Friday, 31 December 2010

Parallel Universe?

I passed a betting shop this afternoon and noticed that there weren't any women in it. And my sister, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, perhaps not, upbraided me for having dropped in for tea with two bachelor flatmates.

"I was with you," I said crossly. "Anyway, I'm a respectable early-middle-aged married woman."

The year that ends tonight is 2010. It seemed very odd, in 2010, to be walking home with my shopping, declaring myself to be a respectable early-middle-aged married woman who therefore can drop in on bachelors for innocent cups of tea. I have led communion services, for heaven's sake. I once gave the reflection at a college reconciliation service. I earned the first diploma in Lonergan Studies ever awarded by my college. I have frightened lefty priests into fits. I was the first woman boxer at my boxing gym. I was a pioneer---or so one of the only women on the theological faculty told me, little realizing how much the idea of being a pioneer repelled me by then. Do I have to obsess over the fine shades of propriety like a Georgette Heyer heroine?

I pondered the sea, and the past week, a week of church (mostly men, as Trid congregations seem to be mostly men), pub (mostly men), football (mostly men) and last's night Hogmanay fiddle concert in Edinburgh, of which B.A. said during the intermission, "It could be 1956." The comedian's jokes were of an ancient, gentle order, not so much family-friendly as old-fashioned-lady-friendly. When we got home, B.A. did imitations of the Edinburgh ladies the jokes were chosen for.

Sometimes I wonder if I haven't fallen into a parallel universe where people in 1960 took a look at the future and firmly said, "No, thank you." Obviously history still went on, but in a different way from everywhere else.

But surely this cannot be geographical. Although the male/female divide is sometimes astonishing, Edinburgh is not Brigadoon, and it is a world capital. It must be as post-modern and post-Christian as any other city in Europe (excluding, of course, those of Poland and Slovakia). So why is it that I seem to live in a society where the women do these things and not those, and the men go here but not there, and my old theology school, where we took Elizabeth Johnson and Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza seriously, seems a million miles away?

And, believe me, I know I am myself a willing participant in something that strikes me as decidedly old-fashioned. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis's distinction between Albion and Britain, or Tolkien's Faerie alongside the ordinary world, or Aelfheim beyond Midgard, or J.K. Rowling's Wizard community hidden in what its natives call "the U.K."

We've been hearing a lot about "parallel societies" in Europe, although usually these parallel societies are not Christian, but Muslim to some degree or another. The epitomic figure of a parallel society is the rural Turkish or Pakistani woman who lives in Berlin or London and cannot speak a word of German or English. However, I imagine only a tiny number of Muslim women live this way. Surely the rest drift from society to society, group to group, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, creating their own hybrid, slightly solipsistic, Berlin or London.

And I wonder today if this is not what is happening to Catholics--by whom I mean Catholics who actually think about being in a state of grace and therefore don't miss Sunday Mass--these days. Mainstream society and Catholicism seem to have parted ways forever and Catholics, always considered slightly odd by the majority in English-speaking countries, now find themselves more out of step than ever with cultural mores.

Society believes in women swallowing pills to make ourselves infertile 24/7. Catholics don't. Society believes that women should be able to kill their children for any reason whatsoever--even for just being a twin or female--as long as they haven't been born yet. Catholics don't. Society believes that choosing not to have any children is moral and virtuous. Catholics think it is rather sad. Society believes certain kinds of sexual partnership are equivalent to marriage. Catholics do not. And in all those respects we are like most people of our countries in 1960.

"In the world but not of the world"--I was taught as a child that this is the place of the Christian. Our true home is heaven. But what is our place in society, then? There used to be something called Christendom. Have we relinquished it, or is it just underground?

Feel free to chime in in the combox. Perhaps living in a parallel society is the ultimate form of post-modernism. At any rate, there are some among us with apocalypic ideas that we'll have to go underground one day. But my question is, are we already halfway there?


some guy on the street said...

Of course, it wouldn't be a new thing; the Church thrived quietly for about three hundred years as an underground society, sometimes being called "the other Roman Empire". And from time to time in various places it's had to conceal itself that way again, like China today, and even more so Saudia Arabia.

If there is a novelty in our present situation, I think it's the augmented power of technological distractions to ease apostasy. The pills, the latex, ... One can tell that these things are *effective* in some way, like parachutes are --- only you don't usually give parachutes to F1 drivers. I wonder if, moreover, the rise of the "bedroom community" hasn't facilitated the illusion of mutual independence, accentuating our sense of anonymity.

But, there, I'm rambling again... the infertile shall be forgotten, and the meek shall inherit the earth.

Ginger said...

I quite like the Catholic parallel universe. I like thinking that for some of us, post modernism never happened.

I think so much is taken for granted, specifically in relationships. When there are still rules about what means what and who does what when and why, everything takes on this Jane Austen-like vibrancy and romantic that can make something most secular people think of as commonplace become something exciting and meaningful.

For example, a NCB I know once sat next to me at Mass. Most people would shrug and say, "So what?" But in our very conservative, *very* old fashioned parish that we were raised in, that is just not done, goshdarnit, unless the boy wants to announce to the world that he's serious about the girl he's next to, and she should preferably already have a ring. That seemingly small event and the happy events that followed made me feel like I was back in time, where men and women more often respected their duties to each other to act deliberately and with an appreciation of the consequences of their actions.

sciencegirl said...

Parallel lives, you say? Underground, you say? Seclusion from the world to save the world, you say? "Scot" and "Hot" rhyme for a reason, you say?

Oh, yeah, we are way more than halfway there, and JJ Abrams caught it all on film:

Seraphic Spouse said...

Yes, that is very true about rules, Ginger. We can understand things when we can see their outlines. When I put my glasses on (or contact lenses in), I can see the boundaries of things that were just as fuzzy mass, and then they make sense.

Paul said...

Regarding parallel universes, you may be interested in this comment from
"The article acknowledges exceptions to the overall generational trends: "One important caveat: not every American twenty-something is like this. In fact, many emerging adults have been reared into a world vastly different than the self-esteem culture. Some gravitate, instead, toward an Augustinian perception of the self and find their own contemporaries annoying." Which sounds like a pretty accurate description of the majority of the small minority (10 - 15%) of millennials who actually attend Mass on a weekly basis."

Originally in Is the Millennial Generation "Pre-Moral?", recently restated in American Catholicism: Living on the Edge of a Demographic Precipice

The article, and most other posts at the Siena blog, goes on to encourage Catholics towards intentional evangelization.

Steve said...

The word "parish" comes from the Greek pároikos, the term for a colony of foreigners living in an ancient city. In other words, living in a place but not of it. (

Having grown up in the remnants of a Catholic ghetto in NYC, I urge all Catholics to adopt this strategy: be in a place but not of it.