a Catholic. As if Jim has not asked his friends to answer this very question, letting loose a self-deprecating laugh, every time he asks them to read a manuscript. As if asking this is not like asking someone on page 879 of a Russian novel why he intends to finish it.

Obviously, there is particular fellow-feeling here, since a great many people are now asking why people with democratic impulses don't just give up on the Jewish state. For me, the moment of truth came on a farm in the Valley of Jezreel where I volunteered for work during the summer of 1967. Chanan, the farmer who hosted me--his sunny daughters hanging from him--was trying to explain that his friend who had been killed in the war was an excellent farmer; he said, "mi shichmo va maala," "from his shoulders and higher," which I instantly recognized as a fragment of the phrase "from his shoulders and higher taller than the people," the description of Saul--so I had I had learned--from The Prophets which caused Samuel to choose him as king of Israel. 

Just why hearing Chanan say this meant the world to me is hard to explain quickly. I loved my father, still back in Montreal, but hated (as he tried to, but could not quite) the orthodoxy of the extended family. Which meant I loved his Zionist criticism of orthodoxy but loved all the more Philip Roth's skepticism about fathers. Then again, I loved the Torah, but hated what the rabbis did to it, but hated all the more what Nazis did to rabbis. Anyway, here on my new mentor's farm, I suddenly saw a way of loving more freely. One did not have to sacralize the Torah, one could milk cows quoting it. One did not have to give up on fathers.

JIM'S MOMENT WAS the feel on his cheek of Pope John XXIII's cheek, at an audience in the presence of his father, whose own cheek (so we learn from Jim's award-winning memoir, American Requiem) was not easily brushed against. This meeting was just before, and became inseparable in Jim's mind from, Vatican Two and President Kennedy's election--events that were going to insinuate what American Catholic life might yet be, and has since become something else again.

What Jim teaches is quite simple, really. How you make your stand for conscience defines who you are. Where you make that stand is mostly a matter of fate. You may, for all kinds of good reasons, choose to let the cup pass from your hand, but it will be placed there. To ask Jim why he doesn't leave the church is to wish, not for a better world, but for another one--not a bad thing to be thinking about on, of all days, Easter Sunday.

So here is an Easter gift, and a Passover gift, for that matter. Listen to Jim's interview about his book on Chris Lydon's indespensible program "Open Source."