For several months now, I’ve been undergoing a long period of discernment called “The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” that will culminate at the Easter Vigil, when I will join the Roman Catholic Church. I have wanted to write about this for a while, have tried unsuccessfully several times, but felt stymied; it is difficult and often frustrating to attempt to express what can only be said partially, imperfectly. But I’d like to try.
My liberal protestant friends, my feminist friends, my secular friends – they might feel surprise, even confusion, that I could join a church that seems, from one angle, deeply patriarchal and conservative. Of course, I have conservative protestant friends and family as well, who might balk at the strangeness of Catholicism, its Mariology, its visceral worship, its sense of tradition that encompasses but exceeds scripture.
The answers I offer here will probably satisfy none of these people – it is perhaps ambitious to even use the word “answers,” because I am only just now arriving at a place where I can begin to give a semi-coherent account of my conversion.
I did not move toward Catholicism from a place of certainty. I moved from a place of desire. And I did not walk steadily toward it. I took a flailing, reckless leap.
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For several years, I’ve existed more or less in a state of spiritual stagnation. I’ve written pretty honestly about this – perhaps too honestly – about a chronic struggle with doubt. I wrote about feeling like Mary Magdalene, waiting in the empty tomb, suspended in that anticipatory but gaping moment just before the resurrection. I recognize now, as I did then, that the waiting itself was a faithful gesture, so this not a boomerang narrative about falling away and returning, about faith lost and found. This is not that kind of story.
This is a story about rediscovering what the word “faith” actually means. To have faith is not to hold truth at arm’s length and to study it quizzically before deciding whether or not it will fit my pocket. To have faith is to enter into truth headlong, to live and move within its being, to explore it from the inside.
It’s true: I should have felt at home in the corners of Anglican and Quaker Protestantism, where my feminist inclinations first led me. That would have made sense. After all, I was able to seamlessly connect the dots between my fairly liberal beliefs and the tenets of these denominations. I tethered myself to an ethic of social justice and love; that, I thought, is where the heart of Christianity can be found.
But now I realize that isn’t true, at least not entirely. What is most unique about Christianity is not an orientation toward justice or an ethic of love – if that is all I want from a religion, well, I can find that any numbers of places, in any number of religions, even secular humanism. So the question becomes: what is it that is keeping me here, in the thrall of Christianity? Why am I still waiting in the tomb?
The answer to this question surfaced into language the other day when I was reading the following passage from Catholic theologian Tina Beattie:
Christianity’s uniqueness, its particularity and its identity, derive from the drama it performs in the world – the drama of God incarnate who is carried in the womb of a virgin, who becomes the helpless infant at her breast, who eats, drinks, loves and laughs with ordinary people, who is tortured and put to death because the world does not understand him, and who gathers together all these incarnate human realities into a story of resurrection, reconciliation and the hope of eternal life. (New Catholic Feminism, p. 7)
What is most unique about Christianity, most essential, is its strangeness. Its improbable, radical story that confounds the mind and refuses to contract into mere metaphor or symbol. This wild mystery of the Incarnation, this holy paradox that rushes past the furthest ends of reason and cuts through the polarities that structure and divide our world. It is not enough to say “be just”; it is not enough to say “love” – not when love and justice are uprooted from the narrative that explains why we must love, a narrative that makes the startling claim that every human being burns bright with the spark of God, and this same God self-emptied to gestate in the body of a woman, to be born, to live the life of the body, to die, and to live again.
To be Christian is to welcome, contemplate, and live within this strange story. And to me, it is Catholicism, more than any other form of Christianity, that fully celebrates the mystery of Incarnation that is the heart of the faith.
Choosing to become Catholic has, in part, been a realization that the way I think and see the world is already deeply Catholic. While the Protestant imagination can be said to be dialectic, thinking in terms of either/or and stressing the unlikeness of things, the Catholic imagination is analogic — incarnational — seeing things in terms of likeness and unity, welcoming paradox. There is no schism between faith and reason, between the sacred and secular, between the natural and the numinous; God, the ground of all Being, inhabits each of these realms. All of reality is engraced.
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There are other sides to this story as well – notably the hindsight awareness that I have projected my attraction to Catholicism onto others, courting it from a safe distance, vicariously, through other people. When several students of mine decided to become Catholic, I was overjoyed for them; we talked excitedly about the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition, the refreshing emphasis on incarnation and mystery, the life-giving feast of the Eucharist. (We also tangled amicably about the male priesthood.)
When my mom expressed a feeling of being “covered by God” in Catholic mass – a feeling I recognized, but could never put into words quite so well – I promptly bought her several books about Catholicism and small rosary. I remember thinking, “My mom would be such a great Catholic!” Now, I find something humorous and so glaringly obvious about these gestures, sincere though they were, as if through them I was saying: “I can’t be Catholic, but maybe you can go be Catholic for me???”
That’s been me, for the past decade: orbiting Catholicism, intermittently wandering into Catholic churches, cathedrals, and abbeys, drawn there by something unnamable but too skittish to stay, too unwilling to compromise my feminist principles. And in doing so, I was ironically suffocating my own spiritual becoming as a woman.
This is not to say that I have abandoned a feminist outlook (I haven’t), or that my journey into Catholicism has not been an intellectual one (just ask my bookshelf, currently sagging with theological tomes), or that the Catholic Church is perfect (it is a human institution, after all, with 2,000 years worth of imperfections).
Simply put, I feel released now to allow my intellect to follow the surge of my soul, instead of the other way around. I feel freed to cultivate a deeper understanding while trusting what I already know but am unable to fully say.
Let me borrow another woman’s words, again. Flannery O’Connor this time, describing an awkward experience at a dinner party:
… The conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.
That’s pretty much where I am. Like Flannery, my voice shakes. I am unsure of so much, but I am sure of this: I don’t want a faith bereft of danger and paradox. I am ready to leave the tomb and enter fully into Mystery. I want to sink my hands into the hot, medieval heart of a sacramental Christianity that sees the world as it really is — charged with God.
Today’s a big day. You’re walking across campus toward the gym, toward the abrupt end of the familiar path you’ve been walking for years. This is what you’ve prepared for; this is the finish line that has glimmered on the horizon through all those years of schooling and dreaming. Today’s agenda is crammed, but tomorrow will open into the wild unknown.
Who will I be? Whom will I love? Where will I land? How will I make my mark?
You’re worried about a lot of things – trust me, I know – even though you’re trying to play it cool under that thin black robe. You are surprised at its flimsiness; you thought it would feel more substantial on your shoulders. You thought this day would feel more substantial, too, but it’s already gliding by.
You’ve smuggled a pen and a crossword puzzle torn from today’s Oregonian inside your sleeve, a visible sign that this ceremony is SO not a big deal to you. The puzzle is a lie, of course, an attempt to give your mind a red herring, to distract it from anxieties that buzz around your eyes like gnats.
You are worried about love.
This makes you feel pathetic, and like a complete failure as a feminist, but it’s true nonetheless. You’ve fallen in love fairly recently. It’s a risky, fragile love, one sprung from the ruins of last year’s epic heartbreak, when you were emotionally decimated and had to pull yourself out of despair with several rounds of anti-depressants.
That heartbreak is still alive for you. The love dried up, but the taste of rejection remains in your mouth, at the back of your throat. You’re worried it will never leave, but I promise it will. You’ll gradually forget this guy who broke your heart. Not too far in your future, you’ll stop thinking of him entirely – aside from that occasional fantasy that you randomly run into him, on a day you look particularly a-mazing, and have a chance to tell him what a wonderful life you have now. You want him to know that he never really broke you. Which is true. He didn’t.
And now this second love has appeared, even though you are still reeling. I admit, it’s hardly the formula for a healthy, lasting relationship: you’re on the rebound, and he’s in the throes of an existential crisis, living in a Portland townhouse with a bunch of other guys, who are also in the throes of existential crises. Everyone’s looking for answers at the bottom of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. No one is showering regularly. It’s a bit of a mess.
He is a man at sea, and you’re on the shoreline, beckoning – trying not to look too desperate.
You’re supposed to go to France at the end of summer, to teach English to bitchy French youths in Rouen for a year. You’re supposed to set out on this adventure solo, untethered to anyone. But, secretly, you’re already thinking of not going, even though you won’t admit this to yourself – and certainly not to him.
Well, I like spoilers, so I’ll tell you what happens. You give up France for him. And it might surprise you to find out that, in a little over a year, you marry this guy. He gets over his existential crisis (for the most part) and starts showering regularly (for the most part). And even though it seems like a recipe for disaster right now, things turn out really well. Beautifully, in fact. You are grotesquely happy together. And you make cute babies.
After you get married, people will ask, “So how do you like being married?” And you’ll be unsure how to answer, because although you love being married to Michael, you also now realize how hellish married life could be if you had entangled yourself with the wrong person. You’ll think about the guy before Michael, how miserable you’d make each other, and you’ll feel strangely grateful that he broke your heart.
You are worried about God.
Or, more accurately, you’re worried about Not God. You’re worried about God’s absence.
Doubt is a source of fear and guilt for you right now, I know. Your faith was once like a completed Jenga game, a tower of smooth wooden blocks that fit perfectly together, no spaces between or unfinished tiers. This tower did not move – but neither did it breathe. It stood tall, but precariously so; if the wind came through, the blocks would be scattered. So you’ve had to keep the windows locked up tight.
This was faith for you – until you arrived at college, where someone said: Open the windows. Let the air in. Breathe.
You grew up confusing faith with certainty, and now that the certainty is gone, you are worried your faith has self-immolated in a final, futile protest.
I want to offer you some comfort. You’ll realize this for yourself in a couple of years, but I’ll go ahead and tell you now: this is not a real death. This is a rebirth. A startling bird of fire will rise up from those ashes. Your faith is in the midst of metamorphosis, unfurling from something rigid and immobile into something beautiful, mysterious, and uncaged.
You will grow to understand that to be human is to live in a state of unknowing, and the doubt you now fear is actually a vital dimension of your faith.
You are worried about THE FUTURE.
Everybody is asking, “What’s next? What are you going to do with your life?” As if there is only one thing one does with one’s life. You don’t know how to answer that question, and that’s okay. You don’t have to know. You’ll do many things.
I’ll be honest, though. It will be hard to transition into post-college life, where you are not told, every three or four months, how well you are doing and how you should improve. You’ve been trained to live relentlessly looking forward; you’ve been taught to anchor yourself in the future, to root your self-worth in achievable goals and the approval of your parents, your pastors, your professors, your peers.
You have learned to live impatiently, anxiously waiting for that final moment of Arrival.
But it will never come. Or, what I mean to say is: that moment is always already here. This is it; you have arrived. Your “real life” doesn’t begin on the day you graduate, or the day you get married, or the day you become a mother for the first time. Those big moments are wonderful and exhilarating, but they flash and vanish. “Real life” is what happens in between.
If there is any piece of advice I can offer you, it is this (and I say this as much to myself as to you, because we still share many neuroses):
Don’t think of your life as a ladder to climb, rung by rung, toward an always-shifting terminus. Imagine a spiral, pinwheeling outward from the present moment, the murky past and the inchoate future swirling around you, inscrutable. You’re in the epicenter of that storm, and that is where you must learn to live, in the quiet eye of now.
Try, even just for today, your graduation day, to forget about the future entirely. Stop searching out there for that Holy Grail that will make you feel complete, because it’s actually right here, in the flickering light of the present. Look at your hands; you’re holding it already. Raise it high to toast what surrounds you before it all disappears, and take a long, soulful drink.
Then, go do that crossword.
This past week, holy week, a student from the university where I teach went missing. Her name is Mary Owen. I’m not here to tell her story (it’s a good one, but not mine to tell; you can read more about it here). I want to tell a smaller, quieter story that sits half-hidden in the shadow of the other one — a story about living with doubt during holy week.
I heard that Mary was missing on Friday afternoon from the great oracle of Facebook. She went hiking on Mount Hood the previous Sunday with minimal supplies and was thought to be lost somewhere on the freezing mountain, maybe injured, maybe dead.
I don’t actually know her personally, but our circles are intertwined, and when I heard she was missing I felt instantly invested in the story. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I shared a post on Facebook, asking for prayer — which meant, I quickly realized, that I probably had to pray for her, too.
Here’s a little secret. I’m not very good at praying, at least not the typical ask-for-specific-things-from-God kind of praying. I’m afraid to believe in that kind of prayer, because as soon as I admit that God works that way, that God chooses to regularly and directly intervene in human affairs and can be swayed by our petitions, well, then I have to face the idea of God choosing NOT to intervene and prevent some really horrific shit, like tsunamis that sweep away cities, and children being sold into sex slavery, and so on. It’s easier, and more comfortable, for me to avoid that whole mess by sticking to wordless or contemplative-style prayer – when I pray at all.
But this time I felt compelled to pray for something specific. And I did, all night long. I held a breastfeeding vigil. My baby, currently many reincarnations away from the Nirvana of “sleeping through the night,” wakes up around 4-5 times to eat between 9 PM and 7 AM. So that night, Friday night, whenever he woke me up, my thoughts immediately turned to Mary, and I prayed while I nursed.
We’re talking really simple prayers, here, almost awkwardly so. None of that flowery, preachy stuff I ceased being able to pull off years ago (We know, dear Lord, that you are a merciful God and you hold all things in your hands…).
Just: Please find her. Let them find her.
In between nursing sessions, while I slept, I even dreamed about Mary. I dreamed about hiking up the mountain with a bunch of people to rescue her, each of us armed with ski poles and snowshoes, white flakes falling softly all around, a bright beacon of moon guiding us.
In my dreams, I was confident she’d be rescued.
In waking life, I was almost certain that she would be found dead.
Sure, I was praying — but I severely doubted that what I was praying for would happen. I’d checked the weather and the temperatures on Mount Hood; I’d combed over the news stories, trying to imagine a realistic scenario to explain how Mary could still be alive after almost a week in frozen wilderness, with little or no food, underdressed, without shelter, most likely injured. I couldn’t think of a convincing one.
On Saturday morning, still assured in my doubt, I was once again feeding my baby and checking Facebook on my phone — and I saw the news that Mary had been found. Alive. After six days of freezing and starving in a hole she’d carved out in the snow, she’d been rescued. Upon reading this, I literally exclaimed: “Holy shit!” (still working on that not-swearing-in-front-of-the-baby thing). I was honestly surprised, almost shocked, to be proven wrong. I’d been so sure that my analysis of the situation was accurate.
There’s no way, I’d thought.
This is a constant refrain for me, especially when it comes to matters of faith.
There’s no way…
We live in a time and place where jaded, skeptical thinking is presented as far more sophisticated, far more intellectual, than hoping. But the events of this (holy) week have reminded me that my chronic inclinations toward doubt and cynicism are not necessarily the truest mirrors of reality.
Don’t misunderstand – this isn’t a post about me feeling a complete renewal of faith because GOD ANSWERED MY PRAYER!!! JUST IN TIME FOR EASTER!!! There’s more subtlety to it. I am feeling a sense of renewal, yes — not because I happened to pray for the thing that came true, but more because what I believed would actually happen did NOT come true.
And there is my doubt, unmasked, revealed to be resting on the arrogant assumption that I can climb high enough to have a God’s eye view, when I’m really down here, with the rest of the humans, fumbling around in the dark.
Mary Owen was not the only Mary on my mind this week. There’s another one, Mary Magdalene, on her way to the tomb of a dead friend. It’s tempting to skip to the happy ending. But I’m compelled by the moment before the end of the story, the moment when Mary gets to the tomb and sees that it’s empty, the moment when her heart sinks and she feels sick to her stomach and she wonders What have they done with his body?
This is where I am stuck, most of the time, when it comes to faith. I tend to get trapped in the silent moment before the resurrection, my voice echoing back to me in the stillness of a tomb that has been emptied of God.
Where is he? What have they done with his body?
Maybe there is more to doubt than cynicism and pessimism – maybe there’s hopeful doubt, holy doubt, like that of Mary as she searches in the shadows, wondering what has happened.
I’m no more certain about God or the way God works now than I was last week. I’ve long since abandoned any quest for certainty. There will always be impenetrable mystery, unanswerable unknowns. But now I’m beginning to realize something: Disbelief is not the only way to respond to the darkness. Uncertainty also offers the possibility of hope.
So, I’m going to keep showing up at the tomb, even if most of the time it is just to sit in God’s absence. Because sometimes God shows up. And if I’m there, waiting and watching, I might catch a glimpse.