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Coming Out Catholic

“My Soul Longs for You, O God” is the title of the first chapter in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, a copy of which I received when I went to meet with my parish’s priest last February, after declaring I wanted to officially join the Catholic church. It was a fitting beginning to the book, and also a fitting beginning to my journey over the past year. It will culminate in my official initiation into the Roman Catholic faith, just over a month from now during the Easter Vigil.

My decision to become Catholic has been a decade in the making, really, from the time I left the homogeneity of rural Pennsylvania. Had I stayed there, and had I not stayed with my semi-Catholic boyfriend who became my fully-Catholic husband, I might have eventually become Lutheran, and if I’d moved somewhere else I just as easily could have become Unitarian. It could still happen, sometime in the future. Around my mid-twenties, I concluded that Christianity was probably the best fit for me, and that every denomination within Christianity has its positives and its drawbacks. But it would be impossible to explore every single aspect of every single denomination, and every individual community within that denomination, and anyway, none of those were going to be completely perfect. My job wasn’t to find the perfect denomination or the perfect community, but to find one that was a good fit. It happened that I found a good fit in a liberal Catholic parish in New Haven.

As I hope I’ve accurately painted in my posts so far, I’ve been a skeptic for most of my life – or maybe an empiricist is a better word. I like proof. I like evidence. I see evidence of God in the existence of the universe, but not evidence of a personal God with whom one can communicate and have a relationship, as they spoke about in Sunday school. The History Channel documentaries on Jesus Christ offer no evidence of his divinity, and neither does the Bible, which, though possibly divinely inspired, is a creation of man and not a creation of the divine and does not stand in for fact. When I feel pulled toward God, which has happened on occasion, or an urge to go to church or to pray, I tend to look for a psychological or biological reason instead of a divine reason. Genuine faith is a struggle for me, and when all around me growing up were Protestant churches who put faith in Christ above all else, it’s no wonder I didn’t see a place for myself among them.

A couple years ago when my husband was living abroad, and I was working two jobs and not attending any worship services, and I generally felt like my life was on hold, I had a conversation with my mom about spirituality and religion. She had been going through her own spiritual awakening and had lots of new ideas. I realized in talking to her that my convictions – the few I’d had – had atrophied. I’d been curious about faith at one point, and had had good discussions with my faithful friends, but as I tried articulating my beliefs at that moment, I realized I had fewer beliefs than ever. My conception of the afterlife had never been static, and I had none then – we just died, and that was that. I didn’t entertain the notion that God listened to, or cared about, human problems. Our lives probably had no meaning and no judgment aside from what we grafted onto it. Nihilism, existentialism, near-atheism, whatever this was, it was far from the vibrant and lively spiritual world I’d once glimpsed and reached for. It was boring. It was lame, as Einstein said. And it was not what I wanted to believe in.

The really great thing about these types of non-belief, though, is that in the absence of a caring God, the individual bears the immense, ultimate, and urgent responsibility of justice, of shaping the world and enacting good. Of being the change. That’s how I saw myself, trying through my jobs at public libraries and in my daily interactions with others to ease their suffering, bring them a smile, sometimes even make their day. My insignificant life would end, as everyone’s insignificant life would end, but they are significant to us while we’re here, and if I could make somebody else’s life a little better, then I would have been a successful human being with a meaning to my life. I would have liked to have the weekly reminder of Mass to push me into those good intentions throughout the week, and to start getting some spirituality back, but I wasn’t in the right place to get dressed on my single day off, to drive to New Haven and look for parking, to sit alone, or to put the effort into looking for conversations and friendships at the post-Mass coffee hour. I couldn’t even get myself to social meetups that I found online, and I frequently cracked dark jokes at work about how I could barely take care of myself. So I let myself do my public service job, and I let it be good enough for the moment. There’s only so much that we’re capable of doing.

Though spiritually and emotionally I wasn’t in the best place, I was doing well materially and physically. We traded in the beat-up, oil-guzzling used Corolla for a much nicer, more reliable used Prius. Our apartment was small, but we could afford it, as well as some nicer furnishings. I worked six days a week, but they were good jobs, and I had good health insurance for the first time since I was an undergrad. I was making headway on my student loans. My fears of having to leave Connecticut to move in with my mom in Pennsylvania while my husband lived abroad did not come to fruition, and I could support myself in his absence. I could afford a gym membership. I had the physical ability to use the gym membership. I felt blessed. “Lucky” wasn’t the most accurate word, “blessed” was, and sometimes I would offer up a whispered “thank you” as I drove to work.

When my husband returned and I got a full-time job that allowed me to have two days off a week, I resolved to dedicate one of those mornings to weekly Mass attendance. It was the Christmas season, the time of anticipation and “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and raising candles in my grandmother’s darkened church while singing the low, droning harmony to “Silent Night.” I attended that Christmas Eve service, which I’d attended more years than not over the last decade, but I didn’t feel that connection I’d felt in the past. After dropping my grandmother at her home, my husband and I drove in the midnight cold to the Catholic church in town, searching unsuccessfully under the orange sodium lights for a posting of the Christmas morning schedule. Next year, we told ourselves, we’d attend the Catholic service. When we took a trip to the city in January, we attended Mass at a little church in Harlem, where my husband’s former priest from Chicago was now located. And when my husband went abroad for a couple weeks and I didn’t go to Mass, I genuinely missed it. He came back, and I’ve attended services nearly every week since then, volunteering my time to service projects here and there and joining RCIA in September, my husband acting as my sponsor.

My choice of denomination has puzzled and maybe even dismayed some of my relatives. After all, in my part of rural Pennsylvania, the Catholic church is the one with all the rituals, the one with strict nuns and hours-long Latin masses, with cover-ups of child molesting priests, anxiety-inducing confessions, hundreds of years of corruption, and regressive perspectives on sexuality and gender, where the church serves the church itself and not the community. I agree with half these criticisms. And I’ve spent the last few years trying to dispel the other half of criticisms by educating others on the reforms of Vatican II, the massive diversity within the umbrella of the church, and my own positive experiences with the church, its members, and the meaning I find in the rituals.

My church is not perfect. Roman Catholic institutions, leaders, and laypeople have traumatized and abused children, shackled adults in unhappy marriages, and facilitated gay conversion programs. They dig in their heels on issues that should no longer be issues in 2017, sometimes simply because they want to differentiate themselves from Protestants. It’s a 2000 year old institution, and it’s had plenty of time to screw up. But it also has a long history of doing social good, running some of the biggest charities in the world, feeding and sheltering those without basic needs, advocating for those without a voice, spreading the message of love and compassion, and offering a spiritual balm to millions. Pope Francis embodies and exemplifies the love that is central to the faith in a way that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented among popes, and he receives heavy criticism from the most conservative elements in the church. My own parish runs a weekly soup kitchen, sponsors a refugee family from Syria, and runs service trips to needy communities in Nicaragua and France. To echo my religion professor over a decade ago, this is the flawed, imperfect, beautiful story of all of Christianity, of men and women striving in their own flawed, imperfect, beautiful way to make this world better, to reach for a perfection we may never grasp.

Roman Catholicism, in particular, is how I choose to strive. It challenges me in ways that I didn’t feel challenged within Protestant churches. The feel-good homilies back in Pennsylvania didn’t shake me up, didn’t call upon me to step outside my comfort zones and act daily the way my priest’s homilies call me to act. I know somebody who attends Catholic services who was at one point, and possibly still is, an atheist, but who sees, as I do, the power of the church’s call to action, and the power of belonging to a community of others who are working towards the same goals. This particular faith calls upon me to think as well, to look at the Bible within a historical and literary context instead of taking passages at face value, to use my English major critical reading skills to interpret and to identify allegory and to get to the deeper truth. It calls upon me to do, and it has shown me the immense agency I have as an individual, both within the church and out in broader society. It has shown me how I can work towards justice, love, compassion, all those things I value as a human being even without affirmation from a religious doctrine, but more powerfully with the support of that doctrine. And my doctrine isn’t for everyone, for sure. There are many ways to be a good, loving, kind, compassionate, and just human being. The Roman Catholic faith is simply my own path, the one that shows me how to realize my own potential for goodness.

I’m taking shuffling, timid steps toward faith, too, and reconciling my compulsive need for proof with my desire to truly believe. My need for proof, at its core, is fear of being wrong. Falling back on proof, on what my senses can observe and measure, is safe, and it requires minimal risk. It’s not going to damage my Freudian ego. It’s what I, a first-generation college graduate, a professional, a nerd, have used as a basis for most of my decisions. It’s insurance against being wrong. Faith, on the other hand, is risky. It’s illogical. It’s difficult. It could be wrong, and it could make one look like a fool. Faith acknowledges, “this guy sounds crazy, and there’s no way at all to prove this is for real.” But faith then takes a deep breath and says, “I’m giving myself over to it anyway,” and steps forward into uncertainty. I want to believe that God hears the prayers that I am offering more and more easily as each day goes by. I want to fully believe that the thing I sometimes feel rising within me is the Holy Spirit, to not become preoccupied with the biochemical mechanism behind that feeling, and to instead allow the simple fact that I have been designed with the ability to feel those biochemical mechanisms be proof enough of the divine working in me. I want to be okay with not knowing all the answers, with Christ being both man and God, with His presence in the Eucharist. I want the image of the woman on the tilma I saw in Mexico City to be a miracle. I want there to be truth in the old book. I want to be like the blind men I read about in the book of Matthew, who answer “Yes, Lord” when Christ asks, “Do you believe that I can do this?” and are healed according to their faith. I want to be humbled before God’s grace, and have my good actions directed, disciple-like, by my devotion to Christ. I want to let my light shine.

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Rural Religion 2: The Desert

There’s an old joke that those who decide to major in psychology in college are looking to fix their own psychological problems. Similarly, I took up a religion minor because I was looking for religion.

Looking at my undergraduate transcripts, I took courses in Buddhism and religions of the Far East, Islam and Judaism, religion in contemporary literature, and philosophical approaches to God, in addition to the community college’s intro to philosophy and the comparative religion class. It’s almost as if I had a phobia of Christianity, the religion with which I grew up, and the very basis for the university I was attending. Instead, I wrote papers on the role of Satan in Islam and Judaism, and became familiar with the story of Job and the very few times the adversary is mentioned in the Qur’an. I visited a reformed synagogue and a mosque in the suburban-looking parts of Philadelphia. I remember taking my shoes off and listening to the white-bearded soft-spoken imam, who had an English last name and said he was from Pittsburgh, talk about his faith to the class. He said we could have some Hershey kisses on our way out, and when my professor asked if there was any significance to the chocolate, the imam looked surprised and exclaimed simply, “Everybody loves chocolate!” After we left, I thought about returning to the mosque on my own time. But I never did.

Nor did I return to the Lutheran church where I’d sung in the choir and played in the orchestra. I was in choir and jazz band at college, so with my musical niche filled, I no longer had a reason to attend. Some of the rituals there had resonated with me, but not the constant references to Christ, the human-god whose divinity could not be proven, or to a God that can intercede in our daily human lives and to which we can pray and will be heard. To me, God was the unseen, incomprehensible force that somehow created the universe, gravity, life, and made sure we all didn’t collapse in on ourselves. I never really doubted that. But since I was old enough to do so, I doubted that God really cared about us humans. Our cosmic insignificance, after all, was staggering. I saw no reason for such imperfect, destructive beings as humans to deserve any attention from such a powerful being. So I slept in Sunday mornings when I was home, and when I went back to campus I had dinner ready for my roommates when they returned from Mass.

Once, though, I was feeling a little off, like some part of me was missing. It wouldn’t be the first time I experienced this feeling. And it felt like going to Mass was the right thing to do. So I went to Mass, to the red-carpeted chapel in the basement of the building where business classes were held. I saw students, usually confident and popular during the day, rising from their wooden chairs with bowed heads, reciting “I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” I saw them gather together at the altar, reverentially, looking for some sort of healing. And though I couldn’t go up to the altar and partake, just being there and observing made me feel as if whatever turbulence was in me had been temporarily calmed.

I started asking questions of my religious friends, who obliged my inquiries about faith versus good works, papal infallibility, and transubstantiation. I noticed that a particularly devout friend, was quick to point out alternative, sympathetic explanations for other friends’ seemingly selfish behaviors. I heard of how the students loved the chaplain, the Christian Brothers who taught Spanish after living in rural Latin America, the priest who taught philosophy.

But it didn’t come to anything. When we graduated and moved to Chicago, I enjoyed Sunday mornings when my husband went to Mass and I had the apartment to myself at an hour where I wanted nothing more than time alone, and quiet. Sometimes, on the occasions when he asked me if I wanted to go with him and I inevitably said no, he gave me a look, a little half-smile trying to cover up sadness as he simply said “okay” and put on his coat. He started staying at church longer, and I started having more time in the mornings for myself. Then when the night before Easter came near, I agreed to go to Mass and watch him initiated officially into the church. I remember walking alone up to the church, in newer, smaller clothing to fit a newer, smaller body that I still hadn’t quite accepted as my own, unsure if my skirt was too short, or if I belonged there among the brown and black faces, if I was intruding on a ritual meant only for them. But the man next to me shook my hand and said “Peace be with you” just as everyone had done at the Lutheran church in rural Pennsylvania and at the Mass at college, and the priest joked with my husband when he called him up in front of the church to be baptized and receive the Eucharist. Though I had to work on Easter, I made a fancy salad and chilled soup for two before I went in to my afternoon shift, and I filled the rice cooker and salad spinner with fake grass, Cadbury eggs, pineapple rings, painted eggs, Peeps, and socks.

We got engaged shortly after that, and when we moved to New Haven we started attending Mass semi-regularly at the chapel around the corner from us. My fiance/husband wanted a church wedding, and I liked the priest that guided us through the pre-wedding counseling, even though I felt that some parts of the process weren’t needed for a couple that had been together for eight years, three of which were spent living under the same roof. I agreed to raise any children in the Catholic faith, happy to give them the same opportunity I’d had: knowledge of religion, open conversation, and the completely freedom to accept or reject. Thinking of how I connected to the rituals at the church, and how I felt welcome at the coffee hours after the services, I made the comment I might eventually become Catholic anyway. I arranged to have off on Sundays at my retail job, partially due to the hassle of the reduced bus schedule, but it also allowed me to go to Mass.

However, when the library job required me to work every Saturday, I had to give my Sundays back to retail. I started spending Mass checking the time on my phone for the moment when I could duck out, as quietly as possible, and catch the bus. It was not ideal, to say the least, and it didn’t last long before I gave up on trying to catch half the service and spent my Sunday mornings getting ready for work.

The wedding came and went, as did the honeymoon, as did Christmas, where the three days I could get off from my two jobs went by way too quickly for me to see enough of my family in Pennsylvania. I quit doing the ESL volunteer work I had done in the fall, since I could no longer fit it into my schedule, and ultimately, because I couldn’t overcome the nagging feeling that I was an utterly poor teacher. I extended my loan deferments. I edited the desperation out of my cover letters as best as I could. I counted calories and ran in the dark. I researched the ACA tax penalties for not having health insurance, and sent terse emails of neglected maintenance issues to the property management company. I lugged groceries down the sidewalk alone after work, once having a paper bag fall apart while crossing a four-lane road to get to the bus shelter, scurrying to the sidewalk and watching helplessly as cars swerved to avoid my leaking half-gallon of soymilk. On nights when work was particularly stressful, I made a few cocktails.

And something was creeping in, some emptiness that I didn’t want to quite call “depression” – it didn’t have that sagging feeling of my teenage years – but for which I had no other name. I felt like I had lost something, but I didn’t even know what it was. Sometimes, I would buy a potted plant at the grocery store that made me smile on rough days, though I felt guilty for spending the $4 on little roses and daffodils that would eventually die. And moreover, that little flower wouldn’t fill up that hole in myself that I tried to ignore. Eventually, my facade fell in a frightening, self-destructive private moment where I had to acknowledge that something was wrong with me. And that I didn’t know how to fix it.

The feeling stayed with me, usually a little thing barely visible in the corners, sometimes completely silent, and sometimes causing me to just suddenly throw up my hands and say “it’s all fucked anyway” and do something self-destructive for the next few hours, or the rest of the day. It followed me when I changed apartments, changed jobs, got a car, got a better car, hit all those success markers for which I’d strived and thought would make it go away. It stayed with me when my husband was living abroad for nearly a year and I came home every night to an empty apartment in the dead of winter. It stayed with me on Sunday mornings, the only morning I had when I usually didn’t have to get ready to work at one of my two jobs, or when my husband who worked from home would go to church and I would have some precious alone time at my most productive hours of the day. It was there when I took a solo trip to Pennsylvania and ran a few miles along a route on the Appalachian Trail I’d always wanted to follow and never did when I lived there, my mind on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her transformative hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s still there today, usually quiet, sometimes not.