mfinley: "Bathtub Madonna"
I noticed the other day that a neighbor had removed his statue of the Madonna from his bathtub shrine.
If you do not know what a bathtub shrine is, it is a shrine, generally Catholic, in which a statue, usually of Mary, sits in an alcove created by an old clawfoot bathtub sunk about half its length in dirt.
The impression one gets, looking at a bathtub shrine, is of the beatific statuette surrounded by an elliptical white aura, made of hard porcelain, hopefully without an etched gray ring.
In this case, it seemed to me that the statue might have been taken in for the winter. Ceramics crack easily in subzero temperatures, and nothing is less edifying than a holy figure exploded across an arctic lawn.
At the same time, seeing the shrine empty left me feeling empty -- that our intercessor had been taken in for the duration, and we would have to fend for ourselves until spring. Some intercessor, that can't withstand a little cold.
I know something about Mary, because I attended a minor seminary in 1963-64, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, the Kennedy assassination, and the Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan. Every morning we rose at 5:30 to pray on hard kneelers before a statue of Mary. Our school was run by the Society of Mary, or Marists. I was 13 years old.
But even there, I would not rate the cult of Mary as being very intense, except among a couple of the prefects, who were awfully Italian and had that shiny-cheeked expression of fervent mama's boys. We said the rosary, and we honored her as the mother of the savior, but it was not a passion, as I imagine she would have to be to sink a 500-pound bathtub into your lawn.
It is common practice to make fun of things like this. I read my "Golden Bough." I know Mary is just a continuation of various nature queens, holdovers from pagan times. And I remember Tom Lehrer's song in the 1960s, "The Vatican Rag." It summed up for the secular mind the stupidity of the bric-a-brac, the "outer signs" of religion, dashboard Jesuses and clattering beads.
I, being guilty of intellectual pride from an early age, scorned all that stuff. It seemed to me that public, graven images were never as good as the images the mind privately gives rise to, much as television can't be as vivid as radio.
It becomes especially tough when the icons in question are cheesy -- like the pictures I see of Christ in religious bookstores, depicting him as a kind of beneficent white rock star, with a Miami Vice growth of beard and a quarterback's chiseled demeanor. What if Jesus was a little goofy-looking? What if he had a lazy eye or a snorting laugh?
I ask that not to be irreverent, but to overcome the obstacle that reverence imposes. Jesus shouldnít have to look like George Clooney to be persuasive.
One thing I learned after I lost my child's faith, late in my 20s, was that it is possible to have excremental taste and still be a good person. In fact, I believe it gives you an edge -- because it is evidence you arenít trying to impress with your air of Gnostic cool. The kindest, best-hearted people you know are always kind of cubist.
Another thing I have learned is that people need strings around their fingers. The reason we clip little nostrums and doggerel to refrigerators is because we accept that part of our condition is amnesia. Everything sweet and true to us seems to want to escape from our mental grasp. And being smarter doesn't make us the slightest bit smarter, really.
The point of an icon or talisman is to physically remind us of something. It is a form of magical learning. It asks us to see beyond the current array of bright crap to what is deeper and darker and more meaningful.
And if you are sunk perpetually in crap, you might never unclench that figure in your fist. Because its portent is potent: it's a nutty world, and the last, least person could tell the joke that saves us all.
Of course God loves us, which is to say, of course we are lovable, and good. So why donít we believe that? Why don't we really believe that?
Why do we need to keep relearning it, week after week, and year after year?
Maybe the guy with the bathtub forgets it less often.
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by MICHAEL FINLEY
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