False piety wears different hats. The sentimental kind gets my back up whenever I meet it. It is a species of attitudinizing, closer to showboating than to holiness. To illustrate, let me tell you about recent exposure to a case of it.
The setting was Sunday Mass in a local parish church a few weeks back. Everyone was still masking up and doing the six steps of our new dance craze: social distancing. Alternate pews were cordoned off. To compensate for reduced seating, the church folded back the doors of a large community room that opens onto the transept, stage right. Chairs were set out, carefully separated.
A young couple with a toddler in a stroller attended the late day Mass several weeks running. And each Sunday they staged the same routine in the added-on space. Mom unstrapped the toddler and put him on his feet. He hit the ground running, squealing and yelping at the fun of it. Mom hovered a few feet behind. He veered higgledy-piggledy. She tailgated in an ostentatious display of helicopter mothering.
Inevitably, and gurgling with glee, the child would dash into the transept and head for the altar. That was Mom’s signal to drop to her knees in mid-aisle and clasp him in conspicuous embrace. Picture Magdalen at the foot of the Cross. This pas de deux repeated throughout the service. No moment in the Mass was sufficiently solemn for Mom to call an intermission in the show.
First time the performance was a distraction. Second time, an irritant. Third time, tact propelled me out of the room before I said something unpleasant to this hotdogging mother. Or to the father who sat passively by the vacant stroller while his family zigzagged around. I moved up to the the last pew in the transept.
Closed off and empty, the pew was some nine feet behind the folk guitarist who strums the sheet music for trite soothings from Weston Priory. She was not pleased to have the breath of a live parishioner even that far from her. When Mass ended, she turned to scold me: “You’re not supposed to sit here. It’s roped off.”
I apologized, explaining that I simply had to get away from the noise. Wanting to deflect discussion of my off-limits seat, I complimented her on her musical gifts. It was my—hopefully—sly way to close the subject. But, guitar in hand, she warmed to the compliment. The woman leaned closer, lowered her voice, and confessed her own response to the entertainment.
“Yes,” she said, “I know just what you mean. I felt the same way and decided to say something to the boy. But when I looked into his face . . . [long meaningful pause here] I saw the face of Christ!”
I snapped back: “Then you should have spoken to his mother instead.”
• • • • •
She gave me a look that was equal parts surprise and disdain. How could I have failed to acknowledge the mystic sheen on her disclosure? Clearly she was a saintlier woman—a more sensitive Catholic—than a restless pew-sitter who saw only an indulged child in need of shushing and restraining.
Hers was a pitch-perfect expression of sentimental piety. It harmonized with her 1970s musical repertory. She was showing off, drawing attention to her capacity for visionary tremors—those shivers and quivers that Gregory Norbet had put to music when the Novus Ordo was still novus. That flash upon the inward eye set her apart from the dull masses. What the situation called for—and what the child might require—counted for less than her own need to display heightened sensibilities.
Refusing to address disruptive behavior is not holiness. It is a salute to the God of Niceness. If you keep an eye out for the anti-Christ, look no further.
• • • • •
In a slanting way, the woman’s comment brought to mind those luminous lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Hopkins was not touting a private vision. “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (1877) is a canticle to God’s creation and man’s status within it. Made in the image and likeness of God, man bears in himself an inexhaustible mystery. He alone can receive and radiate the splendor of grace. The “just man justices” when he is saturated by grace. The hidden God is everywhere, nimble and comely. In grace-filled men, Christ is present in His fullness.
Those lines soar above any facile—maudlin—application to a toddler making a rumpus.
The parish musician had her vision. I had mine.
In the face of the uninvolved father I saw the emasculated male of popular culture. The toddler simply needed to be put back in his stroller. The mother was a silly show-off. But the apparent indifference—apathy—of the father loomed large. He sat still while his wife made a spectacle of extravagant maternal vigilance and his child raced around like a wind-up Rossignol. Where were the man’s masculine impulses? Had they been defeated? He was too inert to step in with an appropriate: ” Come sit down, hon. I’ll take Tommy outside for a bit.” Here on sad display was the ineffective husband, the insignificant Dad of several decades of sit-coms, commercials, and pop psychology. They showed us the demise of masculinity years before academics designed courses around “hegemonic masculinity” and “patriarchal domination.”
If the “future is female” as academia tells us, we have much to fear. Our culture is on an ever-widening road to dhimmitude.