Wednesday, May 05, 2004

I (heart) Jesus

We -- worldly, skeptical, artistic postmoderns -- were walking down a Manhattan sidewalk on our way to the Chinese restaraunt that Milton Babbit was said to have favored. A middle aged man in a billed cap approached from the other direction.

"Did you see that cap ?" one of our number exclaimed, shaking his head in wonder tinged with scorn. I had. It read "I (heart) Jesus." Above the hat's brim, a red heart icon, valentine bright, proclaimed the bearer's love of the Son of God.

"Yes, I did," I replied. "It's not very sophisticated theology."

I, too, had winced inwardly. For one thing, I loathe billed caps. Their vulgarity, their ubiquity. Their air of sporty, happy peppiness. Of grabbing the gusto. Of swilling gatorade and sweating fluorescent blue. Above one's swooshed Nikes. With one's scrunchied pony-tail bobbing out the back.

I couldn't help picturing a factory somewhere, with multiple hat-laden conveyor belts. Some hats reading "I (heart) Jesus" others reading "I (heart) Poodles" others "I (heart) Brittany." Commercialism at its crassest: its only ideology the bottom line. I couldn't help thinking of Mr Gibson's Authorized Passion of The Christ Crucifixion-Nail Necklaces, for sale on his website (www.S& I couldn't help thinking of moneychangers in the temple. We all knew what the guy on the cap thought of them.

But I could not shake the image of the unassuming passerby in the "I (heart) Jesus" cap. I had a secret. Maybe even a terrible secret. None among my companions could possibly know or even suspect, not even -- especially ? -- my husband. My cheeks burned with it.

The meditation stuff was OK with my husband. Buddhism's part of the cultural Zeitgeist, after all. I managed to squeak into a Cloud of Unknowing lecture and a contemplative prayer seminar at a local Episcopal church riding on Buddha's coattails. Merton also passed cultural muster. Merton was a poet, an intellectual. Had a dalliance with a nurse. Investigated Buddhism. Even my weekend at a monastery for a Merton seminar didn't raise the spousal eyebrows too far. I'd once ventured that I might, someday, like to visit Gethsemeni, Merton's monastery. That came in just above the threshold of acceptability. Then he gave me a "Nuns Having Fun" calendar for my birthday, maybe as a coded message: keep it ironic, baby. Jesus is the mascot of the florid, beef-eating, missionary-positioning Republican right-wing. Gotta steer clear of that dude.

But when I took my camera and went out that Sunday morning several weeks ago muttering something about taking some pictures (I did take some, honest !) did I also mention that I was intending to slip into a back pew of Trinity Episcopal Church, and partake of the Body of Christ ?

Uh, no. I left that part out.

Did I mention that, the next Saturday afternoon, since I was on call on Sunday, I cowered in the back pew of what we (ever ironic) call the Church of the Holy Armadillo and watched, deeply moved, as faithful Catholics took the Eucharist ? Or that, on returning to Boston after our artsy weekend in Manhattan, I planned to attend a late Sunday Mass at Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted ?

No, I left all that unsaid.

And then, like some icon in an indie film, Mr "I (heart) Jesus" appeared on the sidewalk in front of me, drab, inarticulate, faithful, reminding me of something beyond irony, something that plummets straight to the heart of the matter, something that, sooner or later, I will have to say out loud.

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