Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Waugh on Ash Wednesday in New Orleans

There is witchcraft in New Orleans! Evidently British author Evelyn Waugh noted some observations in his characteristic wit while on a tour of the United States.  His thoughts were published in the September 19th, 1949 issue of LIFE magazine. Before giving his observations of New Orleans, Waugh spends some time analyzing something quintessential to the history of New Orleans and Southern Louisiana: Catholicism. He notes some trends he found troublesome. I wonder what he would think today. Take a look:
Only three states can be said to have a strong, continuous Catholic tradition -- Louisiana, Maryland and New Mexico. In the first of these the Church has never known persecution or even discouragement and over a length of time that is not an entirely healthy condition. Catholics need to be reminded every few generations that theirs is a challenging creed. In no European country have the faithful been subject to so enervating a toleration as have the inhabitants of New Orleans. It is therefore not surprising that they take their faith easily and sentimentally, with some skepticism among the rich and some superstition among the poor, of the kind that was found in France before the Revolution. It is one of the Devil's devices to persuade people that their religion is so much "in their bones" that they do not have to bother; that it is rather poor taste to talk too much about it...
He then spends some time describing his experience in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday:
There is witchcraft in New Orleans, as there was at the court of Mme. de Montespan. Yet it was there that I saw one of the most moving sights of my tour. Ash Wednesday; warm rain falling in streets unsightly with the draggled survivals of carnival. The Roosevelt Hotel overflowing with crapulous tourists planning their return journeys. How many of them knew anything about Lent? But across the way the Jesuit Church was teeming with life all day long; a continuous, dense crowd of all colors and conditions moving up to the altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash. And the old grim message was being repeated over each penitent: ‘Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.’ One grows parched for that straight style of speech in the desert of modern euphemisms...
The Catholic ethos is sewn into the complicated fabric of Southern Louisiana. It is tangible and very difficult to ignore. It's actually one of the things I love about the region. However, Waugh is right to be concerned about a trivialization of the faith that can take hold once people grow complacent. Interesting. (Oh, and vocab. word for the day: crapulous)

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