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.
My son just turned four months old yesterday, and I’m already wondering how I am going to talk to him about sex. To be perfectly honest, this is something I’ve been thinking about for years, long before becoming a mother.
Yes, I have a problem with “future tripping,” as a friend of mine recently phrased it. One of my many neuroses is the inability to stop planning for and fantasizing about things that are years down the road – like the sex education of my children, for example, of whom only one has been born yet.
I’m still working on the finer details of the “sex talk,” which I imagine will be an ongoing dialogue, rather than a one-time super-awkward chat about “what happens when mommies and daddies love each other.”
I do know one thing, though:
I’m not going to talk about virginity.
I’m done with virginity. Done and dusted. Yeah, no big surprise, you say: I’ve been married for seven years and have a baby – of course virginity and I have long since parted ways. And that’s true. In fact, we parted ways quite awhile ago. Before I got married. Yes, I was one of those 80% of evangelical Christian youth who pledge to save sex for marriage and don’t actually make it. But that’s not what I mean by being done with virginity. I mean that I’m done with the concept itself.
There’s been some buzz on the blogosphere lately about the damaging impact of “purity culture” within Christianity, and I feel compelled to throw my hat into that ring, because I’ve got some serious wounds from growing up in that culture, wounds that keep splitting open just when I think they’ve finally healed. [Check out these other posts on the topic by Emily Maynard – no, not the Bachelorette – Jamie Wright, and Elizabeth Esther.]
I won’t get into the finer, messier details of my story here. (I tried to reassure my mom the other day that I do have SOME boundaries when it comes to blogging – which doesn’t mean I won’t eventually share my full story; after all, it is mine to tell. But I don’t feel ready yet. Probably because of those wounds I mentioned earlier…)
Instead, let’s have some fun with bulleted lists!
This is what the virginity narrative taught me:
- Sex is dirty and shameful — until you’re married, and then it’s suddenly AWESOME! AND BEAUTIFUL! AND FROM GOD!!!
- There are two classes of Christians: those who waited, and those who failed. You now belong to the second class.
- Your sexual history is the most important thing about you.
- As a woman, your moral worth is rooted in your body and sexuality.
- “Virtue” is just another code-word for “virginity,” which you lost…
- …And, since you are no longer a virgin:
- You have less to bring to a marriage. (If anyone actually decides you’re worth marrying, that is.)
- You’ve lost a part of yourself that can never be regained.
- You are damaged goods.
- You can never be “pure” again.
- Your marital sex life will be haunted by the ghosts of your former partners.
You are a creature of shame.
That last one is the cruelest. The last one is a fishhook to the soul. I’m not talking guilt here. Guilt implies a fault in one’s behavior, and I think guilt can sometimes be helpful for us to experience, when we’ve been naughty and it’s warranted.
Shame, however, is a different animal altogether. Shame isn’t about what you’ve done. Shame implies a flaw in one’s being. “Purity culture” isn’t just about policing behavior; it’s in the business of ontology. And that’s dangerous.
It is this narrative of flawed being that broke me. Even years later, despite much time and healing, I can still abruptly stumble into deep wells of pain when I hear “purity talk.” Suddenly the shame I thought I’d managed to peel away from my skin reappears, burning like ice, and I feel sick. I want to hide.
Some might say that I’m just another anecdote about why sex before marriage is so damaging. But I know that what really damaged me was being told that I was damaged. We desperately need a new Christian narrative about sexuality, one not fueled by shame and fear, but a narrative of wholeness and health and grace.
So that’s why I’m writing this, even though I’m feeling anxious and exposed as I type this out. I’m writing this post for the girl I used to be, for the 17 year-old non-virgin who showed up at a college (ostensibly) full of Christian virgins and learned to devalue herself, learned to see herself as unworthy of love and respect. The girl whose classmates gave her all sorts of new ways to think about herself — as a piece of candy that had already been sucked on, or a bride in a wedding dress covered in red handprints, her shame for all the world to see.
I want to tell that girl that those are lies. I want to tell her that she cannot be reduced to her history, that she is valued for her mind and her fierce heart, that she has a life of fullness and love ahead of her.
I want to tell that girl within me – because she’s still there, still aching – that one day she’ll meet a boy who couldn’t care less about her non-virginity, and after years of great marital romping (which, it turns out, is NOT haunted by the ghosts of past lovers) they’ll have a cute baby, and then maybe a couple more babies, and she’ll somehow figure out how to talk to those babies about all this sex stuff without shame.
More than anything, I want to tell that girl, and others like her, this:
You are whole and holy.
You are immeasurably loved.
And that’s not something you can lose.