A Christ for the Checkout Line by Michael E. DeSanctis

Not long ago, I began writing a monthly column on spiritual and religious topics for a senior news tabloid distributed free of charge at supermarkets and other outlets in my area. I’d become aware of the publication while nearing retirement age myself and appreciated the information it offered readers who, as its masthead announced, were “boomers and beyond.” A typical edition contained tips on making a home more energy efficient, for example, or how to outwit phone scammers or maneuver the financial challenges of living on a fixed income. What I pitched the editors was the idea of a regular column called “Senior Spirituality” focused less on the practical issues facing older people than on maintenance of their souls. The suggestion proved immediately beneficial, and has led to monthly installments touching on everything from the spiritual benefits of sustained friendship to what researchers are now learning about the psychology of awe.

Having contributed for years to so-called “peer-reviewed” journals popular in academic circles, I welcomed the challenge of producing 1,500 words or so on deadline each month for an audience not only broader than the one to which I was accustomed but likely not in the habit of reflecting with much formality on the spiritual dimension of the human experience. A role model for me in this was the late Eugene Kennedy (1928–2015), emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago, whose connection with people beyond the confines of academe I’d long admired from a distance. Though Kennedy, a former Catholic priest, had penned some 50 scholarly books on matters both spiritual and psychological, he rarely passed up an opportunity to write for the general public in prose as immediately intelligible as a firm handshake. 

By a strange turn of events, I once met Kennedy in person at a public lecture delivered by Rev. Donald Cozzens (1939–2021), longtime rector and professor of pastoral theology at Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology, near Cleveland, Ohio. I’d carried to the event a copy of Cozzens’s just-published reflection on the state of the American Catholic clergy, The Changing Face of Priesthood, with the goal of having him sign it. Spying Kennedy in the audience before Cozzens took the stage, however, his towering profile and pumpkin-shaped head resembling those of the prophet Habakkuk as the Renaissance sculptor, Donatello, famously rendered in stone for the belfry of the Duomo in Florence, I rushed toward him, Cozzens book in hand, and asked if he’d grace its end page with his autograph. Kennedy, who, as it turned out, was familiar with my efforts nationally to promote Catholic liturgical-architectural reform, obliged on the spot with understandable amusement. “To Michael: Who’s battling like the archangel!” he wrote in a sprawling script that nearly filled the page, as if to exaggerate further the irony of the moment. Cozzens himself was amused at evening’s end to learn he’d been beaten to the book-signing punch by a fellow scholar with Catholic convictions who, like himself, traveled the lecture circuit in the role of public intellectual.

Decades later, the incident still strikes me as humorous, though I’ve been tempted to doubt whether a popular audience for such “men of letters,” as we once called figures of Kennedy’s or Cozzens’s stature, even exists any longer. Ours is an age enthralled by numbers, after all, and the promise of universal salvation by microchip. What’s the point of looking inward so as to grow in self-knowledge, wisdom, and holiness—as both Socratic and Judeo-Christian teaching in the West have prescribed for centuries—when what really matters are the lovely e-personas we’re now capable of maintaining for ourselves by way of social media?  

The Gen Z’ers and Alphas I served until recently as a professor of theology at a Catholic university, for example, were the latest to assure me that all flesh is destined for the grave. Not so our “digital selves,” which, in their minds, have a better chance at achieving real immortality. The art of serious introspection was as foreign to them as the demands of traditional piety. To their way of thinking, at least, the former offered no guarantee of a life more dazzling than the one they already enjoyed, the latter no assurance of an afterlife as religious people typically pictured it. Like their cost-conscious parents, most saw little reason to squander tuition dollars on classroom-style analysis of, say, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” or the Confessions of St. Augustine. Pop culture, the marketability of their diplomas, and an abiding trust in technology—all inherited from the wider culture—were the chief values to which they clung as tightly as their iPhones. Following their parents’ lead, frankly, most had already dispensed with “organized religion” of any kind, though as teens they’d spent endless hours enthusiastically pursuing the supposed pay-offs of organized sports. 

None of this is to suggest I didn’t routinely fall in love with whole sections of the young minds enrolled in my courses, a result, no doubt, of what psychologists call “transference.” I had a soft spot for the so-called “non-traditionals”—military veterans, second-careerists, middle-agers with a newfound interest in the humanities—who tried their best to blend into an undergraduate cohort much younger than themselves but who inevitably stood out as the hardest workers in their classes.

These days, my affections lean toward the thousands of anonymous non-trads within a tri-state area who’ve become loyal readers of my “Senior Spirituality” column. Our meeting place has no walls, our only text the one I cobble together for the editors by the 15th of each month. (I think of it as distance learning unplugged.) Most in my audience, indeed, are Baby Boomers born in the middle decades of the last century and schooled in a system built on a rounder view of what constitutes K–12 education than prevails nationally today. They can diagram a sentence but also draw a line between proficiency in the sciences and the value of knowing the Greek poets or a Shakespeare sonnet or two. As retirees, they’re not especially interested in tips on job placement or the benefits of online networking. The latter may result simply from their having lived the greater portion of their lives free of dependence on personal computers or similar electronic devices for connecting with others. They come by relationships naturally, through participation in social clubs and organizations, involvement in their churches, and all manner of volunteering. Even those for whom fear of Covid still poses a barrier to regular church-going could never be imagined as counting themselves among the “nones” who nowadays claim disaffiliation from religious bodies and practices of any kind. Most, from what their initial responses to my column reveal, have remained true to the religious upbringing of their childhood and truly look forward once a month to having a little newsprint theology made available to them at the checkout lines of their supermarkets or the outer lobbies of their PCPs.    

The “delivery system” for my writing, in fact, couldn’t be any lower-tech, which, for those readers in their 80s and 90s, especially, also means low-hassle. (The simplest trip to the pharmacy or liquor store today, they complain, involves a battery of data-gathering and identification procedures that wearies them.) Ink on paper, however, which has been used to disseminate theological ideas for ages, seems perfectly sufficient to their needs. Indeed, the Senior News isn’t even available online, which poses no problem to those readers accustomed to clipping coupons from its pages or attacking its various word-puzzles each month with nothing but a sharpened pencil. The newspaper is an object as much as it’s a conveyor of information. It’s something its readers literally carry home with them from their favorite distribution sites, like groceries or a carton of cigarettes. The part of me that still laments the loss of card catalogues in libraries or the way men used to remove their hats when entering restaurants enjoys hearing how readers regularly share my articles with others by tearing them directly from the page. There’s something wonderfully physical and sacramentalizing about the way in which they rescue my words from the realm of pure idea by making bookmarks of them to be revisited from time to time or by folding them into envelopes as gifts to be mailed to friends. 

What I appreciate most about my readers, however, is their openness to the wide range of topics I touch upon in my column. Recently, for example, I shared the stories of a pair grandmothers I know who’d lost young grandsons to freakish accidents and were left to struggle with the grief this caused them and their families, no less than the deepest doubts about God’s beneficence. On another occasion I addressed the nature of intercessory prayer as its commonly practice by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. When readers recognize me in public from the byline photo that accompanies my column, they’re quick to share their reactions to one or another of the articles I’ve penned or to offer ideas for future ones. These interactions have come to assume a predictable shape that begins with someone asking whether I am, in fact, “the guy who writes those articles.” The discussion that proceeds after acknowledging that I am has about it the polite give-and-take in which local politicians engage with their constituents.

The truth is that this tabloid theologizing of mine is unapologetically local, as far as meeting the needs of its audiences goes, but likewise celestial by necessity. It’s meant to appeal to readers who are literally my neighbors, though its reach extends to a population dispersed throughout northwestern New York State and northeastern Ohio, as well as northwestern Pennsylvania. One way or another, my writing ends up in homes situated along the vineyard-rich shoreline of Lake Erie between Buffalo and Cleveland, a location known less to detractors for grape-growing or the glory of its extended autumns, perhaps, than for its legacy of heavy manufacturing and severity of its winters.

If something like “Rust Belt spirituality” can be said to exist, my readers surely embody it. Lifelong residents, mostly, of a maritime region regularly subject to so-called “lake-effect” snowstorms made famous by the Weather Channel, they display little patience for nonsense or academic speculation of any kind that makes God less real to them than more. Consistent with their age demographic, a great many are widowed women. They live alone, careful not to call unnecessary attention to themselves in a world that feels increasingly foreign and threatening. The mass shootings and other bloody crimes carried nightly on TV leave them skittish even about visiting the kinds of sites where the publication carrying my column is dispensed. A simple trip to the grocery store or beauty salon, after all, is no longer something to do on a whim. Both take more vigilance than ever and offer no guarantee of the communal interaction with others one previously anticipated as a natural part of the experience.

What I most hope to offer my readers is a monthly handful of theological musings that take seriously God’s involvement in the lives of ordinary men and women. I’d be lying if I said that what I write isn’t influenced by the Catholicism to which I personally cling for religious guidance, with its rich collection of rites and images and record of God-centered intellectual achievement. If I’m going to stop readers at their favorite checkout lines half as well as the glam mags do—or the updates on Elvis and JFK—what I write will need to come across as pertinent to their lives and dressed in nothing fancier than the vernacular. (I hesitate ever to employ the word “perhaps,” for example, when “maybe” will do.)

In the end, it’s the “simple face of divine graciousness in ordinary life” of which Eugene Kennedy used to speak that I hope to present my readers, a Christ for the checkout line, and a glimpse through my admittedly subjective lens of God’s place in the affairs of this world and in the hoped-for splendor of the next. ♦

Michael E. DeSanctis, Ph.D. is retired professor of fine arts and theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He writes widely on Catholic church architecture and serves as a liturgical designer and consultant.

Image: Anders Nord / Unsplash

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