On the Amice and Ghosts


Perhaps you are not familiar with the liturgical clothing item called an amice.  If not, here is a definition, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The amice consists of a white cloth connected to two long ribbon-like attachments, by which it is fastened around the shoulders of the priest. Before the liturgical reforms of 1972, its use was mandatory for all Roman Catholic Masses, but it is only required today if the alb does not cover the priest's ordinary clothing. Many priests choose to wear the amice for reasons of tradition or to prevent damage to their other vestments due to perspiration.

For the more visually inclined, here is an example:

I have never seen a Catholic priest wear an amice.  I had assumed that it was basically a completely archaic item, joining such exotica as the fiddleback chausable.

Why am I bringing this up?  Two Sundays ago, the rector at the Episcopal Church I attend began a sermon series on the liturgical vestments and their meaning.  As part of that, he showed off the amice, how it is worn, and even the rather old-fashioned vesting prayers associated with the garment.

Surely, no one else in the audience batted an eye at this presentation.  But I was stunned.  Who wears an amice these days?  Why is he wearing an amice?  What does it mean that he wears an amice?  Doesn't he know that it is no longer used?

I had a very strange bit of panic from the presentation, a panic that seemed (even at the time) completely out of proportion to the significance of the events.  Who cares whether a priest wears or doesn't wear an amice?  Clearly, the answer was "me."  But why was that?


The past is never dead.  It's not even past.

That quote is from a less well-known novel of William Faulkner entitled Requiem for a Nun.  I had two unbelievably good English teachers for my junior and senior years of high school.  Junior year British literature was Frank Smyth, still the greatest teacher I have ever had.  But senior year was "Wild Bill" MacGruder, who was almost as good.  MacGruder was something out of a Faulkner novel himself--brilliant, joyful, deeply Southern, more than a little crazy, almost surely a closeted gay man.

Wild Bill introduced me, and our class, to Faulkner, in the form of As I Lay Dying.  Wild Bill loved the absurdity and the darkness of Faulkner--if you have never read As I Lay Dying, it is like a Cohen Brothers' movie channeled through David Lynch.  I really liked it, and I have come back periodically to Faulkner at various points over the last twenty years or so.

Faulkner's books are all, in a sense, about ghosts.  Again and again, the characters in Faulkner's stories are reacting to things that aren't really there.  Usually, those things take the form of things from the past.  The American South, which is the primary setting for Faulkner's works, is obsessed with the past--more specifically its past.  Faulkner, it seems to me, is trying to tell us that in being obsessed with the past, we give the past power to control our present.  We make those ghosts real by imbuing them with power

The quote from Requiem for a Nun, at least from my point of view, is a caution.  Faulkner may take the position that you can never get away from the past, but I am not sure I can sign on to such an absolute position.  But, at a minimum, it is very difficult to get away from the ghosts of the past.  You have to affirmatively work to ensure that you are not chasing these spirits that aren't there.  It may be the case that you will never fully escape the past, but you can try, and you must try if you want to create any kind of separation from those ghosts.


I had a conversation this Sunday with a deacon who spent five or six years as a Franciscan friar back in the early 80s.  One of the things we talked about is how long it can take to parse the experience that you had during your time "inside."  There are things that I experienced that took me years to put into words and put into a context that is remotely intelligible.  You have pieces of insight, and those pieces cause you to react emotionally in ways that don't fully make sense in the moment, but it takes time and reflection to stitch it together into something you can explain to someone else.  

Without being able to put the pieces together, I left the Dominicans convinced that the Roman Catholic Church was like a character in a Faulkner novel.  To be a Catholic, and especially to be a Catholic priest, is to live amidst the ghosts of the past.  The past hangs there, omnipresent, informing absolutely everything that goes on.  Vatican II, I think, was about trying to find some space from the omnipresent ghosts, trying to find some clear space in the center of the fog created by the ghosts for the present to exist and breathe free.

It was also clear that there was a segment of people--and not all of them old--who wanted to stop fighting the ghosts.  Like so many of Faulkner's characters, they thought that the ghosts were simply real in-and-of-themselves.  And not only real, but powerful and good.  We have abandoned the spirits of our ancestors, they would say, and those spirits are angry at us.  Only by bringing back the old ways, by making the proper and time-honored offerings, will we restore right harmony and make those ghosts serve us as opposed to subverting us.

So, some felt trapped by the ghosts and believed they would never be free of their power, and others wanted to lean in more aggressively into the world of ghosts.  They were Faulkner characters in a Faulkner world of a Faulkner novel.  While I would not have been even close to be able to articulate this in 2003, I left the Dominicans because I didn't want to become a Faulkner character, and I didn't want to live in a Faulkner novel.  I didn't want to be trapped by these ghosts.

And so, I set off into the world of normal, secular life.  I still loved the Church, but I saw it (especially as Pope Benedict XVI took over) increasingly abandoning the fight against the ghosts, the fight to give the present some space to breathe.  I settled into a kind of defensive crouch, hoping that I could ride the storm and fend off the rising tide of the ghosts.  Pope Francis seemed to be a sign that perhaps the tide of the ghosts was receding, though unevenly and not quickly enough.


But, see, here's the problem.  Fighting against the ghosts is just another way to give them power.  Digging in and drawing lines in the sand to keep them out--all of that begins with acknowledging their power.  And, once you have done that, in a sense you have already lost.  The ghosts have power because you believe them to be real, you believe them to be able to impact in a real way the world you live in, and no one is more convinced of the truth of these things than the person trying desperately to keep them out.  You become hyper-vigilant around signs of their presence, always on the look-out for some esoteric sign that they are haunting your home.  Things, even ordinary or irrelevant things, become pregnant with dread significance, to the point where their simple presence is enough to send you into a tail-spin.

Things like, for example, an amice.

It is important to no one whether or not any clergy-person wears an amice.  Not really.  It only becomes important if you believe either (1) the amice symbolizes the tried and true ways of a bygone time that you are desperate to return to, or (2) the amice symbolizes the tried and true ways of a bygone time that you are desperately afraid you will be pulled back into.  The amice is a symbol of the power that has been given to ghosts.

It is a symbol of the power I had given to these ghosts.


In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm. They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!” And a report about him began to reach every place in the region.  Luke 4: 33-37.

It's interesting, isn't it, that the unclean spirits want some sort of big, dramatic confrontation with Jesus, sort of like what you see in the movie The Exorcist.  You can almost imagine them gearing up for some sort of challenge, full of green pea soup and head rotations and all of the rest of the high drama.  Jesus, on the other hand, has no time for this--he tells them to shut up and go away, and then they shut up and go away.

I wonder if Jesus is trying to help us see what to do about our pervasive ghost problem.  Don't create elaborate earthworks in the hopes of preventing them from spilling over.  Don't wring your hands and just accept that your present will be dominated by your past.  And for sure don't lean into them and hope that their powers will save you.  No, the solution to the problem is to tell them to be quiet and go away.  Ghosts only have power if you give them power.  If you send them away, they will go away.

I have a long way to go to send away all of the ghosts.  I think everyone does--that's why Faulkner still resonates.  The ghosts pop up, sometimes where you least expect it.  


Birgitta SM said…
I have a friend who wears an amice for the perspiration reasons. :-)

Great post.

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