Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Home Away From Rome

So, you guys are my friends, and it's time to come out with some truth. I have been putting it off because I think I might lose friends, and I might lose readers, and some people who are both. I considered starting a separate blog just for dealing with faith questions, because I don't want to be divisive, and I know that writing about faith can be very divisive, among believers and nonbelievers and groups of the two, and even "among" just one person, alone and confused. But this story is part of being a Happy Nash, so into the blog it goes.

Friends, after 30 years of real devotion and practice, I no longer practice Catholicism. And I want to talk about the reasons why. But before I talk about it, I want to start by blessing the place where I came from. I feel strongly that I should bless the Catholic church, even as I am walking backwards out of her doors. She has done so much for me, and she will be in my heart for my whole life.

She taught me about God. She taught me that the soul exists, and that the soul matters. She taught me the beauty of liturgy. She gave me words to express the hunger of the soul for God. She taught me how to pronounce Latin. She taught me the value of free-form prayer and the value of repetitive prayer. She taught me not to be afraid of ritual. She joined my husband and me in marriage, and she baptized both of my children. She gave light to some of my darkest days. I love her.

The story of how I came to take my first step on the road away from Rome really starts when my son was born. As a young mother in the Catholic church, I felt that I had done the thing that a woman is supposed to do -- At just the right age I married a good man, and gave birth two years later to a beautiful boy. Yet in the state of motherhood -- that exalted state -- I found myself shoved to the margins of church life. I had to feed my son in the vestibule of the church, watching the real mass go on inside, through the windows. I had to take him out when he was crying, or talking, or running. I had to remove myself from the mass when my child was being a child. I began to wonder what I was doing, when I spent most of the mass outside instead of inside. On the odd Sunday when he behaved and I could stay inside, I grew antsy and had to walk outside anyway.

And the subject of the homily stuck in me like an arrow in the tough hide of a buffalo. It irritated me. When my son was old enough to go to church, when he was six months old and the doctors said I could take him in public, so many of the homilies I heard were about how I wasn't good enough. Every week there was a new reason, but the message was always that we did not measure up.

And I couldn't really argue with that. I was measuring myself to the point of exhaustion, and I never even came up to 50% of what I thought I should be. But I couldn't help but think that if I had spent an hour preparing myself and the baby to leave the house, and driven 30 minutes to get here, parked up a hill and hiked down with him, that maybe I could hear something encouraging, something redemptive, rather than more of the same, "Guess what, you fail even more every day."

And the feeling continued throughout the next few years. It's hard to explain in terms for someone outside the church to understand, to really understand, but there is a sort of basic belief, a kind of underlying spiritual aesthetic to Catholicism that basically maintains that if you are unhappy or unsatisfied in any way, that basically the reason for it lies within you. Maybe you don't pray hard enough, maybe you don't do your rituals correctly or often enough, maybe you don't spend enough hours begging God to help you understand something that can't be understood. --And here I find my dismay and my anger creeping out, and I don't want this to be an angry post. -- But let me say that within Catholicism, there is not much of a feeling that "we're all in this together." In many ways, in the great big cathedral, it's every man for himself.

But to corral my narrative back to its original purpose, I absorbed this message of just not quite measuring up, and it fit perfectly with my feelings about myself as a mother. Okay, I was an okay mom, and sometimes I was a good one. I usually wasn't a bad one, although there was the time I yelled at Christopher when he was just a baby in his high chair. There are so many things to feel guilty about as a parent, and the idea that I wasn't good enough just fit perfectly in there, like a puzzle piece.

Now, to understand the next part of the story you have to understand the basic Catholic idea of sin. Essentially, sin is divided into two categories: venial (less severe) and mortal (severe). If you commit a venial sin (something like lying about who broke the cookie jar, or not telling the cashier that she gave you an extra dollar in change) and then die without confessing it, you will go to Purgatory until it is burned out of you (or perhaps purged in another way?) and then presumably you will go onto heaven. If you commit a mortal sin and then die without confessing it, you will go straight to hell. It doesn't really matter what overall good or bad you have done -- if you commit one of those, and you die before you do the ritual of confession, God pushes the "go to hell" button and you fall through the floor to your eternal torment.

To someone not raised in the Catholic church, this might sound so ridiculous that it is funny. But to someone who lived and breathed Catholicism from birth, this stuff is more real than my hand held in front of my face right now. This is Truth with a capital T. This is the stuff you just don't question. There's too much at stake. It's so much easier to just follow the rules so you don't have to worry.

Now, I could have borne this scheme and worked within it for the rest of my life if not for two specific factors. The first is that the division between "venial" and "mortal" is not always clear. The apologists would have you believe it is clear-cut but it's not. For example, murder is a mortal sin. But so is missing mass. But missing mass because you are sick is not. So, what about missing mass to care for a sick child, even though technically you probably could have found someone to stay with the kids while you went to a different mass in the evening, but you just didn't because you were exhausted from taking care of a sick kid all day? Questions like these leave us splitting hairs and veering off course -- we become obsessed with how to classify our sins and there is no energy left for actually living good lives.

The second point is that confessing sins in the sacrament of confession is, to put it in a mild fashion, completely humiliating. The line of thought that I have encountered is that this humiliation is good for us -- that it brings us closer to God, and it allows us to let go of our earthly pride and let God in, in a new and revelatory way, because our defenses are down. But God doesn't humiliate me -- he knows me through and through; he knows me much better than I know myself. He has my whole life written down. What humiliates me is confessing in gory detail every dalliance of my soul (and you have to confess every single one -- to not confess everything is in itself a mortal sin) to another human. And maybe this shouldn't matter, and maybe it is my human weakness that makes this so hard. I have read about people who like going to confession, but I don't. I hate it. I feel like I am going to throw up. I do feel relief when it is over, but it's the kind of dizzy relief you feel right after you almost get into a wreck but then don't. There is none of the gentleness of Christ in this strange cycle of sin, self-hatred, humiliation, and then ghastly relief, followed by fear of sinning, followed by isolation of self in order to avoid sinning, followed by breaking down and sinning, and on and on. The system, for me, did not help me get to the root of my sin, the real reason why I was sinning, and what I could do about it to work to actually be free of the sin. Instead, it kept me terrified, off balance, teetering on the edge of the pit, running away from one thing or another, "all the days of my life."

And so what happened for me is that I had committed one or another of these mortal sins that are shockingly easy to commit -- let's say it was missing Mass. So, Mass happens on Sunday, and confession happens on Saturday, so unless you do all of your sins on a Friday night, you have to carry them around with you for at least a few days before you confess them. And if you sin on a Sunday, you have to carry them with you for six days. Six days of knowing that if you die, you are going to hell, period. It is true that you can call up and ask for an appointment for confession at any time of the week. But try to do that with two small children, one of whom is smart enough that he doesn't need to hear the words of your confession. What are you going to do, leave him in the hall?

And I feel like I have to pause here and explain something. I am not exaggerating when I describe the "go to hell" rule. It's on the books. It's not a mangling of the real Canon Law; it's real. The most I have ever heard from an apologist is that God *might*, of his own volition, choose to forgive you anyway and not send you to hell, but the chances of it are not overwhelming, so really you can't bank on it. In other words, you can't really trust in God's mercy. Not all the way. Not really.

So there I was, and it was Monday or Tuesday morning. I was engaged in the usual -- getting breakfast for the children, getting my day started, and suddenly realized that at that moment -- as I was engaged in the loving life of my warm household, as my children were hugging me, as I went on through my daily life as a mother, wife, and worker, that according to the rules of my church, at that moment, the connection between my soul and God was severed completely, until I went to do the confession ritual. Imagine being told, "Right now, until six days from now, your mother hates you. Your father will disown you if you go home right now. You have to do your ritual first." It's a painful thought at best; at worst it's paralyzing and terrifying.

And here's where it gets interesting, friends. Within Catholicism (and outside of it as well, although it seems to find a certain strength within Catholicism) there is a mental illness called Scrupulosity. Scrupulosity is defined basically as being obsessed with the letter of the law. For example, a scrupulous person might go to confession two or three times in one day, because he or she has remembered a new sin that they forgot to confess the first time, etc. It is a type of OCD and it sounds very painful.

The treatment for Scrupulosity would be funny if it weren't so chillingly ironic. Sufferers are advised to remember that God's mercy is great, that he loves us, that we are his children and he cares for us deeply. To relax a bit in their observance of the law, trusting instead in the mercy of God. In other words, the exact opposite of the message that Canon Law tells us.

And here is where it gets even crazier. I feel like this is the point at which Catholicism folds in on itself so many times that it starts to create a black hole, pulling everything else into it as it swirls: Scrupulosity, itself, is a sin.

That's right -- if you actually believe what the church teaches, and you practice it to the letter, then you have a mental illness called Scrupulosity which is also a sin.

So let's review some of the requirements of being a good Catholic:

1. Follow all the rules
2. Don't leave out any of the rules; follow them all
3. Don't get obsessed about following all of the rules because that is a mental illness and a sin.

It is actually chillingly parallel to what I was learning about breastfeeding at around this same time:

1. Follow all the rules
2. If you don't make enough milk, try harder to follow the rules
3. Don't worry about following all of the rules exactly, because worrying makes your milk dry up.

Go ahead and lock yourself in the mental and spiritual equivalent of an M.C. Escher engraving like that and see how well you do, for years on end. Walk to Emmaus on a mobius strip like that and see where you end up.

So basically there I was, spinning in circles, wondering then, if my relationship with God was stone cold dead, as my church teaches, then what is it warming my heart when I see my child? What is it inspiring me to do my best that day, with my work and my parenting? What is it that makes me pause for a prayer? Is He even listening, if He has already written me off?

And then suddenly I just couldn't do it. I felt something snap inside of me like a rubber band pulled so tight it snaps apart and goes flying. The kids were in the living room and I knelt down in my pantry, out of their view, because I didn't want them to see me acting so emotional and bizarre. I didn't kneel in a holy-card pious kind of way, I knelt down the way you do when someone kicks you in the gut and you can't stand up anymore. It was basically a glorified version of fetal position. I can't do it anymore, I sobbed over and over, as quietly as I could into my fist. I just can't do it. And there in my kitchen, on the sticky floor by my boxes of pasta and cans of beans, my paper bags folded for recycling, I felt a presence of God, and not just of God but of Jesus, as a brother. At first it was just a companionable silence, like when a good friend, or spouse, or someone who has known you forever just sits with you at a hard time. There are no real words to be said, just a presence.

Weeks before this incident while praying outside I had received a strange kind of message, "Find God in the desert." I didn't know what it meant but then in that moment in the pantry I knew. It meant that God wasn't just present in the water; he was present in the absence of the water as well. Not just in bread but in the absence of bread. Not just when I was perfectly clean of all my sin but when I was weighed down with it as well. God walks the whole line of life with us, not just sometimes when we have been good enough, but all the time, and when we are not good enough is when he stands the closest. I came to see an "ordinary" part of Jesus's personality then -- the part that led him to provide food to a huge crowd, the part that led him to tell the people about how to pay their taxes, and how to live together in peace. The Daily Jesus; the Quotidian Christ. He is not just God of the Sinless Mountaintop -- he is God of the Desert as well, and all places in between.

I felt the story in my soul, the story of the woman taken in adultery, in the Gospel of John:

Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. 3 Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
7 So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” 8 And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”
11 She said, “No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
12 Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”

And here he was, telling me to get up off the pantry floor and go and sin no more. And don't tell me what I can and can't do.

And so, in a nutshell, although these things can't really be contained in a nutshell, what it comes down to is that the more I study history and law within the Catholic Church, the more I see that the Catholic Church has a certain tendency to tell God what he can and cannot do, and likes to tell her people also what God will and will not do for them. Perhaps this is with good intention -- if we believe in a God who is a bit less forgiving than what he really is, then perhaps we will be on our best behavior and offend him less. And how could that be a bad thing? But the Catholic line about sin and forgiveness seems to me a bit like telling your children that you will shoot them if they don't eat their broccoli. Chances are, they will eat their broccoli, but at what cost to your relationship with them? They will get lots of iron, but will they ever really love or trust you? And since our lifeline to Jesus is that relationship of love and trust, why would we want our church to impose itself upon that relationship, telling us extra rules that we must follow in order to maintain it?

Isn't there a level of arrogance in the Church's willingness to dictate to others the personality of Jesus, when we can see his personality in the words and actions of his life? I would like to think -- and perhaps I am wrong -- that if I had known Jesus in his time on earth that he wouldn't have corralled me into a confessional just then and commanded me to tell him every sordid detail before he would forgive me. Instead I feel he would have knelt by me there in the pantry, him like a caring brother, me a sort of modern Martha. And, in fact, the words of Luke 10:41-42 say it almost perfectly:

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one."

Only one!