Church, changes, and a random character discussion

Fair warning; some of what’s below may offend you if you’re of a religious bent and somewhat sensitive. The Reverend Dewie is decidedly unpleasant and off-color if you take offense to mockery of the silliness and insanity that surrounds some aspects of faith. The first part of the post is probably safe, though. You were warned.

Anyway. Disclaimer filed. On to the actual content.

I went to church this morning. I’m not sure why; just had the urge. I haven’t been to church in over twenty-five years; the last time I set foot in one of the pulsing hearts of Catholicism, I was still in grade school and being whacked across the knuckles with a ruler for asking annoying questions. Oh, I’ve dabbled here and there – been to a handful of “meetings” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example – but it’s been a very long time since I acknowledged my Catholic upbringing.

Damn, it’s changed.

Maybe it’s just the location I chose – the new building of the one I used to attend back in the dim dark days of parochial school – or maybe my memory is tainted by a bizarre reviled nostalgia. But the place I remember from my youth was huge, cavernous; dimly lit, with flickering candles along the walls arranged to provide the most dramatic light to the Stations of the Cross. The organ in the corner of the pulpit, always manned by Sister Mary Martha, droning out its low tones and rising to crescendos at all the right places during the sermon. The little alcove beneath a stained glass portrait of Mary, Mother of God, with the tall votive candles always giving off the mysterious smell of cinnamon. The gleaming wood pews, enough to seat several hundred, looking somehow smug as they waited for you to deposit your rear on their rock-hard surfaces, or for you to drop to your knees so they could start cutting off the circulation to your lower extremities. A twelve-foot crucifix hung behind the altar, dwarfing Father Jerry as he gave you the weekly dose of hellfire and damnation, Jesus’ agonized eyes seeming to watch you as you approached for the Eucharist or a blessing, seeming to whisper “You are not worthy” in the back of your mind.

Yeah, I was a messed up kid. But despite the sense of oppression and judgement, there was – and is – a part of me that enjoyed the ritual of it, the pomp and circumstance, the seriousness of it all. That part swayed along with the others to Father Jerry’s deep bass and over-amplified sighs during the sermon proper, and found a love of the rhythm and poetry in the Latin hymns. The call and response sections (“The Lord be with you” | “And also with you.” etc.), despite being perhaps a little too close to brainwashing for comfort were still, well, comforting. There was a sense of awe, of age, and of power when you stepped through the doors, dipped your fingers and crossed yourself. Power and awe that could be felt even if you didn’t precisely believe in the brand of salvation they were selling. I think that’s what I was looking for today.

I didn’t find it. Instead, when I entered the ever-so-great and all-too-expensive new home of my childhood faith, I felt… nothing.

The new chapel is about half the size of the old one. Gone are the rows of pews, replaced with cozy little chairs – with cushions, even! – lined up in rows of 10. The room might have seated a hundred. There’s no second story – and that was something else about the old place that I liked; going up to the second floor, and watching the service from so deliciously high up (“deliciously high” being all of about 12 feet, but it felt impressive when I was only four feet tall. Also felt a lot farther when I fell out of it one day, but that’s a different story) – though the ceiling is still almost ridiculously tall. Gone are the candles. The organ? Nowhere to be seen. The Stations of the Cross are absent, and where previously a twelve foot Jesus stared at you in judgement, now a meek and mild four foot tall crucifix (with Jesus’ eyes closed) hangs on the wall. It seems so… diminished.

Then there’s the matter of the priest. Father Jerry had that “priest voice.” The one that’s breathy, and deep, and keeps that sonorous rhythm as it goes through the liturgy, the one that proves just as important and potentially intimidating in the silences and the respiration pauses as it does when actually being used. He was also a natural born speaker, knowing how to use pauses to great effect, with amazing eye contact given the size of his congregation, and a presence that was somehow more there than anyone else in the room. He was tall – I’d guess around 6’2″, but my youth and own comparative shortness at the time might be screwing up that estimate – and looked like the total stereotype of every Irish priest character in every movie you’ve ever seen.  You couldn’t not pay attention to him.

The new priest is a diminutive man of Native American persuasion, prone to stuttering and stammering – and more than once completely misreading words in the missal, continuing on for a good twenty seconds before realizing his mistake and coming back to correct it. What was worse was the times he didn’t bother to correct it; my internal editor was cringing each time this occurred. He had none of the authority that Father Jerry conveyed; when he called for prayer, it was more like he was asking the congregation nicely than issuing the command-slash-request of a leader of his people. When giving the sermon, he seemed to get lost in what his point actually was, returning to the starting point several times over and going off on a different tangent, none of which ultimately seemed to have a point.

Then there’s the call and response sections. As I noted above, in my youth “And also with you” was the pat answer for most of them; “Amen” being a close second. Amen seems to have completely been removed; I heard no one but myself say it during the entirety of the mass. Replacing “And also with you,” “The Spirit be upon you” seems to take center stage, even when it doesn’t seem grammatically or thematically appropriate to the call. And now you’re supposed to hug someone every time you say it. My inner introvert, the part that tends to get antsy when touched by close friends or intimate partners and wants to tear strangers’ limbs off when they touch him without permission, was in full panic mode today, I tell you.

All in all, I don’t think it’s an experience I’ll be repeating. Again, maybe it was coming back to a place (sort of) that I knew as a child and discovering that childhood is gone and all the old signposts have been torn down with it. Maybe it’s just a “bad” church, now. But I have to wonder, at least a little, if this is the direction the Catholic church is going in; make things friendlier, homier. If so, I’m a trifle worried. Again, I’m not a Catholic believer, but I could feel that awe, respect and power even as a semi-agnostic child, and giving that up in favor of hug-fests and polite, unassuming priests who won’t say boo, and comfy little chairs that make you feel like you’re sitting in someone’s living room instead of the House of God’s Judgement just doesn’t sit right with me.

Now that all of that is out of my system, on to the random character profile stuff. And here’s where I may potentially get really offensive.

The Reverend Deuteronomy Jones came about partly as a reaction to that Catholic upbringing and partly out of my adoration for the movie Leap of Faith and the song Jesus He Knows Me. I used to perform skits as the character amongst my friends and on the local public access television station. The basic premise was that Reverend Dewie – alongside his compatriots “Junior” and “Trinity” Lopez – was a tent revivalist preacher, prone to abusing his position as a “man of God” for financial, sexual or emotional gain. One of the more popular bits – amongst my teenage audience, anyway – was one wherein Dewie, mid-sermon, would go along something like this (and it works best if you read it in your head Baptist-style, with lots of “-uhs” after keywords and breathy drawn-out final syllables. I’d try to write it phonetically, but it’d give me some form of spastic attack in my old age.):

“Praise Jesus. Thank you, thank you. But now we need to talk about the power of God. And how it works within you. How you need to feel Jesus inside. Jesus, he’s workin’ within me right now. I’m full of the power of Jesus, and ready to pass that blessing on. Now, all you young ladies out there tonight, the ones who are worried about their families, about their boyfriends, about the other girls in school, about their bodies, about all the things the Lord has told you to do and not to do, I want you all to stand up and come right on up here. We’re gonna lay hands on you, you’re gonna lay hands on me, and from that holy union, you’re going to be made aware, made to feel the miracle of Jesus workin’ within ya.”

I’m sure you’ve heard enough. It goes on like that for quite a bit, eventually escalating to a wildly air-humping Dewie screeching “Can you feel Jesus in you? Do you want to? Can you feel that? That’s Jesus!” I can’t really do the whole bit at the moment, since 90% of it was improv and I’m certain I’ve driven quite enough people away with what’s already there. But you get the idea. Dewie was also fond of discussing money. Money, as the root of all evil, is pointless and sinful; ergo, you should give it to a true servant of the Lord (like him, of course) who can “dispose of it properly.”

Yes, it’s irreverent. Yes, it’s juvenile. But the character persisted, and has lingered in the back of my head for quite some time, sometimes popping out to deliver a brief monologue, before returning to his den deep in the back of my skull.

This is similar to how I always pictured Dewie, mirrored jacket and everything.

The other day, for no apparent reason, I caught myself thinking about him again. Not directly, exactly. Instead I was thinking of his buddy “Trinity” Lopez. Trinity was never really developed in the original material. Supposedly he had three personalities – ergo the nickname – just to be used as canon fodder for Dewie’s claims of divine inspiration. But I was thinking about him, and wondering what would have led him to participate in the good Reverend’s little carnival. The image started to come to me of somebody who was hiding from something. Someone who had maybe been a very bad person previously – not that being the ticket man and tech guru for a traveling roadshow designed to bilk hopeful religious folk out of their hard-earned cash is exactly “nice,” but it’s certainly better than some things – and thought hiding out in the carnival of souls that was Dewie’s train of RVs and campers would make for good cover. Then I thought to myself “What if he doesn’t even know that he’s a bad person? What if, aside from doubts about his current vocation, he actually thinks he’s a pretty okay guy?”

This line of questioning intrigued me. I came up with quite a few answers – and a fairly extensive background for Trinity, that I’m keeping omitted for the moment in case I decide to actually do something with it and don’t want to ruin the surprises there – but all of them led back to Dewie. He can’t just be some traveling preacher man. Something real has to be happening there. “But,” says I, “Dewie’s kind of a shitheel. He’s a scuzzbucket. He’s a liar, and a manipulator, a cheat and one step above a whoremonger.” “Yes,” says the part of me that has always been in touch with Dewie. “I am. (Editor’s note: Yes, I talk to myself as my characters. Don’t judge me, monkey.) But only because it’s what I must be.”

Aha! Now what does that mean, I thought to myself. Digging some more, I figured it out. Dewie’s not human. Dewie’s just the mask, the pleasant persona he puts on to do his real job. That being testing human souls.

Yep. Dewie’s a demon. Not necessarily evil, exactly, as if one deals with him properly, one might earn salvation. But certainly not one of the good guys. Come to him, wanting to be healed? You might get your wish. Of course, if you do because you put your faith in him, rather than the power or mercy of God, well, that’s pretty much a one-way ticket to Hell. Ask him for salvation, you won’t find it. Ask God through him, you might.

Yeah, I’m aware, that’s probably a little too meta for popular fiction. Maybe too much of my own belief seeping through, a little too much religio-political commentary. But it felt right in my head – at least, the part of it that speaks for Dewie – so I kept going with it. Because I still hadn’t decided how Trinity fit in. That’s when I came to the most important conclusion about Trinity – and also “Junior,” the other main member of the circus.

They’re dead. Whether they know that or not, I haven’t decided. But they’re dead, and this is their punishment. Because, in my little brain-spasm, Dewie occasionally takes on “special cases.” People who need a little fine-tuning before they go to their final reward (or punishment…) He’s something like a warden of Purgatory. The employees of his revival circuit are those special cases, and what they do on the road – or what they don’t do – will influence whether they’re going on up, or taking the express elevator down when they’re done.

So now I have another story that wants to be told sitting on my plate, and yet again I’m mining religion to fuel it, because I just can’t help myself. Now, instead of sitting here thinking about Trinity and Dewie and their complex relationship – and what it ultimately means for Trinity – I really should be working on Ioudas. But still, part of me wants to write this, to do something more than adolescent humor with the dear Reverend. I can even see the opening scene, quite clearly, and my fingers ache to write it.

Anyway. That’s my babbling for the day. Anything to add to the discussion, whether it be a discussion of why Catholicism seems to be heading downhill or informing me of my Hellbound state for coming up with a persona like Deuteronomy, feel free to drop it in the magical comment box. Until next time.

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