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In the Desert

ISSUE:  Spring 1999

For Daniel and Joan Sweet

We made a strange trinity: Daniel had recently converted to Catholicism; Joan had recently returned to the Church; and it had been years since I’d been to mass.

My first week visiting Tucson my hosts, Daniel and Joan, were going to mass and I agreed to join them. I went as a gesture of friendship, and out of curiosity, but as we pulled into the parking lot I had deep regrets. The church looked like a space ship. A flying saucer, to be exact. It was a low white dome of a building with large colored spots along a central ridge. I envisioned Michael Renee as the space-age pastor. Inside under the domed ceiling it was bright, air-conditioned, and hushed—there was wall-to-wall carpet. The altar and the wall behind were of a sand-colored stone that is quarried locally. To the right sat a half-dozen teens, the evening’s music ensemble consisting of guitar, keyboard, bass, and percussion instruments. We were light years from the parish church I had attended as a boy in Massachusetts: a cavernous brick edifice, illuminated by stained glass windows, and filled with sepulchral organ chords played by old Mrs. DeFazio, who ran the corner store at the end of our street.

I felt like a time traveler, suddenly beamed down to present-day American Catholicism. The priest faced the congregation now, and he wore a robe with a cowl reminiscent of the Spanish missionaries. He was a tall, balding man with hands folded on a substantial belly, who smiled benevolently. Rather than Michael Renee, he resembled Peter Boyle. Around him, the altar was crowded: altar boys and altar girls, and a nun dressed in a blouse and skirt who gave the homily (not a sermon). Frequently the mass was interruped as the teens sang folk songs. The chalice and paten were not gold but simple pottery. Rather than solitary prayer, we shook hands and hugged, whispering, “Peace be with you.” And, of course, the mass was not in Latin, except for an occasional token amen.

Daniel stood next to me, participating enthusiastically, his voice loud and rich. When he offered to share the hymnal with me, I said I would only confuse the melody (afterwards I said that if “Ave Maria” had been sung I would gladly have joined in). For Daniel, this mass clearly seemed a point of release. We had talked often about the pressures of his job at the city water department (in a desert city water is a religion unto itself). Daniel reads constantly from books that deal with spirituality; he meditates; he is conversant in Eastern philosophies and disciplines. Daniel is Catholic by choice. As a Catholic by birth, I envy and admire him that, but I can’t help wondering at his firm conviction that Catholicism is the solution to his spiritual needs. I’ve always considered it the problem. At 50 Daniel has a splendid strength and fineness to his features: a smooth balding skull, deep-set pale eyes, and trimmed white beard. His features are spare and weathered, honed by the desert—he could be the reincarnation of Don Quixote. In his left earlobe resides an earring: a tiny gold cross.

His wife Joan did not sing as loudly during mass. She stood on the other side of Daniel, watchful. Not once did I notice her eyes closed in prayer. Blond, small, very thin, she had been a polio child; yet she is not “frail.” Her forearms and hands have remarkable size and sinew from her daily labors in the three-acre garden surrounding their adobe house (which they built themselves 18 years ago). Even the arthritic knots in her hands and wrists seem more like muscles. There appear to be extra knuckles, which are better designed for her gardening chores. Joints articulate in a fashion that seems to meld with the wood handle of the rake or trowel.

Joan participated throughout mass, but not with Daniel’s vigor. If religion is a language, she is a native-speaker who understands the inflections, the idioms, the dialects. I suspect that she has approached the Church this second time with quiet caution (whereas Daniel’s approach might resemble a wide open embrace). While Daniel’s search is clearly spiritual, Joan’s return is more humanistic, political. (She never lost her spirituality during the 25 years she was away from the Church, and that I find to be one of the truly beautiful ironies of Catholics—how so many of those who have left the Church have maintained such clear, honest spirituality.) No, Joan says she has returned to the Church to strengthen her spiritual union with her husband—and because she feels there’s work to be done.

It’s the summer of 1996, and this summer there’s been considerable discussion about Lincoln, Nebraska, where the bishop has proclaimed that those Catholics who support certain social issues (round up the usual suspects: planned parenthood, abortion, gay rights) are in danger of being excommunicated.

In my childhood, when the Sisters of Charity at Saint Paul’s Parochial School mentioned excommunication, our young minds plunged into a deep Catholic abyss, where lurked grotesque images of suffering, torment, and eternal damnation akin to The Divine Comedy and the illustrations of Gustave Doré. Excommunication is a form of censure placed upon an individual who publicly professes heresies; it may be extended to include entire parishes, even countries, in the form of an interdict. But excommunication, de jure and de facto, we were taught, was primarily reserved for extreme cases, as evidenced in historic incidents involving kings and popes. Ordinary individuals are seldom excommunicated by “bell, book and candle.”

The excommunicated are not permitted to receive the sacraments, though they are still expected to attend mass. On a National Public Radio “All Things Considered” program one of the “Nebraska Catholics” said that not being able to partake of the sacraments would be deeply disturbing for he considered himself a good and true Catholic. “It’s who I am,” he concluded. The bishop, who was also interviewed, was then asked what he would do if one of the “Nebraska Catholics” appeared before him at the altar rail. The bishop said he would give that person communion, assuming that he or she had confessed, which begs the question: how can one who cannot participate in the sacraments receive the sacrament of confession? The pillars in Rome must be shaking ever so slightly for the Church to threaten such dramatic action. The strategy is familiar: make an example of a few and the others will follow—Catholics are, after all, sheep. The bishop described Catholicism as a series of spiritual teachings that may be embraced but may not be changed; Catholicism isn’t meant to be all things to all people. He concludes that accepting the teachings of the Church is, and always has been, a matter of free will, of “choice.” Clearly a well chosen final word.

“What’s the Church’s position on the sovereignty of Nebraskan airspace?” Joan asks, only half in jest. “If I believe in, say, planned parenthood and I fly over Nebraska, would I be automatically excommunicated?” Like the “Nebraska Catholics,” she possesses valor that derives from a sense of conviction, and she has the patience of a gardener, of someone who has taken several acres of Sonoran desert and converted it into a lush landscape in perpetual bloom. Her faith rests on the belief that the issues of human rights may eventually blossom not just around the pillars of the Church but within its ancient walls.

I have no doubt that Joan sees her polio as a metaphor for Catholicism. She walks with a hitch (an ever so slight genuflection in each step) and her left leg is remarkably thin. She knows the limits of her strength—occasionally she asks me for help with a full wheelbarrow in the garden. Her calves are so weak now that a few years ago she bought a car with an automatic transmission because working a clutch pedal was becoming difficult. She knows what is required to live with withering muscle: constant use and exercise. If her old Catholicism withered for a quarter of a century, her return to the Church is near miraculous. Like desert flowers. Like polio children who lead long and full adult lives. The old skin of submission replaced by the strong flesh of hope.

After mass Joan said, “I hope you don’t think we’re trying to convert you.”

“I doubt it’s possible to convert someone who’s born Catholic,” I said. “I’m a Before and you and Daniel are After.”

Joan smiled easily, which she does often. She loves the Sonoran desert, loves her garden oasis, loves baseball, and loves talking about all of them.

At times when we talk religion I tell stories about my parochial school, minor atrocities which were so monumental to children in the 50’s, but which now seem mildly humorous reminders of a bygone era. Like the time Richard Cardinal Gushing was scheduled to visit our school. In preparation we had to practice kissing his ring. We were marched out into the parking lot (we always moved about in double-lines, in step to a recording of a John Phillips Sousa march), and lined up to practice kissing his ring. Sister Superior was the cardinal’s stand-in. Of course your lips weren’t supposed to actually touch the ring, so when some wise guy like Billy Flynn (never his twin brother John), let his lips touch Sister Superior’s knuckle, her other hand swiftly nailed him good up the side of the head. Kiss-slap: that was Catholicism. Before. My stories were met by Joan and Daniel with polite, pitying smiles, and after a while I stopped telling them. Perhaps they’re right; perhaps such stories have nothing to do with this Catholic church. With After.

And perhaps that’s why I felt resistent and unresponsive during the mass, but I think it also had to do with what had become of the ritual. Couples held hands during the ceremony. One young man sat with his arm around the shoulders of the woman next to him. The folk songs were just too peaceful easy feeling. It was all too damned joyous. The mass had been stripped of its mystery and, therefore, of its certainty. It got to the point where I wanted to shout, “That’s it! Stop that music! What’s Sister Superior going to say about all this?” I wanted to rush up the aisle, yelling, “You think they knocked us around all those years for this? Don’t you even know how to genuflect any more? That knee’s supposed to go all the way down and touch the hard, cold floor—not this, this wall-to-wall carpet! And you there, fella, get your hand off that woman—what do you think this is, a date?” Standing in front of the altar, I wanted to lead the congregation in Latin responses: “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa—and, people, you’re suppsed to beat your breast in time on each mea. Now, once more, from the top. . . .”


When not talking about the church, the garden, or baseball, we seemed to talk about various kinds of pain. Such as when my mother had her back operation in Boston, I noticed a clipboard hanging on the wall outside her hospital room. Pasted on the back of the clipboard was a chart that classified the ten levels of pain; it was something like a Richter scale of human suffering. There were columns, creating the impression of objectivity, of research conducted under carefully controlled conditions. The chart smelled of grant money and dissertations. Somewhere in the medical profession there were people who specialize in pain. Who qualify it, quantify it, compare it, define it, describe it—and here it was being classified. For each level of pain in the left column there was a brief description of symptoms in the middle column, and the proper remedies were listed in the right column. In its early stages the patient’s pain was represented by verbal complaints; in its latter stages, by screaming.

Determining the level of a patient’s suffering is necessary. Otherwise, no physician can prescribe the appropriate remedy. My mother, and a year or so later my wife, then my mother again, were on morphine after operations—my mother, first for her fused disc, then for the removal of a portion of her colon and her gall bladder; my wife Reesha for her sinus operation, where infected polyps were removed (torn) from high up in her sinus passages. Afterwards, they were put on “the drip,” a machine that dispenses the clear morphine fluid intravenously. The machine has a timer, adjusted by the staff according to the level of pain they determine the patient is experiencing; thus, every so often the patient can press a button in a small plastic unit held by hand and get another drip of morphine.

The drip creates a land of tidal effect, which both patient and, in the case of my mother, patient’s son come to anticipate and predict. Shortly after a drip, my mother would appear restful, drowsy. After several minutes she would become more alert, more aware, and she would look at me as though bracing herself. Eventually her eyes would slide toward the unit and its bank of digital readouts. At this point she was just holding on. My mother was good at bracing herself and holding on; she was quite tolerant of pain. Eventally, when the timer on the machine allowed, she would press the button and receive another drip of morphine. I could see the relief in her face. She’d close her eyes and relax. It was, in a sense, high tide.

My mother never screamed in pain. Therefore, the medical staff never assumed that she was in extreme pain as defined on the chart that hung outside her room. This was disconcerting—as were the groans, and at times screams, that could be heard from other rooms on her floor.(My mother, as a matter of fact, was often distressed by the complaints of other patients and would say, “Why don’t they do something for that woman?”) What the chart didn’t take into consideration was that possibly my mother was someone who could experience extreme pain without screaming; and conversely, the possibility that the screaming person down the hall wasn’t really in that much pain. What I found more than distressing was the possibility that the staff might be giving my mother a timed drip that would better suit the screaming patient, and vice versa.

Certainly the medical profession has considered this possibility, and it appears they have determined that it’s always better to give less medication. That’s the bottom line. If a patient appears to be at a certain level of pain, medicate them only in accordance with that level. Overmedicating a patient could cause dire side effects. It could also result in lawsuits.

One evening in the garden Joan explained how difficult it had been to convince her dentist to give her something stronger than Tylenol III because, as a victim of polio, her immune system doesn’t function well enough to compensate for even low levels of pain. She’s experienced plenty of pain since childhood, and she knows what her body can tolerate. When she talks about it, she sounds objective, even clinical, which is what most of us do with our pain, out of necessity. We devise our own system of pain classification.

A year ago last Christmas Eve, when I had a mass of cancerous cells removed from my face, just to the right of my nose and back into the cheek, I was in pain for days. The first prescribed medication did nothing to alleviate the pain. It was as though someone had taken a high-speed drill with a one-inch bit, pressed it firmly to the right of my nose and bore deeply into my skull. The pain radiated out from that area so that my entire head throbbed. But it didn’t stop there; somehow it seemed to radiate to other parts of my body, particularly down my right shoulder and arm. As the medication from the operation began to wear off, I remember how impressed I was with the level of pain that seemed to well up beneath the retreating numbness. I couldn’t isolate the pain because it was in my head. Had I the same level of pain in, say, my right knee, would I really be able to isolate it? I don’t know. All I knew was that the pain seemed in my brain, which was what made me intensely conscious of it.

Reesha contacted my surgeon and obtained a stronger medication, codeine. It didn’t really stop the pain, didn’t relieve it—relief being the word that seems so often used in advertisements. However, the codeine did make the pain seem more tolerable. What I most remember was the sense of removal, of separateness from the immediacy of the pain. I could still feel it—my pulse seemed to amplify the surge of blood in my veins (thus, I presume, the radiating nature of pain), but the codeine gave me just enough distance so the pain didn’t seem so intensely immediate. Though I was thankful for that, I couldn’t wait till I could get off the stuff. I wanted to reduce the dosage, even stop entirely, but the pain would come back with such force that I’d finally give in and turn the tide.

There has always been a relationship between pain and religion. Christ suffered for our sins. Prayer is a form of healing. The Sisters of Charity would pull our ears, rap our knuckles with rulers, paddle our bottoms, but worse, they would admonish us to “Offer your headache to Jesus.” It seemed the least one could do, considering that Christ had been crowned with thorns and crucified. Still, whenever I reach for the aspirin (or, now, the Alleve), I consider offering my headache to Jesus. I don’t though, not anymore; it would be turning pain into prayer and I wonder why that needs to be a part of the mystery. My mother’s pain, my wife’s pain, Joan’s pain, my pain: are they meant to be prayers? If so, how do they glorify God? Helping someone in pain certainly may be the highest form of prayer. But why is suffering a form of worship?


The morning after I went to mass with Joan and Daniel I drove 20 miles south to San Javier Del Bac Mission. When you walk into San Javier on a Sunday morning, the hymns are sung in Spanish, there’s the scent of centuries-old wood and adobe, and the enormous murals and ornate altar all portray the mystery and certainty of pain. There are crucifixions; there are open wounds; there is blood, painted centuries ago and still vivid after a recent restoration of the entire mission, which cost millions of dollars and required the importation of artisans from Italy.

In one alcove a wooden statue of San Javier lies on its back in an open case. His body is covered with a finely embroidered sheet to which are fastened dozens of miracles (milagros): silver pins of human limbs; photographs of babies, children, the elderly; several hospital wrist bands; a withered umbilical cord. The alcove is illuminated by rows of votive candles (which can be purchased at the gift shop for two dollars). San Javier’s head is chipped, the paint faded from years of hands touching his skull and gently lifting the head, for it is believed that one who can lift this saint’s head possesses remarkable spiritual strength and the ability to overcome suffering and pain.

I stood in line to light my votive candle. There were parishioners who came to worship, and there were tourists. A young Asian couple waited ahead of me; the husband, wearing a baseball cap on the back of his head, videotaped his bareheaded wife with a camcorder. In my turn I laid my hand on San Javier’s forehead, and for a moment I felt that both my actions and thoughts were being watched, that I was spiritually visible. I felt both exhilarated and frightened. It was a moment from Before. I cradled San Javier’s skull in my hand and lifted gently.


My last day in Tucson I’m awake by 5:30. Dawn is the best time of the day for a vigorous walk. I drive up into the Tucson Mountains on a road that winds beneath softly folded slopes covered with saguaro: strange forest of green, thorny columns, some with arms crooked in greeting. I turn off the main road and drive a quarter mile up a dirt path until I come to an arroyo, a wash. There has been rain here during the night: the sand is wet and the desert scent is borne on humid air. As the sun rises over the ridge to the east, the shadows across the wash retreat. At 6 a.m. the temperature is already pushing 80 and climbing rapidly. Rabbits and jackrabbits scatter ahead of me, leaving delicate footprints deep in moist sand. The coo of mourning doves is on the air. I walk perhaps a mile, always climbing a gentle grade. A magnificent brow of hills is visible directly ahead. My return down the slope is easy. Occasionally, to the west, I can see across the vast desert plain, to several mountain ranges, purple and mauve in the early morning light.

The previous weekend Daniel and I had been working up on the flat roof of their adobe house, laying down new roofing material. Surrounded by grand vistas of mountains, it seemed an appropriate place to discuss religion. Though Daniel participates joyfully in the mass, he questions why the Church needs sacraments. In a perfect Church he would find such rituals unnecessary. He recognizes that this would have once been considered heretical thought, but he believes that by eliminating the physical symbols of faith one would find the way to spirituality clearer.

He said he’d been reading about a three-step process: recollection, purgation, and unification. Such a process is a good representation of the spiritual life, of the artistic life—of conscious life; it is something that can invest a dawn hike with beauty and meaning; without it, why bother to get out of bed? What Daniel’s really asking is whether the church, as we know it, is necessary. No wonder Church institutionalists consider the “Nebraska Catholics” a threat. I suspect that there will not be any reconcilliation within the Church, only further division. What is it about organized religion that leads to devisiveness, to History, with its wars and atrocities in the name of someone’s God? I’m not certain what a Catholic is anymore. Is anyone?

As I walk in the desert on my last day in Tucson, I think about a famous walker, Henry David Thoreau, who doubted whether the cathedral is the best place to find spirituality. He preferred everywhere but the cathedral—Walden Pond, the Concord woods, the Merrimack River, Cape Cod. He believed in the cathedral of his own mind and spirit, and in Nature, where evidence of a Oneness is abundant and clear. In such a church, walking is a gift, a prayer. Even in a desert arroyo, at dawn.


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