National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 19, 2003


Cocktail chatter

Being 'spiritual' is no replacement for religion


I am not good at cocktail chatter. Part of it is personality and part of it is what I do for a living. The third volley of cocktail chatter (after name and if you’re here with anyone) is invariably the “What do you do for a living?” question. So I tell them. “I’m a pastoral associate in a Catholic parish.” If there is a fourth volley, it is either something like, “I didn’t know Catholics had women priests!” and that leads in one direction, or “I used to be Catholic,” and that leads in another.

Recently, I was lobbed the “I used to be Catholic” line from a handsome young man at my husband’s office party. I was feeling relaxed because it had been a good day and I was drinking a nice glass of wine, so I asked, “What has taken its place?”

He reflected a minute and then said, “Well, nothing.”

He was a thoughtful young man, but having raised three sons who can hold their own in thoughtful conversations, I had the advantage.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “Paul Tillich said there is no such thing as an atheist; that we always make something or someone into our god.”

And this young man countered (too quickly), “I’m not an atheist, I’m just not religious.” And then he said it, the invariable American platitude that even Monica Lewinski resorted to when interviewed by, I think it was, Barbara Walters: “I’m not religious. I’m more (like) spiritual.”

(Give me strength.)

Well, the evening was young and the dinner hadn’t arrived yet and this young man seemed game, so instead of letting it drop, I continued. “Oh, I’m sure you are spiritual, but what takes the place of your religion? I mean (like) what do you do on Sunday mornings?”

“I sleep in, take my dog out for a walk to Kaldi’s [a coffee shop with really good coffee and an assortment of characters and expensive pastries], and sit and read The Times.

For a moment envy washed over me. Wouldn’t that be just the best? Drinking good coffee and reading The Times instead of the Sunday morning ritual of singing at Mass, directing the choir, listening to middle-aged men preach their version of the Gospel, and … don’t go there!

I guess these fleeting moments of envy are good for me. They help me remember how real people go to Mass on Sunday morning -- not paid ministers like me. I need to be reminded of what people give up to go to Mass; that sometimes it’s the only leisurely morning of their week.

I shook myself from my reverie and admitted that his routine sounded awfully nice, but persisted, “Who (whom is not a cocktail party word) do you pray to? What do you use as a guide when you make moral choices? If you ever have children, how would you teach them right from wrong? Are really good coffee and The Times enough to form the future generation, including the future generation of leaders? Are they enough if you get sick or someone you love is suffering or if you find out you’re dying? What gives you meaning and purpose in this life?”

Poor kid.

He said, “You know I’ve never thought about those questions before.”

We wandered from each other, but when dinner arrived and we sat down, I noticed that he manipulated a chair next to mine. My husband sat to my other side and was soon ensnared by a woman who had just had a “minor surgical procedure” for a rather intimate problem and who was not shy about the details. I abandoned him and allowed myself to be engaged by the young man. We didn’t get so serious again, but he did tell me a lot about himself and I liked him. And later that week, my husband asked, “What did the two of you talk about? He kept telling me how interesting you are.”

I smiled. I guess I can still capture the attention of handsome young men.

Paige Byrne Shortal appears this week in place of Jeannette Cooperman, who is on vacation. Shortal is the pastoral associate at St. Francis Borgia Parish in Washington, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 2003

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