Tag Archives: faith

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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Hillbilly Elegy and Cultural Identity

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Yesterday I nursed a cold and finished the audiobook of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. My husband walked in on occasion during the course of the book, and he often punctuated  the narration with a loud “yup.” As somebody who came from a culturally working-class background and found himself at Yale getting an advanced degree, they have a lot in common, and Vance’s experiences often rang true to him. I feel the cultural distance myself, too, within the Yale social circle, though I’m not immersed in it at work like he is. I remember being at a professor’s (insanely nice) house once and overhearing him ask another student, “Do you have any working-class friends?” I wanted to wave my hand frantically and point to myself and my husband.

Like Vance, my husband and I can also point to potentially traumatic experiences that affect more children with limited economic means than children in middle-class and higher families. I can easily check off at least three of those ACEs about maybe four, and I think Vance checked off six.

I was hoping that Vance would spend a lot more time talking about how his identity changed because of Yale, if he had to give up parts of his hillbilly identity in order to advance himself, consciously or unconsciously. He did tell how he lied about his Yale enrollment to a woman in Ohio with a Yale sweatshirt because he didn’t want to identify with her presumed class, and about how he learned to navigate the hiring process and how it’s structured in a way that it screens out those who aren’t already part of upper middle class culture. And how he would get calls from home about his drug-addicted mom, reminders of where he came from. And how he realized he had a quick, violent temper and an inability to express his emotions due to his volatile home life, and he worked to change that. But I want to know if he stuffed the more inconsequential parts of his origins down, like his personal tastes. Did he unabashedly talked about country music, or Cracker Barrel, or ask Yale friends if they wanted to shoot at beer cans on the weekend? Did he intentionally turn that part of himself off and shed it from his identity, or reserve it for trips back to Ohio and Kentucky? How aware was he of his cultural markers? He doesn’t indicate if he gave any of these parts of himself up, or what it felt like to decide to shed them or keep them. More on that in a minute.

Many of his phrases – skewering “lazy” people who took advantage of government assistance, defaulting to church as a force of social organization, talking about the decay of tradition without defining “tradition” – show that he remains entrenched in politically conservative modes, presumably which he got from his conservative relatives.* I found myself wondering if his harsh criticism of welfare recipients or a coworker who was taking 40-minute bathroom breaks (which to me is an indication that somebody is shooting up) was misdirected anger from his own opiate-addicted mother, or if it’s willful blindness to the way that addictions affect the addicts’ behavior and ability to function. He acknowledged that current psychological thought views addiction as a mental illness, but he doesn’t seem to extend his own personal sympathy toward addicts. Moreover, I don’t think that widespread addiction is something that you fix by giving people more church. I say that as a churchgoer.

He opines that we use government to fix issues that it can’t resolve, that it increases learned helplessness among groups like the working-class whites of his childhood. In his mind, hillbilly culture itself, its violent tendencies and family instability, is something that has to be fixed from the inside by hillbillies themselves. I admit that I have a tendency nowadays to look at governmental solutions. And it’s true that some people take advantage of the safety nets that government provides. But I think the stakes are too high for us to remove those nets and hope that our economically disadvantaged populations are going to toughen up and straighten out their cultures on their own.

Payday loans might have helped Vance pay his rent on time and avoid late fees that one time that he used it, but overall, I think payday loans do more harm to our society than good when low-income families get into the habit of using them. People are going to abuse WIC, but if abolishing WIC means there are kids that go hungry, I’d rather accept the abuse. Some people are doing a terrible job of parenting due to ignorance or drug abuse or other reasons, but if the schools ignore the shortcomings of those families and push their scheduled curriculum forward without trying to take up the slack, then those kids fail, and the school has failed those kids just as badly as their parents. It’s not right. And it would be great if we had social institutions instead of government institutions that would take up the slack, but we don’t, and it’s going to hurt a lot of people if we just take those government institutions away before the social ones are strong enough, or varied enough, or can survive, let alone thrive, in the mobile population we currently have.

Vance seemed to think that churches would be the best social organization structure, pointing to studies that regular attendees report higher levels of happiness than non-attendees. But Vance himself pointed out that the teachings of some churches can be destructive and turn people inward, and I don’t think that theological agreement with a group of other people should be a prerequisite for inclusion in social safety nets. It’s awesome if you can find that group, but I wouldn’t want to force people into a box. Political parties could be a better organizing structure, or looser community action groups centered around certain broad principles and ideas. Maybe it’s a relatively new, or American, or even individually-focused or selfish, idea that the beliefs and practices of faiths matter more than the benefits of social organization, but I’m okay with that being the new status quo if it means we have more sincere expressions of faith. (Similarly, I think that extending marriage to gay couples revitalizes the institution. If marriage is truly a special union that commits two people to each other, then straight couples have been diminishing its significance for decades by marrying because of unplanned pregnancies, because it seems like the thing to do in their long-term relationship, or for any other number of wrong reasons.)

 


 

And now for something completely different. Like Vance, I come from a rural, working-class background, and I have moved up in the socioeconomic ladder. Though my current income level and most of my cultural affiliations mark me as securely middle class, I do actively reject some markers that, to me, signify the middle class and upper middle class. I am well aware of them. Here’s a partial list:

  • Apple products. I have a Samsung Galaxy phone, no tablet, and a Chromebook.
  • Lululemon. I do spend money on Nike activewear because I find it comfortable, and sometimes on sale items at Athleta, a lesser-known activewear brand under the Gap umbrella.
  • Home ownership.
  • Buying brand new cars.
  • Urban Outfitters. (More a rejection of hipster culture than anything.)
  • Victoria’s Secret, PINK, Abercrombie. The exception: VS has awesome pantyhose.
  • Starbucks. I make 96% of my coffee at home, and sometimes I go to Dunkin Donuts.
  • “Fancy” restaurants. I prefer pub settings, and I tend to balk at the price of restaurant entrees when I can make something delicious at home for a fraction of the cost.
  • Brunch. See above re: cost.
  • Purebred dogs from a breeder. Shelter mutts are my go-to.
  • Skiing. Always seemed so expensive, and what rich kids did on break.
  • Country clubs. See above re: rich kids.

There are middle- and upper middle-class things that I do embrace, though:

  • Consumer Reports. They helped me pick my coffee maker as well as my…
  • Toyota Prius. Reliable, not wasteful of fossil fuels, and affordable to maintain.
  • News sources: New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR, Slate
  • Podcasts. Goes hand in hand with the news.
  • Audiobooks. Goes hand in hand with podcasts, but it really took off because my job gives me access.
  • Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, J. Crew. With blessings from my mom, the cast of What Not to Wear, numerous fashion bloggers, and my employee discount when I worked at BR, I happily spent money on building a good quality wardrobe.
  • Craft breweries and local breweries. My husband and I got married at a brewery.
  • Art films and foreign films.
  • HBO Now, Netflix, Amazon Prime. Cheaper than cable.
  • Travel abroad. My husband is way more into it than I am, but I’ve visited five countries aside from the U.S., none of which had English as an official language.
  • Whole Foods. They have good quality products that are oftentimes cheaper than regular stores. For example, house brand organic yogurt is $3.39 per 32 oz tub at WF, and it’s $4.39 for Stonyfield at Stop & Shop.
  • Organic products, to an extent. Processed organic products often have less  ingredients and taste better, and I notice a taste difference with some produce.
  • CSA membership.

Of course, I could do the same with rural Pennsylvania / working-class things. I’ve sort of done that before in my Raised Rural posts, without collecting them together in a list.

It’s pretty telling what I reject and embrace. Intellectually, I identify way more with populations that are more educated. It isn’t a surprise given my education level, my social circles, and my job, which encourages and rewards curiosity. Economically, though, I appear to be frugal and concerned with my bottom line and balancing quality and cost – maybe even too preoccupied with it. Without a doubt, this comes from growing up with little to no disposable income. I don’t stress about it like I used to, when I would create spreadsheets with store brand prices between several stores and think about how my mom’s grocery shopping involved both Giant and Shop-Rite. But it’s not something I want to totally give up. Besides, the more money I save on yogurt, the more there is for travel and books.

 

*ADDITION 2/8: I encountered that, too, and 2017-Lauren doesn’t believe in them. 2003-Lauren was hearing a lot of outrage in rural Pennsylvania about “welfare queens” and abuse of the system and was more bothered by it, and 2007-Lauren believed that America was a true meritocracy and that social, cultural, and economic issues could be overcome. 2017-Lauren knows more about how the decks are stacked and is also much more compassionate. No version of Lauren believed in the virtue of  old “tradition,” seeing it as way too constraining to historically marginalized populations.