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.
Lately, as you know, I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing about sexual violence against men and boys. I came across a disturbing case of sexual assault from Norwood, Colorado — a case with unsettling echoes of Steubenville — and this motivated me to begin researching the phenomenon of victim-blaming. Why are so many rape victims, male and female, blamed for what happens to them? I read probably about a dozen studies (thank you, university library system!) and wrote a piece for The Atlantic about my interesting, and somewhat surprising, findings.
Before I jump into that article, on a completely unrelated matter, I’ve decided to go offline for a couple of weeks starting tomorrow (except for Netflix watch instantly — I’m not a total Spartan). You know that feeling you get when you’ve been sitting in a hot tub for too long, and you no longer feel relaxed and toasty, but more like you’re being slowly cooked alive? Well, that’s what the internet does to me every once in awhile, and I need to go dive into the cold pool of offline reality for a bit to recharge.
So, happy reading — and I’ll see you on the other side…!
Last year, a small American town began to cannibalize its own after a group of high school student athletes sexually assaulted an incapacitated classmate. In the aftermath, rather than rallying around the young victim, townspeople rushed to downplay the attack and defend the perpetrators instead.
In February 2012, three high school wrestlers from the tiny town of Norwood ambushed a 13-year-old boy on a school bus, restrained him with duct tape, and anally raped him with a pencil. The victim’s father, who was also the high school principal, notified the superintendent and school board immediately, but aside from a one-day suspension, there were no repercussions for the perpetrators (two of whom were sons of the head wrestling coach, who also happened to be president of the school board). Despite Colorado’s mandatory reporting laws, the police were not notified until the principal reported the incident himself after a month of inaction on the part of town and school officials.
In the wake of the boys’ arrests on charges ranging from kidnapping to sexual assault, the seventh-grade victim was blamed and bullied by his peers at school and on social media. Rather than cracking down on this harassment, some parents encouraged it, including the mother of an accused boy who made and distributed t-shirts that proclaimed alliance with the teenaged attackers.
Many Norwood citizens ostracized the victim and called for his father’s resignation, incensed that the principal had reported what, to them, was a benign schoolboy prank. The assailants, all charged as juveniles, pled guilty to misdemeanors and received varying sentences of probation, community service, and cash restitution. The victim and his family were arguably punished more severely. After months of harassment, they were ultimately driven out of Norwood altogether and relocated to another community.
I’m over at The Atlantic today, writing about the invisibility of female-on-male rape.
In an episode of Mad Men last month, a prostitute named Aimee has sex with a teenaged Don Draper (née Dick Whitman) after nursing him through a nasty chest cold. Actually, let me rephrase: Aimee doesn’t just have sex with young Dick Whitman–she rapes him.
Throughout most of the episode, Aimee serves as a surrogate mother for Dick; she lets him recuperate in her bed and offers him rest, comforting words, spoonfuls of warm broth. However, in their penultimate scene together, Aimee’s maternal kindness turns oddly predatory. She approaches her bed where Dick is lying weakly, fever newly broken, and asks, “Don’t you want to know what all the fuss is about? “No,” Dick replies forcefully, averting his eyes and hugging the blankets tightly against his chest as she reaches under the covers to touch him. “Stop it,” he says, clearly uncomfortable, even afraid. But Aimee doesn’t stop.
To me, this interaction was an unambiguous depiction of rape–and not simply statutory rape. Dick is in a physically weakened state and repeatedly makes it clear that he does not want Aimee to touch him sexually, much less “take his cherry.” As a child of the ’80s, I was raised on a healthy diet of “No Means No.” Rape isn’t just something that happens at gunpoint with a strange man in a dark alley; rape, essentially speaking, is being subjected to sex without consent. And Dick clearly did not consent.
Last week I wrote an article for The Atlantic about feminism’s PR problem. Within a day or two, a rundown of my article popped up on The Spearhead, a publication with ties to the MRA (men’s rights activist) movement. (If you’re unfamiliar with MRAs, feel free to read several different takes from The Good Men Project: here and here and here.)
The MRA movement has a fairly significant online presence and their antifeminism tends to manifest as blatant, hateful misogyny on the so-called “manosphere.” The Spearhead article itself, to be fair, is pretty straightforward and neutral in tone. While the author clearly hates feminism, he takes no potshots at me personally, even discussing his own parallel discomfort with the MRA label, which was interesting to read.
The comment thread, however, quickly derailed into an ad feminem feeding frenzy, exhibiting the woman-hating rhetoric that is so characteristic of the men’s rights movement.
I came across all this for the first time while breastfeeding Julian to sleep—he is a leisurely eater at night, so I sometimes resort to perusing the web on my iPhone. Being in this peaceful, banal setting made it all the more bizarre to suddenly stumble upon a slew of hateful words about me from a bunch of strangers. Here is a sampling, for your viewing pleasure (warning — strong language ahead):
Seriously, what type of mangina would want to marry a woman like this?
Never underestimate the cunning of women. To see women as children, unlikely to accept responsibility, is wise.
She’s an attention whore.
PR problem? Honey, you ain’t seen a thing, yet. Wait ’till MGTOW [Men Going Their Own Way – an MRA separatist movement] starts to really bite, and all those cock carousel riders with their worthless “wimmen’s studies” degrees not only can’t find a beta to wife them up, but thanks to the economy they can’t find a job, either… It will only hurt more in the years to come. Squeal, you pigs, squeal…
Most men now know what a bunch male hating parasites women have always been … Seriously women, you didnt know have to burn your underwear to let us know how useless women are …
[Her students] are just sissies who have to put on their big girl panties. They are only seeking attention because once they left high school and got into the real world, they suddenly find out they can’t always have it all and their own way.
My take is that she’s just another fucked up idiot.
One commenter appeared oddly fascinated with me personally and linked to this blog for more fodder. He quoted extensive excerpts from my most recent entry, imposing a bizarre narrative onto the snapshot of my life I discussed. My husband became “Mikey, the poor schlub,” a “beta schmuck” who I married, because I couldn’t keep around an “Alpha bad-boy.” He attempts to paint me simultaneously as a feminist extremist and a right-wing religious “Churchian” who would pal around with the likes of Mark Driscoll and Glenn Stanton. (I’m sure Driscoll would be surprised hear that we are compatriots!) When I step back, it is actually fascinating to see him flounder to bring these two facile stereotypes into anything resembling a coherent narrative.
Initially—I’ll be honest—I was thrown off-balance after reading all this venom targeted toward me. I felt particularly disconcerted by the blog invasion, as if some weirdo with a grudge had broken into my house and taken a big shit on my couch. Of course, it was completely naïve for me to harbor the illusion (even subconsciously) that my blog is a private, personal space – it might be personal, but it’s online and open to any reader, including my charming MRA fanbase, and it’s been good for me to realize the full ramifications of that.
As I read these comments, my feeling of disorientation soon gave way to righteous indignation. I could feel my passion for feminism being rekindled, an irony that amused me. Like Dostoevsky’s underground man, the malicious MRA types are often their own worst enemies. Their very existence fans the flames of what they most despise (feminism), while their overt hatred keeps them mostly on the fringes of culture, in an online “underground.”
That night, some of my dear friends and colleagues, who happen to be men, came over to hang out with Michael and me (sorry, guys, but being my friends probably means you are “manginas,” too). We spent a good portion of the evening brainstorming an epic blog entry that would skewer the MRAs! and rally the troops against sexism! We came up with some great ideas, and I sat down tonight intending to write that post.
Now that I’m here, however, I’m finding myself writing in another direction. While perusing various MRA articles and blogs over the past couple of days, I’ve come across some of the stories of these men, which typically involve broken marriages and families being torn apart, like, for example, the story of W.F. Price, the guy who wrote The Spearhead piece (who, again, wasn’t malicious toward me, although he does lapse into misogynist rhetoric elsewhere). For some of these men, perhaps many of them, their rage springs from deep pain. Feminism, painted in broad, clumsy strokes, gives them an adversary, something they can blame, something that can explain the implosion of their personal lives. And apparently, for many, the rage goes beyond feminism to womankind writ large.
But as I read these stories, my anger dissipated. I treasure my son’s close bond with his father; I can fathom the agony of being separated from one’s children and, not knowing whether these separations are justified or not, this gives me a point of connection with these men – one they would no doubt deny, but one that’s nonetheless hard for me to overlook. I began to realize that their nasty comments aren’t really about me at all. They have no idea who I am or how I really view the world. I was just their rhetorical punching bag of the moment, some faceless feminist on which to project their own fury and pain.
As I’ve processed this through writing, the power of the hate-fueled words has vanished. I don’t feel the need to skewer the MRAs – instead, I mostly just want to leave them alone, to let them stew in their manosphere and blow off steam. And another part of me wishes I could somehow dialogue with them, if I could find one or two willing to actually talk to me. I’m not trying to justify or exonerate the displays of misogynist words or attitudes, or play into the woman-bashing victim mentality. I’m just trying to remember that human beings are complex, and although it would be very easy for me to impose my own simplistic narrative onto all MRAs, and to attempt to dehumanize them, I don’t want to return the favor. Weird as it may sound, I want to humanize them. I want to see them as people.
More than that, I don’t want to unwittingly play a part in their “war of the sexes” script. Increasingly I am convinced that a primary hurdle to gender equality is the pervasive, entrenched notion that gender is a “zero sum game,” that men and women are perpetually at odds, that if one is winning the other is losing, that if one has power, the other is a victim. The “men’s rights” mentality feeds this dynamic, as do some of the more divisive and vitriolic camps of feminism – which, by the way, is a fragmented rather than monolithic entity.
For me, feminism has never been about tearing men down. I first encountered feminism in the classroom of a male professor, and I’ve always known men who are proud feminists. Moreover, the two most precious beings in my life happen to be male. I want my son to live in a world where he is encouraged and allowed to reach his full potential; I just don’t believe that has to happen at the expense of girls and women.
Sometimes the best reminder of something is to encounter its inverse, to be shown its absence. My little foray into the MRA world has, somewhat paradoxically, given me a renewed sense of gratitude for the men in my life. While it’s important to be aware that this sort of blatant hatred of exists, it is also nice to be reminded that that’s not where I live; those aren’t the men that I know.
The men I know are real men. Strong and good men. Men who love and respect the women in their lives, and who are loved and respected in return. And they certainly don’t fit the facile “beta-male” straw man the MRAs love to construct. The men in my life are a diverse bunch: some are atheists and skeptics, some are conservative Christians and Mormons, some have high-powered careers, some are at-home dads, some are wealthy, most are not; introverts, extroverts, pacifists, sports fanatics, fathers, husbands, bachelors, gay men, straight men, liberals, republicans, vegans, hunters – these are not cookie cutter men. But there is one trait they do share: these men aren’t threatened by women’s success; their sense of identity and power is not dependent upon mastery or dominance. They don’t hide out on the Internet and take potshots at mommy bloggers.
Their masculinity is not so precarious, so fragile, that they must tear down women to feel like men.
I won’t let these bastards grind me down, because, honestly, they are doing a good job of grinding themselves down. And the good men in my life overshadow them.
Even if some MRAs find this blog post and, reading it through their misogynist filters, proceed to throw Molotov cocktails in the comments – that’s okay. Because I get to shut my laptop and revel in a life that is filled with love. An ordinary life, but one with an undercurrent of quiet joy. When I finish this post I will go into the bedroom to nurse my baby boy, to enter a perfect moment that is played over again each night. Right now, he’s sleeping next to his father, and I will get to curl up between their warm bodies and sleep, too. And that reality is something that no online thread can touch.
I’ve been trying to write this post all day, in between putting my baby down for naps, folding laundry, taking a shower, breastfeeding, etc., and it’s a disorganized mess. I want to write about the idea of “having it all” and what that means, and what it doesn’t mean, and how we need a new way of thinking and talking about work-life balance. [If you’re interested, here’s a recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter that made some waves on this topic. And here is Slaughter explaining why she’s decided to renounce the phrase “having it all.”]
But any time I start going down one direction, I begin to argue with myself and get pulled in another direction. So, I’m just going to write a disorganized post and throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks. Hopefully this won’t scare away any faithful readers who expect me to know my own mind all the time. (Hint: lower your expectations.)
On the one hand…
I’m done with the ideal of “having it all.” This post represents me killing it, for good.
Those words feel like a yoke around my neck, something I owe to my foremothers who bravely struggled for the rights women of my generation now take for granted. I want to honor their struggle, but sometimes that’s just too much pressure.
When I hear or read about women “having it all,” I can’t help but think, “Of course I can’t have it all. NO ONE WITH KIDS HAS IT ALL.”
The other day I was leaving for my writing group, and Michael looked at me woefully and said, jokingly, “One of these days you’re going to leave and never come back.”
“I have to come back,” I said. “I’m lactating.”
And that’s no joke! Every three hours or so, I have a date with either a pump or my baby, and all that pumping and breastfeeding is more time-consuming than you’d think. And that’s just the wee tip of the icy tundra of parenting. I’ve only been a mother for four months, but already I’ve had to make professional sacrifices to keep up with motherhood. (Not to mention the professional and financial sacrifices involved in Michael being with Julian fulltime.)
But I’m tired of feeling guilty for making those sacrifices, as if the time I spend with my baby is somehow wasted time, that I should be using that time to meet with students or write another book or go to a conference or somehow make a name for myself because BETTY FRIEDAN IS WATCHING.
If “having it all” becomes my battle cry, I’m afraid I’ll constantly be asking myself, “Am I working hard enough? Am I climbing far enough, fast enough?”
I’m also annoyed because “having it all” carries some weighty and troublesome assumptions about gender. We don’t hear much kvetching in the media about how men with high-powered careers have had to sacrifice time with their families. Nope. It is assumed that that will happen, and it’s not seen as a loss for those men, or their families. Not only does this undervalue the very real and necessary work of caring for children and keeping a home running; it undervalues the importance of children having close, intimate bonds with fathers as well as mothers.
Yet women are always at the center of this conversation, because the conflict between work and family is assumed to be a uniquely female conflict – which reveals that this conversation is ACTUALLY focused on what happens outside the home (i.e., in the workforce) and not so much what happens within it. Because if our culture really valued domestic labor, we’d be concerned that, by and large, men aren’t taking part. (Feel free to check out my earlier post on this issue.)
This concept of “having it all” seems married to a value system that privileges money and power. And sometimes I feel like American feminism has too easily absorbed the cultural values of said money-making and power-grubbing. But how can we seek both to empower women AND reject that power as problematic? (And now I am beginning to understand why this post is so difficult to write…)
The implicit message we grow up with is that what we do to earn money should be our center of gravity, rather than the people we love, or other kinds of unpaid work we do out of necessity or enjoyment (like blogging!). And the scary thing is, you can climb and climb and accumulate and accumulate – and then you retire and die. There’s always more money to be made. Even the mind-blowingly wealthy among us are busy making more money. I worry that the attitude of “having it all” means that nothing will ever feel like enough.
On the other hand…
As soon as I hear myself say, “you can’t have it all,” I think about my female college students, women who are just beginning to find out who they are and who they want to be – personally, professionally, philosophically. Women who are learning to believe in themselves, to see themselves as leaders in their communities. I don’t want them to hear in these words that they have to choose between having a job they love and being a successful parent. Because you can do both, absolutely. Many women, including myself, are living proof of that. [Of course, it might mean that your living room looks like THIS for several years.—->]
[And, as an aside, my single best piece of advice for women who hope to have a career and a family is this: choose a supportive partner, someone who is committed to co-parenting, someone willing to making sacrifices and compromises alongside you.]
But you don’t HAVE to have both. You can also choose to pursue just one of these paths, or you can hop back and forth between them. You can decide to be an at-home “breastfeeding executive” (which is how one of my smart, successful SAHM friends lists her occupation on facebook). To choose this doesn’t mean you’ve failed in the quest of “having it all,” that you’ve failed your college degree, or your professors, or womankind, or God. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to earn a shitload of money. You don’t have to have a career outside the home to make a tangible difference in the lives of those who share your little patch of Earth.
And you can also choose to NOT get married (seriously, you can!), or to get married but not have children. Again, this doesn’t mean you’re betraying your ovaries, or your parents, or the species, or God. None of these modes of living is inherently honorable or valuable or “successful” than the others. There is no cookie cutter for your life.
I also think about my male students, who have grown up in a culture that tells them to define their self-worth by what they do to make money outside the home, beyond the context of their family and community. I want to tell them that success actually might look like “having less” – it might look like working less, or earning less, in order to be present to the people they love.
What I want these young men and women to understand is that having a family — whether you have a career in addition or not — will always require certain sacrifices and compromises. It means that, in the pursuit of balance, you might have to make some tough choices. And in that context, measuring yourself against a slogan of “having it all” could feel like failure. Which is why I want to jettison those words.
I want to give my students, and myself, permission to shirk the societal model of ladder-climbing, the success rubric of money and power, to choose NOT to define ourselves by what we earn and own, but by who and what we love.
So as I reach the end of my jumbled thoughts, I guess my conclusion is this:
Don’t ask, as you enter the world, “Do I have it all?” Ask: “Am I living deeply? And where am I putting my roots?”
[Please discuss in the comments, because I don’t even know if I completely agree with myself.]