I’m not a Catholic, see. I don’t believe anything very much. The way it looks to me life is a kick in the pants. Your heart aches for there to be meaning, and there is no meaning. You fall in love. You are in seventh heaven, and it fizzles. The girl who makes your heart sing for months, whose very presence can transform a dirty subway station, well, what happens to her? One day you suddenly see that she is just a mediocre person, on the dull side. Worse still, you are mediocre too. That’s the trouble, this mediocrity. A man ought to be noble. Don’t ask me why. I figured it out once that the Greeks were right about their ideas of tragedy. A man ought to be noble so that when he dies it’s more than just too bad. Not that he goes anywhere when he dies, or gets any reward, but just for its own sake. Maybe I believe that virtue is its own reward, I who hardly know what virtue is. Anyhow, the alternative to nobility is unthinkable.
What if a man died without having lived intensely; having always played cautious, hugged money, never gone out in the rain without rubbers; what if he was nobody when he died and nobody cared? When I think of how horrible that would be I want to fling my life away for a great cause. I want to leave my job and travel as a common sailor to the ends of the earth in search of .... of what? I want to stand on top of a country hill looking down on billowing fields of grain. I want to fling my arms wide to embrace the sun and the air and the clouds. Did you ever try to find a country hill like that? Well, don’t look within a hundred-mile radius of New York. All my fine dreams usually end anti-climatically with my resigning the stupid job to which I am chained at the moment, to march forth colorlessly for one half day’s celebrating in Central Park. A week later I am ignominiously scanning the want ads over a meat pie at the Automat.
Well, what I wanted to say about the Catholics is that they are the most disappointing people I ever met. They are just pious unbelievers, that’s all. They don’t really believe a word of their own doctrine. Yeah, I know they say they believe it, but actions speak louder than words.
Take the matter of money. It says as plain as anything in the Bible that it is better to be poor than it is to be rich. Sure it does. How about “Blessed are the poor,” and that stuff about the camel and the needle’s eye. How about “Blessed is the man .... that hath not gone after gold, nor put his trust in money.” Now most of the Catholics I’ve met are poor, but far from rejoicing in their state, I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that taken all in all they are falling all over themselves to acquire the goods of this world. I’ve worked in offices with dozens of Catholic girls. You know the type. They are all alike. They wouldn’t be seen dead with the same dress on two days in succession, and they are always sending out for sandwiches and coffee from Schrafft’s. It has to be Schrafft’s. It can’t be Liggett’s. They eat twice as expensive dinners as I do, and they’d change their jobs at the drop of a hat for more money. I worked in a bank once where a stenographer’s husband committed the faux pas of the season. You know what the dreadful thing was that he did? He called for his wife dressed in his working clothes. She was disgraced, I’ll tell you. You know what kind of work he did? He was a carpenter. Doesn’t that strike you as pretty peculiar, that a Catholic should be ashamed to admit her husband was a carpenter?
I’m really concerned about this poverty business, because in my more lucid moments it seems to me that the Bible is right. The kind of mind I’ve got, I have to figure everything out. So I say to myself, “Maybe it is God speaking in the Bible, and if it is He ought to know what He is talking about. Let’s have a look around and see if there is something good about being poor that there isn’t about being wealthy.” Well, I could see right off that the poor don’t have to worry about burglars making off with their jewelry cases or about Amalgamated Tire’s being off three-quarters of a point in Wednesday’s closing. But after I thought awhile I could see some more subtle advantages.
It seems to me that poverty is the gateway to freedom. We’ve got it all mixed up. We think that a guy who just inherited a couple of million can do what he pleases. Maybe, but I doubt it. Anyhow, the people who aren’t rich and who want to become rich are just plain slaves. Did you ever figure out the cost, I mean the spiritual cost, of getting wealthy these days? I have, because there’s a lot of pressure put on me one way and another to become a respectable success.
Now the way I see it, to get ahead in the world you always have to be an opportunist. There’s a way to get rich in every age and all you have to do is to get on the bandwagon. Back a couple of hundred years you did it by owning land. Then it was by building up the railroads and other utilities. Then it was heavy industry. Then insurance companies and newspapers and department stores. Then it was advertising. Then radio, and airlines, and public relations. Notice that the means get less honorable as you go along. It’s a far cry from George Washington, landed gentleman, to Pegee Fitzgerald and her commercials-studded breakfast table.
The way to make your millions right now is black marketing. Now it is a curious thing, but all the Catholic lads I know are feverishly going to commercial night schools in order to get into advertising. What’s wrong with them? Advertising is finished as a gold mine, for one thing. If you want to make a million dollars that’s not the place to do it. I tell you, to be a worldly success, if that is your ignoble aim, you’ve got to be an opportunist. By the time any kind of business has been reduced to neat little principles, put into textbooks, and is taught in night schools, you can be pretty sure the big boys of tomorrow have moved on to riper fields.
But apart from their miscalculations, why would anyone want to go into advertising? Can’t they read? Haven’t they heard of The Hucksters? Don’t they know that almost every advertising man in Westchester County has been ill at ease with himself since he first got into the racket and has been drunk several times a week since to hide from himself his own lack of self-respect? Why should they aspire to carry on the inglorious tradition?
But that’s not the full answer to the poverty question. It must be better in itself to be poor than to be rich. At least that’s the way I tried to figure it out. I finally decided that the advantage lies in having a better view of reality. I have a rich aunt who hasn’t any idea of what the score is. I mean she lives in a sort of “let them eat cake” kind of world, in a positive cloud of unreality. She leads a gay social life, with every one including herself pretending to be what they aren’t. They pretend to be happy, only they are not happy, so they have to have a few drinks to create the illusion whenever they meet. They pretend to be pals with people they don’t even know or care about. Her husband, he’s a banker, prides himself on being friendly with his lesser employees, but my goodness, he hasn’t even dreamt what goes on in their heads. Same way with my aunt. She has the most curious and erroneous notions about the character and cerebral activity of her colored cook (who’s a fine woman, poor in reality and in spirit) and the bank employees, among whom I worked incognito, as it were. Well all these poor, or more or less poor, people have a nodding acquaintance with reality. And as for my aunt and uncle, they certainly have their number. They understand my honored relatives as though they looked at them through X-ray machines.
Do you see what I’m driving at? Between the classes there is not a mutual understanding, but there is a one-way understanding, and it’s on the part of the poor. Of course my investigations are not conclusive, but tentatively I am entertaining the hypothesis that poverty gives you an “in” with reality. And the advantage of that? I don’t know. I only know it’s terribly important. You’ve got to keep hold of reality. Maybe then you will find the truth some day.
Anyhow, I myself am trying to achieve freedom through poverty. If a man would live simply, without pretensions, he would be practically free. The way things are now you have to kill yourself and your ideals to keep up a stupid standard of superficial living. I’d like hardly to have to work at all for awhile till I get things figured out. Did you ever read Thoreau? He had some good ideas and I figured the Catholics would too.
What difference does it make whether the Catholics do or don’t? Lots. The trouble with me is that I’m no Thoreau. I talk big but I can’t be heroic in a vacuum. I’ve got to have a point to life, an ideal, and a community and a whole lot of things. By myself, and uncertain, I’m nothing. One day I quit a job because I’d rather starve than pretend the work is significant. Then I get hungry and go job hunting again.
I met a Catholic once who was the most different person I ever saw. That’s really what keeps me searching among his co-religionists. Met him on a bus going out to Chicago and he gave me his address but I lost it. Worst mistake I ever made. This Catholic was married and about thirty. We got talking about economic security and birth control. His theory was that God is not bound by a rotten economic system and that if you did what was right and just you’d turn up with enough meals a day to keep going, and anything else that was really necessary. He kept quoting “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all these things will be added unto you.” He claimed it really meant something and that he’d tested it out. For instance, he had five kids and his economic position had all along been what you might call precarious. This was just after the depression, and he and his family had been through it without missing a meal and with a few extras at Christmas time. His jobs hadn’t been ideal, but not bad either. He had quit twice in protest against injustices to other people; so you couldn’t say he had compromised his principles. He considered the matter of having children as they came sort of a test of faith, and he laid it down as a general rule that God will supply extra food for every extra child.
I was tremendously impressed by him, especially since he had tried it and it worked. Since then I’ve had a morbid interest in the size of Catholic families. Margaret, my sister who is a social worker, claims Catholics fight to get birth control information. I don’t know about that, but the fiver year old daughter of Mrs. Monahan in our office let it out at the Christmas party that she was going to have a little sister as soon as they could find a bigger apartment. My pal on the bus would have reversed the statement: that the bigger apartment would be forthcoming, somehow, upon the new arrival.
Now you understand what I mean when I say Catholics are pious unbelievers. I keep watching them. I see that they have never heard of the lilies of the field. They fall over themselves to get insurance for this and insurance for that. They take out annuities at 16. Notice how they monopolize the civil service “security” jobs. I’ve seen a bride force her husband out of chemistry, which he loved, and onto the police force. I’ve seen Catholics play safe in everything from not joining unions in the formative stage to refusing to join first Friday clubs for fear they wouldn’t get ahead in the office, to marrying men just because they were good providers.
And why don’t I get married at all? Well, I’m looking for something, and I haven’t given up yet. Love? Maybe. Some kind of love anyhow. But not sentimentality. I hate sentimentality. I hate the sentimentality of social workers. I detest the softness of counselors of college students who tell you not to work too hard. I hate to hear mothers forbid their children to play rough games. What do they think life is, a tea party? I abhor the unctuousness of Protestant ministers. I could never listen to Alexander Wollcott and his tear-jerking tales about stray dogs. There’s something wrong somewhere. We’ve gone on a maudlin emotional jag. But I think there is, or was, something clean and hard and real and noble called love.
That young man on the bus was still in love with his wife, more so, in a domestic life characterized by clothes lines of drying diapers. I was telling him about the love I mean. It is something that completely transcends this common-place life that you and I are enduring. I found myself using rather extravagant words, like ecstacy and rapture, because I couldn’t think of any others. Don’t laugh. Is it my fault that the French movies have cheapened their meaning? You know what the young man told me? He said the words had been borrowed from Mystical Theology (that has something to do with the saints) for analogous use to describe the heights of human love. He said religion was a love affair between man and God that culminated in utterly blissful experiences. He said a lot more things I couldn’t remember afterwards, but they thrilled me at the time.
Afterwards I sounded out every Catholic I met for six months but I didn’t find a single one who had ever heard of the contemplation he talked about. I was going to go to a priest, but I kind of lost heart. So that’s why I’m drifting around. That’s why I consider life just a kick in the pants. I want to give myself, and the world urges me to sell myself. I want to lose my life, but the Catholics aren’t sure that I should risk it to find my life. I want to sell everything to purchase a pearl which ought to be selling for a great price, but which is lying tarnished on a bargain counter.
I wish I could meet that young man again. I wonder if he is still a Catholic. Maybe it was he, not the Church, that got me. If it was the Catholic Church it is certainly carrying around a lot of dead weight in the form of pious unbelievers!