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.