Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Vonnegut's Reality vs. God's Presence

I recently managed to recover some damaged files off of my pen drive and thought I would share a short essay I wrote on Vonnegut...

As we rounded the corner we saw the group we were looking for. On the steps of the convent chapel stood clusters of old Italian women holding small red candles and baskets of flower petals. Young girls looked around curiously arrayed in their long white dresses from First Communion. Scouts, wearing their knee high socks and khacki shorts, struggled with megaphones which would inevitably broadcast the voice of an off-tune cantor. We followed the crowd into the chapel and with incense and the attendance of altar singers and loud Italian voices, the priest began the Corpus Christi procession.

I had surprised myself by deciding to venture downtown for the local Eucharist festival. A year ago I would have been the first to go, but things were different this year. In my head, I’ve never lost my faith- but the emotional certainty drifted through me as a passing wind.
I look around me, the crowd around me is more diverse than I would have first thought. Italians are traditional and, as one young Italian told me, being Catholic is simply part of your culture. One attends Eucharistic processions just as one grumbles about politics, buys groceries at the market, and cooks large meals. Some here have always accepted their religion, never questioning. They reverently kneel as the Benediction takes place, they know the Church hymns by heart, their son is the altar server.

In this last year I identify more with the people who did not come to the Eucharistic procession. Whether out of laziness or skepticism, they decided not to attend the traditional ritual. For them, this is pageantry. Can we prove that there is meaning behind these prayers, that a God really hears us? This disillusionment has been characteristic of the last century, where suffering has been transformed into skepticism.

I am in the middle of reading Vonnegut’s SlaughterHouse Five. A talented writer, his images are vivid and recognizable to his reader. He portrays the mundaneness of life, the suffering and what he sees as the pointlessness of it all. For him, life has no climax, no depth. His book lacks a timeline, it jumps from one era to another. There is no suspense, we are told the fate of his characters as soon as they are introduced. He draws us into this listlessness he obviously feels about human existence.

Surprisingly, there is something strangely attractive about this sort of listlessness. The feeling that one can truly delve into the details of life, the suffering, because there is nothing beyond it. While there may be despair at the foundations, man is able to live a skeptical life. It becomes easy to be honest about the bad things in life while never finding true joy. The megaphone sounded in my ears throughout the procession, echoing the earnest yet off-key singer. It is easy to criticize this procession: the hypocrisy of some there, the lack of respect of others, the constant chattering. In fact, it is not only easy, it produces a dull sort of pleasure.

Yet, as I stared at the Host held high in the tabernacle, I realized once again that Truth is the only thing that matters. It is a life unlived to live in human failings without looking up to the heights. If the Lord Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, present for me to adore Him, then every suffering becomes a light burden. It is through worshipping Him that one is able to find joy. Yes, the situation that Vonegut depicts is poignant and realistic, but there is something more. Finding faith is a strange process. Even stranger is falling in love with God all over again. If the world that SlaughterHouse Five depicts is all there is, I want no part of it. In fact, I agree with him that there is no sense. Suddenly, I understand why people commit suicide, why so many people are depressed, why people have no hope. God is the only Hope. If He does not exist, then we are lost. I am lost.
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