- The Vatican Rag
Recently I attended an Episcopal service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It was the Monday-noon Eucharist. With a few other tourists I sat in the richly decorated pews closest to the high altar and gazed beyond its brocade to the enormous gilt altarpiece, whose excesses eventually became too much for my eyes. The priest approached a woman seated nearby who was already praying, and asked her to remove her hat. Then the service began.
I was made dizzy by the presence of the sculpted crucifixion, but then recovered in the quiet breathing of the Virgin off to the side, clothed in that mineral blue. The heavy pews forced gravity upon my heart, and the rose windows steadied the kaleidoscopic reeling in my brain.
The service was very similar to the Catholic Mass: the same words and soft rhythms, the wafer, and then the wine. After the final benediction, when the priest came over to greet the five or six of us who had attended the service, I expressed my pleasure at the similarity—having never attended an Episcopal service before. “Yes,” the priest replied crisply, obviously delighted with my Catholic openness. “Catholic and Episcopal faiths are exactly the same. The only difference is the location of authority.” But it seemed to me there was a second difference; I searched my catechism for the rub. “And transubstantiation?” I asked.
The priest laughed and gestured toward the altar. “Wasn’t it as real for you today as it always is?” Then, turning serious and even a little angry, he looked directly into my eyes. “We don’t talk that way about God,” he lectured. “That was a fourteenth-century issue. Romans today don’t think they’re eating a corpse.” He smiled. “Only a silly Roman would ask a question like yours.”
My conversion to Catholicism occurred gradually over a twenty-year period—the result of Catholic schooling coupled with my struggle, as a poet, to understand language and its relation to the world. The revelation art offers and religion celebrates is the indivisibility of spirit and matter: the world is one body. To recognize this fully is to transubstantiate.
Tom Lehrer, the musical comedian of the 1960s whose recordings I [End Page 37] memorized as a child, performed a number called “The Vatican Rag.” The refrain went, “Two, four, six, eight / Time to transubstantiate!” But transubstantiation, the task of artists and mystics as well as silly Romans, requires the best of our intelligence, which is faith. Simone Weil wrote that faith is the intelligence in love, and indeed, it is through love that the fallacy of separation breaks down.
One gift that the intelligence in love offers is metaphor. Because it reveals connectedness, metaphor is the beginning of the experience of transubstantiation. It is the opposite of symbol, which, in creating an equation, differentiates and therefore fragments.
In tending my small garden plot, I have learned that one metaphor expands into another: despair and hope in the weeds, the potato that multiplies underground. These metaphors astonish my heart by divulging to it its own secrets. Metaphor, like the universe, continually nudges its boundaries outward, making infinity more infinite, making God more God.
In some art, transubstantiation is as much the subject as the activity. The sculptor Tony Cragg uses tiny fragments of plastic rubbish to erect larger-than-life mosaics that suggest whole, unbroken objects. One of my favorite works is Green, Yellow, Red, Orange, and Blue Bottles, which, on a white wall, has the effect of five large stained-glass windows. Most impressive is the twelve-foot-high laundry-detergent bottle, glowing in the Virgin’s blue.
Writers know that words and their objects were once the same, and we long for that. Cragg’s work has taught me something about my own task as a writer: to sort through the fragments of symbolic language and reconstitute them. His work is both joyful and tragic because it points to wholeness and brokenness, the sacred and profane. It is in the reconciling of wholeness with brokenness that metaphor occurs, and with it, faith is possible.
The National Cathedral was built...