seven steps for patience

How can I pass up a chance at navel-gazing? Here’s a meme transformed into seven steps (out of how many?) on the path to my eventual conversion to Catholicism.

1. My best friend in elementary school was Catholic. (A note about this friend: she, her brother, her brother’s best friend, and I were our school’s entire gifted program. Do you think we were a little weird together?) I associated church with coffee and donuts, and to a lesser extent a creepy sense that a dead person was always watching me, but she had something called “CCD” in a building that was round! and rituals and funny words, and saints and monks and nuns. I had no idea how being Catholic would differ from any other form of Christianity, but all that “stuff” made me think that there must be more going on there than there was at the Methodist church. I had no way of finding out, but I planned to some day. And then I forgot about it.

2. I tried to become born-again in junior high, several times. But it never worked. I said the magic words you can find on any Fundie tract — when I was feeling really brave, I said them aloud — and then . . . nothing. Silence. Worse than silence. A dead stillness that meant either God did not exist or God did not care that I existed. For kid who was already weird in so many ways, that was just too much to contemplate.

3. My husband was raised Catholic (though he is not a believer now), and told me in those days that if he ever went back to religion it would be “to the Pope,” because (to paraphrase badly) Catholicism had you covered from birth to death and all other areas of your life. Falling in love with him while we listened to Stevie Wonder brought me to a more confident sense that God was there after all. We married in the Methodist church, because that seemed to me the most logical place. I had not been attending church, but I knew that our relationship was of God, and so I wanted our ceremony to reflect that. (I could write a whole post on that process and other people’s reactions to it, but I won’t. Even after 12 years I know it would bring up some old resentments that I would do better to let go.) When I learned the term “sacramental marriage,” I knew exactly what it meant, because I had been living it.

4. During the time my husband and I were — well, we never dated. We met because we were living in the same house, and we’ve lived together ever since. So, in our pre-married state, we got really into yoga. Which naturally led to interest in meditation and Eastern religion. I read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh, and that got me interested in reading about religion in general, everything from Elaine Pagels and Bishop Spong to C. S. Lewis. (But wait, I’m speeding ahead.) Reading about Buddhism, yoga, and other non-deistic kinds of spirituality gave me a new perspective on Christianity. I could look at it with fresh eyes, not the eyes of a depressed teen or a cynical graduate student. (Wait, I think I was still a cynical graduate student then . . . anyway . . .)

5. While I was pregnant with my oldest, I decided to just go for it. I took myself to Mass. This was not the first time. The first time had been with my husband’s family. I was intimidated — I had always heard that non-Catholics at Mass had to be worried about standing or sitting or kneeling at the wrong time. That proved to be false. I think I remember being a little disappointed that it was not more mysterious, after years of wondering what those Catholics were up to. Anyhow, years later, pregnant with our first child, I needed to get to church. I went to the beautiful Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, and in the bulletin I read something by the priest about his experiences with depression (something I had a passing familiarity with!). My main memory is the oft-disparaged (by liturgical traditionalists) sign of peace, when an older man (50 something?) turned to me and said “Peace of Christ be with you” as warmly and openly and confidently as you could imagine. Something in that touched my core and stayed there. But after Violet was born I did not go to church for some time.

6. Within 6 months after Violet was born, I was swept under by the worst depression of my life (which is saying something). I did not want to use drugs (a resistence I regret — I’ll never get those months of my infant Violet’s life back — but what can you do?), so I meditated and met frequently with a therapist and cried oceans of tears. I had learned about Kuan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, a favorite goddess among American Buddhists and meditators, and I tried to meditate on her. But she seemed so distant; she lived in another hemisphere. So as I sat with my legs crossed on my apartment floor, bawling my eyes out, I shifted to Mary. I had a phrase I repeated, that I can’t remember at all, except that it involved the words “Queen of Heaven.” I sat and cried and cried to her until I had exhausted all my tears, and I did it again the next day, and many many days after that. That was about a year or so before I decided to join the church officially (and more than 2 years before I actually did join). It was not a moment of conversion — even I knew it was a little weird to cry to Mary when I wasn’t really sure about either her Father or her son, but she was there for me anyway.

7. My RCIA process was so blessed. Sr. Josetta, who leads the program at our parish, is just amazingly brilliant in addition to being deeply compassionate and profound. This may sound awful, but I’m not sure I would have been able to do it without her. This woman holds a PhD and teaches theology, she’s smart and articulate and a true feminist as well as a faithful Catholic, and curious as I was I’m not sure I would have made the effort with someone less obviously intelligent. She accepted every question and doubt I had, and though I know her now to be a force of nature, she could not have seemed more gentle at the time. I was an odd fish in my group of catechumens and communicants, always asking why and pushing hard at comprehending knotty theological problems that, really, aren’t of that much interest to most people. (That’s not supposed to be self-congratulatory, just an observation.) She could have put me off or given me pat answers or even told me that my role was not to question but to accept church doctrine. She never did, and as a result my RCIA time was a wonderful period of serious reflection, learning, struggle, and discovering that it would be OK to be led and to recieve.

And now here I am, Shaun the Catholic in 7 gut-wrenching steps! See how easy? 😉

In the Face of Grief

I attended a funeral this weekend, for the wife of a lay leader in our parish. I didn’t know her personally, though I knew her husband and sons to be bright, kind, and generous, which obviously speaks well of the woman of the house. The tender of the garden, as Fr. described her in the homily.

Our big cathedral-style church was packed front to back. This family was loved. Yet looking at a husband standing alone, two not-grown young men who watched their mother waste away from an aggressive cancer, so many of us were overcome with grief and sorrow. There is nothing to do to take away that sadness, to mitigate that loss. Rejoicing for someone who believed with all her heart that she was going “to a better place,” as she said often before she died, doesn’t fill the hole left among us.

As we sang the litany of the saints, I appreciated that part of the liturgy anew. At times during that litany I have felt great peace, a strong sense of being securely part of an eternal and beautiful web of space and time. (OK, clearly words are failing me here. It’s hard to describe that feeling.) But during this funeral, I felt very deeply how much our human community needs prayers. Full of sadness that can’t be removed, questions that can’t be answered, and a certainty of repeated losses that can’t be prevented, all we can do is be humble and ask for the prayers of those who know more clearly than we on earth ever can, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things will be well.” (Julian of Norwich)

Now Mary Ellen has joined their number. As her sister said, she now has “the world’s best guardian angel.”

Published in: on February 11, 2008 at 12:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Whither the Subtitle

Why “As Catholic As I Wanna Be . . . ” ?
1. When I first thought to myself, hey, I might like to blog about religion and spirituality, I was feeling a little defiant. I am in a mixed-faith marriage (i.e., faith + no-faith), and sometimes I feel a little constrained when The Domestic Church is a central part of Catholic life. I have some friends who are anti-Catholic. Enough said on that. So I liked the idea of having a ready place to talk about things on my mind, and hang any of those people in my life who weren’t buying it.

2. I belong to a fairly middle-of-the-road parish. We are a mixed bag, politically, though probably lean more liberal than conservative. I have friends of both parties who are active in the parish, and I think they all seem to be at home there.

Theologically and liturgically, again, we’re a mixed bag. But I like what our former director of liturgy encouraged us to do — take part in all that the Roman Catholic Church has to offer. Sure, there are folks in the parish who would never touch a rosary — too old-school — but others who lead family rosary during Lent. We’ve expanded our time for Adoration of the Eucharist during the week. We have a significant section of Boomers who freak out whenever the guitars are missing from Mass, but we also have chant and songs in Latin. The basement of our church was as plain as a concecrated worship space could be (we no longer use it because it was not accessible to anyone not good with stairs), but our main worship space is filled with statues, old-style confessionals, and a Mary chapel.

When I say I’m Catholic as I wanna be, I mean I’m not giving up traditional Catholic practices because some people associate them with unhealthy aspects of the church. We can study the saints in our homeschool, we can learn to pray the rosary, we can go to confession — and we can participate in Centering Prayer and walk a labyrinth. Our tradition is so rich, and I’m blessed as an adult convert that I can approach it without the negative connotations some lifelong older Catholics feel.

3. At the same time, I tire of the phrase “Cafeteria Catholic.” I hear that and I hear, “I am the judge of all things Catholic; differ from me at your peril.” It’s not clear to me why people even give energy to this kind of activity. Have they erased all occasions from sin in their own lives, taken care of all the hunger and homelessness in their own communities, and rooted out all instances of pride, greed, and sloth in their own hearts? What happened to that thing about not removing the mote from someone else’s eye before getting the log out of your own?

Is the Roman Catholic Church so weak that it cannot withstand a little disagreement — even what might look like “disobedience”? Is that how we parent — expect perfection and eager, instant cooperation or you’re out on your ear? When I started poking around the popular Catholic blogs, I was shocked and more than a little depressed by the snide attitude many self-proclaimed Orthodox Catholics (and I don’t mean neoTraditionalists) took towards fellow Catholics who, say, allowed altar girls, liked hymns by certain modern composers, had questions about whether Cardinal Ratzinger would be a good pope, etc. (FWIW, I think many of those who had questions have been pleasantly surprised — if not consistently pleased.)

It’s pretty clear that to those folks I’m a mere shadow of a Catholic. But hey, screw them, right? I’m Catholic As I Wanna Be. And to me, that means giving up on pretending to know the right answers. If the Buddhist-loving poet-priest Thomas Merton is not a True Catholic, I don’t know who is, and this is what he says:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

– Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”