Sunday, May 23, 2010

Happy Pentecost

Happy Pentecost to any and all Christians reading this. To any Jewish people reading this, I hope you had a happy Shavuot. And to anyone reading this who doesn't know what Pentecost is, you can try here and here for some more information, but the short answer is that it commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit as described in the second chapter of the biblical book of Acts.

And since the word Pentecost makes many of us think of Pentecostalism, here's as good a place as any to mention one of the many things becoming Catholic has done for me: it got rid of my culturally-absorbed prejudice against Pentecostals. I grew up among fairly mainstream Baptists and Methodists in the American South and there was a bit of a prejudice against Pentecostals (though of course, it being the South, everyone was too polite to be rude about it to anyone's face). Pentecostals and Holiness people were often called by the derogatory term "holy rollers" and were considered to have unseemly and overemotional, even tacky, religious services. People shook their heads at what they'd heard those Pentecostals got up to, with their fervent preaching and shouting and falling out on the floor and talking in tongues and--especially hard for Baptists to take--dancing. Some mainstream women might also shake their heads at the grooming restrictions many Holiness women adhered to, with their lack of makeup and their long hair.

I absorbed some of this prejudice myself, although I'm not sure if I ever realized it before I had to read The Grapes of Wrath for a class and found the Pentecostal Joads irritating to read about.

The ugly truth is that class snobbery was what was behind a lot of the head shaking, not doctrinal problems. Kathleen Norris has written about this a bit in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Pentecostals in the past often came from the poorer, less educated parts of society, and I think that still holds true, although I've heard that in the last twenty to thirty years the average wealth and education level has gone up. I think for some people a bit of that lower class tinge remains in their perception of Pentecostals.

For me, becoming Catholic got rid of my mild prejudice. For one thing I came into the Church on the Pentecost Vigil. That kind of makes you think about the Holy Spirit, even if you don't think that deeply. I believe in the Holy Spirit; I publicly affirm it along with my fellow Catholics every time I go to mass and privately every time I pray the rosary or the Divine Mercy chaplet. I believe in the Pentecost account in Acts. I believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the fruits of the Holy Spirit, even if my understanding is not good. So why should I or anyone who believes these things be bothered by people seeking the Holy Spirit?

For another, I was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church teaches that everyone who is baptized thusly is part of the Body of Christ, even if they are not in full communion with Rome, and thus all other Christians are my brothers and sisters in Christ. (Yes, I know some Pentecostals baptize in the name of Jesus only, but I figure they are at least trying, so I tend to think of them as siblings in Christ too.)

For another, I was made aware of Charismatic Catholics--Catholics who pay a lot of attention to the Holy Spirit and enjoy more emotionalized or "spirit-filled" devotions outside of mass; some of them even "pray in a spirit language" (i.e. "speak in tongues".) This is not attractive to me, but the Church is both worldwide and ancient, creating room for a multiplicity of personal devotional practices, no one of which will appeal to everyone--and that is fantastic.

For another, even before I came into the Church I was very attracted to the line in Galatians about there being neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female in Christ Jesus. That seems to me a clear indication that we are to leave our worldy considerations, such as class consciousness or wondering if other people's cultural-acquired preferences are "tacky" or not, outside the Church door. I also did a fair amount of thinking around the idea that God's standards are not our standards. Remember that Flannery O'Conner story in which the smugly self-content Southern farm lady has a vision of all kinds of poor people and freaks going up to heaven before her, shouting and clapping and dancing on their way? It's like that. With God, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. You only have to hear "blessed are the meek" to know you are not in worldy territory; this is not how we think, but how God thinks.

For another, as a Catholic I'm now part of a religion that a lot of people look down on and consider full of tacky things. Pilgrims going in bare feet or on their knees up the steps to a shrine--how gauche. Crucifixes with blood dripping from them--a little too real to be in good taste. The Sacred Heart--what's that about? The Way of the Cross? Probably something "ethnic" people do.

And for yet another thing, Catholics receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit at confirmation. No doubt that helped.

So why am I going on at such length about my having shed what was only ever a mild prejudice? Well, for starters I'm glad it's gone; I'm glad I'm no longer bigoted against Christians in general, no longer inclined to demean myself by sneering at "fundies", and no longer prejudiced against "holy rollers". For another, in a time when any stick will do to beat the Church, I think it's good to tell some of the good we find there, even something as minor as this. American society has for forty-plus years held up prejudice as the greatest of secular sins. Well, the Catholic Church helped rid me of one subset of prejudice. That is a good thing, right? She deserves props for it, right?

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