After finishing a pleasant dinner with a friend in a popular New York City restaurant, I made, as is my custom, the Sign of the Cross. My intention was to thank my Lord for such an enjoyable experience by explicitly addressing the Father Who made it possible, His beloved Son, Jesus by Whose terrible physical suffering I was given the opportunity for eternal happiness and the Holy Spirit, the Love between the Two Which gives me immediate contact with the Blessed Trinity. Since I have been following this practice for years to give a certain ambiance to my meals and which is so routine with me, I was startled when a waitress tapped me on the shoulder with an unexpected remark.
She told me how impressed she was with my public behavior which she considered “beautiful.” Perhaps she would not have been so impressed had I been clad in my usual clerical attire instead of the dirty old sweat shirt and the tattered old blue jeans I was wearing. After all priests are supposed to pray anywhere and always. But perhaps I am too old and jaded to realize how singular such behavior is—in modern America. Life has become so secular that a person quietly thanking God in public seems almost bizarre.
It looks like many people are desperately fearful lest someone tab them as “holy rollers” or weird. The contemporary appetite for social approval is apparently enormous and powerfully linked to the ignoble behavior called “people pleasing” which sucks out the essence of human freedom . What is it that makes us so fearful of letting the world know our moral or spiritual positions? How does one explain the discomfort of so many moderns with reasonable personal transparency relative to our spiritual lives? Is it the secular creed overshadowing our Country of keeping religion out of
the Public Square? Is the overblown and rigid dictum of Separation of Church and State so threatening that I become almost tongue tied when confronted with the possibility that someone might know that I pray with a belief in God? In the words of the King of Siam to Anna, the English teacher at his Court, “ it is a puzzlement.” A quick look at the religious inscriptions on monuments and public buildings in Washington D.C. gives immediate information about the views of the Founders of this Republic. Justice Douglas of the Supreme Court stated the basic: Our government presupposes a Supreme Being. There has been much distortion and poor scholarship in this area sometimes generated by the agenda of ideologues.
But while some observers might assess the point in the light of the political dimension of our society, it might be more accurate to look at the psychological signals. I remember being in a restaurant with a devout Catholic family making the Sign of the Cross, after which, holding hands, we said aloud the traditional Grace before meals. The looks we received from the nearby diners were—putting it mildly—“interesting.”
It may have been my own strong attrait to such behavior but I got the distinct impression of a kind of wistful envy. It was the buck-toothed, freckle faced kid from the farm chawing at a wisp of hay and saying “Golly gee” facing a worn out old sophisticate with too much makeup and baggy eyes from late nights of boozing, pills and forced fake gaiety. It was the clean, relaxed. winsome childlike innocence of Godliness before the driven, loud, frenetic running of the one who is “too mature” to believe in such infantile things but is still unfilled and unconsciously in panic.
Yes, it could have been envy but it could also be admiration of other human beings who can be confidently and reasonably transparent about their values. The psychological motivation of the public exposure of one’s values and beliefs can be another way of speaking about self esteem. But not necessarily. Years ago, it was very much “in” to broadcast how one is trying to find oneself. On the Tonight show with the star of the then night hosts, Johnny Carson, a young gushing actress was embarrassingly splattering the story of her search for herself. On the same guest panel was a quick witted comic named Jackie Leonard who suggested that someday she might find herself but she will be very disappointed. It would have been more accurate to describe her not as searching but as narcissistic. If this girl had been Catholic she would have better served by compassionate firm Spiritual Direction and a sincere humble Confession. Openness, in itself, is not necessarily self -esteem. It could be the opposite. Psychotics are notorious for spilling their unflattering past. Discerning the difference is the question. It is the “why” of human behavior which is important.
I, as a licensed psychologist of years standing, strongly support and recommend therapeutic intervention when necessary. Yet, the use of my secular profession as a vehicle of total self-absorption is unacceptable to me. Catharsis for its own sake is relatively hollow and counter-productive.
For Christians a startling remark of Jesus is pivotal and extremely relative. In effect, should we deny the Father Who is in Heaven, the same Father will deny us and should we acknowledge the Father before men, He will acknowledge us.
He tells us, again in effect, “Do not be afraid.” Be bold. Be proud of the Faith. What are we afraid of? What is the worst thing could happen to me if I am so open in public? Actually, nothing can happen to me in these United States of America where I am guaranteed the free expression of my Beliefs.
So, Christians go ahead and try it. Make the Sign of the Cross before you eat in your local restaurant. You’ll like it.