The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

January 12, 2016

Arrived in New Orleans – and already bucking for Sainthood

saint louis cathedral

This cathedral is named after a crusader king who became a saint. These days, there are multiple New Orleans Saints, and they wear helmets, too.

Dearly beloved, I am sleeping in a rented bed on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans while my husband and I wait for the delivery of our belongings into our house by the moving company.  The house we have rented has a narrow front porch, a faux fireplace with a white wrought iron grille. Our dog has already barked at the neighbor dogs and marked his territory in our shallow back yard with an oak tree and a brick patio. The neighbors are busy, multicultural and middle-class.  I see dogs but almost no children. From my front porch, I hear the bell of a church tower, a church named something like “Our Lady of Perpetual Virginity,” that chimes the hours during daylight, and I am charmed.

The neighborhood has many Catholic churches in it and a Catholic college as well.  As televangelist from nearby Destrehan, Jesse DuPlantis, often remarks, “Everyone in Louisiana has been Catholic at one time or another,” and one senses this to be so.  The rhythm of the neighborhood seems to comply with the traditional daily cycle of matins, compline and evensong.

I have no idea whether my neighbors confess sins to a priest (except a middle-aged Vietnamese-American man who lives around the corner with me who has repeatedly invited me and my husband to church with him and who seems baffled I have no children). But the city, like many Catholic communities, is socially permissive of public forms of decadence (which at least at one point were) absolved in small booths in towered buildings smelling of candle wax.  While Mississippi, for instance, a traditionally protestant state, taxes booze and controls its distribution as an unfortunate concession to a baser nature that religion ought to make one rise above, Louisiana has no such scruples. Louisiana allows the sale of liquor at grocery stores and gas stations.  Gambling happens at rest stops along Interstate 10 with no finger-wagging from the State Capitol or the swamps.

While in Mississippi a great deal of lip service is paid to the way one ought to act, to abstinence, and to fidelity, even the so-called family values gubernatorial candidate in the last election Louisiana held was caught in whore houses.  It’s not that people are less moral in Louisiana; that’s not true at all.  It’s that the State doesn’t see itself traditionally in quite the same role as the morality police that state governments do in surrounding areas. Except for my Irish ancestors and some others from that cold-water island, who hoped their children would have nothing to confess to the priest, Catholicism’s confessional is often a pressure valve for the explosive gases of human experience.  Internalized moral fiber is for Calvinists, not papists, who admit the virtuous among them are exceptional enough to deserve statues and annual processions. Louisiana is marvelous, but it makes no attempt to appear genuinely good.  The beads thrown at Mardi Gras are made of plastic, not gold, and the topless women who dive for them are not perpetual virgins.

I surmise this difference in local Southern cultures has deep Hurricane-Katrina-resistant roots in the Middle Ages. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher, observed that pre-modern societies dominated by the Catholic Church had rigid rules but used what he termed “the carnevalesque” as an inversion of the rigid social order at least a couple of times a year.  The discourse of the church of the Middle Ages could be self-flagellating, but certain works of art in churches depict lewd scenes.  The festival of Ash Wednesday, one where the recipient of ashes to mourn his or her own sinfulness hears, “you are dust, and to dust you will return,” as a call to penitence, is preceded by a hangover-inducing bacchanal the day before.  It’s not that the Church was ever sex-positive.  They to this day consider sex of all kinds, including within marriage, inherently sinful unless the sole desire of the participants is to produce legitimate offspring.  But the Catholic Church has been sex-acknowledging in that it concedes that people mess around on the DL and produced both rigid rules and periodic catharses to let off steam. Louisiana is anti-choice, often teaches abstinence-only sex education, and claims to hold conservative values about all sorts of social issues, but in New Orleans, drag queens have paraded around for at least a century and a half,  vaudou (voodoo) has cursed many for about four hundred years, the greatest genius ever born here – jazz inventor and legend Louis Armstrong – was born in a whorehouse, and the carnevalesque constitutes its greatest tourist attraction.  What happens on Bourbon Street does not stay on Bourbon Street, as one says about debauchery in secularized Vegas, but what happens on Bourbon Street has the potential to be forgiven a few blocks away at any of the churches in the French Quarter.  And to get absolved takes less resolve than a willingness to restitute and conform to ritual.  There is no altar call in the Catholic Church, a protestant tradition where penitence happens in the heart first and one gets saved.  There is an altar at the Catholic church, and one faces it and recites liturgy, stands, kneels, stands again, crosses one’s self, and one admits one was wrong but without a total life commitment for permanent change.  Penitence on the Rue Saint Charles doubtless consists of more regret than permanent resolve in most cases.

As I wait for my furniture to trek through the bayoux down here, I resolve not to give up my Irish primness such as I ever possessed it.  I intend to keep my shirt on no matter who offers to throw plastic beads my way next month. I intend to work out my own salvation in fear and trembling, as Paul admonishes us to do in one epistle, rather than to rely on others to make the sign of the cross in my direction.  It’s not in my own power to act right, of course, but it is my responsibility to seek out forgiveness from God and to avoid purchasing an excess of vodka at the local gas station, to avoid lewdness, even if the engraving in the cathedral shows a tree growing genitalia (yes, that really exists in one European medieval church).  I am going to try to do what God would have me do here, whatever that might look like.

For Protestants like me, the Saints are all those who make it to Heaven, not just those whose coffins smell like roses and where prayers offered for them to intercede are answered by miracles.  Goodness is a personal responsibility for all of us who answer altar calls, though none of us, not even saints with statues, manage to be perfectly good.  I would like to smell like a rose instead of a corpse, but I notice that on a hot day, all of New Orleans smells at once deliciously floral and rather putrefied at once.  I think perhaps this is why I feel so at home here already.

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