‘He Hasn’t Got Any Underwear on Underneath Those Robes!’: Why Anecdotes Matter

 

Historians are often taught to begin their analysis by focusing on the big picture, the meta-narrative that spans decades and defines careers. But I think that the more mundane flotsam and jetsam of life have similar worth in explaining epochs, important lives, and the texture of history itself. It’s also still the Christmas season (at least until I have to fly back to England on the 18th) and after facing the terrifying milestone of turning 20, I’m in the mood for nostalgia. So indulge me, in telling a very Christmas-y story. 

My Dad grew up in a devout Baptist family and while he has strayed somewhat in terms of attendance and even denominational loyalty, he did come out of that upbringing with a deep suspicion of Catholicism. This made his choice to marry a Catholic girl from the next town over particularly perplexing. In due time, he had two daughters and allowed his wife, my mother, to raise us as Catholics, if only because he had no feasible alternative (having fallen away from the local Baptist community) and was adamant that we be raised to believe in something.

That did nothing to increase his affection for the Catholic Church, however. Every time one of us came home discussing what Father so-and-so had said in his homily, we could rely on a shout from the kitchen, “He’s not your father! You’ve only got one of those, and it’s me.” I can recall one memorable occasion on which my mother was unable to take us to our parish’s Ash Wednesday service so he was drafted into service, with much grumbling and threats to simply “bless” us with ashes from the pellet stove. Under threat from mom, he did bring us, but spent the whole service whispering jokes at the expense of the Pope and the parish priest in my ear, and then glancing at me in consternation, along with a gaggle of old women sitting near us, when I attempted to cover my giggles with poorly executed coughs. 

Most teens go through a rebellious phase; mine manifested itself in a three-year flirtation with conservative Judaism and a near refusal to go through with confirmation. (Though, in my defense, I read enough theological texts on both sides to qualify it as a bit more serious than the normal resort to green hair and unfortunate piercings.) My dad sat through most of that as a spectator, and while I don’t think he would have been upset with me had I gone through with that conversion, he was happy when I became theologically comfortable enough to go through with my confirmation when originally planned. Even if he mercilessly mocked the bishop, his monsignor, and the six attending priests. In his defense, incense makes him ornery. 

However, my journey with Catholic spirituality isn’t quite over. I think my mother, as with most of the kids in my confirmation class, expected me to settle down into Catholic agnosticism, going with her to church when she asked, giving up except for holidays in college, and baptizing any kids for the sake of tradition. My intellectual life (to be pretentious and 16 again) was a serious matter to me, and I found it increasingly hard to square the mainstream Catholic faith I saw with my own beliefs and desires.

I also happened to be at the age where I had a car and a JDL, and when I decided to make off to the nearest monastery to hear a Latin service “because William F. Buckley Jr., mom!” no one put up too much of a fight. (It also delights me to remember the facial reactions of other parents when my mom began complaining about me; ‘she reads too much, is this woman on drugs’ or ‘she spends too much time listening to F.A. Hayek, what’s a Hayek, is he a gangster rapper?’) She was even less impressed when I decided to start attending there full-time but accepted my spending Friday nights with a group of mostly elderly priests and brothers as a better alternative to spending that time at house parties. My dad was a slightly different story. 

If there was (and, to some extent, is) any one thing that my dad dislikes about Catholicism, it’s priests. They are chosen by a far-off bishop (rather than by the community, in the Baptist tradition), they are celibate, and exuded a general air of being unable or unwilling to deal with the real world. My choice to spend so much time with so many of them, becoming attached to that place and those priests in a way that he had never seen with any of the parish priests we had before, was both worrying and weird.

And monks, who seemed to him the ultimate in both strangeness and the above-mentioned characteristics, were the ultimate evil. When I needed a ride, he refused to enter, and when I was invited to bring family to dinner, he sent my mom alone with me. He also took great pride in convincing my sister that monks are really naked under their habits. The undoubted stubbornness that I know he possesses let me write of that reality as the one that would always be, there was no reason to hope for anything other than peaceful coexistence. 

There is no grand dramatic ending to this story, no conversion or gunfight or death-bed confession. It ends with sleep. About two years after I first began going to the monastery, on a particularly snowy December night my parents insisted on driving me there and dropping me off for Vespers while they drove around to look at Christmas lights. When they returned, after I had walked bit of the winding driveway and waited for a few minutes, I sat in the back of the car and began to nod off, as overburdened high school seniors are want to do. 

“Did you see that?” 

“No, Phil, what?” 

“He was waiting for her.” 

“What?” 

“That monk that she always talks to, he was waiting at the window, watching her like a hawk. He didn’t move until she got in the car.” 

“Hmm.” 

“He was making sure that she was safe, he wasn’t going anywhere until he was sure that she was getting in a car.” 

“Yep. Oh, look at that reindeer.”

He never mentioned what he saw to me, or even to my mother again. But it meant something to him, that men he considered at best “odd ducks” were worried about the safety of his child, were so like him. So now he’s willing to be dragged to dinner, to help out when they need extra hands on a building project, and even to make friends with the monk who is a carpenter and cabinetmaker, just like him. 

It’s a nice story, but not anything world-changing, maybe not even worth the pages in a book. But I think it is because it shows how the little accumulated experiences of life add up to something greater, to tolerance or hate, to unity or division. Roman legionaries talk to their Christian captives and a revolution is born; Italian merchants do business with Jewish bankers and a generation later their sons learn Hebrew with the sons of the men that they first began to see as human; one man sees the humanity in the everlasting “other” and gains a new, if reluctant, respect for them. The beauty of small stories is both their intimacy and the unexpected birth which they encompass.

*To those that very kindly followed me and my writing: I had no intention, seven-plus months ago, of taking this unannounced hiatus. The unfortunate combination of a semi-serious illness, various summer academic commitments, an internship, and a sibling that my parents require my help for care with when on break halted all attempts at Ricochet during the summer, and the sheer business of life at a uni famed for its all-or-nothing attitude plus picking up a new sport (with the concomitant seven weekly practice hours) produced a similar result up to now. Still, regardless of these excuses, I sincerely apologize. I can’t promise anything like a consistent posting schedule, but I am going to make a concerted effort to both be around and write more. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year. — KirkianWanderer

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  1. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    KirkianWanderer: the little accumulated experiences of life add up to something greater

    Yes, indeed. And that’s why I like reading narrative history. If historians wants to get all theoretical, that’s OK, too, as long as they tell us who did what, when, where, etc.

    Welcome back, btw. I had wondered where you were. I didn’t wonder about it every day, but around the New Year it occurred to me that we hadn’t heard from you in quite some time.

     

    • #1
  2. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer: the little accumulated experiences of life add up to something greater

    Yes, indeed. And that’s why I like reading narrative history. If historians wants to get all theoretical, that’s OK, too, as long as they tell us who did what, when, where, etc.

    Welcome back, btw. I had wondered where you were. I didn’t wonder about it every day, but around the New Year it occurred to me that we hadn’t heard from you in quite some time.

     

    Thanks. It certainly wasn’t planned, and I missed Ricochet, but the little things definitely do add up, in history and everyday life. I’m excited to get back into the swing of things. 

    • #2
  3. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    KirkianWanderer: …a semi-serious illness…

    Sorry to hear that, and hope it’s not one of those open-ended medical mysteries.

    My immediate ancestors had that suspicion of Catholicism ex-Catholics often have, and though tempted to rebel against it, I never did, or not completely, though even the smells and bells of high-church Reformed denominations remained suspect to my (oddly, half-Lutheran) parents. (I run the Smells & Bells group here at Ricochet, and you’re welcome to join! — though I also have reasons right now to be away from Ricochet for long stretches.)

    The American Right is so used to equating religion with family values I think we need more stories involving tension between family life and personal piety. (That is, after all, the reality that many who get serious about their faith must learn to live with.) They don’t all have to be hopeful stories, either, though I’m glad yours is!

     

     

     

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Thanks, KW. I enjoyed your bit of family history, and it is very nice to see you back.

    • #4
  5. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    KirkianWanderer:

    “. . . what’s a Hayek, is he a gangster rapper?”

    Yes.

    • #5
  6. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret
    @CarolJoy

    Well told bit of family conflict, and a happy ending.

    I am glad you are on break until the 18th: maybe we will have other stories you’d like to share?

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Good to see you back.

    • #7
  8. Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito
    @HankRhody

    Despite being a Lutheran and generally opposed to papism, I’ve only ever met priests who were first class human beings. There might be a touch of selection bias; I know them mostly through a catholic sister-in-law, who really ought to be valued above rubies herself.

    Good to see you back.

    • #8
  9. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer: the little accumulated experiences of life add up to something greater

    Yes, indeed. And that’s why I like reading narrative history. If historians wants to get all theoretical, that’s OK, too, as long as they tell us who did what, when, where, etc.

    Welcome back, btw. I had wondered where you were. I didn’t wonder about it every day, but around the New Year it occurred to me that we hadn’t heard from you in quite some time.

     

    Thanks. It certainly wasn’t planned, and I missed Ricochet, but the little things definitely do add up, in history and everyday life. I’m excited to get back into the swing of things.

    We’re glad to have you back.  No worries about life interruptions.  Happen to us all.

    • #9
  10. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Good stuff. 

    I grew up in the First Church of the DNC and could have easily been converted at one point to Catholicism through a combination of Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) and John Paul II. Then the ascension of the German and South American Socialist made me glad it didn’t happen.

     

    • #10
  11. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    Yes.

    If you hadn’t I would’ve.

    • #11
  12. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Thanks for sharing your journey.  Those of us who have made conversion journeys as adults encounter our own recalcitrant relatives along the way.  There are stories I could tell of when my youngest daughter was baptized into the Orthodox Church some months ago, but perhaps it is best not to at this time.

    • #12
  13. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    I grew up Catholic and my father grew up Catholic. My mother was devout, Dad was cynical to the extreme. “How was Mass, same show?” I can still remember him saying.
    In those days it was in Latin, and I just told my daughter ( around your age) how, as a six year-old kid I thought everyone in church was mumbling, so I also mumbled. Huminahuminahumina.

    Et cum Spiritu 2-2-0

    In retrospect, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what he was saying.

    Anyway, not so much a Catholic anymore, but just came back from a very Catholic wedding. Sat, stood and knelt through the mass/wedding sacrament. Hadn’t been for 40 some years. At the reception I learned the couple met through a Catholic dating service and almost everyone there was a devout Catholic. One couple at my table had 8 children, another ten.

    What’s the age range, I asked.

    18-34.

    Sounds like a demographic.

    She laughed.

    They were absolutely the nicest people. So I have to think there’s something to it despite my cynicism.

    Have you seen this film?

    • #13
  14. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer: …a semi-serious illness…

    Sorry to hear that, and hope it’s not one of those open-ended medical mysteries.

    My immediate ancestors had that suspicion of Catholicism ex-Catholics often have, and though tempted to rebel against it, I never did, or not completely, though even the smells and bells of high-church Reformed denominations remained suspect to my (oddly, half-Lutheran) parents. (I run the Smells & Bells group here at Ricochet, and you’re welcome to join! — though I also have reasons right now to be away from Ricochet for long stretches.)

    The American Right is so used to equating religion with family values I think we need more stories involving tension between family life and personal piety. (That is, after all, the reality that many who get serious about their faith must learn to live with.) They don’t all have to be hopeful stories, either, though I’m glad yours is!

     

     

     

    Nope (or not entirely); a mild cold that developed into almost pneumonia, finally having to start a prescription for migraines (which was for the better in the long term), and frequent inexplicable bloody noses. I definitely will! You’re certainly right, and its something I’ve become much more conscious of since immigrating from quite Catholic MA to England, which still has deep suspicions about Catholicism in some quarters. 

    • #14
  15. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer:

    “. . . what’s a Hayek, is he a gangster rapper?”

    Yes.

    That completely slipped my mind when I wrote it, but I do love the Keynes vs. Hayek rap battles. I have to do shadow boxing a couple times a week as part of Muay Thai practice, and 90% of the time I put on one of those to do it to. It looks as ridiculous as it sounds.

    • #15
  16. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):

    Well told bit of family conflict, and a happy ending.

    I am glad you are on break until the 18th: maybe we will have other stories you’d like to share?

    Thank you. I have had the luck of traveling a bit around Europe since the last time I posted, so I am going to try to gather my thoughts and write a bit more this and/or next week. 

    • #16
  17. Ray Kujawa Coolidge
    Ray Kujawa
    @RayKujawa

    From Norman Davies’ history of Poland, God’s Playground,

    In common with the nobility elsewhere in Europe, outward splendor contrasted with contempt for underwear. In 1620, the Queen of England, who made a close inspection of the Polish ambassador’s son, was surprised to find that under the suit of cloth-of-gold he was devoid of linen.

    • #17
  18. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito (View Comment):

    Despite being a Lutheran and generally opposed to papism, I’ve only ever met priests who were first class human beings. There might be a touch of selection bias; I know them mostly through a catholic sister-in-law, who really ought to be valued above rubies herself.

    Good to see you back.

    Thanks. I think a lot of his prejudice came from having almost no interactions with Catholic priests up until the time he met my mom, and then when she did talk about them at home, probably hearing as many complaints as compliments. He still considers being dragged to Catholic mass (twice a year) a form of torture, though, and can’t stand the constant up down. .

    • #18
  19. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Good stuff.

    I grew up in the First Church of the DNC and could have easily been converted at one point to Catholicism through a combination of Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) and John Paul II. Then the ascension of the German and South American Socialist made me glad it didn’t happen.

     

    Thanks. Ah, I admit to…dissatisfaction with the current leadership, although I was and am overwhelmingly fond of the former Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). There are quite a few very impressive cardinals still of papable age, though, so hopefully the next Pope will be more in line with those admirable examples. 

    • #19
  20. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Franco (View Comment):

    I grew up Catholic and my father grew up Catholic. My mother was devout, Dad was cynical to the extreme. “How was Mass, same show?” I can still remember him saying.
    In those days it was in Latin, and I just told my daughter ( around your age) how, as a six year-old kid I thought everyone in church was mumbling, so I also mumbled. Huminahuminahumina.

    Et cum Spiritu 2-2-0

    In retrospect, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what he was saying.

    Anyway, not so much a Catholic anymore, but just came back from a very Catholic wedding. Sat, stood and knelt through the mass/wedding sacrament. Hadn’t been for 40 some years. At the reception I learned the couple met through a Catholic dating service and almost everyone there was a devout Catholic. One couple at my table had 8 children, another ten.

    What’s the age range, I asked.

    18-34.

    Sounds like a demographic.

    She laughed.

    They were absolutely the nicest people. So I have to think there’s something to it despite my cynicism.

    Have you seen this film?

    My mom grew up with the same, and absolutely hates it (she’s a bigger complainer than my dad when it comes to visiting the monastery for a Latin service). I think those jokes might be universal among dads with Catholic kids who aren’t quite devout, because I’ve almost certainly heard some variant on it. I have! A close university friend and I have a movie night about twice a month, and that was one of the first we watched (she is Taiwanese, so it was very interesting to see her perspective on Eastwood’s characters relationship with his Hmong neighbors). 

    • #20
  21. Ray Kujawa Coolidge
    Ray Kujawa
    @RayKujawa

    Franco (View Comment):

    In those days it was in Latin, and I just told my daughter ( around your age) how, as a six year-old kid I thought everyone in church was mumbling, so I also mumbled. Huminahuminahumina.

    Et cum Spiritu 2-2-0

    As a former alter boy, I actually know what that means. But that’s pretty close to the extent of my latin.

    • #21
  22. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    and frequent inexplicable bloody noses.

    • #22
  23. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    KirkianWanderer: It’s a nice story, but not anything world-changing

    What do you mean?  This was a beautiful story!  You made my Catholic heart gush!

    And God bless your father.

    • #23
  24. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    My mom grew up with the same, and absolutely hates it (she’s a bigger complainer than my dad when it comes to visiting the monastery for a Latin service).

    I’m pretty devout and conservative Catholic, but I hate to say it but the Latin Mass leaves me cold.  I know some of my fellow Catholics in the Catholic Group here on Ricochet will argue with me on this, but Mass as originally intended was supposed to be in the vernacular.  

    • #24
  25. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Franco (View Comment):

    Have you seen this film?

    I loved it!  

    • #25
  26. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Manny (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    My mom grew up with the same, and absolutely hates it (she’s a bigger complainer than my dad when it comes to visiting the monastery for a Latin service).

    I’m pretty devout and conservative Catholic, but I hate to say it but the Latin Mass leaves me cold. I know some of my fellow Catholics in the Catholic Group here on Ricochet will argue with me on this, but Mass as originally intended was supposed to be in the vernacular.

    Which is what Latin once was.

    • #26
  27. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    My mom grew up with the same, and absolutely hates it (she’s a bigger complainer than my dad when it comes to visiting the monastery for a Latin service).

    I’m pretty devout and conservative Catholic, but I hate to say it but the Latin Mass leaves me cold. I know some of my fellow Catholics in the Catholic Group here on Ricochet will argue with me on this, but Mass as originally intended was supposed to be in the vernacular.

    Which is what Latin once was.

    Exactly!  And Greek and Aramaic.  

    • #27
  28. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    and frequent inexplicable bloody noses.

    Haha, I think you and my doctor have come to the same diagnosis. They seem (minus some disorientation and nausea), mostly harmless, but they are much more gruesome than the average bloody nose and have lead to some interesting situations. The first time I visited the UK, when I was looking at two potential universities, I was staying at a monastery guesthouse instead of in a normal hotel room, and it just so happened, for no particular reason, to have a sink that looked to have been installed in 1910. By the third day of my visit, I was pretty sure that I would escape bloody nose free, so of course I had a not too bad one on the bus ride that day and it started again the minute I walked into my room. The problem was that it did not abate for the next hour and 45 minutes, during which I desperately called everyone but my parents for ideas on how to make it stop. It wouldn’t, until there was so much dried blood that the flow was physically impeded, and I ended up staying up until 3 in the morning reading Longmire novels on my phone so that I wouldn’t accidentally choke to death in my sleep. When I awoke the next morning, I realized that my room looked like it had been rented by Jack the Ripper. I managed to make it presentable with a pilfered roll of toilet paper, the rusty sink water, and a lot of bio disinfectant bought from the Sainsbury’s down the street. 

    A few weeks after I came to England for university, I found a bookshop that was meant to specialize in old books and art books and was quite near (maybe a mile and a half) from where I lived. I was just crouching outside to look at the £1 books when the tell tale blood spatter appeared on the ground. The kindly shop assistant brought me some paper towels, but the owner, who was a bit older, seemed to be ignoring me altogether, I figured because he didn’t appreciate people bleeding in his shop, until he turned around and yelled “bloody f****** hell!” He offered me tea, an ice pack, and a “ride home in my van”, which I turned down because if he didn’t murder me, my parents would for taking a ride in a van with a strange man in a foreign city. I’m still “that girl who had the horrid bloody nose” there (as well as the one who spends too much on Tom Stoppard books). The constant mess really gives one a new appreciation for serial killers. 

    • #28
  29. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    A pickup band I was associated with used to play Christmas music for Mass on Christmas. Father Stosh used to minister to us godless Protestants and Jews. He’d pop in with a flask of Christmas cheer.

    “Stosh, what’s with the cognac?”

    “Always keep some on hand. For medicinal purposes. Snakebite.”

    “Snakebite, Father? In Northern Illinois? In December?”

    “Always be prepared, my son.”

    • #29
  30. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Percival (View Comment):

    A pickup band I was associated with used to play Christmas music for Mass on Christmas. Father Stosh used to minister to us godless Protestants and Jews. He’d pop in with a flask of Christmas cheer.

    “Stosh, what’s with the cognac?”

    “Always keep some on hand. For medicinal purposes. Snakebite.”

    “Snakebite, Father? In Northern Illinois? In December?”

    “Always be prepared, my son.”

    • #30
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