I’m Catholic. I’m a Catholic in my heart, in my morality and in my soul. I didn’t practice Catholicism for a long time — it may well have been forty years. If someone asked me my religion during that time, I said, “I’m a recovering Catholic.” Get it? It’s supposed to be funny because it compares being a Catholic to alcoholism. A motto attributed to Saint Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuit Order is “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” which implies that the best time to indoctrinate a person into a lifetime of dogmatic belief is when they are young.
They also say that once a Catholic, always a Catholic. It’s not something I can forget, or get over. I know. I’ve tried. I still feel guilt more than others and I’m in awe of other’s ability to scoff at the consequences of their actions. Just like drugs or alcohol, Catholicism is in my veins and there is no recovery. I went to a Catholic school for twelve years. My parents were Catholic. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were Catholic. They remained Catholic: I didn’t. I was a runaway, a black sheep. They prayed for me and that made me angry. Do you know why? Because they were hypocrites and bullies and the thought of being like them sickened me. They prayed for the wrong thing. If they had cared for me, they would have prayed that I be healthy or happy or safe. The only thing they cared about was that I be an obedient Catholic. It’s not that I didn’t believe in God. I did, but an essence of a God, not a God in swaddling clothes or hanging on a cross. And God could very well be a Goddess.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’ve gone back. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, going back I mean. Over the years, I’ve looked into other religions, some of the protestant ones of course but also Buddhism and Hinduism and Paganism, but nothing fit. Nothing suited me. And I’ve been back and forth with Catholicism. There were the scandals: the rampant sexual abuse coupled with a curious condemnation of homosexuality. But on this issue the church seems to suffer from multiple personality disorder or conflicting sin disorder because in some places homosexuality is welcomed and in others it is condemned as an abomination. On another front, abortion is a sin but forcing girls to give up their babies and spend their lives slaving in the Magdalena Laundries was once considered okay. How does the church manage that dichotomy? That’s not the question, though. The question is how do I manage that dichotomy?
With the Church, it has always been a question of reputation, and the Church protected the reputation of the priests and nuns and the institutions they ran to the detriment of everything and everyone else. There is a caste system in the Church. It’s one of the clearest hierarchies I know. First, of course, there is God, then the Pope, then the Cardinals, then the Bishops, and then the priests. They all defer to a power above them, sort of like the military. Obedience to the higher power is taken for granted. No one questions it. Anything that exposed religious reputation to the bare light of day was suppressed. And, in case you haven’t noticed, all of these powerful people are male.
And we, the females in the Catholic Church, with a few isolated and short-lived exceptions, never seemed to notice that they were all male. This was the natural order of things. When I did finally notice, I decided that we needed to have a Goddess along with a God. The phrase, made in the image and likeness of God, came back to me over and over again like John Henry’s hammer striking metal. You see, I’m not made in the image and likeness of God and I won’t be unless we reinterpret and re-image the Bible. We need to see a Goddess standing tall and equal to God and we need to have women as priests and priestesses. We, we women, need to be recognized for what we contribute to the world. The world needs to be fair and just and it needs to begin with God — with God and with a Goddess.
I’ve waited long enough. I can’t wait any longer.
I don’t know how to reconcile this kind of feeling with the idea that I want to be a Catholic. Please let me be a Catholic, I beg. Please. I can’t change my thinking. I’ll keep agitating for what I believe is right and just, but for a change, I want to do it from within the Church. I know I have something of a minority opinion and I don’t want to upset anyone. During the Creed, I don’t shout over everyone, I BELIEVE IN GOD AND THE GODDESS. That would be disruptive and I don’t even talk to most people. I write about it. That’s how I get it out.
I still don’t believe a lot of the required stuff, but in the end it just doesn’t matter. I don’t have to believe in everything. That’s because what is there, deep within my being, is a feeling, an emotion. I feel it when I go to Mass, when I recite the prayers, when I respond with the congregation to litanies, and when I sing softly along with the choir. I feel warm in church. I feel loved, like I belong. I think it’s spiritual but I’m not sure. I think it is love. And guess what popped up into my life this week? Kierkegaard and his ideas about love, a non-erotic brotherly love, a love that gives without the giver being known. But I don’t want to intellectualize anymore. I turn everything on its head sometimes, but I’m no Kierkegaard. I’m tired of all the questions. I don’t know the answers, but that’s okay. All I need to do is show up. The feeling is intensifying and it’s dramatic. Every time I go to Mass and receive Communion, the feeling is stronger and sometimes I’m an emotional mess. Tears run down my face and I don’t understand. I don’t know why I’m crying. All I know is I feel safe and I feel that God loves me. I feel wrapped up in His love. I guess I didn’t feel that for a long time. I feel something akin to passion and I want to sink into it, relax as into a warm bath of acceptance. Why wouldn’t God accept me? He made me, didn’t He?
Many things came together to help this happen. One was Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy. We need mercy. We need to forgive one another, help one another, and leave off criticizing one another. Another element is growing old. I feel hungry for something religious, something spiritual in my life. Another, and I think it’s key, is the physical shell of religion: it’s where I go to church. About a year ago I tried to attend a funeral and erroneously thought it would be at the held at the Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville. I get lost now. I end up in the wrong place at the wrong time sometimes. It’s frustrating but a natural part of aging and since I don’t seem to be able to fix it, I just accept it. The Basilica was old and ornate; the way churches were in my youth. Modern churches eschew extraneous decoration and I miss it. They make me feel empty and dry. The world has been celebrating God in art for thousands of years. Why abandon such abundance? Is it to intellectualize God? Is it to remove the sensuality and the passion? I don’t understand. But this church felt familiar and welcoming. I slipped into a pew, knelt and prayed. I prayed for the family of the man who had died and then I prayed for me. Help me God, I prayed. Come to me and surround me with your love and protection.
Something happened that day. It was as if something entered me, as if something was saying. “Stop fighting. You’re home.” It’s nice here, I thought.
I looked up. The ceiling was a curved dome of tiles, nothing fancy – it wasn’t the Sistine Chapel – but it was powerful and strong. There were stained-glass windows letting in incredible light. There were side altars like the old days and banks of candles. I revel in tradition, in ritual, in the familiar repetition of prayers I have known and recited since childhood. I found a brochure that briefly described the building. The Basilica of Saint Lawrence was built in 1908 by Rafael Guastavino, a famous Spaniard who had invented a way of creating a free-standing dome with thin tiles. His crypt is in the side chapel. I was moved by the immensity of the space. It is as if the ceiling is the dome of the sky. I experience the sky that way. To the visible eye the sky begins at a spot as far away as I can see and continues behind me in a curved arc to a spot I can only imagine. The immensity of the sky was what I think Guastavino had in mind when he built this unrelieved expanse. It’s beautiful, I thought. The building itself was an emotional experience for me.
I thought about it over the next couple weeks and one Sunday actually went to Mass. Don’t tell the family, I said to myself. They’ll have catfits. I liked it and went back maybe half a dozen times. I kept it a secret. Then I got busy doing other things and forgot about it. I went back to my old grind.
About this time I was thinking about dying. I got the will out and made sure my daughters knew where it was. I cleaned up my files and explained all that boring but important stuff to them. I made sure they were my beneficiaries, that I had the documents they would need if I became incapacitated. Getting old has something to do with this. I want to die where I began, with my people. So I started attending church again and it felt good to me. It felt right. Then I thought, I better go to Confession but I was terrified. I hadn’t been to confession in forty years. I had done some things that the Church considers wrong but I don’t think is wrong. No murders, no adultery — I hadn’t done anything like that. Am I to confess something I don’t consider wrong? At one time I used birth control. I don’t think I’ve ever confessed it. I don’t think of it as wrong. I think the Church hasn’t caught up yet to my way of thinking. I’m fairly sure they will but the Church is slow to change.
I finally went to confession but mostly talked about what made me angry with the Catholic Church and to his credit and patience, the priest listened to my complaints. I actually told him that I needed to be welcomed back and that it would be great if he would do that. I joked about it. I said men sometimes don’t know what a woman wants so I’m telling you what I need and what I want you to do. What he said satisfied me and helped me immensely. I made a good act of contrition and left.
The Church is, I think, willing to listen now. Catholics have left in droves. There is something wrong and they are beginning to notice. I read in the news yesterday, Sunday, February 28, 2016 on the Guardian news site that Cardinal Pell of Australia told the Royal Commission that “The Catholic Church was more concerned with protecting its own reputation than helping victims of clergy abuse, and had a “predisposition not to believe” children who made complaints.” That’s an interesting phrase, “predisposition not to believe”. In order to enjoy fiction it is necessary to “suspend disbelief.” I remember when I first heard this particular phrase. It was a laugh out loud moment. Now, with a minor tweak in phrasing we have “predisposition not to believe”. In psychological circles this is called denial. But I look at this as a good thing, this admission by Cardinal Pell, because that is exactly what has been happening in the church since the middle ages when the hierarchy was first introduced.
I feel comfortable receiving Communion now. I’m ready to receive God into my body. It strengthens me. It fills me up and readies me for the week ahead. Communion to me is the high point of the mass and everything that happens before it leads up to it.
At Communion, those who are ready receive the consecrated bread and wine into their bodies. Before confession when I couldn’t go to Communion, I felt left out of the celebration. I felt like everyone around me wondered what horrible sin I had committed that I could not receive the Eucharist. But I honored the injunction. I complained but did as I was bid.
That’s about it. I may write more on this. I definitely want to tell you more about the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, about what makes it so special. I want you to come to see it if you can, not to become a Catholic, but just to revel in its beauty.