Less than a mile from where I sit and type, the spires of St. Mary's help to define the skyline of my home town. Architecturally uninspired, the cathedral is nonetheless imposing despite its status as an institution no longer in operation. The Vatican cut St. Mary's loose in the face of mounting maintenance costs and the dwindling revenue stream from a dwindling worldwide constituency: The pedophile-priest scandal was just one of the pin-pricks that took the air out of the Roman Catholic balloon.
And now the pope has come to visit America. Francis has enjoyed a lot of good press, much as his namesake did ... a gentle, smiling, simple man who seems intent on making people happy and not just obedient. No powerful man ever got that way without guile or deception, but it is nice to think he might have.
Who will begrudge the loving intentions of those who venerate the pope and perhaps once loved St. Mary's? Love is lovely. Hope is lovely. Aspiration is as human as things get. And there was a time when St. Mary's helped to embody what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."
My father's father was a Presbyterian minister, a man who had my father memorize great hunks of the Bible by candle light. As is often the case in such obedient settings, my father came to despise the universe of Christian credulity. Instead he chose the religion of the intellect and became a professor of English among the architecturally-unexceptional buildings across the street from St. Mary's. As a critic of Christian credulity, he was better-informed than most: The idolatrous forms of atheism did not appeal to him. He preferred to pick Christianity apart on its own terms. And, given half a chance in the Smith College classrooms where he taught Shakespeare and adored James Joyce, he would do just that.
I grew up with institutions like St. Mary's as a force to be recognized. Christianity was the law -- implicit or explicit -- of the land. Some of my best friends were Christians. Christianity was both St. Mary's stolid architecture and the woven architecture of people I knew. Christianity was like the ocean -- a part of the environment. It could be stupid and hypocritical but Christianity spoke of the human heart, however confusing and confused the language. I could not bring myself to disdain the human heart, whatever its contributions to various disasters.
The pope's visit to America underscores for me the diminishing role of religion in America. Yes, the scandals contributed. Yes, the rise of the Internet contributed. Yes, the economic hard times imposed a questioning spirit on the financial outlays that churches always seem to demand. But what was once a monolith seems somehow depleted like a Macy's Easter parade balloon. Giving assent to minions of an institution is an option that carries less heft. It's not a malevolent reassigning of priorities but rather a sense that whatever will respond to a yearning heart can no longer be attributed to a church father or mother. Whether a Judaism which finds its foundations in "the law" or a Christianity, which finds its foundations in "caritas" (roughly, charity) can fulfill the heart's petition ... it just doesn't stand out as the most fruitful and compelling format.
And in trying to describe this loss of environmental tableau, I do not intend to create one of those sneaky spiritual backdoors to a new and improved and more compelling realm of answers. Sure, I'm a Zen Buddhist, but as I say to anyone who will listen, "I wouldn't wish my training on my worst enemy and I wouldn't trade it for all the tea in China."
But I still am moved by the yearning of the human heart, no matter how wacky. What will happen to that yearning as exemplified by St. Mary's spires? What will happen to that yearning when the Vatican -- the richest institution on earth -- grows limp and is blown to the side of the road?
And all I can think is that once upon a time, a long time ago, a single heart yearned for something just out of reach. Fact or fantasy makes no difference: It was the yearning that amounted to anything. From that yearning the uninspired spires of St. Mary's grew. From that yearning, the long-distance runner ran through "the wall." From that yearning Jim Jones gathered a crowd that committed mass suicide. From that yearning, a piece of the ineffable came into focus ... and then fell away unmourned.
And from that yearning, perhaps, Ralph Waldo Emerson penned the words, "make your own bible." Isn't that the nature of yearning in the end, writing bibles whose instructions peal and proclaim and then lose their emphatic credibility. And what they lose does not diminish their meaning and usefulness: It just means that when instructions are learned, it is time to exercise them.
Who knows what yearning lurks just around the corner?