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.
Last year, on this day, I went into labor on the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t realize this at the time; I was skipping church each Sunday in favor of sleeping in late with my skeptical husband, trying to catch up on the sleep that was being robbed each night by back pain and frequent trips to the bathroom. I was still working full time during the week, toddling through each day behind an impossibly huge belly, only vaguely aware that I was about to give birth in the season of The Birth.
Not that I had to attend church to be reminded of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and all that. I saw them constantly, most often and most depressingly in the forms of bobbing, inflatable lawn ornaments with cartoonish faces – Mary wearing a shapeless blue tarp like a rain poncho, Joseph looming limply over her, and somewhere in there a blow-up Christ child. These were only their nightly forms; in the day the little air pumps would get turned off, presumably to save someone’s power or dignity, and the Holy Family would wilt completely into a pile of plastic on the front lawn.
That wasn’t the only version of the nativity scene around, of course. But one commonality among them was that Mary tended to look remarkably clean and, well, refreshed for someone who just labored in a barn all night. I did not look so serene after giving birth. I looked traumatized, like a shade from the underworld, leaning back against a pillow literally soaked in sweat, my eyelids swollen from being clenched shut for hours, the eyes behind them marbled with burst capillaries.
What were we thinking on that long-ago St. Patrick’s Day, my husband and I? What made us imagine we could do something as reckless as create another human being? There was no divine command; no angel appeared to me in a blaze of terror and light to say this is what you must do. It was just us, Michael and me, feeling frisky and perhaps a little bored and so full of love that we needed to make another body to contain it, to catch what was spilling over.
We had no idea what we were getting into, this business of incarnation. How can anyone? It must be entered blindly. Did Mary know how it would end? The angel told her all the good stuff, son of God, reigning forever and all that, but did his eyes whisper something else, some foreshadowing? With this honor comes the promise of pain.
There is no record of this warning. But perhaps Mary knew it somehow, if only in her marrow. Even the divine Word, becoming flesh, shriveled down to a cluster of unknowing cells to speak only the language of the body. When the Word was in Mary, doubling and unfurling from fish into human, what did he know in that enclosed sea, the tiny god-being, of truth or sin or certainty? Warmth is what he knew, and watery movement in filtered orange light, and the hushed sounds of voices outside.
The word was made flesh, yes, but what about after? Did Mary tear as she split herself open in the stable? Was she alone with him at all, her first and perfect child, before the men trailed in to worship him?
I know one thing. Mary didn’t stare herself in the mirror, perusing her postpartum body with a mixture of horror and fascination like I did. But she must have noticed the metamorphosis, the enveloping of her girl-body into the flesh of a mother: heavy breasts blooming with violet veins, and a soft, spongy belly – perfect for cuddling God. She must have felt the buzzy tightening of her ducts releasing milk, the rawness of her nipples those first few days. And of course she must have bled, like her son one day would, for weeks.
This is her body, broken in birth; how do we remember her?
I kept my eyes closed almost entirely during labor. I labored in darkness, descending deep within myself, trying to burrow under the pain that was radiating to my spine in hot jolts. But at that last moment – at once an epiphany and an annunciation – my mother pulled away the cool cloth covering my eyes and in a rush of water and dazzling light my son spilled into life and onto my stomach, covered in blood and goo, and we touched for the first time, skin against skin, along the length of our newly split bodies.
So much is said about the ripped and tortured and dying body of God, but what about the body he came in? The one like my son’s, tiny and hungry with skin soft as ash, and hands that spring open like little stars, grasping in the air for something, someone.
I am grasping, too, struggling to funnel this moment into language, to find words that can touch its vastness – such flimsy tools, these clusters of letters, but they are all that I have.
We are embodied words, all of us. We are bundles of language and skin, the consummation of some impulse or desire, some word brought to fruition.
What word is it that my son incarnates? Mary said yes. We said: let’s.
Yes, let’s. Let’s give this word a body and welcome him into the world. And look! Here he is now, our word made flesh, warm and wriggling in close for a drink of sweet milk.
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.
This is what Sunday morning looks like at my house these days. In fact, this past Sunday, miraculously, I got to sleep in until 10 AM, for the first time since I can remember. If that’s not worship for a new parent, I don’t know what is.
I’ve been thinking a lot about church lately, probably because I’ve been following Rachel Held Evans’ blog series on church abuse, and also because I’ve had several recent conversations with a handful of people I consider to be spiritual giants, and I’ve been surprised to discover that these people (whom I frankly thought were WAY out of my league, faith-wise) have the same struggles with churchgoing that I do.
So I’m feeling a bit braver now, a little more ready to talk openly about my ambivalence toward church – and I’m curious to hear about others’ experiences in the context of their own faith traditions.
Five Reasons Why I Want to Go to Church…
1) I want to be part of a close-knit community.
This, first and foremost, represents the greatest value of church for me. It’s not so much worship, because I feel like I can do that anywhere. Worship, for me, is not just singing songs, but more about trying to cultivate a spirit of awe and gratitude on a daily, even momentary basis, to get back that childlike sense of wonder we adults learn to function without. The real appeal of church is all about community, about sharing purpose and brokenness and sorrow and joy with like-hearted folks. And pooling our resources to help one another, as well as those in need.
2) I want to encounter the sacred.
This has always been true; I have a ravenous mystic’s heart. I want to see God, to look straight at him/her while my eyeballs light on fire. And I do catch glimpses – often times NOT in church, actually. But there is something to be said for stepping into a place that is set aside, a place outside the hum and buzz of daily chaos, a place where people gather to be Christ to one another.
3) I want to get better at this whole faith thing.
Doubt comes naturally to me. I speak fluent skeptic. The faith thing, though, takes some work. Don’t misunderstand – I don’t think my doubt is stronger than my faith; both forces are alive and at work within me, constantly. This used to cause me quite a lot of anxiety, until I began to accept their interconnectedness, to accept that the tension between them is hardwired into me. My head is prone to doubt and over-analysis, but my soul is like a loyal, dopey golden retriever who is constantly looking toward God and wagging his tail hopefully. Being part of a life-giving church community could help me be better at faith, to choose to keep hoping and looking and wagging, to not get swallowed into my head all the time, to better maintain that crucial balance between the needing to know and the being okay with not knowing.
4) I want my son to experience being part of a faith community.
The question of religion springs to the forefront as soon as you have a kid. You’re no longer just responsible for your own spiritual wellbeing; you’ve got a malleable little soul on your hands. I know that Julian will ultimately decide whether or not he wants to be religious, but I want to do everything I can to prepare him for that decision. I want him to grow up experiencing the positive aspects of a life of faith, without feeling scared or shamed into it. I want him to develop a spiritual sensibility, an awareness of the numinous, an orientation of service and compassion toward the world. The little old lady who can pinch his cheek and give him wet kisses, those other kids who can wreak joyful havoc with him among the pews – I want him to have those people in his life, to be surrounded by a community that loves him and is invested in his welfare.
5) I feel guilty if I don’t go.
… And Five Reasons Why I (often) Don’t
1) I am too tired.
Okay, I know people with babies go to church. I’ve seen them, back when I used to go to church, back when I didn’t have a baby. But by the time I’ve floundered on terrible, patchy sleep throughout the entire workweek, I am beat. I am done. Even when I start to psych myself up on Saturday night – Totally going to church tomorrow! Totally doing it!!!! – when I am actually faced with the temptation of sleeping late and sharing my baby’s mid-morning nap, I am not strong enough to resist. Sleep has become a drug, and I am an addict, always jonesing for more.
2) I have high expectations.
I admit it. I’m the Goldilocks of churchgoers. I have a long list of demands. I want a church that welcomes absolutely anyone – in practice, not just speech. I want a church where women are actively involved on every level, including leadership. I want a church that loves children and doesn’t believe they should be seen and not heard. I want a church service that is more than just over-produced worship time followed by a long-ass sermon. I want a church that sees worship as more than just singing along with a rock band whose mics are turned up so high that the voices of the people are drowned out. I want a church that doesn’t have a mean theology. I want a church that welcomes a spirit of questioning, rather than imposing a spirit of certainty. I want a church like the bar Cheers, where everyone knows everyone’s name. And, most importantly, I want a church that doesn’t keep you locked in the foyer if you have to go to the bathroom during the sermon. WTF?
3) I am introverted.
Going to church can be really hard if you’re introverted. And church HUNTING is a complete nightmare, which is pretty much the mode I’ve been in for the past two years. (Did I mention I have high expectations when it comes to church?) Not only is there, in many churches, a pressure to perform by emoting publicly and praying out loud extemporaneously (ideally while using the word “just” in as many capacities as possible, i.e. Lord, we just thank you for bringing us here, and we just ask that you would just…), there is the added pressure of somehow getting to know the sea of strangers in front of you, who may or may not be that welcoming. This dynamic seems even more daunting for the introvert with a young baby, a baby who could start crying or pooping or want you to take your boobs out at any minute and attract the eyes of said strangers. Sigh. As you might have gleaned by now, church tends to cause me no small amount of anxiety, and when I imagine bringing a baby along, the list of possible shame-inducing events exponentially skyrockets. (At this point, if you’re a regular reader and saw this earlier post, you might be beginning to wonder if I have a phobia about taking my baby out in public. I think you might be right.)
4) I am tired of feeling guilty.
This might seem paradoxical, but feeling guilty for not going to church is another reason why, on principle, I don’t make myself go. I’ve been trying, in my life, to free myself from the never-ending onslaught of shoulds and oughts. I ‘should’ on myself way too much, to the point where I pretty much constantly feel inadequate and ashamed of something or another. So it’s been healing for me to realize that, as an adult with a driver’s license, I can go to church because I want to be there, because I might actually have those experiences I long for. But if guilt is the only thing that will get me through the door, I’m not going to go.
5) I’m not sure I need it.
This is scary to say out loud. Even scarier to write in black and white and post on the internet. But this is a question I struggle with – do I need church? I happen to teach at a university with a strong religious commitment, which means that, during the week, I’m constantly engaged in vibrant conversations about God. You know that close-knit community I was talking about? I have that at work, surrounded by like-minded colleagues who are also good friends, people who challenge me to live authentically, people who are Christ to me on an almost daily basis. When I’m talking with a student about her spiritual longings and frustrations, that feels like church to me. When I manage to facilitate a lively class discussion on The Book of Job or Flannery O’Connor, that feels like church to me. When a ragtag group of colleagues/friends come to my house on a Saturday night to share food and wine and fellowship, that feels like church to me.
There is part of me, then, that feels like whatever church is and should be, I am already experiencing that in my life. There’s another part, though, that is bothered by the selfish tenor of this whole inner monologue, which tends to focus on what church can do for me, rather than what I can bring to the table. Or the potluck.
So, here I am, left feeling ambivalent in the true sense: torn by strong, conflicting emotions. Why do I care so much? There have been seasons of my life in which church has been incredibly life-giving – and there have been other seasons when I’ve been damaged by church, when I’ve felt silenced and shamed. That’s why I’m taking the whole idea of where I go on Sunday mornings so seriously; I know what’s at stake. I know how church can heal, and I know how church can wound.
But I’ll end with some hope, a little sprinkle of fairy dust for those of you who read through to the end. Toward the last half of my pregnancy, I began attending a local Quaker church, and until exhaustion and impending childbirth knocked me off the churchgoing wagon, I was beginning to feel like I’d found a spiritual home – a little church that is a healing place, a place for doubters, mystics, and introverts, for nomads of the soul.
Of course, going there still means getting up on Sunday morning, so… baby steps.
[Tell me, how do you feel about church? What makes you go? What keeps you from going?]