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    Looking for Home

    In my earlier, Protestant life, people used to talk about finding a church home. Looking for great fellowship? Try the Baptists; they had Wednesday night supper. Looking for a serious inductive Bible study? Find a solid Presbyterian Church that held tight to its reformed roots. Yearning for transcendent worship? You’d likely be happiest in a high Anglican congregation, one that held onto the “smells and bells” of the Pre-Vatican II liturgical rite of the Catholic Church without the uncomfortable weight of so much troublesome doctrine. Looking for my tribe within the church—that did not feel like a strange pursuit to me by the time I got to college. 

    My folks stopped going to the Southern Baptist  church I was raised in around the time I got my driver’s license (I mean, they just stopped going, for reasons that remain unclear to me even today) and I, unwilling to give up the Sunday morning custom I’d loved throughout my childhood, took it upon myself to drive to various churches each Sunday morning in search of a new church home. There was more there, to be sure, than mere force of habit. I had a seedling faith that sprang from something that had already been planted within me. It came from somewhere, very early on: my mom tucking me in each night with a prayer, my Sunday school class with its construction paper projects, squirming in the pew on Sunday mornings for that interminable hour next to my parents. Somewhere in there the Holy Spirit grabbed hold of me, and I did not intend to let go of him. I do not remember a conversion so much as a surrounding. As much as my family might have treated overt expressions of faith as a mild embarrassment, the message of the Gospel made it through. In true Baptist fashion, I decided to follow Jesus.

    However, the truth was, by the time I reached junior high, there was nothing new about my faith. It had been planted there, by my mom, and her quiet Baptist exertions, and in agonizing fashion I spent a good deal of emotional energy over two or three years working up the courage to walk all by myself to the front of the church, declare my belief, and request baptism in front of the entire congregation. By God (!) the Baptists require a lot of the socially awkward and the painfully shy! Poised on the cusp of puberty, I certainly fell in both of those categories.

    But still, once I had made that rite of passage—the awkwardly meaningful episode of full-immersion baptism—I really liked the idea of belonging to a church.  So I was very unhappy when my father decided to walk away from the Baptists,  my mom trailing behind, with what looked like reluctance to me. The congregation had just voted in a new pastor, someone who seemed less like a bookish seminary professor and a lot more like a seventies-style TV evangelist. That was the exit cue for my dad who, as a college professor himself, had always trailed on the academic end of the Southern Baptist world. And maybe by that time, in early middle age, already suffering from career burnout, and not, as he told me later, a natural “joiner,” the idea of shopping around town for a new church just seemed too bothersome to him. So for my parents at least, that marked the beginning of their acquiescence, although not to agnosticism and certainly not to anything that looked or sounded anti-Christian. They gave up on the search. They simply weren’t going to look for their people anymore.

    I was only just 16, so their retreat from the church seemed a little unfair to me. I was literally in the process of enlarging my circle, looking for other people with whom I could identify.  Their quirky insistence that the church didn’t meet their standards seemed ill-timed to me. I liked hanging out with the other teenagers in the massive youth room at the First Baptist Church, with its ping pong tables and broken-down sofa pit. And secretly, I really liked Jesus. I wasn’t  interested in giving up on finding Christian community, although I certainly wouldn’t have put it that way. I decided that searching for a place to belong would be my new thing. That led to the somewhat weird phenomenon of a 16-year old girl looking through the Yellow Pages on Saturday night to pick a church to visit on my own the next day. It was a strange kind of freedom for a family to give their teenager, and a strange thing for me to ask: Can I please go to church tomorrow? I knew that I was a religious geek,  but I was determined to find my place.

    I went through a few churches in the years to come. Finding the right church home wasn’t easy, especially since I was still unsure about how to weigh out what was truly important: how much did I need to sort out each particular church’s system of beliefs? Wasn’t it more important that I liked the music and that there was a great young adult fellowship group? I wandered from church to church, an earnest, geeky, seeker. And in college that looked right, as the other Christian students on campus were mostly doing the same thing.

    I joined the mainline Presbyterian Church, the PCUSA, right after college. But my time there was short, as I moved from one city in North Carolina to another. That’s typical, especially in world of evangelical Protestants. When you move from one city to another, it’s not uncommon to start from scratch, and look at all kinds of churches that offer the basics of biblical Christianity. What’s considered basic? That can vary from person to person, which is why searching for a church home can quickly become such  an oddly personal and capricious exercise. To the Catholic eye, it can seem nonsensical. Leave, the Church sure, there’s plenty of reasons to do that, but to continually look for something better, or at least a better fit for your needs? What? You’re not going on a date, you’re going to church. Decide already: you’re in or you’re out. And in any case, even if you haven’t been inside a church since your niece’s baptism a year ago last June, that’s where you were baptized and raised. You’re Catholic, for chrissakes, that’s your home, even if you only show up for Christmas, Easter, and funerals. From what I’ve observed, the lapsed Catholic isn’t so much angry, as she is happily disinterested.

    In contrast, most seekers don’t wear the hat all that happily. They are looking for something that’s missing. Many actually really do want to find a sense of belonging, a sense of being at home in at least a small crowd. So when people church hop, they’re not just seeking God, they are, in some ways, really seeking themselves, or at least they’re seeking a tribe in which they can imagine finding a place to belong. That was true for me, as I made my way through a few years, working my way from a sweet, country Alliance Church in college then on through Presbyterianism. I neither knew nor understood practically anything about the Holiness roots of the former church or the Calvinist roots of the latter. I was a Christian shaped more by the writings of C.S. Lewis and John Stott, and I instinctively knew that sorting out all the rest was going to make it impossible for me to find a home anytime in the foreseeable future. And I was determined to be a joiner.

    I ultimately did find a profound sense of home when I converted to Catholicism in my mid-thirties. It offered a comprehensive framework that I could embrace, through the sacraments and through apostolic succession, winding all the way back to the words of Christ: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The frame of the sacraments and the rock of St Peter mattered to me, because even though my family wasn’t anti-Catholic in an aggressive way, my parents were, I guess I could say, phobic about what they knew of the Catholic church. But here were concrete reasons for choosing Catholicism over the other churches I had considered. Its arguments had been hammered out through two millennia, and as one friend, the Jesuit priest who confirmed me, wryly observed, the Church’s apologetic certainly was “elegant.”  I liked its claims to be the true church established by Christ, and the compelling arguments that back up its assertion. I loved the boldness, and even the absolutism that I glimpsed at the edges. It seemed to offer a haven for someone like me who was by this time, tired of searching. On the day of my confirmation, my husband stood behind me with our children, the third one just a baby.

    By my side stood my confirmation sponsor, a friend I loved like a sister. A convert as well, she had helped to bring me into the Church, praying her rosaries and lending me cassette tapes from Scott and Kimberly Hahn. On that day, and for a long time to follow, I felt the thrill of my own conversion as keenly as in any account that I’ve read or heard. I was home, and it was miraculous and startling and familiar all at once. And for a time, at least, when I needed it most, the Catholic Church really did feel like home.

    The Mercy of Good Friday

    This is the Lent we will never forget.

    I think every Christian feels the same way this year: we’ve had the Lent we never asked for, and certainly one that we never expected. This may sound wrong to say this during a pandemic, but it’s true: this year was my best Lent ever, and it’s undeniably true that the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has been the impetus for my Lenten spiritual renewal. It took a worldwide crisis for me to actually begin to see what Lent is meant to be: a turning away from myself and my endless need for self-analysis to seek the God Who Is. I’ve always thought that living Lent “well,” if such a thing is possible, was just too impossibly hard. This year, with the entire world suffering at levels we never imagined, spoiled first world Christians like me met the Lent that finally brought us to our knees. I think that it’s fair to say that the most intense experience of an entire life-time, for most of us, has given us a chance to live Lent as never before.

    The beginning of Lent used to present a mental tug-of -war: what exactly should I ” give up”; what exactly should I “add-on?” I was forever scrambling to figure it out, and to choose just enough “to do” so that I could only fail just a little bit. Because, face it, I would always fail.

    Accepting failure in the spiritual life has been a lesson in itself, for me, Yes, I fail, because, without Jesus, I can not live up to even the most basic standards of spiritual practice. The answer each year is the same, and one I welcome: I need Jesus, and I need to learn that every year. So the key to choosing how I enter into Lent, in recent years, has not been weighted with decision-making. I’ve come to learn the wisdom of the Lenten trifecta: prayer, almsgiving, fasting. Use that simple formula and make a fairly simple plan, just difficult enough to ensure some system failure. That’s the only way that I know that I’ve asked enough of myself.

    Admittedly, fasting, at least from certain foods, belongs at the end of my list, because, I’m sorry to say, I spend so much of my year trying to engage in intermittent fasting for managing my weight, that it makes it only marginally meaningful for me to give up anything else. That is to say, that I’ve spent so much time giving up foods for me, that it’s difficult to consider what foods to give up for Jesus. So yes, I gave up coffee and wine, and this year I tried to actually eat more vegetables. I didn’t even bother to put chocolate on the list for consideration, because when I dwell on it, then I’m so much more likely to have a piece. Perversely, telling myself that I can have a piece is a pretty good way of helping me to steer clear. No, I’m not trying to pull a fast one on God ( I tell myself). I’m trying to outmaneuver my own oppositional nature. Sure Lord, you be in charge–I’ll comply!–but you don’t need to be the boss of me. At least I recognize the source of those pesky stubborn streaks in each one of my kids. Let’s call it something seemingly benign–unnecessary pride—and let’s just say it’s an unfortunate generational spirit that I passed on to them.

    But fasting means other things, as well, and so I worked hard during this Lent to fast from defensiveness and my need for affirmation, and all the other little selfish sins of my pitiful pride. Lord, it felt good to let go of that nonsense. It felt good to remind myself that He really does have my back. If I don’t snap back at someone, it doesn’t make the insult of a particular slight sting more, it actually makes it sting less. Ah, I see, so forgiving others really is the key to being able to repent, and to allowing God to forgive me. The circular nature of it surprises me, and I can’t believe it took me so long to get this: If I can forgive others (and I mean just do it, whether I want to or not) then that very act, a small act really, allows my inner spirit to stay still long enough to see myself as I really am.

    And when I can give myself over to this process, then I truly am sorry for my own sins. It’s not so incredibly difficult as I once thought. At least it’s getting easier. When I really allow God into the scene to forgive me (not worrying at the moment about the other sinner who’s in the mix with me) well then I’m in the business of changing my heart, and my direction as well. And then, of course, I’ve become a more forgiving person, at least for today. And there’s the circle back to how I treat others. But now I’m also moving forward in the business of repentance, or of course metanoia, as my Bible commentary smartly informs me. The very Greekness of the word gives me hope, sounding so impressive and mysterious, that I’m now convinced that I really am on the path to changing the things about my life that need to be changed. Because through God’s grace this Lent, I am.

    Here’s another way to look at it: My hairdresser has a little framed saying that sits on  the table between the dryers in her salon, It says, “Let That Shit Go.” It’s probably not the way Jesus would say it, but it always makes me smile, because it really does have an ironic ring of gospel truth—well, at least with a little “g.” And if you don’t have a stylist or a barber with a sound life  philosophy,  you should really think about getting one. Because I’ve had some truly meaningful conversations about mercy and forgiveness while getting my hair colored and cut.  

    But God knows my stubborn reliance on my petty faults better than my hairdresser, and I talk to him about that everyday when I’m taking a long walk. My “me” time away from the house has been an excellent chance in the past month to have “God” time. And so I clip along listening to my daily prayer app (Pray as You Go) and my new coronatide add-on, the Divine Mercy Chaplet in song. Five cycles of prayer, just like a rosary, so that I can dedicate one round to each to my five children. (Catholic mothers of five appreciate this lovely arrangement when they’re praying.) And then, of course, I hang all kinds of other prayers onto each one of the rounds— from my husband and grandkids, to all medical workers and the sick, and then our dear friends and family far and wide, and those who are isolated and lonely, and all of our priests, and all of our beloved deceased. Over and over, in a beautiful refrain, the Chaplet offers the prayer, “Have mercy on us, and on the whole world.”

    So as much as I may not like it, I have the pandemic to tank for my spiritual ardor this Lenten season. Covid-19–is the curse, or the penance, that no one saw coming. The one that we never wanted to embrace, but the one we were given, nonetheless. And so now my prayer life has intensified as never before. Has the whole world turned to prayer, now? No, but still, we are many. Well then, we’re compelled to turn every moment into prayer, as we don our masks and wipe down the counters once again, just as much as when we pick up our Bibles and prayerbooks. Especially now in our helplessness, there is so much to do,

    And so most days I circle the neighborhood, where, blessedly, we’re still allowed to walk freely, though at a distance from one another. My petitions aren’t always  in any particular order, and I wonder from day to day what is best, to offer my best attempts at “properly” worded prayers, to be really specific and intentional, or just to bring all of these people before my mind’s eye as I cast all of our cares on the Almighty. I mean truly, just raise a bucket of anxiety about what the future holds and heave it toward the sky. I’m casting, but I think he’s calling, and I believe he’s calling to us all. I just pray that whole multitudes are listening.

    It’s the listening that has me concerned and that gives me hope to move forward. In effect, I’m all ears. All I want to do when I’m out there with my walking shoes and my prayers is to do a better job of hearing what the God has to say. “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” That’s the only part of this whole life-altering, world-wide disaster over which I have any control. As we pass through Good Friday sorrow and enter into Easter joy, I know that this Easter, as always, He loves the whole world beyond all telling. That’s been God’s gift to me during this long and blessed and terrible Lent. I’m praying for the church, and for the world, that we will all be willing to repent, to turn, and to listen to what he has to say. I pray that after this long Lent we will be willing to turn our hearts to Easter, and that we will , at long last, be willing to accept the love that he offers us: For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

    If only we would have ears to hear.

    A New Springtime in the Church

    Is there anything like a First Holy Communion in the family? There’s nothing more beautiful than helping a child discover the mystery and joy of receiving the Lord in full—his body, blood, soul, and divinity—his greatest gift. It seems to leave a mark on your own soul to stand with that child as they experience the sacrament for the first time. It’s the pearl of great price—faith, hope and love all wrapped up into one beautiful Mass. You might easily die a happy and holy death then and there, if it weren’t so important for you to “go in peace,” get back to the house, and set out lunch for all of the guests. You’re Mary and Martha all at once, and you want the day to last as long as it can. Oh, you wish you could stay in that glow with your child, your grandchild, your godchild, forever.

    But time plows forward, and of course, “you” is really, me, and now my little angels are all grown, or nearly so. And for some, there have been questions asked and resistance to going to Mass at all. Now has come the difficult realization that the mystery of the altar has become mysteriously unbelievable to some of the children who once kept careful count of every time they received the Eucharist, far into their first beautiful spring with Jesus. “This is my 3rd Holy Communion…this is my 7th Holy Communion….this is my 11th Holy Communion!”

    But then, Adolescence, dread reaper, arrived to assault my good counsel and careful teaching, and throw them all to the four winds. And I wanted so badly to succumb to fear or self-pity, anger or despondency. How could there be a menu of so many bad spiritual options, when, hope the one choice I knew I should opt for, seemed too impossibly good to even hold onto?

    What choice do you have when your kids drift away? Well, none, of course. You must accept, with humility, all that is. And, no kidding, that’s a good thing. Each time you receive now, you offer your communion for your wayward loved ones. You pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness. You pray that the scales will drop from the eyes of those who don’t see, and that they will behold the God who is truly there. And you begin to realize that you are praying for yourself, just as you pray for them. You begin to understand that this is your own very long Lenten journey.

    For parents and grandparents, this suffering seems uniquely terrible, this letting go of a child so that God can find him. Maybe it is, but I have no interest in gauging such a thing. I only find it helpful to know that with suffering, as we can see in the first chapter of  St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, it is possible, even expedient, that we rejoice in our “suffering for the sake of others.” What a pitiful waste if we choose not to. We do not have to remain alone, either in our suffering or in the very act of offering it back to God. This pain, however it’s measured, need not go to waste.

    When I can manage to wrap my mind around this, I hear words from St. Faustina, not audibly, to be sure, but nonetheless printed indelibly in my own heart: “Jesus, I trust in you.” That wisdom from a nun cloistered from the outside world. How timely for us, in these days of quarantine.

    And that might be the only lesson that’s necessary for a lot of us in this time of global pandemic. In place of uncertainty and fear, sickness and death, I’m choosing to lean into trust. So simple that, for some of us, it’s hard to believe that could even be a viable plan for anyone under the age of 99. We might want to think that it’s more pragmatic to focus on political parties and placing blame, or just making worry our daily bread.  But instinctively, a lot of us know that, if you’ve lost your job, or even worse, loved ones, none of that is helpful right now. And for some of us, there’s the frantic new reality of keeping shelves full at the few remaining stores, or taking care of the sick and dying. These folks don’t have time or energy to read blogs or even keep up with the news. They are in the eye of the maelstrom that is today’s news. This is not optional: we must all gird them with our prayers.

    It’s been pointed out that this crisis may not be the Apocalypse, but it is, in fact, an apocalypse, an unveiling that reveals who we are, and how close we are as a culture to falling from grace. We’ve lost our way, and though we barely know it, we are desperate to be found.

    I heard from a friend today whose millennial son lives in a major city nearby. He’s working from home, and his job in a professional firm seems secure; he’s healthy and safe. This mom has so much to be thankful for, and she knows it. But still, my friend is a little melancholy, because her son isn’t concerned about people dying alone. He thinks it’s right and appropriate to keep the clergy out of hospitals. They’re not, as he sees it, “essential personnel.” It’s okay that they die without spiritual comfort, because, he’s “pretty sure that God knows how to fill in the gaps, even from a distance.”

    Point missed entirely. It’s not God who needs comforting, or the saving grace of the sacraments, but the sick and the dying do. For this mom, it’s a sad revelation, an alarming unveiling, to recognize that her son, raised Catholic, has such a limited understanding of who we really are as human beings. She fears that, at twenty-six, he doesn’t perceive that our lives have a purpose beyond the material world. But he did when he was eight years old. A lot of the world wouldn’t recognize in the story the makings of a tragedy. But this mom, does. She knows that her biggest task now is to trust, even though there don’t seem to be a lot of tangible reasons for her to do just that.

    This could all go in a bad direction, if we religious believers aren’t intentional about holding on to our values. I fear that, in a post-pandemic reality that is to come, we could witness the reveal of a Brave New World where faith in God is considered non-essential, one where those who “practice religion”  have become unwelcome outsiders. And we may have to grapple with the scope of the twin tragedy that is now part of our lives: the widespread loss of faith throughout our culture, alongside its necessary corollary— most of our children are unfazed by the loss. It’s a world that’s ordered, they will say, just as it should be.

    We can help make sure that’s not our new world, by becoming the Church as we know it should be. So when we’re finally able to receive the sacraments again, when this long difficult Lent is finally over, maybe a good start would be if we each resolved to renew our faith like a second grader. What If we Catholics saw each chance to receive the Eucharist as a miraculous new first, or second or third Holy Communion? What if we began to see our life in the Church as the most important part of our lives, something we could not imagine living or dying without?

    What a surprise we would be to the world, if when we all re-emerged from this Great Hibernation, we were to find ourselves in the springtime of the Church that St. John Paul II wrote about?  What if, God-willing, on Easter Sunday of 2021, when I go forward to receive, I’m able to say with great joy in my heart, “This is my 1001st Holy Communion.”

     I can almost, almost see it.

    Voices in the Wilderness

    Tomorrow will make two weeks since I began in earnest to stock up for the impending quarantine. I was on my second loop around Costco, making sure that I had everything, when an older lady (meaning older than me) stopped me and asked me what in the world was going on. “Why is it so crowded on a Tuesday afternoon at one-thirty in the afternoon?” she asked. I honestly didn’t know what to say to her. I’d just been thinking that I couldn’t believe that there weren’t more people there, given the growing alarm in each day’s news. “Well, I think that everyone is getting the message to stock up,” I finally said. She shook her head at me, a bit dismissively, I thought, but I didn’t think it was my place to say more. I was feeling pretty grateful that I was out before the shelves were empty of some highly desired items (like the paper kind that wraps around a cardboard tube). And there were still many flats in the store that day, up to the warehouse ceiling, full of huge packages of Scott’s toilet tissue. I hoped this lady would follow the lead of her fellow shoppers and buy a package.

    This woman would have known to do just that if she’d been reading Rod Dreher’s column at the American Conservative. He’s been covering the spread of Covid-19  since at least early February, when he began sharing updates from a reader who has come  to be known in that space as Wyoming Doc. This is a doctor from rural Wyoming whose wife is from China. Wyoming Doc’s heartbreaking reports on what his wife’s family was enduring were some of the first warning signals that I, and other readers of Dreher’s column, had about the impending global threat posed by the novel coronavirus.

    Dreher has made a name for himself in issuing warnings of the enlightened kind. He is perhaps best known as the author of The Benedict Option, named by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute as the Conservative Book of the Year in 2018. Widely cited in some Christian circles as a prescient warning to prepare for the waning of Christianity in our country and culture, The Benedict Option has also taken a fair  amount of criticism for being a self-focused doomsday account that at best, overstates the threat to churches posed by shrinking membership and cultural opposition, and at worst, targets the LGBT community for the current woes of Christian orthodoxy in America. I think that those critics have been largely unfair, missing the entire point of the book, which does not advocate a retreat from culture, but rather advocates that Christians recognize that their own cultural and religious heritage is in danger of evaporating if they don’t take steps now to strengthen their own practice of the faith. Above all, the book is about the necessity of Christian community, weakened almost across the board in recent decades by theological battles within and cultural encroachment from without.

    In The Benedict Option, Dreher, a convert some years ago to Eastern Orthodoxy, writes of what he sees as  widespread dangers, on both social and political fronts, threatening what he often refers to as  “small-o” orthodox Christianity, meaning those churches which, at the very least, adhere to a strict belief in the historic early creeds of the church. Dreher seeks to spread the word to the shrinking number of faithful that it’s past time to shore up weakened communities in order to have a chance of preserving and passing on the faith to the next generation.

     The Benedict Option was the reason that I started reading Dreher’s column regularly, because, the message in his book rings true to me. I’m sure to write more on that in an upcoming post.

    All this to say that when Dreher started writing about a novel flu virus on raging in a province in China, I might have been a little skeptical about the threat, but I kept reading. I noted that not many other media outlets were making a big deal about the virus, even as the weeks passed and Dreher started warning his readers that they should be stocking up on at least a month’s worth of necessary supplies to enable their families to withstand a quarantine. Because without adequate testing, and swift government action, the coronavirus was going to be here by spring.  It made sense, but I wondered if he was being a bit over the top this time. I mean, shouldn’t there be more widespread alarm if this thing was destined to be the public health juggernaut that Dreher was describing?

    When the virus hit Italy and the media really started covering the nightmare unfolding there, I knew it was time to start getting my family ready. And in Dreher’s comments thread, more than one reader thanked Wyoming Doc for sounding the alarm for us when no one else would. He and Dreher represent voices in the wilderness that were willing to urge others to prepare for a lockdown when others were busy poo-pooing restrictions on travel from China, or scoffing at people who were stocking up their pantries with a little bit of extra pasta and rice.

    It’s important to cultivate voices that you can trust in a crisis, and it’s important to cross-check that information with your own spiritual and intellectual compasses. That’s why I read from both sides of the political spectrum, from primary news sources (you know all of the names), but then also from a list of go-to sites, including a number of faith-related sites, that I’ve cultivated for opinions and analysis.  I figure that this second list of sources may not represent straight news (if that can even be found these days), but it’s not necessarily more biased. Often it’s less maddening than the mainstream outlets, because you know what you’re getting. To my mind, it represents everyday true news junkies, the folks who think about the news in the shower and checkout their news feed in the checkout line at CVS. These are the people who can help me curate the news that I read, because like most of us, I don’t normally have all day to spend keeping up with the daily explosion of new information. I don’t mind admitting that I’m looking to writers like Rod Dreher, and lots of others, to serve as voices in this new wilderness of quarantine, to help me stay connected with the world and keep my eye on what could be coming next.

    A few more things…

    From the today’s news:

    This makes me worry:

    The long-range effects of the quarantine on kids: it’s probably worse than we think.

    The uncertainty of the choices our leaders hold in the balance:

    This gives me hope: A Dominican priest/doctor on the treated for Covid-19 that’s getting so much press-both positive and negative. Thanks for sharing on Facebook, Elizabeth Scalia:

    This made me cry: A critical care doctor describes patients dying alone now:

    This always gives me peace.

    The Spirit of Togetherness

    My women’s Bible Study met via Zoom this morning, or at least six of us were able to make it. I’m happy that we make a diverse group, age-wise, ranging from the late twenties to (just a guess) members who are likely north of seventy. So our life experiences are varied. Among us, we include women who’ve known family members who were born not long after the Civil War, and we have at least one member who probably can’t even remember what the world was like when there were pay phones on nearly every corner. Together, we represent a shocking span of time, when I think about it.

    What unites us most is our commitment to Christ, crucified, died and risen, and a common belief that prayer matters. In these days of Covid-19 (and I know, sadly, that we’re only in the early days) it is important to us to continue to meet together  (virtually)  and to  pray (in reality), not just for ourselves, but for our families, the church, our country, and the world. Believers of all kinds get this. Now we’re really getting the chance to show that we mean it.

    I’m grateful for the technology that makes togetherness so possible in this time of being apart. We’re all figuring out just how this can work. My husband has banished himself to our basement playroom, where, early in the week, he set up a big round table and his laptop. It’s all carpeted and nice down there, so I can’t feel so very sorry for him. He can talk on the phone all day long, and keep his business on track, please God. That sense of normalcy reassures me.  Our paths cross most often when I come through with a basket on my way to the laundry, an oddly comforting task. I can stop and blow him a kiss. That’s a nice new change.

    Our sixteen-year old is in her room a lot, doing schoolwork, which seems to be in full swing. I make her come out to go on walks, with me or alone. But sometimes, thankfully, I hear her laughing with her friends on Facetime. She invited me in today to say “Hi,” to the group. “I love you guys,” I said. “Here are two questions for you to discuss: How is your relationship with God, and do you have enough toilet paper?”

    By this time my daughter was trying to push me out of the door, and her friends were laughing their heads off. “It’s okay!” I reassured her, clapping my hand over her mouth. (Not a social distancing maneuver at all.) There was even more laughter. “Okay,” I said. “Go!” I doubt that they took my advice, but maybe I planted a seed.

    I’m looking for the openings, the little ways where I can find an avenue to let God work in bigger ways than I’ve allowed him to work before. Oh, I’m pretty sure that there are going to be plenty of chances to be bold, let go of fear, and to trust him. Even chances to see his mercy through the sadness. I’m beyond worrying about where it’s appropriate to bring up God or faith or my prayer life.

    As elsewhere, in our state, the bars and restaurants are closed, all non-essential businesses are moving their workers home, and alarmingly, some are already losing their jobs. My older daughter, a nurse, is concerned that they won’t have the masks and equipment they may need very soon in her hospital. Like everyone, I’m worried about the elderly, and worried about how so many will manage financially. I guess that we’re all praying that the pandemic will pass quickly, and with as little damage as possible. I stay up on the news, as best I can. We all know that the loss has begun. I’m trying to cook better meals with our carefully collected stock of food, and I’m dreaming of the bidet we’ll put in one day when we’re finally able to renovate our master bathroom. Observing myself from a slight distance, I see in my thinking the absurd juxtaposition of the silly and the sublime. Thankfully, this makes me feel a sense of solidarity with my neighbor. I’m guessing that a lot of folks are feeling a lot like me. When is the last time that we all had to face something this big together? Oh, it’s important to hold on to dreams when things look so glum, even if it’s just to ask for the right to maintain minimal standards of hygiene.

    But when I’m thinking loftier thoughts, I’m there with all who pray:

    Please Lord, comfort those who are the most vulnerable. Give courage to those who are sick, and to those who are alone. Give strength and fortitude to all of those who are on the frontlines, in hospitals and urgent care centers and medical offices. Grant counsel and right judgment to those who are doing everything they can to save our economy from a terrible downturn. In your mercy, Lord, bless us all with the gift of knowledge, to perceive this new reality as only You can see it, and to become a people who turn to You when it is so clear that we need Your help. Help us to be of use to others wherever, and whenever we can. Make us kinder, more patient, and more forgiving. Give us the grace to repent of our own sins, big and small, and release us from our own petty foolishness. Help us in simple piety, to humbly fear You only Lord, but nothing and no one else. Help us, dear Lord, to be courageous before all that is dark, and to do our best to put it into the light.

    Come Holy Spirit

    Fearing schism-the unspoken divide

    I’ve been a Roman Catholic for over half of my adult life, for twenty-six years, in fact, and one of the things that has held me steady, through the vicissitudes of my journey, has been the unity of the worldwide church. The Church today includes 24 autonomous churches worldwide, following not only the Roman, or Latin rite, but also five other ancient rites, and as the largest of world religions, it has 1.3 billion adherents worldwide. If truth could be discerned in numbers, the worldwide Catholic communion could certainly claim impressive ones, outrunning all Protestant groups at 1 billion believers and Eastern Orthodoxy with around 260 million current followers.

    But for all its grand scale, the Church doesn’t claim that its authority lies in numbers. It does make powerful claims to apostolic authority and ultimately to its divine and human origins in the very person of Jesus Christ.

    I’m trying to say that the Catholic faith makes claims that are ultimately both heady and mystical—but in reality, the very opposite of a numbers-based claim. That partly explains how we can believe that Christ comes to us in the truest form of sacrificial love, the Holy Eucharist, made present and real to us on the altar at each and every Mass. It is the Eucharist itself, and not the numbers of those who share the  belief in it, that is “the source and summit of our faith.”

    To be sure, it’s that belief that first drew me to the Catholic Church. And I’ve always held that it’s the Eucharist that has held the church together, especially in this present age, when it often seems that the people in the pews have a limited sense of community, and a thin sense of a common purpose. The truth is, it has often seemed to me that Catholics, though unified in one religion, often don’t share the same faith. More and more, my suspicions are being born out as trends point toward a growing loss of belief, even in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, although this downward trend in belief among weekly Mass-goers has likely been overemphasized.

    When I first converted, in a full-on rush of new-found love for the Church and Jesus in the Eucharist, there were many Catholics around me with a more sedate appreciation for their faith. I think that they found my new-found zeal a bit, ah, amusing, shall we say. My husband and I were part of an ecumenical sort of couples group study that met once a month for dinner and a discussion of topics related to the Christian faith. Each month’s discussion was driven by a reading that was photocopied and distributed in the week prior to the upcoming dinner. In the group, we were all college-educated, and the husbands, and some of the wives, were already launched in their professional careers. In our homes, we all shared the same happy/panicked exhaustion of parents with pre-schoolers and babies; we were dying to commiserate with friends about just how to fit everything in that life was demanding of us. That was the true, deep need of our spiritual lives.

    For me, I desperately needed to find Jesus in the diapers and the lack of sleep. But what I craved even more was adult discussion about what it meant to make my Christian faith a part of my everyday life. I was in between worlds, a Baptist-turned-Presbyterian now newly-minted Catholic, trying to figure out my place in my new-found church home.  This dinner group was to be the answer to my deep, pressing, spiritual needs.

    It all worked for a while, in a kind of random, pot-luck kind of way. I still remember the giddiness of gathering at a house for discussion night, the thrill of finding common ground in our Christian faith, and the relief of having a regular night where someone else tucked my kids into bed. Sure, the quality and usefulness of the readings varied wildly from week to week, but at first it hardly seemed to matter.  Although we all professed the Christian faith, it soon became clear that the different members of our group had varied takes on what “faith working through love” looked like. 

    It wasn’t long before trouble struck. Our turn to choose the week’s readings came around, and for overly-sensitive me, came the quick regret of choosing a Fulton Sheen reading about Mary, entitled “The Woman I Love, ” a prosaic ode of Bishop Sheen’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary that I found both captivating and possibly just controversial enough to foster a friendly discussion. I miscalculated on that score, and years later remember the sting when one (still-dear) friend pronounced this type of reading “the reason that so many Catholics have been led away from faith in Christ.” It was a decidedly Protestant sort of response, but in retrospect, I had picked the wrong reading for an ecumenical group. Although the reading did serve to highlight some of our true differences, I was naïve to think that we could all handle that kind of discussion without rancor or hurt or even plain embarrassment. Funny thing, though, was that it was only some Catholics among us who seemed to have trouble with the reading.

    In any case, it was on another night that things really got heated. One very “traditional”-minded Catholic man became very doctrinaire in his declarations, and one of the women, a more “spirit of Vatican ll” type of thinker, really gave him a large piece of her mind. She called him some particularly unkind names. Honestly, I don’t even remember what she said; I only recall the extreme pall of awkwardness that fell over the gathering after she had reamed him out, in his own family-room.

    The group met for a few more gatherings after that, but it was destined to fizzle out, and did just that before the year was over. In the aftermath, our one evangelical friend commented that, “If you Eucharisters could ever agree on what you really believe, maybe you would have a powerful witness.” I never forgot that. Although his comment might have been interpreted as a compliment—he could tell that we all believed in the Eucharist!— in reality, he had identified the glaring problem in our Catholic witness: We lacked true love for one another. If the world was to know us by our love, then we Catholic Christians surely had a long, long way to go.

    And today, over two decades later, this seems to be increasingly so. As it turns out, the problems that divide us in the Catholic world have turned out to be a lot bigger than the issues we tussled with in our dinner group. Among other problems, there are big divides in how we view the priesthood and the role of women, and in what it means for our Church to hold to its traditional and Biblical teaching on  marriage and sexuality. In recent years, there has been intense controversy over who, exactly, can receive the sacrament of Communion.

    But I’m inclined to think that it is “little” disagreements that ultimately fuel these “bigger” arguments, as much as the other way around. Most Catholics are far more likely to be affected by what their pastor says from the pulpit in their home church than by anything the Pope might say or do in Rome. Should it be that way? Perhaps not, but I think most of us know this to be true.

    A lot of Catholics are staying home, of late, but the ones who show up for Sunday Mass and parish events are not all on the same page. There are the Catholics who want their parishes to be bold in talking about sin and redemption, and to back them up in their attempts to live authentic Catholic lives, whether that means sponsoring seminars on Natural Family Planning or offering traditional devotions. And there are Catholics who want to see women given a chance to preach, or gays given a chance to have their unions blessed. There are even problems in talking about basic doctrine, like how Christ died for our sins because the Father so loved the world. (Sin is such an uncomfortable subject!) I was once part of a parish study where a fellow leader mildly declared that she avoided talking about hell because, “it’s not a concept that I personally believe in.” Heaven, to be sure, was a safer topic of discussion.

    I’ve learned through the years that the list is long, of the things that Catholics, for the most part, just don’t talk about. And maybe that is a part of the problem. In my suburban New Jersey world, we try not to discuss these things, because we know just how divisive they can be. We who share the pews understand that in some way, we really are practicing different brands of Christianity, and not one unified Catholic faith.

    There are those in the Catholic world who have in recent times voiced their fear of schism, and those who have more recently retracted earlier fears to counsel cautious optimism. And of course there is Pope Francis himself, who has insisted he that he does not “fear schism,” while at times himself skirting close to the edge, as some see it.

    The current pope has a curious way of broadcasting his compassion by appearing to signal change, but then holding back when the ball is in his court.  The release of the encyclical Querida Amazonia in late January of this year offers one recent example of the way Pope Francis likes to play. Just prior to the Amazon Synod, the late summer and early fall of 2019 were given over to months of speculation about the likelihood of the ordination of married men. Then as soon as the Synod began in October of 2019, there was the unexpected furor of the Pachamama fertility statues. Were they merely indigenous images of a heavily pregnant Blessed Mother, easily adopted alongside revered images such as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe? Or were they ancient symbols representing idols deeply entrenched in the local culture of Amazonia?  A ritual in the Vatican Garden, attended by the Pope, and featuring one of the statues, only seemed to add to the confusion.

    For all the fuss and anticipation that preceded and accompanied the Amazon Synod, in the end, the papal encyclical that resulted was benign in its immediate effect, although it left room for changes down the line.  In the immediate aftermath, the results seemed a wash. I couldn’t help but observe that in the whole episode, from start to finish, there was something to discourage nearly everyone: for conservatives, there were months of worry about a door opening to signal a significant blow to priestly celibacy, then of “idols” given a place of honor, if not worship, at the very heart of the Church in Rome. For progressives, there was keen disappointment on the release of Querida Amazonia, representing a lost opportunity to make discernible progress toward change.

    The very good news is that, given all of the fretting that preceded the Amazon Synod, a worldwide schism, feared not just in the blogosphere, but at high levels in the church, was averted. I think it is becoming clear that the real change in the Francis pontificate is going to be incremental, rather than groundbreaking or Church-shaking. I think this means that we’re going to hold steady, as a Church, for a yet another day with Pope Francis at the helm.

    Although I do fervently pray that we will not reach a worldwide break within the church, I, like a lot of Catholics, know that the real problem is that we are already, in many respects, a lot less unified than some want to pretend. In some parishes, we are really at odds with one another. Some might say that we’re in the midst of schism with a small “s,”  unable to talk about what we truly believe, even within our parishes, and often unwilling to hear a clear exhortation of what we’re called to believe from our pulpits.

     As our Evangelical friend so tactfully pointed out to the feuding Catholics in our study group long ago, it is difficult for us to be witnesses to the faith when we can’t even decide where our common ground lies.  Perhaps, even worse, we can’t be true and authentic reflections of the love of Christ, when we keep pretending that the differences among us don’t really exist.

    Loving My Neighbor in the Broken Marriage

    Each Friday, I help lead a group Bible study for women at my parish. It’s part of a large and growing  movement to get Catholic women to dig deep into Scripture, discover how much God loves them, and to build community in our parishes.

    In my group last week, we had a deep and intensely moving discussion about God and marriage, and by the time we’d finished a video, cracked open our Bibles and gotten halfway through our discussion, the box of tissues had been passed across the table more than once.

    And guess what? Even though the topic was marriage, the focus of our discussion wasn’t our husbands, although they did come up, especially with the tissue boxes. What the study focused on was how much Jesus should be the primary relationship in our lives. No man, no matter how super supportive or extra helpful or totally patient he may be, can possibly fill all of our spiritual and emotional needs. Turns out we need a God-Man to fill the deepest needs of our hearts, and at best, our husbands can only be his helper on that score.

    I must say, that it was a relief to kick around this idea with other women, because after years of marriage, you can get tired of the pretense of a perfect marriage. How do you admit you’d sometimes like to throw your husband under the next bus that comes down your lane, without, well, throwing your husband under a bus? It’s tricky, but sometimes we’re so busy trying to hold up the ideal of Christian marriage as we think it ought to be, that we inadvertently project the false pretense that our own marriages are perfect.

    We all know that there’s no such thing as a perfect marriage. I have the recurring revelation, subject to all sorts of vicissitudes in my moods, that it may be more important to focus on how I can be a better spouse to my husband than to complain about his shortcomings. These seem to multiply when I’m focused on him, but to shrink in number when my thoughts are more focused on finding God’s will in my day. It often seems an uphill climb–how can I be expected to achieve any level of sanctity whatsoever when I’m married to someone as flawed as my Beloved?! And it must be as clear to others as it is to me that we are both prime examples of fallen humanity—the sad, everyday kind of sinners, in fact, and candidates for therapy, most likely, but most certainly in need of redemption. It’s just a blessed relief when you can share a little bit of this outside of the confessional (confidentially, of course—what’s said in Bible study stays there).

    The better parts of the discussion were the parts where I just stayed quiet.  Even though my husband and I have weathered times when marriage has been hard, I’ve never wanted to actually give up on marriage, although some married folks truly must, and many often do. If you’ve ever been part of a study group, or a prayer group, hopefully, you know that the your kindest contribution is sometimes  found in just listening to someone else’s story of pain, without judgment. And if someone’s sharing about her broken marriage, it’s not an opportune time to start quoting from the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

    I’ve been a close enough witness to one imploding Catholic marriage to know that it can be a loss more devastating than death. When a husband and father dies, we all understand that there is the stunning emptiness to be contended with; there is the terrible grief of loss—someone who is beloved is now truly gone from this world. Jesus wept at such loss, and we do, too.  But in the case of a nasty divorce, there is something a bit different— the loss of hope that this family can ever be whole. The pain is just as real, but a pathway to healing seems impossible. In divorce, the mourning is a more hidden affair, sometimes even shameful, although we can wish all we want that it weren’t so.  Nothing is at it should be, and the ladies’ group from church probably isn’t rushing to SignUpGenius to cover your emergency childcare needs. No one brings you casseroles and flowers and tells you to call them if you need anything at all.

    There is an upside to all this: Catholics in the U.S.  do somewhat better at staying married than the population at large; a quarter of those who’ve been married have been divorced, while 40% to 50% of Americans who’ve been married will see their marriages end in divorce.  Under Pope Francis, the issues swirling around Catholic teaching for marriage are complicated, arguably affecting more Catholics than any other issue in today’s Church. With the publication of Amoris Laetitia, in 2016, issues regarding divorce, remarriage, and reception of communion without annulment became the nexus of controversy for differing factions in the church, reported both in the Catholic press and in the mainstream press as well.

    Well and good, to try to sort it all out, but not here, and not now, and truly, not by me. What I care about is how to be a good friend, and how to support women whose marriages didn’t make it. Maybe we can do a better job of giving the benefit of the doubt to all of those who’ve been through the particular kind of hell that serves as a springboard for the collapse of a terrible marriage.  Maybe you can help a friend find a sympathetic priest or a good counselor. Even offer shelter if that’s possible. Let her know that you don’t think less of her just because she’s living through a nightmare. If all you can do is offer a listening ear, then do that, with every ounce of compassion that you can give. Because chances are, if it’s a woman who has left a husband because of some type of abuse, she is going to encounter someone  who, with the most Christ-like of intentions, will make her life even more miserable in the guise of trying to “help” her. If we’re not careful, they become the women in the Church who are seen, and judged, but not heard.

    The people who hurt them can be the very ones who should help. These are the friends, or even professionals in church-related settings (including some Christian counselors),  who are tied to an idea they may sincerely believe they’ve  gotten from Scripture, an idea that even if a husband is terrible to his wife, even if he has no intention of loving her as Christ loved the Church, or of submitting to her as St. Paul directs, that she still must respect her husband and submit to him. Even if the mutuality of a healthy relationship has been broken, and people, even children, are being damaged, and even if it’s quite clear that the grounds for a Christian marriage may have been absent all along,  she may be told that she still has a responsibility to adhere to an admonition to submit to her husband. She may be in a toxic marriage, and it’s her job to stick it out.

    I don’t ever want to be guilty of participating in that. And I don’t see any reason that I cannot believe in the Church’s teaching on the marriage—on mutual submission, on the complementarity of men and women, in husbands  loving their wives and in wives respecting their husbands—without also understanding that sometimes marriages, like all things human, get broken.

    A few years ago, I was in a Lenten prayer group with a woman I’ll call Marianne. Marianne was probably in her 80s, and wheeled an oxygen tank along her side everywhere she went.  One day, she told us the story of her divorce, over 50 years before, when her husband abandoned her and their little girl. She didn’t share any details. But the trauma that had stayed with her through all of these decades was the embarrassment she endured in going through the annulment process. She shuddered and closed her eyes as she recounted the humiliation. She went through it, but her request for an annulment was denied. So, although there was a young man she cared for who wanted to marry her and help raise her child, she turned him away. Because the Church would not grant her an annulment, she could not, of course, be married in the Church. And as she said, “I was not willing to live without Christ in the Eucharist for the rest of my life.”

    I’ll never forget Marianne and her story. For me, she is a true martyr for her faith. I don’t have a clue whether the tribunal exercised good judgment on the day that sealed her fate so long ago. But it’s not hard to imagine that the men who denied her an annulment acted with a lack of mercy.

    Marianne chose to stay in the Church, because she loved Jesus more than the idea of having a husband to accompany her through life and raise her daughter. I know that attitudes toward annulment have changed over the past five decades. There are Catholics who think the process is too easy, and those who think it is irrelevant. I don’t think I’m in either camp. But maybe, if Marianne had filed for an annulment today, she would have gotten the answer she hoped for. Maybe, she wouldn’t have been forced to choose between God and marriage. She might have been able to experience the hard and satisfying road of a lifelong marriage in all of its exasperating, glorious wonder.

    What’s most important, is to let people wrestle through all of this without rash judgment from their neighbors in the pews. The Church has a process for discerning whether or not a couple was, or was not, in a Christian marriage. For the sake of Christian marriage, let’s acknowledge how very hard it really is to achieve a marriage that deserves that label. As a Catholic, I believe in the grace that accompanies the sacrament, and that its part of my calling as a wife to be a vehicle of grace for my husband, as it is his  calling to be a vehicle of grace for me.  I don’t worry about whether my neighbor has made the right choice in leaving her marriage. I want her to know that she is loved.  And I want to pray for more clergy and laity who are willing to talk about what Christian discipleship looks like so that we can have the hope of more truly wonderful, indissoluble, transformative Christian marriages.

    Photo by Sharon McCutcheon, Pexels

    Who’s Really Going to Church–and Who’s Not

    I read something hopeful today in Terry Mattingly’s column at GetReligion, one of my go-too websites for making sense of the intersection of religion with culture, politics, and the world-at-large. It was about who’s really going to church today, and who’s not.  Turns out that, while lots of church leaders, parents, and lay people of all types, even the unaffliated, have been worried or curious about the “Nones,”—this maddening new cohort of young adults that seems to have left the public practice of religious faith behind them in record numbers—it’s just as clear that it’s middle agers, maybe even older boomers, who are dropping off from church attendance and leaving the pews half empty. Mattingly shows data to illustrate that point, recently analyzed and published by Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, who also happens to be a pastor with the American Baptist Church

     Here’s another illuminating chart from Burge, taking numbers from recent Pew Research findings and using them to project what religious attendance will look like about ten years from now:

    At first glance, Burge’s analysis is not so hopeful, I’ll admit, given that his projection indicates that by 2030 a majority of Americans will fall in the category that claims no religious affiliation. Catholics and Evangelicals are currently about neck and neck in church attendance, with each group showing  a slow downward trajectory, while the Nones are rocketing to overtake all categories and take their place as a majority of the population by mid-century, if things continue to progress (or fall apart) at the current rate. Notice that as the Nones climb as a percentage of population, those attending Mainline churches continue to nosedive. That’s clearly where the biggest loss of members is happening.

    So where’s the hope? I see a glimmer in Mattingly’s question, “So, let’s ask fearful religious establishment leaders: Are the kids the only problem out there? Maybe the infamous baby boomers have something to do with all of this angst?”

    And if the boomers are at the heart of the problem (and haven’t we been at the heart of so many current problems!?!) then maybe there’s hope that Millennials, and GenXers (and so on) will re-examine what’s compelling about religion in the first place, that is, once they really get mired in the  trenches of parenthood or even just start to experience the stress of living as an adult for the whole rest of their lives. Life seems to stretch so far before you when you’re 32 ½ years old! Maybe there’s hope that they’ll discover that all of life’s answers aren’t to be found in your work life or even your personal life, and certainly not in your political leanings. Julia Duin (another great columnist at GetReligion) points out in her comment for Mattingly’s column that it’s during their thirties that people tend to return to church, after leaving in their late teens. In fact, she wrote a book about it, called, Quitting Church. I haven’t read it, but I’d like to. And I’m hoping (and praying) that Duin is right.

    As she also points out, her research revealed that it’s not just the young and marginally attached who give up on church. Duin writes:

    That is, it’s not huge news that 20-somethings aren’t in church because they tend to return to church in their 30s and stay there the rest of their lives. What I discovered is that the bulwark of church attendance: The over-50 set, which were the boomers, were dropping out. And not just the spiritually lukewarm ones. Some of the strongest Christians had just had it with the inanities of so many churches and had walked away. [Emphasis mine.] That is still happening. I’d say half or more of my babyboomer cohorts are no longer in church. The ones who still attend often force themselves to go.

    As I see it, that’s actually good news, because it’s a strong indicator that it’s quite possible that the best hope the Church (any Christian church)  has of reaching new generations with the Gospel is to stop trying so hard to be “relevant” and to simply preach the Good News, in one of its orthodox iterations. As a Catholic, I’m not always sure that the Church, on the ground, holds to preaching the Gospel and making disciples as its top priorities. On many sides, we’ve got trouble, extending from River City to the Vatican.

     But, if one generation fails, that means another generation can turn things around. That’s my fervent, prayerful, never-ending hope.

    On a Mundane Sunday

                Not long ago, we visited our old church, not for any special reason, but due to the fact that their Masses fall a half hour later than those at our current parish, and my daughter needed an extra half hour to drag her self out of bed and into something presentable  enough to wear to church. It was my chance to indulge a teenager who does nearly everything right, from getting good grades to helping me around the house. Most of all, it was a concession I wanted to make in hopes of showing her (without telling her) that being part of your church community is not a chore, but something that makes your life better. It’s worth the trouble of getting up a little earlier on a chilly fall morning and going out when I know she would rather stay under her covers, or eat a bagel and check her Instagram feed.

                It’s funny how a mundane Sunday can assault me with lessons out of scale with what could be a same-old, same-old kind of weekend morning.

                I’m going to be honest, which means I’m going to be negative about what I felt on going back to a church I belonged to for close to 20 years. Sliding into the a pew on one of the side aisles as Mass began, I had the same old sense of being an outsider, of my failure to fit in there during all my years of raising our older four children there. Of course, there was the remembrance of my little ones rowed up and mostly quiet, thanks to Cheerios, a pointed glare from their father, and strategic placement in the pews—for heavens sake, keep the two younger boys separate or the endless poking, back and forth, might escalate into a full blown row! I knew to cherish that time then, and I still do now–those years when they believed every smidgen of what we fed them of Jesus, and Mary and their Father in heaven.

    I knew to hold my breathe when our oldest counted every chance he had to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. “That was my 8th Holy Communion,” he announced proudly as we walked home from church a few weeks after he made his First Holy Communion. I held onto so much of that, treasuring in my heart, I liked to think, the way Mary treasured news of her one child when the angel Gabriel appeared to her, or when St. Simeon spoke to her on the steps of the temple when she and Joseph brought their son to make a sacrifice of thanks at the temple. I had, at times, felt thankful so often when we sat in this place.

                But, there were so many times when I stumbled, or worse yet, put my size 10 foot in my mouth. Sitting there once again, I felt a massive case of mea culpa, my mistake, my bad. I came into the Catholic Church 25 years ago with a overabundance of zeal and a lack of humility. Like a lot of Evangelicals, I thought that the most important thing about my faith was to talk about it, to “share” it: My faith, my conversion, what I knew about being Catholic. And here at this large church in South Jersey, I learned, sometimes with a sharp sting, that to survive in parish life I’d do best to volunteer often and to rarely say what was on my mind. I must learn, as St. Francis said, to “preach the Gospel always,  and when necessary, use words.”  Indeed, the fewer words, the better. This strange and solitary way of doing church was hard to get used to.

    So I learned to be quiet and to receive the grace of the sacraments without too much folderol, meaning without expecting others to have a similar experience, or to share it if they did. But this was not all negative, not by a long stretch.  In a way that surprised me, I learned that receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is a most private event, even though it almost always happens in community (exceptions, of course, would be if one were homebound, or in the hospital, or receiving Last Rites.) Here is where I learned to meet the Lord of the Universe in the very interior of my soul. And even though in the churches I now know best, people  don’t look or behave  much differently than they did in the Protestant churches of my childhood, there is a deep sense that something much deeper is happening. I am able to disappear into prayer right before and after I receive Jesus. There is a sense of profound communion with God that I have only experienced in the Catholic Church. For a few quiet minutes, it seems to be the most natural, and at the same time, the holiest thing in the world. Those are the minutes of the week that “feel” just as I imagined they would when I first became Catholic.

                Sure, I know that my feelings and experiences at any particular Mass are not the point, It’s the reality of receiving Christ and the grace He offers. My focus is not to be on the subjectivity of my moods and experience on a given day. And I am one who is subject to moods, one who likes to have joyful experiences. Aren’t they so much better than the doleful ones?  It’s hard to see why I’m to apologize for that.  I’m grateful that, in a way, God hasn’t asked too much of me; I just have to find the humility to show up in a state of grace and receive, without any contrivance on my part, what God chooses to give. He loves me utterly, but certainly doesn’t need me. Whereas my need for him is a bottomless well.

                It is a true boon that I know this, so that when I come upon a story like the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John, I have no problem in recognizing myself. Unlike her, I’m glad to say that there’s only one man I could call my husband. Still, that doesn’t make me immune to life’s problems. Sometimes I’m just as confused, just as parched for a long cold drink, and frankly, so surprised by an encounter with Christ that I could very well run away and leave behind the big jar of water that I came for in the first place. Maybe she didn’t forget it; maybe the disciples just intimidated her into fleeing when they came upon this strange, strange scene. Maybe she was not unlike a young Evangelical Protestant woman encountering people of a “new” faith who really didn’t see that she had anything to offer. Either way, I see myself in her: Am I a sinner yes; do I feel misunderstood, often; am I loved by my God—always.

                All for the good, because so often what I felt at this parish was a sense of confusion. As in the day when I brought the kids to a special Mass to remember the atrocities of 9/11, and to pray for all of those that had died or suffered a loss that day.  It was an evening Mass, as I recall, and my husband stayed home with the younger kids while I took the older two to church with me. The celebrant, however, was a visitor, and not to my liking, and I was soon to regret bringing my kids to hear him say Mass. His sermon focused a great deal on sympathy for the men who had flown the planes into the twin towers and into the field in Shanksville, PA, and on how they must have viewed themselves as freedom fighters and people of faith, much like us. I was stunned enough by the gist of his comparisons to be unclear if he ever expressed any sympathy for the victims. It would have even seemed fitting to pray for those who seek to hurt us, those who are filled with anger and hatred for us as their enemies. But his clumsy attempts to find common humanity with those who sought to harm us was so misplaced and ill-timed that I had trouble sitting still in my seat. Had I really only come to church to hear a priest equate the evil with the innocent?  I wanted desperately to leave, and yet felt trapped. I wasn’t sure if my kids had even picked up on what was being said. Mostly, I just wanted them to remember that we were there to pray for people who needed our prayers. 9/11 had been so ghastly, and I wanted them to see and know that God cared, even if it seemed that this priest did not. So we stayed, and we prayed.

                So sitting there this past Sunday, the memories rushed in, the good and the bad, the upsetting and the sublime. I prayed that my youngest, the only one sitting at my side now, would hear only what was good and useful in order to build her up in faith. That she would be given the grace to sense Christ present in the Eucharist. That she would focus on the Scripture even if what she heard in the homily had little to do with the day’s readings. I prayed that in a place where grace comes to meet her flawed children every day, that we would only be touched by the true gifts of the day, even on a mundane Sunday in ordinary time.



    When an anti-abortion crowd became anti-Church

     This past Sunday, an odd thing happened at our parish. When we arrived for Mass, the front walk, which stretches across a good portion of the block, was lined with anti-abortion protesters, holding large placards declaring, more or less, that no one has the right to decide when another human should die. Most noticeable were the large, graphic photographs of bloody fetuses and fetal parts, clearly pre-born infants who were killed as the result of abortions; they were hard to see and hard to turn away from.

     My husband, returning from an earlier Mass had warned me of these strange happenings, so I had known to park so that my daughter and I wouldn’t have to reach the door of the church by passing through this small gaggle of bold and silent strangers. As we were entering church, I glanced at them from the top of the church steps feeling a mixture of disbelief and 2nd-hand embarrassment. Did they know how foolish they appeared?

     Inside, the church was nearly full, and there were even more young families, no doubt because this was 9 am, and now that the school year is in swing there’s a monthly Family Mass where our younger ones leave the church to hear a Scripture lesson while the older crowd is celebrating the Liturgy of the Word. Each of these little ones must have understood, at best, that something was off as they came into church that day. Many had probably seen the horrific bloody images and turned to their parents in confusion, even fear.

     As it turned out, the electricity was down inside the church, and I felt particularly bad for our pastor, who had awakened to two unpleasant surprises that morning. We entered late, and sat on the back row, and so without an operating sound system, couldn’t hear all that he had to say before Mass began. But the gist was that our unwelcome visitors, apparently from a Baptist Church, would not be persuaded to leave. The pastor had tried to talk to them, and had assured them that as Roman Catholics, we are indeed, pro-life. He considered calling the police, but a attorney counseled him to avoid that, as it would only create a controversy and perhaps give the people on the sidewalk an opportunity for the kind of publicity they no doubt sought. Also, he pointed out that this was a group of anti-abortion activists, whereas we’re pro-life, promoting the dignity and rights of people from conception to natural death. Maybe if I hadn’t run the gauntlet of protesters as I’d entered the church, I would have thought there wasn’t a need to make a distinction between us and them. But I’d walked past the gruesome posters; I was glad our pastor pointed out what made us different from the people out front. They were odd, off-putting, and smug.

    The Catholic Church, along with hundreds, maybe thousands of affiliated organizations and agencies worldwide, runs hospitals and hospices, schools and nursing homes, orphanages and disaster relief organizations that have served literally millions of people. We’re on the forefront of organizations that seek to alleviate world hunger and relieve the plight of those displaced by war and famine. Our diocese, including our parish, has a regular presence at the abortion clinic these protesters claimed to be targeting. But instead of offending or outraging people, the Catholic approach is to pray quietly and be available to refer to agencies that will help women in desperate situations find the help they may need to give their babies a real chance at life.  Our approach is not typically one of shock and awe. The absurdity of this quasi-church group seeking to intrude on our morning as we went into worship was just so…pathetic.

     The Church has given the faithful so many reasons to grieve, of late. Ah, but this day, as I sat in the darkness of our church, I was moved by the simple, kind words of our pastor, who charitably characterized our uninvited visitors as “children of God.”  I was grateful for the beauty of the liturgy, and for the music, which this day inexplicably dipped further back into traditional hymns that felt more solid on a day when solidity was called for. I was grateful for our celebration of redemption through Christ Himself, present with us in the Eucharist, which those on the street might seek to interrupt, but clearly did not understand.

     The pastor urged us to avoid interacting with the protesters as we left church, but I could not be persuaded to cooperate 100% in the silent treatment. Who were these bungle-headed brethren and what did they hope to accomplish? I learned later from their literature (published by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform)  that this group believed that “This is not a protest. This is a plea for help. We are pleading with Christians for the lives of preborn children.”

    I find something perversely compelling in the brazenly ignorant, and perhaps, in this case, the artlessly active. So I walked to the edge of the parking lot just close enough to be able to take a pamphlet from a man at the end of the picket line. “Why are you here?” I asked. I’m sure there was annoyance in my voice. “We’re pro-life.” 

    “So are we” he practically shouted. “Why don’t you come help us?”

    Help, you, sure, I thought, walking quickly away. If only you had a clue.