Waiting for the Apocalypse
A Memoir of Faith and Family
W.W. Norton: 330 pp., $23.95
Waves of change rippled through the Catholic Church in the 1960s and 1970s, the earthquake of Vatican II followed by aftershocks. Priests jettisoned Latin to say Mass in the language the people spoke. Some sisters in habits were suddenly plainclothes nuns. Congregants no longer had to kneel, open-mouthed, at the altar rail for Communion; they could stand instead, their hands out to receive the body of Christ. And the confessional, that darkened booth so beloved of moviemakers? It was edged out. Sinners were invited to divulge their transgressions to the priest in a significantly more mortifying, if less formal, fashion: face-to-face.
Not all of the liberalizing innovations were welcomed unreservedly, nor were they adopted wholesale in every parish. Some changes failed to take hold; recent news reports, for example, note the return of indulgences, which are like spiritual vouchers promising time off during your stay in purgatory. Largely, however, the new ways were accepted by mainstream Catholics. It was only a tiny minority who saw the abandonment of the old order as a betrayal of the true church. To them, each shifting of dogmatic ground brought iniquity.
Veronica Chater's remembrance of her highly irregular childhood, "Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family," provides a captivating portrait of one such disaffected traditionalist: her father, Lyle Arnold Jr., a California Highway Patrol officer. Living in San Jose with his wife, Marty, and their six kids, he is growing desperate.
It is 1972, and Lyle is convinced that Pope Paul VI invalidated the Mass with the Vatican II reforms. Lyle has searched the Bay Area for a parish where his family can worship the traditional way, but even the holdouts have gone progressive, as has American culture. He perceives threats everywhere, whether they come from "the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury" or communism, which he is certain will overrun the world.
There is just one place that he is sure will be protected from the communists: Portugal, where, some believe, the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in 1917 and prophesied an apocalypse called the Great Chastisement. In Portugal, he reasons, people will be safe from the Chastisement -- and there, surely, he will find the Mass he has always known. The fact that the country is a dictatorship is, in his opinion, a point in its favor.
So Lyle, not bothering to undertake more than basic research, does what almost no one would do: He quits his job, sells his family's home, gives their dog away and moves everyone to Portugal, doing it all so abruptly that not only has he not lined up a job or a place to live, but he's bought plane tickets that take the eight of them, toddlers included, no farther than England. Chater's obedient mother does not stop him.
That heedless uprooting marks the start of the Arnolds' breathtakingly steep slide down the socioeconomic ladder -- a slide that continues long after their disastrous Portuguese sojourn. Back in California, the family is bereft of middle-class comforts, as if they'd fled a burning house in the middle of the night. Lyle grows ever more disenchanted with the Catholic Church; he declines rejoining the CHP, instead running a "counter-revolutionary think tank" -- the revolution in question referring to changes in the church. As he stockpiles supplies for the Chastisement, he pulls his family deep into a traditionalist counterculture that lacks the stability and community of a conventional church. Also, the altar boys are armed.
Possibly the most remarkable thing about "Waiting for the Apocalypse" -- whose author spent an isolated adolescence garbed in prim dresses, forbidden to listen to rock 'n' roll and barely getting an education at her traditionalist school -- is that it is emphatically not a revenge memoir. It is no spoiler to reveal that Chater, now living in Berkeley, is no longer a Catholic. But she manages to locate in herself an extraordinary -- and, for the purposes of storytelling, crucial -- well of empathy for the dad she obviously loves, who is still alive, and for the rosary-clutching mom, no longer alive, whom she loves perhaps even more.
As Chater paints him, her father may be a ranting domestic tyrant, but he's also intellectually curious, a reader and a writer; he sings silly songs, does the chicken dance when he's feeling jubilant and means no harm to any of them. Her mother, in Chater's depiction, is no pushover, her deference to Lyle notwithstanding. Other children might condemn a mother for failing to protect them from the damage a father inflicts, but Chater never does. Marty is old-school Catholic, and submitting to her husband's will is part of the deal.
"Waiting for the Apocalypse" is uneven in tone, and some lovely writing is interrupted by stretches of banality. Particularly in the book's first half, vagueness and repetition often substitute for detail in a way that feels padded or evasive. Chronology is persistently blurred; we seldom know what year it is. At times, Chater, who had her family's help in reconstructing some memories, leans too hard on research, creating dense monologues that read more like transcripts than narrative truth.
And yet those weaknesses are trumped by Chater's uncommon compassion for her parents and by the story she has to tell, its very bizarreness imbuing it with allure. Our culture spends a lot of time talking about religious zealots, but most of us don't call them Dad.
Collins-Hughes is a writer and editor in New York City.