It’s now a cliché: “You can’t go home again.” And, in an obvious sense, that’s true. The passage of time changes the place you remembered, shutters candy stores where you once drank egg creams and watched your roguish friends shoplift Snickers. It sends the blue-haired neighbors who used to call the cops about the noise from your garage band to places like Calvary Cemetery. You peek in their windows and see instead of an aquatint Sacred Heart a gold-plate statue of the elephant god Ganesh. That white grandma was swept up like a dust bunny and replaced by a gaggle of cute brown kids. You wonder at the hollow pit in your gut that tolls with grief for that old biddy. (It is the blight man was born for,/It is Margaret you mourn for.)
That schoolyard where the Italians wearing Tom Seaver’s number on their wife-beater shirts used to brawl with the future Irish cops in Yankee hats: You used to dash through it with your head down, trying to get home without another one-sided fight. Now you watch the wind drag trash across it and yearn to be small again. You wish for the happy, carefree childhood in a peaceful home that nobody has, but everyone promises to make for his own children. You spent your tweens dreaming of puberty, and adolescence waiting for the magic, drinking-age number 18. Now that you’re grown up, you wonder what all the fuss was about. Whatever age we are at a given moment, we’re always looking forward to the freedom and fun to come, or sifting through boxes of keepsakes for scraps of remembered magic. And we can’t help wondering: Were we really made for this? If we were built just to live and then to die, surely we’d trot through life like happy sheep, nibbling green grass free of memory, terror, or regrets.
All this came to mind this Holy Week, which I spent in my old haunts in New York City, snatching what time old friends could spare from their new lives, skulking past old one-bedrooms on crowded Manhattan streets where I used to dream how exciting life would be when at last I reached . . . the age and station where I am now. It’s a strange convolution of the heart, this nostalgia for old fantasies of the future. It’s not that the present is terrible, but rather the contrast between what I pictured and what really happened. It might be that the only way to get ourselves through sad and sterile times is to paint our future state like a Baroque image of heaven. That helps us tread through the supermarket with a pocket full of coupons, to slide past the fantastical bars that froth with the fun we’re missing. One could see such fantasy forecasting as just part of our fallen nature, of course, and moralize about it. And sometimes moralism is just what’s needed — for instance, when a married man casts back to old daydreams to make excuses, so he can unshoulder the cross that comes with every sacrament.
But all isn’t sin and squalor. There’s also here a yearning for a glimpse of vanished Eden. Our craving to be nurtured, to lean when we are weak and feel safe despite the storms . . . we were made in the first place to enjoy such things. Evolved by a miracle from the beasts, or formed suddenly from clay, our first parents were by nature contingent and temporary — then ringed round for their protection by the Preternatural Gifts, which preserved them from evil and harm. They walked in the flesh as free and safe as angels. And when they fell, if God had not revoked these mighty gifts, we would have roamed the earth like fallen angels. Such a race might well have been irredeemable. So God, in His stern, unbending love, forged for us a painful path back home. That path was salvation history, and every human crime that marks its byways is like a roadside memorial on a highway. But all roads converge at the cross of Christ, and no one is lost, unless he willfully leaves the way.
And if we endure sin’s consequence, we also remember the blessing that was squandered. It yawns within our hearts and makes us spin out futures or cling to shreds of the past that memory transfigures: I was wrong — Eden isn’t here. Is it that place I’m going? No, it’s back there, when I was 10 years old and fishing with my father.
In this spirit, I returned during Holy Week to the Holy City. Why do I always call it that? In part, to tweak the people who throw stones at my home town — as if theirs somehow, by dint of smallness or dullness, were free and pure and good. Still more, because my spiritual path has most of its milestones on these yawning streets, and walking them when I’m mindful makes a minor pilgrimage.
Many sites stir the soul. Immaculate Conception Church in Astoria is the humble shamrocks-and-pizza parish where I was baptized and confirmed. How many hours I’ve knelt there before the electric candles as the organ piped “Faith of Our Fathers”? (That song always made me cry, even while Dad still lived; its lyrics spoke of fathers and of death, and hearing it told me that someday he’d be gone.) I like to go see the font, to put my hand in it, imagine what it must have felt like to be utterly free of sin. Will any confession I ever make — and in those booths, in that church, I made so many — ever get me again that clean? What else must happen here or in the hereafter to purge the rest?
I recall the good and gentle priests who used to ruffle our hair and remonstrate with us — and the sterner, harsher men who gave the sermons that kept us honest. I grew up down the block from a rectory full of priests — men of different characters, living in a community, who could staff several confessionals at once, whom laymen could choose among according to temperament and talent. Will any Catholics ever grow up this way again? Will priests for the rest of my lifetime become ever lonelier, more overworked, shambling under the shadow of a tiny band of predators and a huge, veal-chomping flock of worldly, hell-bound bishops? If I had a son with a priestly vocation, I’d surely be proud of him. I might also pity him.
St. John Nepomucene, on 1st Avenue and 67th, is the wondrous old Catholic thing — an ethnic parish that has survived the flight to the suburbs. High-ceilinged, Romanesque, with an intact altar rail, the church’s mighty canopy bears a mosaic of the bishop who heard the queen’s confession — and willingly died rather than leak it to her husband, the jealous king. It was here I used to pray back when I was unemployed, scrambling each month to cover the rent, frantically mailing resumes and dashing between interviews for jobs I felt unqualified to do. I have never prayed so much, so fervently or often. I’ve wondered sometimes how much time I’d have spent on my knees if an all-providing State had guaranteed me a comfortable income . . . and thought hard about the link between socialism and atheism. I remember the parish street fair where I ate kolachys with the Slovaks who came in from Jersey to see their old church. Their dirt-poor parents had raised the place from the sidewalk. Within 20 years, the socialists (and hence, atheists) would start knocking down the churches of Slovakia. Death pushes, and we push back. Will we keep on pushing?
St. Vincent Ferrer Church on Lexington and 66th, the most exquisite church I’ve seen in America — a gothic Christmas tree of pious, exquisite ornament. Every mural, carved marble or painted wood altar, each stained glass window in this church built by mendicants, points to a beauty that transcended my teenage dreams. It schooled my senses, united in them the true, the pleasing, and the good. It taught me the Church’s treasures far transcend the elegant shops along Madison Avenue, the brutal towers that rule our sky. There are little statues there, sections of window, that recall me to crises and consolations I shouldn’t share with strangers. The harmony of its artworks, works of luxurious love, formed and healed my soul. Will “they” ever let us build churches like this again? Or will Catholics hard-wired like me to need, really need such things have to salve their souls in museums, then sit through dismal, Cub Scout-style ceremonies in monstrous Sam’s Club cathedrals? So starved, will we drift away?
And with all the force and fear of my own mortality, I wonder: Am I the last of a dying breed? I’ve the grace to believe that the Church will see through to the end of time. But my kind of Catholic may well vanish from the earth, and I’m too merely human to see what will take my place. Thanks to the sickening betrayal of innocent children in the past and innocent priests of the future by deluded or venal bishops, the faithful of the future will be largely bereft of priests, of beautiful churches, of reverent liturgy; and the Church will be publicly powerless, too disgraced to defend the innocent, a target for ridicule and abuse. Those Catholics will pick through the ruins left by a major persecution. Only this time, like some addict, we will have done it to ourselves.