I got invited by the charming Simone to visit her parish for Stations and a parish Lenten dinner last night, 27 February 2004. Only when I got there did I truly recall how different my Catholic life has been these past few years. I’m registered at Calvert House, which has a pretty fixed clientele. A little under half the people are undergraduates, maybe half graduate students, with a few young professors, babies, professionals usually associated with the University, and the occasional older person mixed in. By older person, here I mean someone over 30. Maybe 35. Then I enter the Stations at St Gregory on the North Side, and things are so radically different. Children between 2 and 17! Families! People older than me! People much older than me! Very very different. Perhaps some other time I’ll talk about the gender gap of American Christianity, or the age composition, or that the parish lists the preferred donation for marriages and funerals on their Web site. This is a personal night.
St Gregory’s was a foreign territory. I’ve never had a real parish as an adult. Between Harvard and Chicago, I attended church routinely at St Andrew the Apostle and St Timothy in the Arlington Diocese, but you could hardly call me a community member. I think I attended one function in four years, and less than a dozen Masses outside Sundays and holy days. The parishes contributed to my minimalism; large poorly designed spaces, bad to nonexistant greeters, defensive focus, little quality liturgy, and inability to plan anything appealing to a single adult were all quite present. I do not absolve myself, though; work devotion, travel, introversion, and an intellectual focus all pulled me to the books and readings and away from activity.
Thus, foreign it was to sit in a school hall and have soup and bread. I still don’t know how to talk to families. Not really knowing anyone didn’t help much, though people were very polite. Several people asked me if I worked at the Medieval Institute. (Simone pursues a doctorate in Medieval Studies.) That made me smile, given that I’m currently trying to program something very far from the time of Aquinas.
The most interesting part was trying to explain just exactly what I do, particularly to the nice lady Nancy. When she went through school, statistics didn’t exist as a discipline. This is a small exaggeration, since departments of statistics did exist in the 1950s. None were large, though, and would not have been mentioned in a secondary school curriculum. Standard deviation is a pretty big step to even my parents’ generation, even at the college level.
By now, I know enough not to give any mathematical words. Instead, I say I have a seven year old’s dream job. Seven was the age of Tinkertoys and dollhouses and sandcastles, worlds from things. They’re toys, sure, but seven is when a young boy or girl creates. Then the discipline of school takes that away, off to a segmented world of rote and memorization, and most people never go back. Except for me. I still build models, now with numbers instead of Lego blocks or dolls, but I get to create, make order, staunch chaos, get lost in a world not quite real.
That explanation appeals to people – though not Nancy, for which I went with the practical result approach. Typically, though, if I look closely, I can see the eyes of my conversant; they flash briefly, back to that general joy. Just for a second, there’s a wish, a wistfulness, that instead of packing vegetable bins or writing reports, they could do that. They often say that I’m very lucky to do something so fun and I love, and that part, at least as much as I get to here, is true. It’s nice to be reminded of the difference in perception between my Gothic tower and the high rises of nonacademic life.