A Few of My Favorite Things

Someone in the parish office must have decided to focus on baptism during the Easter season, extending it beyond the baptisms of the catechumens at the Vigil and having infant baptisms during morning Mass on Easter Sunday and today.

One of the glories of Catholic liturgy is that if you say the same things often enough they really start to sink in — and eventually you’ll hear all of them, no matter how distracted you are during any given Mass.

I have developed a couple of favorites from the rite of Baptism over the last few years:

“Do you reject the glamour of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin?”

At first blush this sounds horribly old-fashioned and hyper-pious, at least to me. But that phrase, “glamour of evil,” I know just what it means, though I can’t improve upon the language. As a somewhat weak example, I can have a very dry, dark sense of humor at times. Sometimes that’s great — usually it’s better to laugh at darkness then be frightened by it — but sometimes that laughter seduces me to be mean-spirited, callous, cynical, in the guise of being “hip” and irreverant.

I had a good friend from high school and college who seemed to be seduced by the glamour of evil. She relished her “bad girl” status, honed that persona, and made herself into a bitter, cynical, and apparently joyless person by the age of 25. I don’t mean to judge her — I know the many trials she had to bear, and it seems like her family situation set her up to fail. And I know that her “bad girl” persona gave her a way to have at least fleeting feelings of security, belonging, and being loved, which would be pretty irresistable in her circumstances. As her best friend and her foil, however, I also knew how much of herself she disowned in pursuit of that “glamour of evil.” By the time our friendship faded away, it seemed like her ability to feel joy or intimacy was lost. Honestly, until this moment I had forgetten a lot of the fun we had together, because my strongest memory of her is the bitter young woman she was the last time I saw her. So when I’m asked if I reject the glamour of evil, I say “I do” wholeheartedly.

“This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it.

On any given day, I’d say at least half of the congregation has some aspect of the faith that, on that particular day, they are not so sure of. I have always been dubious of those colleges where you sign a doctrinal statement saying you believe certain things in a certain way — so much emphasis on individual beliefs, which can wax and wane. Belief is like love — it can feel strong or weak or even absent depending on your mood and the circumstances. How it feels isn’t what matters most, it’s how you persist in it. We profess our faith as a community that we might persist in it, even if on a given Sunday we are thinking more about whether Mass will ever end.

Still, when we say those words together, “This is our faith and we are proud to profess it,” I do indeed feel proud. I stand in the midst of a community of people who not only do good and love each other and work for justice in the community, but also persist together in belief. Whatever the mulitple failings of the institutional Church, when I say those words I remember how much I love it.

Published in: on March 30, 2008 at 11:35 am  Leave a Comment  

What Kind of Catholic Am I?

Thanks to Patience at Singing the Rain, who pointed me towards this quiz at Beliefnet. I do love me a quiz.

According to the quiz, I am this kind of Catholic:

You Are a Divine Office (Moderately Traditional) Catholic
The Second Vatican Council was much needed, as far as you’re concerned, but you see no reason to push the church further in the direction of change, as many progressives urge. You like the dynamic combination of the traditional approach toward doctrine with the opening of the church to the world that Pope John Paul II (your favorite pope) represented. As far as liturgy is concerned, a reverent Mass in the vernacular is your favorite, as is a vernacular hymn with a feeling for the transcendent such as “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” When Nicole Kidman returned to her childhood Catholicism and regular Mass attendance, you were thrilled.

I think, however, I am equally this kind of Catholic:

You Are an Ignatian Exercises (Moderately Progressive) Catholic
You love the church, but you’d like to see some changes in certain areas–birth control, divorce, the role of women–where official teaching seems disconnected from contemporary experience. You find the new vernacular liturgy, forms of prayer (such as adapting the age-old Ignatian Exercises for the laity), and devotions that arose in the wake of the Second Vatican Council much more relevant to your own spirituality than the old. Your favorite hymn is probably a contemporary standard such as “On Eagle’s Wings.” It goes without saying that your favorite pope is John XXIII, the pope of Vatican II. You admire examples of sanctity that seem relevant to our time, such as Dorothy Day. You loved the movie “The Mission,” because it reflected a Christian concern for the marginalized that was squelched by the institutional church.

I like to think that I am a catholic Catholic — that I embrace and take advantage of old and new prayers, that I look to tradition to understand change. I’m a little bit Latin, I’m a little bit Haugen-Haas. But I balk at what I see as attempts by both conservatives and liberals to remake the church — and God — in their own, and only their, image. That’s what schism is — I like the priest who said “better a heretic than a schismatic.” Better to dissent under the big tent than to take your toys and go off to make your own club with narrower rules.

For the record — and this will mark me as an ultra liberal — my idea of a great Catholic movie is “Babette’s Feast.” And I like Methodist hymns better than anything in the Gather hymnal. Sorry!

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”

A Sensible Entry in the Liturgy Wars

It alternately cheers me and sets me despairing when I discover in the Catholic Blogosphere that the liturgy wars of my home parish are but one minor skirmish in a conflict plaguing the entire US Church. I’m glad to know that my parish is not horribly worse than others, but extremely depressed to see how passionate people are about tearing down their fellow Catholics.

I found myself nodding in agreement to much of what Jeff Mirus wrote at Catholic Culture. For example:

The mindsets of traditionalism and modernism are characterized by a lack of spiritual detachment. Strong, undisciplined attachments prevent spiritual growth and generally lead straight out of the Church. For the traditionalist, the attachment is to “the way things were”, all the external aspects of Catholic piety and discipline which he finds attractive and from which he derives spiritual consolation. For the modernist, the attachment is to the fashionable ideas of the age, all those perceptions and conceptions which, because they are dominant, appear to be the keys to every kind of success.

Both traditionalists and modernists have a point when they argue that when we discard healthy traditions or ignore the key themes of modern thought, we do so at our peril. It is neither their respect for tradition nor their willingness to engage modernity which gets them into trouble. Rather, it is their profound attachment to these things, an attachment so strong that both groups feel their world is shattered if the objects of their attachment are removed.

Personally, I would go so far as to use a few words that I had all but dropped from my vocabulary: Idolatry, and Evil.

The worship of particular Mass elements is idolatrous — I can’t help it if that word sends some folks into paroxysms of Evangeliphobia. I’ve witnessed it, listened to it, and even tried to compromise with it, and “idolatrous” is the most accurate word I can find to describe it. And it is evil:

sinful or wicked: check
causing discomfort or repulsion: check
causing harm: check
arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct: check

The bad behavior, the harm, and the repulsion from the Catholic Church caused by these battles over liturgy—smells evil to me.

Even this:

a cosmic evil force

seems right on the money. The hostility, malice, and general absence of Christian kindness generated by the liturgy wars is no longer (if it ever was) limited to the category of personal, private sin. The numbers of people banding together within parishes or across the Internet has created a monster greater than its individual members. We’re no longer dealing with some individuals acting in an evil way—we are confronting An Evil.

This sentence bears repeating:

Strong, undisciplined attachments prevent spiritual growth and generally lead straight out of the Church.

Evil indeed: when we put anything before our unity as the Body of Christ and the sacrament of His love on earth, we’ve set the trap for our own destruction.

We are sent to be Good News—and the Good News is not that Mass is in Latin or that Sr. Sara’s folk guitar trio is leading the hymns.

Published in: on March 31, 2007 at 3:49 pm  Leave a Comment