Those who are not fans of Bruce Springsteen might be surprised to find that Catholic themes and imagery reside deeply in the music and the life story of a man who is a pop superstar.
His most riveting songs are haunted by a sense of sin, forgiveness and redemption as he spins tales of blue-collar families living on edge of violence and poverty; tortured souls often riddled with guilt over their decisions and actions.
Many who missed “Springsteen on Broadway” can now see it on Netflix, but for a deeper treatment of his themes and ghosts, it is worth dusting of his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run (Simon and Schuster), where his Catholic sensibility moves over to the printed page as he discusses the emotions and experience behind much of his best known work.
The reader is barely 12 pages into the 500-page book, when he is surprised by a chapter titled, “The Church.” We learn that Springsteen grew up in the shadows of St. Rose of Lima Church in Freehold, served as an altar boy, attended the school– and could barely wait to escape the parochial confinement of the late 50’s and early 1960’s, only to come to a realization that you can run but you can’t hide:
“As I grew older, there were certain things about the way I thought, reacted, behaved. I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic you’re always a Catholic. So I stopped kidding myself. I don’t often participate in my religion but I know somewhere deep inside I’m still on the team.”
Living across from the Church imbued him with a sense of the sacramental rhythm of life in the weddings, communions and funerals he witnessed as a young boy. His first marriage, to actress Julianne Philips, was held at Our Lady of the Lady of the Lake Church Oswego, Oregon in 1985.
“In Catholicism there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. As a young adult I tried to make sense of it… that there are souls to lose and a kingdom of love to be gained. As funny as it sounds, I have a personal relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers… I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save…”
The central pivot in Springsteen’s personal and artistic identity is the wounded relationship between him and his father. He writes movingly about his father’s menacing silence that occasionally would erupt into rage. The chapter on the death of his father, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder later in life, is the most moving and powerful in the book. Both men reached an accommodation later in life, a spiritual healing. In one of the final chapters, Springsteen notes that the song “My Father’s House,” is the best song he’s written about his father and reprints this verse:
My father’s house shines hard and bright
It stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling so cold and alone
Shining cross the dark highway
Where our sins lie unatoned.
The sacrament of baptism washes through his lyrics and songs, where people frequently head to the river for renewal. “Racing in the Streets” ends with the lines: “ Tonight my baby and me we’re gonna ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands.” In “The River,” a couple locates the ebb and flow of their troubled relationship in the trips they take to the river: “We’d go down to the river And into the river we’d dive, Oh down to the river we’d ride.”
Readers just in it for stories about the music and the E Street Band will not be disappointed, but fans may get more than they bargained for in his near harrowing revelations about his struggles with intimacy, his need for control and bouts of depression.
There is also a stunning passage about his own personal isolation in light of the adulation he experiences. On one cross-country auto trip at the age of 32, he and his friend stop at a small Texas town where a Mexican community is celebrating.
“From nowhere, a despair overcomes me. I feel an envy of these men and women in their late summer ritual, the small pleasures that bind them and this town together. … All I can think of is that I want to be amongst them, of them, and I know I cant. I can only watch. That’s what I do. I watch and I record. I do not engage.”
In some ways the book is the “Confessions” of a man with profound spiritual depths alongside an intense awareness of his own flaws and divided nature. The singer/songwriter known to millions at “The Boss,” an adept drill sergeant of his band, admits he came to realize that he had no control over his personal life: he is not sure he can love or is worthy of being loved.
Like many Catholics of his generation, Springsteen left the Church. What is it they couldn’t find in the Church? What is it they couldn’t totally leave behind?
In the last chapter, he slips into the remembrance of himself as a St. Rose of Lima schoolboy dressed in green blazer and ivory shirt, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. His closing paragraph offers the prayer on the printed page, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” in effect, asking the reader to join him in the mystery and continuity.
He unexpectedly repeats that same stunning moment on stage at the end of his Netflix concert, when he refers again to his Catholic boyhood and recites the “Our Father,” just moments after he has referred to his life work as “my long, noisy prayer.”
How does the Church reunite the boy and the man, the prodigal sons and daughters who went elsewhere in their search for meaning?
Springsteen may have been “born to run,” but he couldn’t quite out run his own emptiness. In some sense, the book is about rebuilding faith—faith in himself and others. Ultimately it’s a humbling message and a recognition of the power of the spiritual life.