from Guest Columnist
The Little Plausibility Structure in the Wildwood
We raced up Highway 71 to the top of Mount Gaylor, trying to make Sunday Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Ozarks. As we crunched into the graveled parking lot in front of the little stone church surrounded by trees, we noticed a few more cars than usual. Probably it was because of the visiting “Baby Priest.”
Fortunately for us, the “Baby Priest,” Father James Paul Melnick, apparently was also running a little late, driving up the mountain from the opposite direction like an old-time circuit rider, fresh from celebrating Mass in Van Buren. In a state less than 3% Catholic, hen’s teeth are a commonplace compared to priests. And, Catholics view newly minted, freshly ordained priests such as Fr. James virtually as wonderful marvels in themselves, practically akin to passenger pigeons, whooping cranes, Ivory-billed woodpeckers or roses blooming in the snow.
Just as in any family gathering, the elders of the tribe cluster around to cluck admiringly at a new arrival, so too do parishioners greet a newly ordained priest with barely disguised pleasure and interest. Farmers wearing jeans and short-sleeved cowboy shirts revealing fading tattoos on leathery arms crowd around with their wives, children piling on grandchildren, as the new priest’s dusty car pulls in and parks by the side of the Shrine.
Inside, parishioners crowd into old and worn, yet oddly comfortable, wooden pews to participate in the Mass. The brown wood paneling in the church contrasts beautifully with the brightly vivid blue-tinted sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows. During the service, amid the whirring of window fans, children grow restive and hungry babies squall as apologetic parents and grandparents struggle with them, just as at any family reunion. All the while, grizzled farmers sat with families, tall rawboned sons, a girl and her doll wearing matching dresses, all listening to the tall young man with the light brown hair dressed in his new vestments discussing Joshua’s declaration: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Yes, indeed.
The sociologist Peter Berger argued that the strength of any faith lies in its “plausibility structure,” or the way that members of a faith community embody the principles of their faith in their community and reinforce it through their interaction with each other. Or in other words, as Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another.”
After the Mass, Deacon Dan Dailey announced that zucchinis and tomatoes were free for the taking in the Parish Hall next door. As families and neighbors crowded around outside the church, one lady related us with evident satisfaction on the work she put into powerwashing the statues spaced around the church. (And, as Catholics would tell you, they do not worship statues any more than we worship pictures of our relatives that we keep in our wallets.)
Sometimes lost in the larger drama of politics, contradictory social mores, and controversies in the Twenty-first Century, we forget the modest, humble, everyday and less assuming small communities and families that form the barely visible iron framework for the sustaining of unshakeable religious commitment.
Steven Worden, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas.