Some time ago, I had a brief, light-hearted Twitter conversation with @LilithsPriest about the scars of my Catholic upbringing. This may seem too much personal information for a forum of this sort, but I see no harm in the disclosure of my fallen faith, and much about it informs the way I still see the world.
My parents were (and remain) devout, but not dogmatic. There was always a certain Celtic mysticism spooking around the edges of belief, and (on my Mother’s side) a brooding Polish piety – all candles and incense and wine-stained altar clothes. Is it any wonder that the occult held such fascination? Then there’s the liturgy itself – its invocations, its formal call and response, its essential mystery. I remember the church services of my childhood. For some reason (perhaps because we were a tone-deaf parish) there was no choir and none of the hymns were sung. They were chanted. That’s right – chanted. The effect was awesome, and a little sinister.
Not surprising, really. There was and is a palpable darkness in Catholic tradition – which is probably why poets such as Auden and Eliot converted. It is alive with conflict – indulgence and prohibition, sin and redemption, ecstasy and damnation. Beautiful martyrs, ghoulish relics, incorruptible saints. What affection I retain for the faith of my childhood is the direct result of this vibrant duality. Because to believe in the power of light, one must also believe in the forces of darkness – and the legions that dwell in between. That vast, gray space is where most Catholics wander… and most occultists.
And that’s what I want to talk about now.
The fall 2011 Weiser Books catalog has some truly phenomenal titles in it. They are, as a group, a little darker than usual, and bloody fantastic! One such title, which I shall not name here yet, is already stirring up some controversy. It is exceptionally well written, well researched, fierce, funny, and quite unnerving. I had the manuscript with me recently when a friend – someone with a fairly intense occult background – asked to take a look at it. No problem, says I, but it’s uncorrected, still in editing, don’t quote it, yada yada yada. Great! says friend, then disappears into a brooding silence. Long story short – friend was shaken, and I was surprised. I realized a few things at that moment:
1. A lot of people are drawn into occultism without first addressing the full spectrum of its potential. It’s sexy, but not for the fainthearted. To know a thing, to know its power and its danger, it must be known fully.
2. No matter how far we stray from the religion of our upbringing, we will never be completely beyond its reach. What we are taught as children stays with us, in some form or another, always.
3. We all have our limits – and they’re usually a surprise – even to us.
Now, despite the whole Catholic thing, I had no problem with the material in this book or the way it was presented. I see it for what it is, am happy to learn something and can leave it at that. Maybe …. maybe I’m okay with it because of my Catholic upbringing. Maybe it was that creepy chanting. Maybe it’s because of transubstantiation, which, were it not integral to the faith (and accepted without question), would seem absolutely abhorrent. Maybe it’s just because I spend a lot of time alone with books.
Faith in all its forms is a way to address the darker concerns of human existence. Yet it seems as though we, as a society, have distanced ourselves from these concerns. Death comes for everyone – but not now. Disasters occur, tragically – but not to us. People do terrible things to each other – but not to anyone we know. Modern media, for all its supposed danger of information overload, only helps to insulate us from things we don’t want to deal with. It is an easy and immediate distraction. It tells us only what we want to know about any one subject. It confirms what we already think we know. It gives us the pretty bits, easily digested. It gives us the gritty bits too, if we want them, but only if we want them and only one pixellated peek at a time. Books, actual physical books, are a lot like old-fashioned religion – intimate, absorbing, and (when one is receptive) transfiguring. You just can’t get that from a website.
My friend saw all that was good about this manuscript – the quality of the work, the value of the information – but the reaction was visceral. Knowing about something is one thing. Reading about it is letting it into your head. We’ve talked about this before. A book is a magical tool and should be treated with appropriate respect. That is why the printed word is still so important. It is part of the physical realm, and as such has power beyond its content. The words of the Mass, scrolling across a screen are words that can be parsed out and pulled apart. Those same words, read aloud in a dark church, flickering with candle-light, smoking with incense, orchestrated by a man in sacred vestments – have an entirely different effect.
So, Ankhie – what the hell are you getting at?
I don’t really know – but it’s something about why books and religion (in all its mystic manifestations) still matter. We are what we are taught, and we are taught by what we read.