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Adam Fisher: Songs in the key of Pope Francis



Wednesday, September 16, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — The pope’s arrival in the United States next Tuesday has revved up the Christian aspect of my 45-year interest in spiritual life. It has also put me in mind of a time when my half-sister snookered me into joining her church choir.

“But Reid,” I argued, “I’m not even a Christian.”

“That doesn’t matter,” she replied irrefutably. “Even non-Christians can sing. C’mon — it’s Christmas for heaven’s sake!”

I said I didn’t know the hymns, didn’t read music very well and my singing voice was far from sweet.

None of it worked. Reid had recently joined a small, struggling Episcopalian church in one of the well-heeled suburbs outside Boston. She wanted to support her church and I, as it turned out, was one of her means of lending a hand.

“Don’t worry,” she soothed. “No one will hear you anyway.”

In the end, the irony of singing songs I didn’t know in a faith I had my doubts about was enough to arouse a silly but sacred obligation of all adults — that of being a fool from time to time.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

When the appointed Sunday arrived, it turned out she had shaded the truth a bit. The entire choir, dressed in obligatory little white smocks, consisted of precisely three people. But by the time I found that out, it was too late to give her a piece of my mind. And if the audience did hear me, they were all polite enough not to mention it.

And I had a wonderful time, not least because I got a front-row seat as children from the congregation all brought their stuffed toys up to the altar to be blessed. The kids loved it because they loved their toys and I loved their loving their beloved friends. But I digress. The pope is coming.

On the one hand, Francis is the CEO of the world’s largest and richest corporation. With a worldwide constituency of something like 1.2 billion adherents, even non-Christians would be wise to take heed of this cultural and political behemoth.

The Vatican is a player with a capital “P.” Its holdings in American financial institutions alone leave even Donald Trump in the shade.

On the other hand, despite the fact that there is no good thing so good that it is incapable of cruelty and corruption, it is pleasing when someone in the human spotlight can encourage what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature.”

Put bluntly, I like to think I can do some good, even if I can’t do it very well. Francis has managed to build a persona that seems to rely less on a sense of whip-cracking obligation and more on an overarching decency and kindness.

And he smiles: Even a non-Christian can smile.

The pope is coming.

If my father were alive, he would be sharpening his intellectual carving knife. His father had been a Presbyterian minister who insisted that my father memorize great hunks of the Bible, sometimes by candle light.

As is often the case in such circumstances, my father fell away from the faith with a vengeance. He became an English professor at Smith College, teaching Shakespeare and falling deeply in love with James Joyce, a writer who might arguably have been called a pope of the English language.

Like other popes before him, Joyce soared to heights that left “the least among us” gasping for air and simultaneously inflamed devotees with a soaring fervor.

My father chose the religion of the intellect. Amen! But he was not about to let his biblical savvy go to waste. Every now and then, he would go out for a beer at Rahar’s, a bar that no longer exists here in Northampton, and engage in theological fisticuffs with some local cleric who was likewise sipping beer.

There they sat, mano a mano, religion vs. religion, each trying his best to live up to the exceptionalism that is part and parcel of any heartfelt faith, each trying to answer the nagging of any religious persuasion: “If I’m so smart, how come I’m not happy?”

The arguments may have varied dramatically, but the beer was equally good.

The pope is coming and I guess I am willing to be a little bit foolish. The exceptionalism of humanists, atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and whoever all else may strike me as suspect, but a song, a smile, a beer and a beloved stuffed animal can call me out.

Am I right? Probably not, but I am more willing nowadays to meet my sacred obligation and be a little bit foolish on behalf of a better angel, however poorly discerned or defined.

The pope is coming and his arrival calls up a poem I wrote long ago:

Sing loud in church

And be off-key!

Abandon sacred

Harmony.

Sing loud and in

That singing see

The untamed heart

That’s always free.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at genkakukigen@aol.com.