Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family
by Veronica Chater
Reviewed by Alfred J. Garrotto
At the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholic husband and father Lyle Arnold feels abandoned by his Church. For him, it no longer exists, except among the few champions of orthodoxy like himself scattered across the globe. Veronica Chater’s memoir, Waiting for the Apocalypse, details with raw and sometimes bleeding honesty the life of a young girl trapped within a family ruled by religious rage and paranoia.
While Lyle is the perfect storm at the center Apocalypse, he is not its heart. That role belongs to Veronica “Ronnie” Chater, who relates this saga from ages 10 to 18. Ronnie’s pull-no-punches observations about the emotional chaos in her home ring true in every regard. She echoes in real-life experience the young female voices in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The Kingsolver women tell of a sojourn into the heart of spiritual darkness with their Lyle Arnold-like missionary father. Unlike Kingsolver’s characters, Ronnie’s experience is not buffered by fiction. It is her story as she and her (ultimately) eleven siblings suffered it. She begins with a child’s-eye version of the Arnolds’ nemesis, Vatican II and its liturgical reforms (embodied in the despised Novus Ordo):
"Nobody died, or broke the law, or went to jail, but ten years ago, in 1962 (the year I was born), a meeting was called and it lasted three years, and the pope [John the XXIII] ordered the priests to 'open their church windows wide to let in the fresh air.' But instead the Smoke of Satan entered, and muddled everyone's brains, making them modern and sinful and prone to divorce. And now Catholics everywhere are behaving like Protestants, which was only one step away from being atheists, which was no different from being communists."
The adults in Ronnie Chater’s life lack sufficient psychological and spiritual maturity to help her interpret the meaning of the Vatican Council in any reasonable way. Instead, her former Highway Patrol officer dad drags his wife Martha and their growing family (no sinful birth control for them) in search of what, if anything, might remain of their once and beloved Catholic Church. Their quest takes them from the San Francisco Bay Area to Portugal where Dad believes, without research, that a remnant of Christ’s Church must still exist. Lyle’s reasoning: Portugal is home to Fatima, the only remaining Holy City, a true believer’s last hope.
" 'Fatima is my Weltanschauung,' Dad once said.
"Weltanschauung means 'world outlook' in German, but so much more. When Dad said Weltanschauung, he clenched his fist around the word, and pulled it to his chest, and I knew what he was talking about.
"Your Weltanschauung is the bone structure of your body of knowledge. It is the frame that carries the muscle, meat, and blood of your inner wisdom. It is the vessel that contains your essential being. Without a Weltanschauung what are you? A vegetable with reflexes. You might as well sell your soul."
Lyle Arnold discovers that the long reach of satanic reform has infected even the site of the Virgin Mary’s early 20th century apparitions. So, it's back to Northern California, where dad and family ally themselves with the diaspora, scattered families holding fast and true to the original Church founded by Christ and destroyed by Pope John XXIII and his immediate successor Pope Paul VI. Desperate to protect his family from the Smoke of Satan and lurking Communism, Lyle prepares for war—literally. A firearms expert and enthusiast, he keeps an arsenal of weapons in the house. Like his heroes the medieval crusaders, he is prepared to employ violence, even holy homicide, if necessary, to take back the Church that the Council and unfaithful popes have ripped from his life.
In one of her most revealing passages, Veronica Chater says of her too-silent, father-enabling mother, "Mom isn’t really all that torn up over Vatican II. What she really cares about is our family." Ronnie’s story left me with a lingering sadness for all of them. "Religious" as they were, I never sensed any deep spirituality. Form smothered substance. The Hebrew and New Testament Scriptures played no formative role in Lyle’s prayer life and moral choices. Nor was there room in his fretting, plotting spirit for contemplation of the unfathomable mystery and movement of the Holy Spirit at that pivotal moment of human and church history. While searching for the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, Lyle Arnold failed to comprehend the daily miracle of his own amazing children. Finally, in his desire to save them from Satan he drove them away from God.
Veronica Chater’s amazing prose and her gift for storytelling pulled me through the pages, as she exposed one family secret after another. I felt like a Peeping Tom, hiding in a corner of the Arnolds’ lives, observing events, listening to conversations I had no right to overhear. But, I am enriched and grateful to her for letting me inside a religious process and phenomenon that I had previously observed only from the outside.
lfred J. Garrotto lives and writes in Contra Costa County (CA). He is the author of four nonfiction books and five novels. His most recent book, The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean (2008), offers a series of meditations drawn from themes in the Victor Hugo classic. He is also a freelance writer/manuscript editor and serves as a lay minister in a Roman Catholic parish. He blogs at http://wisdomoflesmiserables.blogspot.com and is on the web at http://www.blsinc.com/garrotto.htm. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.