It’s been eight years since I attended a Sunday mass, with my daughter Abby during junior year aboard in Paris. She suggested that we go to mass at Notre Dame, more for the pageant than the message. Still, I was wary.
I am both suspicious and envious of cafeteria Catholics: folks who can pick and choose aspects of the religion to suit their taste. Strict Catholicism coursed through my youthful marrow. Intoxicating incense, a clean soul, and the righteous warmth of ingesting Christ’s body and blood were permanently affixed to mandated stands against sexuality, abortion, and divorce. As a child, the prohibitions seemed a fair price to pay for a comprehensive and comforting worldview. But once my thinking mind kicked in, and I realized how much Catholicism served power and privilege rather than people, the cost-benefit nose-dived into deficit. It never occurred to me that I might negotiate a selective faith. Once one foundational principal faltered upon another, the whole thing crumbled, and so I left the Church.
For Abby, raised on Unitarian relativism, visiting Notre Dame during mass simply ratcheted up the tourist appeal. I was the one who had to assuage demons.
There we sat, under the buttressed arches, the filtered light from the famous rose window dancing on our shoulders, streams of yellow, green and blue. The opening procession was pageant indeed: a parade of gold vestments, the familiar clank of the thurible; its aromatic smoke wafting up, up, to Gothic heights. I can enjoy this, I thought. It’s just a show.
Until we got to The Gospel: Luke Chapter 15, Verse 11. “A man has two sons…”
There are few stories I dislike more than the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son,’ a disdain rooted in my own experience. I identify with the older son: a guy who steady toils without complaint. His anger at the extraordinary bounty bestowed upon the prodigal’s return seems justified.
But my reaction to ‘The Prodigal Son’ goes deeper. For instead of seeing the parable as a tale of forgiveness, I believe it exalts one of humanity’s least noble traits: to celebrate drama over constancy, to herald the extreme rather than acknowledge the dependable. Why do we gush over the recovered addict but don’t recognize the perseverance of the woman who shuns drugs from the get-go? Why do we applaud the man who loses 50, 100, 200 pounds but never give a passing comment to the guy who’s maintained a healthy weight throughout his life? Why do we consider success all the sweeter when it rises out of a stumble?
A person who overcomes an adversity or addiction demonstrates worthwhile discipline and fortitude. But it is no more admirable than a person who has the discipline, the constancy, to avoid life’s temptations in the first place.
The parable of ‘The Prodigal Son’ elevates human hunger for drama and redemption, when the message that a productive, stable society needs to convey is: we need people who shoulder on. A person who falls and then finds his footing is surely stronger than the person who cannot recover; he is stronger still for changing his course. But let’s not forget, and celebrate, the people who keep on keeping on. They provide the backbone that steadies our course.