When I finally head back to church this weekend, after a year of Covid-avoidance, it is going to feel a little strange. These past 12 months constitute the longest stretch of time I’ve been away since I was born. And I’m not going to lie, part of me liked the sudden plague-long dispensation. I’ve become used to the lazy, empty, gently unfolding Sundays. They’ve grown on me. I could live like this, it occurs to me — as so many others do, all the time.
So why go back? When I ask myself what exactly I’ve missed, I realise it isn’t a weekly revelation. I don’t expect to feel something profound every time I go to Mass — because most of the time I don’t, and rarely have. The one thing Catholicism teaches the bored and distracted churchgoer is that your own mood doesn’t really matter. The consecration will happen regardless. Your inspiration is not the point. And what makes this all cohere somehow is physical ritual — and that, I realise, is what I really miss. I miss the silent genuflection; the chanting in unison with others; the standing up and kneeling down and standing up again. I miss the messy democracy of the communion line, and the faces I recognise from decades in my parish, and the faces I don’t. I miss enacting something ineffable with my body, using words I never chose myself, and use only in this space. I miss the irrational, collective order of it all. And beneath all this, only poking above ground every now and again, I miss the weekly reminder of what I deeply believe within the folds of my consciousness: the command of universal love; the fact of life after death; the radical truth of experiential mystery.
I couldn’t say exactly how this counter-rational aspect of my life affects the rest of me, but it definitely stabilises things. It gives perspective. It makes the awfulness of the world less intolerable, it momentarily breaks what Michael Oakeshott called ‘the deadliness of doing’. It makes politics less fraught, because the religious person knows that the ultimate questions can never be resolved on Earth, and it is foolish to try.
Jean Cocteau once described smoking opium as an interlude in the rush of existence. ‘Everything one achieves in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death,’ he wrote. ‘To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving.’ I feel the same way about religion. It is about removing oneself from life while still living it: a pause, a grace-note, a moment when nothing is getting done. It is good to get out of the addled brain for a while, to live in the soul and the body alone. And I wish I were better able to convey how life-giving this is. Maybe it’s primarily a relief for those of us who live in our heads too much, who live very online lives, or who use words of our own all the time. But I see the calm it gives others too: the repetition of little acts, the recitation of the same words, the unity that such rituals can give a life over the decades. I saw it in my Irish grandmother — rattling through the rosary like a horse-race commentator.
And when this space disappears in a society, you can see people find ways to replicate it elsewhere. Last week, Gallup put out a poll that shows for the first time that affiliation with a church, synagogue or mosque no longer defines a majority of Americans. In the two decades since the turn of the millennium, religious affiliation has gone from around 70 per cent, where it stood more or less since the 1930s, to a mere 47 per cent. Among millennials, only 36 per cent say they belong to an organised religion. For a European, this is unremarkable. For America, it is a seismic event.
What we’re witnessing, it seems to me, is not a collapse in the religious impulse as such. The need to transcend, to find meaning, and purpose, is eternal for humans. What we’re witnessing is what happens when politics replaces or becomes a form of religion. The fusion of evangelical Christianity with the Republican party blasphemously climaxed in the Trump cult. Among the Trump banners and a Confederate flags in the crowd that invaded the Capitol on 6 January was a flurry of wooden crosses. And in wokeness, the younger generation are quite obviously replicating previous religious movements in America. Look at the zeal in their eyes, the relentless search for heresy, the ostracisation of sinners, the mass confessions of iniquity, and the need to ‘do the work’ every day to bring about the Kingdom of Anti-Racism.
These new religions lack only one thing: something transcendent that makes the failure in our lives redemptive, and that sees politics merely as the necessary art of attending to the imperfect and the transient. It took centuries for Christianity to begin to model that kind of grace, and to reject earthly power as a distraction from what really matters, what really lasts. It would be a terrible shame if America threw that shimmering inheritance away.