What interests me today, though, is not what happened to the late Dale Earnhardt on that February afternoon, but rather something I heard two weeks later.
The young driver selected to replace Earnhardt had just won that week’s race. Tearful words of gratitude were gulped into microphones from pit row, including these, from a member of the crew:
“I prayed that Dale would help us today, and I guess he did.”
Okay. Looks like you can take the good old boy out of Popery’s grasp, but you can’t take the Popery out of the boy.
We Catholics spend a lot of time answering questions about our “odd” habits and beliefs. We’re regularly called upon to point out where Purgatory is in the Bible, where the Eucharist isn’t in paganism, and how on earth we can defend such a cluttered, expansive and well – catholic – religion in general.
Why, we’re asked to explain, can’t you people just strip it down and stick with the basics? Why must you be so committed to this mess of pre-modern, practically medieval sensibilities and practices?
Because of Dale, that’s why.
Not to speak of Jerry Springer, Dr. Laura, and sorority initiations. Oh, and The Sixth Sense, too.
Here’s what this is all about:
It should be obvious to any but the most willfully dense observer that part – just part – of what Catholic ritual and belief is about is giving expression to the deepest needs of human beings in relationship to themselves, the cosmos, and God.
In other words, our mouths may deny it, but our souls know what is true and those truths will get expressed, no matter what, it seems. The cant of egotistical theologians and market-hungry merchants may call on us to turn our backs on all that’s old and embrace only the new, and various types of Protestants (and some Catholics too, dare we say it?) may heap scorn on what they call our “man-made religion,” but everywhere you turn, you can’t help but see the very things that are scorned pop back into life in the most surprising places.
So it is that the world, particularly the Protestant world, scorns on our quaint conviction that the dead aren’t dead at all, and indeed can be called upon for comfort, assistance and prayers. But this is the same general populace that made a movie called The Sixth Sense, a film about nothing less than Purgatory and the Communion of Saints, Sense a rather shocking box-office success in 1999.
And it is also the same crowd that can’t fathom the sense of saints, but then, without a second thought, assures themselves that Grandpa is still around, looking after us, that we could just feel the late Aunt Edith’s presence at the birthday party and, of course, that Dale, instantly dead one week, could be petitioned for that extra push on his old car the next.
So the world scorns the Sacrament of Reconciliation as evidence of a rather childish dependence on authority or the external, when really, our own sense of self-worth ought to do the trick to reassure us in the face of failure. But in the next moment, they’re making appointments with therapists, or exposing their problems on television or radio shows, seeking peace, seeking healing, seeking absolution, seeking something that their inner dialogue just can’t provide.
So the world flings ritual to the winds in preference to the spontaneous, and presumably more “real,” then turns around and constantly invents new ones, from sorority initiations to Sunday afternoon football to blanketing spots associated with the dead – Graceland, the tunnel where Princess Di was killed, the front of the Dakota apartments where John Lennon was shot – with flowers, notes and a general array of completely predictable (a.k.a. ritualized) junk.
And so, finally, this world evolves into a place in which the greatest virtue is one called “tolerance,” and no one's beliefs or behaviors are to be subjected to the new, only remaining capital sin, “judgment.”
Unless, of course, you voice the opinion that traditional moral codes may have something to them. Or that unborn children are, well, children. Or that Peter Singer is a nutcase. Or that freedom of speech means freedom of speech for everyone, not just those who would voice opinions deemed politically correct. (If you want a good explanation of how this inherent need to separate good and evil persistently manifests itself, even in these post-judgmental days, take a look at a book called The Revenge of Conscience by J. Budziszewski.)
In those cases, of course, the instinct to separate right from wrong resurfaces in the most virulent ways, unencumbered by any sense of love and motivated only by the will to power.
In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote along these lines when he described his gradual discernment of the truth that whatever “holes” there are in this strange, paradoxical world, Christian teaching fills:
The spike of dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world – it had evidently been meant to go there…. Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine…
Perhaps what we see then is the perfect kind of evangelization and catechesis. For decades, we Catholics have been trying to change, fit into and adapt to “the world.” Maybe the power of what we have is better served by sharing the obvious truth of how this world’s most basic yearnings – found expressed everywhere we look from the movies to the racetrack – are matched exactly by what we already have.
(Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.)