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Call Me Catholic!

God drives slow

by Michael McGirr

You can't call yourself a Catholic until you have tried to pray in your car. It's easier said than done. The last few years have seen our cars go though the kind of spiritual asset stripping which happened to the monasteries under Cromwell. Or was it King Henry? Objects of devotion have been swept aside in a new wave of Puritanism. In the interests or road safety, we are no longer allowed to have rosary beads dangling from our rear vision mirrors. If you ask me, the image of Jesus on the cross should have a sobering effect on anyone. Unlike a pair of fluffy dice or the cheap imported plastic toys you get with a McHappy meal, a crucifix slows you down.

The magnetic images we used to have of St Christopher have also gone from our dashboards. This is not just because dashboards are now made either of plastic or, if you go far enough into debt, the timber of some exotic tree bred especially for the purpose. Neither plastic nor timber are magnetic enough to sustain an automotive spirituality although I have seen an imported prestige car with a pair of rosary beads draped in the shape of a heart and stuck to the wood grain with blue tack. I commend the driver. Climate control, he advised me, ensured the blue tack never lost its grip. He also had covered his leather upholstery with car seat covers, one featuring Jesus and the other Mary. I'm not sure where he got them. They don't sell them at KMart auto.

But none of this helps St Christopher who, I understand, has been removed from the list of saints for no better reason other than that he did not exist. This is preposterous. If the same standard were applied across the board, then who would survive? I have enough trouble proving my own existence, especially to roadside service organisations who drive past my stranded vehicle four or five times on wet nights without noticing me.

Sure, you still see signs of the spiritual struggle on the outside of cars, normally put there by people who have resolved the great mystery of God into five words or less. On the way to Mass one weekend, my wife, Jenny, and I noticed bumper stickers everywhere about Jesus and the Bible and one strange one saying that if the car in front of us had no driver then that was because the driver had been taken by the rapture. As far as we could see, the driver was yet to be raptured unless she belonged to a sect where screaming at your kids is counted as a form of rapture. We also saw two of those unfriendly stickers which have a shark eating the little Christian fish. By the time we got to church, we felt like we needed a break from religion. Lucky for us, there are no religious stickers in the carpark of our church. Our congregation is happy just to witness to Joe's Plumbing or Mario's Pizzas or to the fact that you are driving too close and should back off. These are the kind of people whose prayers you can trust. People who know that when God puts up road signs they are often quite small. It's easy to miss them.

It is a mistake, however, to judge a driver by their stickers. A friend of mine once bought a car with a 'honk if you love Jesus' sticker on the back, thinking that a Christian would be honest and the car would be safe. The Christian was indeed honest but the car was not safe. Within three months, my friend had had three minor accidents after being honked in heavy traffic. She got rid of the car, selling it to a nephew who solved the problem with a texta by turning 'honk' into 'bonk'. At least now, he explained, other people would be having the prangs.

Car stickers are part of the outside of the car. Jesus told us to worry about the inside. Not so long ago, people carried little bottles of holy water in the glove box. Or they had religious pictures on their key rings. Or they said a prayer before they took off, especially on a long trip. This last custom fell victim to the development of the fast food drive through. People were no longer sure if they should be saying a Hail Mary to Our Lady of the Way or grace before meals.

The last hope is the stereo. A person we know listens to the New Testament on CD. One time, he was driving along and the Parable of the Good Samaritan came on. As luck would have it, at that very moment he noticed a man changing a tyre on the side of the road. Inspired by the story, he redoubled his steps and went back to help. But by the time he returned, Luke's Gospel had moved on to the next section which is the one about Martha and Mary. This is where Jesus says we should be doing less rather than more. So our friend sat serenely in his car for a few minutes and watched the stranger battle to get his own spare tyre out of the boot.

Sometimes, the radio is an aid to the spirit. I will never forget driving home after the birth of our little boy to do a load of washing and Jenny was still in hospital. Coincidentally, the Hallelujah from Mozart's Great Mass came on the radio. It was one of the richest liturgical moments of my life. Not long ago, we were driving home to the country at dusk listening to a man, a former Marist brother, who was suffering from Motor Neurone Disease. He spoke about the book of Job and how Job's friends try to convince him that he must have done something wrong to deserve his misfortune. They were trying to undermine his self confidence. Job's discovery for himself of a real God, an intimate God, goes hand in hand with his rediscovery of self-worth. The moment stayed with us.

But sometimes the best thing you can do for the spirit is to leave the radio off. This is not always easy either. One Lent, I decided to make a little more time for prayer by not putting the radio on in the car. I lasted three days. I'm a bit better now. I count as one of my blessings that I live in a place where, travelling 50km to the bank, there is a patch of about ten minutes where we can't get radio reception in the car. I have come to enjoy that time. Sometimes it is better to listen to yourself than to yet another bulletin of stale news. It's better still to hear from God.

Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1: The Catholic Fold
  • Issue 3: The Fridge Door
  • Issue 5: A Call to the Faithful
  • Issue 7: Liturgy of the Story
  • Issue 9: God goes swimming in Winter

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