by Jamie Iredell
Civil Coping Mechanisms Press
“Who is this compassionate Roman? Would he buy me a beer? Will you emulate him, this man who helps a man to die?” asks Jamie Iredell in his new book, Last Mass, a questioning, highly personal story of the Catholic Church, of the founding of California, Iredell’s own upbringing in Catholicism and everything between.
History is complicated and our memories subjective. Winners write history books and losers are forgotten. What we remember is not what we should remember, but only what we can glean. Turner and Hooch are Jesus are Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. California is a beautiful land where childhood happens in constant sunshine. California was stolen and its owners slaughtered and raped and forcibly converted.
If it seems confusing, it’s because it is confusing and challenging, much as when we sit down and truly try to map out who we are within. Does anyone really know what their values are? How much of what we know is ingrained in us by our families? By the Church? By hundreds of years of indoctrination? How about from deep within? There is no transition from the early days of California Catholicism to modern-day Iredell writing Last Mass; like our own minds, the book veers from one subject to another in the midst of the page, when the connections are drawn, even if unclear.
Iredell explores Catholicism in all of its inelegance and beauty in this elegiac tale. He writes of Saint Junípero Serra, the Franciscan priest who established the Californian missions and wore a tunic lined with sharp edges so as to be eternally castigated for his sins. Iredell writes of his own upbringing in the valleys and sundrenched streets of California, of Boy Scout troops and gang members and just-missed sexual abuse. He meta-writes of his own writing of Last Mass, where he drinks his weight in alcohol on a retreat in order to determine what his faith means to him. He writes of Jesus and of Tom Hanks. He writes of the connections between everything.
Most of us have the cognitive dissonance between what we are taught and what we know to be true. We know that our country and our faiths are at least in part, founded and predicated upon subjugation and murder. While we recognize this, we tend to brush it to the side and focus on the good within instead: on charity and welcoming and opportunity. Last Mass seeks to reconcile the two within Iredell’s own brain; is Last Mass Iredell’s last mass of Catholicism?
We have this cognitive dissonance within ourselves as well. We know who w really are underneath, but we force the animal instincts, the pettiness and jealousy, the uncertainty and negativity, below and convince ourselves that we are better than we are. The organizations in the world convince us of our own civility, even as they violate their own rules. Beside an account of the saintliness of Father Serra in California is a depiction of the brutal rape of the indigenous women; beside stories of brutality in the past, are hypocritical accounts of blasphemy and filth in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Is Matthew Broderick’s use of “bullshit” worse than the history of America? Than the history of the Catholic Church?
Nothing is a non-sequitor where faith is involved.
Last Mass is neither an easy nor a particularly pleasant read. It is discordant and upsetting, morose and maudlin, confusing and perplexing. It is also rewarding and intelligent and deeply, deeply focused on the root of faith, the fault line between questions and lack of answers and the personal choice we all make at one time or another: whether to believe or to move on. Jamie Iredell successfully bridged the chasm of the utterly individual and the entirely generalizable. Just because his story is his and his alone does not preclude the rest of us from drawing our own conclusions. His journey might be his, but we all start out at the same place.