It was his ambition to be an oriental philosopher; but he was always a very Yankee sort of oriental. Even in the peculiar attitude in which he stood to money, his system of personal economics, as we may call it, he displayed a vast amount of truly down-East calculation, and he adopted poverty like a piece of business.
—R.L. Stevenson, of Thoreau
We had been talking about E.F. Schumacher, the author of Small Is Beautiful. “You’ll be interested to know he is a convert.” Pause. I didn’t get it. “Convert from what to what?” I asked. “He’s a Catholic.” Then I got it. He was talking in code, and did not know that particular code is no longer in use.
Perhaps I should have caught on. We had, after all, been talking about our Jesuit seminary days, back in the Fifties. We had remembered prayers “for the conversion of Russia,” said after every Mass. Conversion meant one thing then—acceptance of the one Church. But I had just come from a series of meetings where conversion was a hot topic, and the conversions involved were those of Jimmy Carter and Charles Colson. Besides, the people I go to Mass with do not use “convert” in the way Jerry Brown still does. It takes a dropout from the Church to talk in outmoded ways without knowing it.
He knows, to be sure, that much of what he liked in the old Church is gone. “Not eating meat on Friday was like Jews wearing the yarmulka—it gave one a sense of tradition. All the binding symbols are disappearing. Even the Trappists—I used to go to their monastery, but now they can talk, and eat any time of the day, and even watch television.” So Brown prefers to “hide out” at Richard Baker’s Zen center, where the life is more selfconsciously disciplined, structured, drilled. Some think Brown is interested in the East because of a taste for mysticism. They forget that the political leaders who most intrigue him are Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh. It is the ability to organize a people to puritanical effort and standards that he admires. He reduces Eastern mystery to seminary slogans: Age quod agis—the least mystical of Western spiritualities.
Brown rarely goes to Mass any more—though some friends have urged him to “hit the communion rail” as a way of retaining ethnic support. He had the Sufi Choir perform at his gubernatorial prayer breakfast. Last Easter, he tried to find a Latin Mass he could attend, but the only group offering one was schismatic—right-wing diehards separated from Church authority. It was too risky politically, even for a dabbler in Sufi liturgies.
Brown seems to remember with fondness only the hard things of religion, the external discipline. His preferred rite would be all Ash Wednesday, with no Easter. There are men with a positive taste for selfdenial. Thoreau was one. Emerson said he found Thoreau always …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.