The Logistics of Illusion

September 6, 2012 at 8:55 am Leave a comment

Across the kitchen at the remote mountainside retreat center, a fellow Catholic was pouring rocks into the dishwasher.

We were on the side of Massanutten Mountain in northwest Virginia, preparing for another day of a retreat designed to recruit new members into a lay prayer group. Five years later, statistically, about a third of them would still be active in the group, but for this weekend, deep male camaraderie and an atmosphere laden with the rich symbols of the church helped us all see God in one another. He may have been there, or it may have been an illusion, fostered through forced isolation and enhanced brotherhood.

The rocks were part of the logistics of illusion. Chunks of landscaping marble, purchased in a heavy plastic bag at a local hardware store, went through the dishwasher. The cleanest and whitest were picked out and sent through again, so that each retreat participant would receive one during a candle-lit ceremony built around the text of Revelation 2:17: “I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”

That particular verse was about starting over, about being new men after the retreat. In Biblical times, a black marble meant guilt in court, a white one, innocence. A new name meant freedom from the encumbrances you’d built up under your old one, and freedom from those who knew your old name. We would all go back to our old lives changed. We’d be innocent and free of spiritual debt. Nobody would know it was just a piece of landscaping marble from Lowe’s.

The logistics of illusion depend on belief, on faith. We believe that it is not just tap water in the font. We believe the bread and water changes when it’s blessed. We believe the priest is chosen by God.

We try to believe it anyway. But I knew that one priest had been engaged twice and managed a McDonalds before he took his holy vows. I knew that another, a monk priest at a secluded monastery, had a short answer when asked why he’d gone into holy orders. “Because I was scared to death of sex,” he said. These were the kinds of chinks in the armor through which we could see that our holy knights were really just men. Sometimes that makes a priest less elevated, less sanctified, but sometimes it gives him credibility, gives him more authority in telling us how God wants us to deal with the problems of the world and of our lives.

Sometimes those chinks in the armor have been too wide, and the church has chosen to give the priest a white marble. Charged with molestation or sexual abuse, a priest gets a new name, a chance to begin anew in another town. The priest shows up with no record, no history, just the word of the church that he is a good man, prepared to lead his flock, promising to do no harm. Absolved of past sin, he will do well because he wants to earn that absolution. He has sinned, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with him. That belief is another of the church’s illusions, and the logistics of this one have allowed many men to go and sin much more, to hurt many more of the church’s children, to harm much more of the parishioners’ willing suspension of disbelief.

That abuse of the logistics of illusion will cost the church dearly. That loyalty to troubled, flawed men will be seen the same way it is when colleagues protect an errant cop, or lawyers try to chastise one of their own privately. The loyalty to those with whom they serve will be seen from the outside as disloyalty to those whom they are supposed to be serving. For lawyers and police officers, the damage is not so great. We knew all along that they were only human, as frail as the rest of us. We had asked more of our priests, and of our church. Now we know better, and because the church abused the white stone with the new name, we may begin to doubt the other illusions. Some may begin to doubt that it’s anything but tap water, that the wine has really changed, that the priest knows any more than anybody else. Faith can only be broken once, and the church can only hope we are willing to have stronger faith in our symbols than in our leaders.

For weeks after I began going to a particular church, I wondered why the priest would always reach under his robe to scratch the side of his butt when he stood up to speak. Was it a nervous habit? Was he allergic to the fabric of the chair on the altar? I finally realized he was reaching back to turn on the transmitter for the small microphone on his collar, so that his reedy tenor could boom out through the four speakers hanging above the crucifix.

The logistics of illusion made his voice fill the sanctuary of the church, made his words reach to every corner, drowning out the coughing, the shifting of weight, the crying of babies. The microphone gave his tenor a tenor it lacked otherwise. But in the end, it was just a man standing up there.

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