What is This “Mardis Gras” You Speak Of?

In Fall of 2006, I co-facilitated a DECal about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of fantasy novels, of which I am a huge fan. Check them out if you have the chance. The class was a great experience, but for the most part completely irrelevant to what is to follow, which is about my first encounter with deeply commited Catholics who were also very much Christians, which was a bit strange to me.

One of the students in the class was a girl named Mary. I have this habit of arriving places early, even when I know they are going to start late, and I lived close to the classroom. Mary was usually one of the first people to arrive in the class, so occasionally we’d chat for the 5 minutes before things took off.

We were having a discussion about Quantum Physics, if memory serves me right, and she seemed to have an unusually good grasp of the subject, so I asked if she was a Physics major. She replied that no, she was in fact a Philosophy major. I expressed surprise, as the Philosophy department is just about the only department English majors could point to as being even less practical than what we we studying. She explained that her esoteric knowledge of physics came from conversations at Church, and revealed that she was in fact Catholic.

Being the generous soul that I am, I didn’t hold that against her. Sure, being a Catholic isn’t as desirable as being a fully realized Evangelical, but it seemed rude to hold someone’s upbringing against them, even if I felt the Catholic Church itself was borderline evil. She seemed to me to be a legitimate Christian, and took moral stands on key issues, which I respected.

After the semester ended, I’d occasionally see Mary around campus and chat for a bit, and Facebook allowed us to keep in touch. In February, she asked if I’d be interested in attending a big Mardis Gras party that her family threw every year. I said it sounded interesting, so I said I’d come. Little did I know what I was in for…

First of all, I had no idea what Mardis Gras even is. I was dimly aware that it’s some sort of Catholic festival, due to it’s observance in New Orleans. My background did not include the celebration, or even recognition, of Lent. My first encounter with Lent’s very existence was when I was 12, and went with a friend’s family for a Wednesday night potluck at their Lutheran church. After the meal was over, I was surprised to learn that there was a service. Church, on Wednesday night? Very strange. I was shocked, even scandalized, by the liturgy of the service. Never before had I seen responsive reading in Church, and it made me very uncomfortable at the time. The Baptist tradition has no room for “Peace be with you” followed by the whole congregation’s “And also with you”. And then there was some weird ceremony with ashes being put on foreheads that really weirded me out. But enough about my original introduction to liturgy…

The first thing that struck me when I arrived at the Mardis Gras party was the huge number of children running around everywhere, screaming their heads off and having a great time. Growing up, there was just my sister and I, and we were very quiet reserved children who mainly played silently in our rooms. Even as I type this, there are five adults living in my parents home, quietly enjoying our small corners of the house without making a peep. So, huge numbers of rambunctious children running around was a bit outside of my personal experience.

The religious imagery that adorned every room of the house irked my iconoclastic nature to no end, making me feel uncomfortable. Due to my fairly sheltered Fundamentalist upbringing, I was also scandalized by the drinking and smoking going on, especially in front of children! All these cultural factors contributed to my feeling out of place, surrounded by Papists. However, I was able to see through my prejudices enough to discern that these were Christians, that they followed God, even if it was in a way I thought to be imperfect. There was a genuine spirit of generosity and goodness among these people, and this intrigued me.

By the end of the night, I was left with the unsettling impression that this was a truly Christian house, someplace where God was honored and worshiped. I was also unsettled by how I’d never gotten such an impression from any Evangelical home, not to the same extent. Despite the external chaos and rambunctiousness, this was a house of peace and love. I was able to reconcile this in my mind by still insisting that this wasn’t what Catholicism was about, not really, they were just Christians that managed to get by under the oppressive Roman system. This created a good deal of cognitive dissonance as they were extremely Catholic in all the ways I didn’t approve of. This cognitive dissonance played a major part in opening my heart to the Holy Spirit that allowed to eventually decide to reconcile to the Catholic Church, and I am grateful. But, back to the narration of events.

The time came to pray for the food, and everyone gathered in the dining room. When prayer requests were offered, I started to relax. I understood this! People were sick, traveling, going through tough times, etc. This part was completely normal and natural to me, and I was beginning to feel comfortable. Then the praying began, and the comfort evaporated immediately. It was pretty standard Catholic fare (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.), but my background had room only for extemporaneous prayer directly from the heart. No “superstitious” “vain repetitions” for clear thinking Protestants, no-siree!

The prayers left me rattled, but I really wasn’t prepared for what came next. Song sheets were passed around, and I astutely observed that the songs were not in English, but in Latin. Not that I had any particular problem with Latin per se, but singing in it was new, to say the least. With all these alien experiences, I was left a little unsure what to make of it all. And then, things got really interesting.

There were two other Berkeley students at the party, Arturo and Patrick, and we got to talking, starting with basic small talk. And then the conversation turned to my being a Protestant, and we spent the next 4 hours discussing religion, from history and personal experience. It was one of the most memorable discussions I’ve ever had, though I didn’t budge one inch in my views that night.

We went over all the basics, from Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide to liturgy. Arturo spent much of the time actually defending Martin Luther and other early Reformers, even though he disagreed with them on many major points. I was quite unsettled by how even-handed he was with my side of things, compared to my own attitude about Catholicism. Here was a man really acting how a Christian should be, gentle as a dove yet wise as a serpent. Again I was struck by how very Catholic he was in all the cultural ways I was raised to be uncomfortable with, yet he also lived up to Biblical standards for what a Christian should be.

Patrick made a point during the conversation that really stuck with me for a long time, and changed the way I had initially felt about the “vain repetition”. I stated that I felt extemporaneous prayer was much better than memorized formulas. Patrick pointed out that spontaneous prayer as practiced by Evangelicals was just as formulaic as Catholics, if not more so in certain ways, the same phrases being repeated over and over again as people struggle to find the right words (“Lord, we’d just like to, Lord, lift up our sister, Lord, as she is going through these trials, Lord, and that you be with her, Lord, and help, Lord, in her time of extreme need, Lord…”), but that there wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with either approach as long as the heart was in the right place as regards God. That one observation did as much to change my attitudes about Catholic practice as anything else I’ve ever heard.

One of the other guests at the party overheard part of our conversation, and came over and had a little mini-conversation with me that went something like this:

Mark: You’re a Baptist

Me: Yes, sir.

Mark: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

Me: …uh, yes. Yes I do.

Mark (smiling): Well, great, so do I. Glad to hear it.

After this he walked off and left me in complete shell shock. I was the one who should have been asking him that, as a idolatrous, Mary-worshiping Catholic, yet here I was, on the receiving end. The world turned upside down, in my own head…

The discussion the three of us had pretty much came to the ultimate conclusion with a really dumb statement on my part. Arturo had made the comment that as a Catholic, he wasn’t a big fan of the emperor Constantine. I expressed surprise, asking them why not, since Constantine had founded the Catholic Church in the 4th century. Patrick and Arturo were both pained by this, and looking back on it, I understand why. It might possibly be the stupidest thing I have ever said, which is quite the distinction. After that bombshell, we turned to other topics, and soon went home.

This conversation haunted me for nearly a year, as I couldn’t resolve what I experienced with my prejudices, and much of what they had said weighed hugely on my mind. In my next post, I’ll explore the spiritual wasteland that was 2007 after graduation, and then in the next post, we’ll finally get to the central point, when grace slapped me upside the head.

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~ by Sam Urfer on June 12, 2008.

3 Responses to “What is This “Mardis Gras” You Speak Of?”

  1. Oksy, so now I remember you. Good thing I had a few drinks in me that night. Drop me a line sometime. Maybe we can hang out.

    God bless

  2. I like reading about your old views of Catholic people because other Christians rarely say what they honestly think about us. haha, this was my favorite line:
    I was able to reconcile this in my mind by still insisting that this wasn’t what Catholicism was about, not really, they were just Christians that managed to get by under the oppressive Roman system.

    hahaha, that darn oppressive Roman system….

  3. I’ve heard this story told in various contexts several times now, and I still enjoy it. Especially your mini-conversation with Mark. As you explained this part of the tale yesterday, “He broke my brain. He broke my brain, and he knew exactly what he was doing.” For this I can’t help but applaud a man I still haven’t met; he did the Catholic Church a great service. 🙂

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