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Recently, I read a beautiful little novel called, “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzman. The novel chronicles the story of Sr. John of the Cross, a Carmelite nun in a community nestled in the hills surrounding contemporary Los Angeles. Sr. John’s spiritual poetry has brought her fame in the world outside the monastery walls; this writing talent surfaced with recurring and increasingly intense mystical spells that leave her unconscious after a fit of voracious spiritual writing. Not long after the novel begins, Sr. John is diagnosed with a form of epilepsy known to result in common symptoms not at all unlike those that have enabled her fame, including tremendous interest in religion and philosophy and rigorous fits of writing.
The good news appears to be that the epilepsy is treatable with a fairly safe surgical procedure. Free of this illness, Sr. John’s community would be free of the burden of worrying about and caring for Sr. John when these trance-like experiences come over her. Yet, assent to such a procedure is in no way simple for Sr. John: while the symptomatic mystical writing has brought her fame, it has also, more importantly, given her a consistent, incredibly intimate experience of God’s presence.
Amid her story, any reader is inevitably confronted by the question she faces: If I were in her position, what would I do? Would I rid myself of these symptoms for the sake of my health and my community—but at the potential cost of losing this feeling of intimacy with God? Or, would I accept ill health for the sake of this mystical life?
When discussing this book with friends, I have often said that I would choose mysticism. So much of our lives are spent seeking clarity about the decisions we make, about the convictions we live by—thus, I can only imagine how liberating it would feel to experience the kind of clarity and peace that would accompany this type of mystical intimacy with God. How could one consciously give that up after experiencing it?
However, one scene from the book made me re-think all that. On the night when Sr. John must make up her decision, she vows to stay up all night, keeping vigil in the monastery chapel until she finds peace with her choice, one way or the other. After a few hours in the darkness and quiet, her sisters, one by one, fill the chapel. Saying nothing, their presence implicitly communicates that they, too, will keep vigil with her until she reaches her decision. And in reading this, it occurred to me: It is very rare that God gives us the type of mystical clarity that Sr. John experienced for so many years. More often, I think, God gives us each other.
Surely, most of us still long for the sky to open and a divine voice to call out how to live and what to think. But a longing for this type of clarity, for this type of conviction, can distract us from the gift of God in our midst—the God embodied in those who sit next to us, in word and in silent, as we discern all those small decisions that make up a lifetime. Would I exchange that for mysticism? Well, maybe—I’ve never experienced the sort of thing that Sr. John did. But, when I recall the many nights when people have kept vigil with me—around dinner tables, on long walks, over drinks at the bar—I can’t imagine trading that for anything. And I can’t imagine that God wasn’t right there, too.
My heart sank last week as I read Kate’s blog entry, “Done.” In her testimony about trying to leave Catholicism, she wrote, “I’m feeling these days like I’m in the midst of a breakup, you know, the really horrible kind where you know it isn’t going to work but you want it to so badly that every fifteen minutes you manage to get yourself entirely convinced that it actually can work, only to remember five minutes later why it can’t, only to repeat the cycle over and over and over until it makes you crazy and you can barely remember who you are let alone the reasons why you’re breaking up.” Kate wondered whether other ex-Catholics had experienced the same heartbreak in their final days with the Church. I am not one of these ex-Catholics, and honestly, I can barely imagine leaving Catholicism—but to the little extent that I can, I imagine it would feel exactly like a horrifying breakup.
In Lauren Winner’s memoir, Girl Meets God, she recounts her transition from Orthodox Judaism to Anglican Christianity. Couched among the tales of her various love affairs, the story of Winner’s tumultuous conversion mirrors her romantic relationships with men. Winner writes of how she found herself consistently enamored by Jesus while persistently fighting against her burgeoning devotion. In the end, she gave in to the love affair. I read this book for the first time when I was sixteen—at the age of first love and first heartbreak—and undoubtedly, it gave me a paradigm for understanding my increasing attraction to the Catholicism of my upbringing. If becoming Catholic was like falling in love, perhaps leaving would feel something like a break-up.
We have rituals for break-ups, for mourning the loss of a lover, a once-constant life companion. We let ourselves cry. We call our friends, and they show up, sit on our couches, and hold us as we try to catch our breath, like Kate. We take down pictures and put old letters into shoeboxes that we shove into our closets, perhaps opening them from time to time for grieving. When we have no paradigm for life without that ex-companion, friends tell us to wake up in the morning, to get out of bed, and they promise that someday it will be a little bit easier. Those around us testify to a hopeful future until we believe it.
Later in the day after reading Kate’s blog entry, I sat at dinner with my boyfriend Jack, telling him how I had carried her heavy words with me all day. Jack leaned forward to speak—then paused. “I have a frank question for you, if I may?” he asked. “I know you don’t think you can leave, Jessica. But do you ever wonder if you could, maybe some day?” Jack has stood beside me during Episcopal liturgies where I wept silently, yearning to belong to a community like that—a more egalitarian space where, for instance, a woman could consecrate the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Afterward, I told him I was crying because I could never imagine leaving the Catholic Church, even in the moments when I want to. Feeling stuck in my relationship to the Church hurts sometimes—but I have no paradigm for life without the liturgy and people and tradition that I have loved for so long, even with its major imperfections.
“Sometimes I think it’s possible,” I responded. “But, I think I would need a funeral first.” Jack tilted his head, wearing a confused look. This was not a clever way of saying I will be Catholic until I die. It had simply occurred to me, “I would need some sort of ritual. You know, at funerals everyone who loves you gets together, and they celebrate your life with them. They mourn your absence but they commend you into another space. At the very least, I think I would need that to leave Catholicism. To feel okay about it.”
For many people, leaving Catholicism is a courageous decision made in response to the painful circumstances imposed on them by the Church. Many suffer within Catholicism for many years before they leave, and for many leaving is a concerted effort to salvage Christian faith. It is not a rejection of it. More than ever, it is apparent to me that we need a pastoral response for those who need to leave. We need some way of communicating those messages of condolence and hope that we share with our friends as they mourn the loss of a lover: “It seems that this is the best thing for you right now, even as it hurts,” or simply, “It’s going to be okay.” We need to go sit with them, and listen to the stories of their grief. We need some way to say, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry…”
It was a friend’s mother who gave me Girl Meets God in high school. She was raised Catholic, and during her college years she increasingly attended a local Protestant church. She became involved in their ministries, and eventually she found herself identifying with this new community much more than the Catholicism of her upbringing. One summer she was at a Christian camp with young people from her church, and she befriended a Catholic priest who was also there with a group from his parish. She told him about her life in the Church, and how she had decided to leave Catholicism for this new Protestant community. This priest offered to say a prayer with her, one that would mark her departure from Catholicism and her entrance into this other Christian community. And indeed, their prayer marked this transition for her all those years later.
When she told me this story as a high school student, I thought it was so strange. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would intentionally seek a mark of separation from Catholicism. Excommunication was the only thing I could equate to this type of event, and that is something forced on people—not sought out. But today I wonder what a prayer like that could do for people like Kate, or for many of the people I know and love. And I wonder what the offer of a prayer like that would do for me.
Another recommendation! If you’ve been following the blog for awhile, you probably know I am a big fan of “This American Life,” the Chicago-based radio show about the ordinary and extraordinary lives of Americans today. Each show explores a different topic, and a recent episode’s theme was a spin off of another famous American radio show, “This I Believe.”
The Catholic Studies Program at Santa Clara University, my alma mater, is sponsoring me for a lecture this Thursday on the subject of “Catholic Identity Today.” The great Jesuit I am working with pointed me to a wonderful podcast for some inspiration, and now I’m recommending it to you.
A few weeks ago, I spent my Friday night reading The Good Body, a series of monologues written by Eve Ensler. The format and feel of the book is similar to the work that made Ensler (in)famous, The Vagina Monologues. I finished it the night I started it because it is short, fast, and fun, so you really have no excuse not to read it yourself. ☺
The storyline follows Ensler, the narrator, all over the world as she performs The Vagina Monologues and works on other feminist projects and presentations. All the while she struggles to love her stomach—that one part of her body that she just despises. Interwoven into Ensler’s struggle to love herself, monologues about bodies—parts of them, all of them, different types of them—are spoken by various women she encounters around the world. Some love their bodies; others hate them. All of the women are fabulous, diverse characters like the ones you find in The Vagina Monologues.
Naturally, The Good Body doesn’t match the exhilarating, taboo character of The Vagina Monologues. That’s because we are talking stomachs and butts and wrinkles and rolls, not vaginas. (Okay, there is a little talk of vaginas in this book too). It does, however, accomplish the same difficult task of making an important feminist issue—our battle with unattainable body and beauty standards—relatable, understandable, creative and entertaining.
With all this talk about the body, I got to thinking about Jesus. As Christians, we glorify the body; the incarnation is everything to us! Yet so many of us, myself included, struggle to love our own bodies—our own incarnate selves.
So, spend some time loving the body you’ve been given and read The Good Body by Eve Ensler. Your hips will love you for it.
Check out my podcast interview on Young Adult Ministry in Los Angeles!
Raymond Nanadiego, a Young Adult Minsitry Coordinator at St. Paul the Apostle in Chino Hills, CA, runs an a great Web site with online resources for Young Adult Ministry. He interviewed Theresa Thibodeaux, the Coordinator of Young Adult Ministry in the Archdiocese of LA (she’s my wonderful supervisor), and I for insight into Young Adult Minsitry today, particularly in the greater Los Angeles area.
We covered topics ranging from Catholic higher education to parish marriage prep courses! Listen to the podcast and let me know what you think…
I’m not a Catholic that grew up with the saints. No altars to Mary, no rhyming prayers to St. Anthony whenever I searched for a lost sock, no St. Joseph figurine buried in our front yard. Actually, it was not until I grew older and peers started asking, “What’s up with Catholics and all their saints?” that I even realized these popular Catholic devotions were absent from my upbringing. These holy folks just weren’t a part of the piety of my family or parish.