Sunday, June 07, 2015

Joseph Laycock: The Seer of Bayside

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This is the kind of book that I love and know that most people have no interest in reading. I kept checking to see if they had it at the Oakland Public Library with no success- not just not at not at my tiny adorable branch but not in the whole system. But recently I got a Berkeley library card because I work around the corner and the very first trip I made there there it was- prominently featured in the "New Books" section! I feel like this is a perfect example of "it's the little things." (You were expecting me to say how amazing libraries are, right? No.)

The eponymous Seer at Bayside was a Catholic lady in Bayside, Queens, who had visions, primarily discussions with Mary. Her local church didn't like this, partially because Bayside was a suburb with notions of propriety and the spirituality of the seer just didn't fit. She wanted to worship in her parish church, they said no. She wanted to worship outside, at the statue of Mary and at first that worked out okay, but as her popularity grew and people started to show up to see her visions, the neighbors got annoyed and a war started between the religious and the neighbors. Eventually the Baysiders, as they're known, moved out to Flushing Meadows where they still worship.

The Baysiders are traditionalists. Luekens, the seer, was distraught over the post-Vatican II changes. She didn't like mass being said in the vernacular and she couldn't believe that the Eucharist was being served in the hand instead of the mouth. Her visions from Mary and others helped traditionalist Catholics come together around these beliefs. What Joseph Laycock does is use this community as an example of how religions are "continuously imagined and reimagined." The official Catholic church isn't the only doing the imagining and reimagining through events like Vatican II or the sudden changing of tradition of having Popes resign while they're still alive- individual lay Catholics are also involved in changing the religion (and of course Catholicism is just one example). He writes "while the imagined boundaries of Catholicism frequently seem natural and undisputed, historical circumstances can call them into question." The Baysiders changed the local (and international) version of Catholicism and the official Catholic church changed what it meant to be a Baysider- where they worshiped, their hierarchy, etc.

Laycock also posits that the "Baysiders do not represent a deviant sect or a localized variation of Catholicism, but rather an ongoing and asymmetrical debate about what Catholicism is." Luekens didn't want to leave her church and the church never formally disavowed her or her followers. It is fascinating to think about what one can easily call a "sect" as part of Catholicism. Laycock does a great job of this- in his words- "render[ing] the strange familiar and the familiar strange." Luekens believed in an impostor pope who had taken over Paul VI- how else could he have thought up such crazy things as Vatican II? But the Baysiders don't seem so wacky in this book. The strange lights that they see in polaroid pictures don't seem like chemical aberrations but possibly real visions, or at least credible enough to be believed by true believers. If you like anthropology or sociology or religion books, this is really a great one.