Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living (and another recommendation for better Catholics)

The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living, by John Zmirak & Denise Matychowiak. ISBN 0-8245-2300-8

Growing up I remained untouched by anti-Catholic prejudice. I did hear the merest handful of mildly anti-Catholic things, but for one reason and another--I was a child and liked the Easter bunny, I thought one story was logically inconsistent and so must be a misunderstanding, etc.--they had no effect on me. But I did develop a kind of stereotype of Catholics all on my own--namely, an idea that Catholics were apt to have a sense of humor about their religion. As best I can remember, I first got this notion as a teenager while sitting in a hospital waiting room in Jackson one day. A Catholic priest came in to talk to some people who were waiting and after some chit chat I overheard him tell them the joke about the drive-thru confessional (motto: toot-n-tell or go to hell), which made me have to suppress the urge to giggle behind my magazine. Now, I can't say I ever thought much about this notion of mine--it was just a sort of general, vague expectation that got some confirmation now and then. And I don't think it's any more accurate than your average stereotype; in other words, I'm sure I'd have no problem finding plenty of joyless Catholics who'd be right at home delivering a hellfire and damnation sermon in a James Joyce story, if I went looking for them. But who wants to look for them?* Let's just remind ourselves that Merrie Olde England was Catholic England and move on.

The writers of The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living obviously have a great love and respect for Catholicism and seem to be orthodox Catholics, but they don't mistake that as necessitating going around all po-faced and somber.** They have a sense of humor about their religion and about Catholics, especially perhaps the bad Catholics of the title--which is most of us. (Though I personally prefer to call myself a malpracticing Catholic--as in, I do it badly, but I keep at it anyway.) Most of us, when we're not actively commiting obvious sins, prefer coasting along in a kind of happy mediocrity, rather than answering an inconveniently demanding call to holiness; that is (fallen) human nature. The Guide's authors are always wryly aware of this, and they bring that awareness to their celebration of the sometimes weird world of Catholic feasts and fasts (mostly feasts), saints and sinners (mostly--well, we've covered that already). They made me laugh out loud multiple times and smile to myself on, I think, every page.

The book's purpose, as the authors state in the January 6th entry ("Epiphany and Carnival: The Work Ethic Be Damned"), is "to dig into the Catholic past and unearth an unending supply of pre-texts for parties". They do this by laying out the book from January to December and giving plenty of saints and events to celebrate in each month, interrupting seven times to give "executive summaries" of the sacraments. Most days have a suggestion or suggestions for celebration and many have recipes. Some of these suggested celebrations will get you branded as an eccentric by friends and family, one or two will have the neighbors looking oddly at you, and at least one has the potential to get you arrested. Most of them also sound like a lot of fun. Mostly innocent fun, such as the Easter egg fight or the St. Hubert's Day suggestion, although I'm not so sure the glee with which I imagine the consequences of inviting my maternal relatives--WASPy, Germanic types who fight by not talking to one another for years on end--to a Proxy Penance party (see Shrove Tuesday entry) is entirely an innocent thing. And the Guy Fawkes Day (obviously NOT a Catholic holiday!) suggestion is in questionable taste--fun, though.

As for the recipes--from smothered squirrel to Cheese Pascha, from Flaming Spinach Salad to German Honey Cakes for Bears--they sound delicious; I think I may start with the Soft Olive Oil Bread from the Not Particularly Penitential Recipes for Lent, although Uncle Pookie expressed some interest in having the dessert Nun's Farts (which sounds a lot nicer in untranslated French, provided you're not a native French speaker). As befits a book about life in a church that tries to be catholic (i.e. universal), the recipes are drawn from multiple ethnic backgrounds.

This book would make a good gift for Catholic friends and relatives, especially with Christmas coming up. (Do note that if you buy it for your relatives, you won't be able to use the advice about getting out of hosting future Christmas dinners.) There's no need to wait until Christmas to buy a copy for yourself. If you're so gauche as to have reading material in your bathroom, you can leave your copy there to amuse guests who wouldn't normally read a Catholic book--really, who's not going to pick up a book with a cover photo of the Pope making funny faces? Depending on your fastidiousness level, you might want a second copy for the kitchen. Upshot: Highly recommended.

If you're looking for a gift for Catholic relatives whose sense of humor might be missing through inaction, another possible gift is Edward Sri's The New Rosary in Scripture. It's a book about praying the rosary, with reflections from the Scriptures on each mystery and JPII's letter on the rosary. I'm not all the way through it, but it is good so far. Of course, if you're feeling like pointing out the mote in their eye, you could remind them of the Oscar Wilde line about how the Catholic Church is only for saints and sinners, that nice, respectable people will just have to be Anglicans.*** Or, more subtly, you could include a handmade bookmark with the following Hilaire Belloc verse:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino! ****


*I grew up among Baptists who, no matter how fun-loving people they might be in general, tended to be utterly humorless when it came to religion (their own, anyway; I recall a couple of Methodist jokes); laughter anywhere around the subject of religion would be interpreted as laughing at it, and any kind of pleasure other than hymn-singing (with body held very still, so no one would think you were dancing) was banished from both church and heaven, as far as I could tell. Frankly, after that I've always found a little light-heartedness--even irreverent lightheartedness--much preferable. (Please, please, note I am not slamming Baptists, only reporting my own impressions as a young person. I once heard a Catholic priest say that Baptists are some of the best friends Catholics have on the pro-life front, and I really do think we Christians and religious Jews need to make common cause against a culture--or cultures--that would destroy us all. Also, as these were white Baptists and their church-going behavior did not even match that of Baptists in predominantly black Baptist churches right across town, I see no reason to think they were representative of Baptists everywhere.)

**Actually, I seem to recall reading a snippet from St. Thomas Aquinas, in which he said that being humorless and cheerless could, at least in some cases, be considered a sin, as it pointlessly makes your company a trial to others. Anyone know the quote?

***No offense intended toward Anglicans. From what I've heard, you guys have done a much better job of hanging on to traditional church music than we have.

**** "Let us bless the Lord!" is the translation I've seen, but I think we can use the more Bible Belt-friendly, "Praise the Lord!" I await correction by Latin scholars, if any is needed.

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