Not so long ago, Weekend America aired a story on National Public Radio about a fairly new community known as the Church of Brunch. Flannery O'Connor would have appreciated it. In typical NPR fashion, the piece immediately drew me in, as the narrator began telling the story of a congregation of believers and atheists that leaves religion, deities, and dogma at the door and gather for a non-god-centered Sunday ceremony.
Services begin an hour before noon as the community joins in song in order to stir fire into the hearts of the non-faithful. Any song will do so long as it is inspirational, nonreligious, and has the potential to invoke full, conscious, and active participation on the part of the assembly.
On the day NPR was visiting, Cat Stevens' classic hit from Harold and Maude, "Sing Out," was being playfully strummed on a single guitar while what sounded like a dozen or so voices filled the air with a spirit that found itself somewhere between a campfire sing-a-long and a Steubenville Youth Conference.
Since this is an entirely nonreligious gathering, the Torah, the Qur'an, and the Bible are deemed offensive, but there is always a place for inspirational and thought-provoking readings. Whether from Shakespeare, Kerouac, or Sexton, any and all can touch the human heart in some way and remind hearers that they are alive and that something has happened, something is happening, or something will probably happen in the future. And if anyone in the assembly feels called to offer some reflections on the reading, such contributions are most welcome and appreciated.
Quiet contemplation comes next. After hearing the word and allowing it to be broken open within the community, silence is needed to allow the word to penetrate the hearts of the non-faithful. Of course, as with any Sunday service, silence is easy for some and difficult for others, but, in the end, the community is better off after three or four minutes of quiet.
Finally, the community is just about ready to approach the table of fellowshipbut not until they first raise their heads and join together in a Johnny Cash number. Seeing that his most recent albums have been coated in religious imagery and metaphor, reaching back into the vault and flat-picking a hearty version of "Folsom Prison Blue" is deemed more appropriate. After the song, there is the traditional sign of peace, and then it's time to break bread.
There's nothing like singing "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," sharing a sign of peace, and then sitting down to a vegan potluck with your brothers and sisters in Brunch.
In 1952, Flannery O'Connor wrote her first novel, Wise Blood, and presented to the literary world the haunting character of Hazel Motes. Repelled by the blind street preacher, Asa Hawkes, and his Free Church of Christ, Motes decides to start up h is own congregation: The Church of Christ Without Christ.
In his first preaching attempt, Hazel Motes does not make a call for repentance or conversion but rather asks his small congregation to remove their blinders and see Jesus for the sham that he is. Motes pontificates: "I want to tell you people something. Maybe you think you're not clean because you don't believe. Well, you are clean, let me tell you that. Every one of you people are clean and let me tell you why if you think it's because of Jesus Christ Crucified you're wrong. I don't say he wasn't crucified but I say it wasn't for you. Listenhere, I'm a preacher myself and I preach the truth."
After listening to the piece about the Church of Brunch on NPR, I couldn't help but think of Hazel Motes and his Church of Christ Without Christ. I couldn't help but think of congregants leaving their dogma at the door in light of Flannery O'Connor's insight: "For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not restriction." I couldn't help but think that something was terribly wrong here, even if on the surface all seemed well.
O'Connor employed strikingly violent and grotesque characters in her fiction because she felt that it was only through exaggeration of her characters' sinfulness that her readers' eyes would be open to the truth of humanity's desperate need for redemption and salvation. For O'Connor, at the end of the day, there were only two options for the way life was to be lived: for God and for ourselves.
The Rev. Damian J. Ference is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland. He is an associate pastor at Saint Mary Church in Hudson, Ohio, and teaches ethics at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.
Interested in human dignity? The Ralph McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies is sponsoring a three-day conference, "The Philosophical Foundations of Human Dignity," March 810, 2007, in Washington, D.C. Speakers include Robert P. George (Princeton University) and Patrick Lee (Franciscan University), Jeremy Waldron (New York University Law School), William Hurlburt (Stanford University), Michael Pakaluk (Clark University), Fulvio Di Blasi (Centro Ricerche Tommaso D'Aquino), and John Tomasi (Brown University). The conference is free and open to the public but requires advanced registration to reserve a seat. While you're there, consider joining them for dinner on Friday, March 9, 2007, as the McInerny Center will host the Second Annual McInerny Banquet. The keynote speaker is Robert P. George: "Natural Law in America Today." For more information, visit Thomas International.