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I’ve been running.
Had you asked me about running six months ago, I would have sighed, frowned, and said something like, “Yeah, I go for a jog occasionally…” (Grumble, grumble, grumble). Like some of you, I imagine, running was something I did from time to time because one ought to run. One ought to for her health. One ought to, perhaps, so she can still claim some bit of lingering athletic ability during her mid-twenties.
As I ran I couldn’t escape the physical and mental confrontation of pain, however. “This hurts,” I thought between the weight and wear of deep, heavy breaths. And then I wondered, “Why is this so painful for me? How do all these other people run so much further and faster through all this pain?!” The mental battle prompted by the pain was ultimately the bigger obstacle, the higher hurdle. Running entailed a confrontation with myself—my own vulnerability, my inability, my pain—that I wanted to run from. And running from it meant not running.
For the last couple months, though, I kept running.
Ms. Jenkins was one of my favorite high school teachers. In addition to introducing me to feminism, she taught me how to live through pain. (Perhaps this lesson pairing is no coincidence). One day she stopped her history lesson and disclosed to us a great impending truth about our own future histories: “Some day you will love someone so much that when it ends, you will wake up in the morning, lay in bed, and you won’t want to get up because it will feel like the world has ended. You will feel like that. It will hurt that much. But you must get out of bed,” she said. “You must get out of bed that day, and the next day, and the next day. And overtime you will notice that the pain shifts. And one day while brushing your teeth it will occur to you that the pain has shifted so much that you actually believe you will be okay. You will realize that somewhere between the end of the world and brushing your teeth, things got better.”
I’ve recited this wisdom to myself and my grieving friends about a hundred times. I’ve done that because, after a few of these personal Armageddons, I know that Ms. Jenkins was right. Even so, there has been a shift overtime in my understanding of the process that she described to us that day. I used to think this was merely a story about the inevitable dissolution of pain across time: If one just continues through life for long enough, one will eventually live without that pain. Time heals; this kind of pain disappears. And while heartache may very well be a kind of pain that quantitatively lessens over days and months and years, I think Ms. Jenkins also disclosed something about the possibilities of relating to one’s pain: Sometimes we have the choice to run from it, to stay in bed—or to run with it, to live into it.
Like running, living into this sort of pain entails a confrontation with my own vulnerability. And it is overwhelming at times to attend to it—to live while paying attention to my own fragility. But freaking out and avoiding the reality of my pain and my vulnerability to it—the alternative—does not foster any sort of transformation, any sort of healing. I’ve come to think that there will always be pain, to varying degrees, and I will always, always be affected by it. But I can live well with it. Through it.
When I kept running, I learned to breathe through the pain. I learned to embrace the sense of vulnerability I feel amidst it. That pain has lessened, too, but that has not been the most transformative or reassuring result of this new habit. I have discovered, or perhaps engendered, a deep peace along the way.
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.
Last Sunday I found myself smack in the middle of a protest between pro-choice feminists and anti-abortion Catholics. This Sunday I took communion with Senator John Kerry.
It wasn’t until halfway through the Mass that I realized the deep singing voice behind me belonged to the famous American Catholic politician. “Peace be with you,” I said, offering the tall man my tiny hand. Only as he reciprocated the gesture and words of peace did I became aware of who this man is.
It wasn’t mere celebrity that had his presence on my mind throughout the Eucharist and the rest of the Mass. After a week of meditating on the difficulties of being a Catholic feminist in light our nation’s debates concerning reproductive rights, there I was with the famous public figure who has been set apart as the embodiment of this tension between women’s rights and religious tradition. I was humbled. What kind of courage and devotion must one possess to show up to Mass time and time again, undoubtedly aware of the political implications accompanying every walk one takes toward the altar in that communion line? Although there is real friction in my feminist Catholic identity when it comes to navigating the question of abortion, the discomfort I experience and the Catholic allegiance I profess in light of it is really so easy compared to a man who must work out these tensions so publicly.
From the protest lines to the Communion line. I felt a great deal of courage, standing in that line with him.
Today the sun finally broke through the clouds in Boston. So, after finishing lunch in a cute little Italian cafe in Beacon Hill, I decided to head to the nearby Boston Public Gardens for an afternoon stroll while making a phone call to an old friend from school. I didn’t get very far.
Still a couple hundred feet from the park, I could see the flashing blue lights of the police cars that blocked the road along the permitter of the Boston Commons. I heard horns honking, voices chanting, and as I drew closer I began to recognize the “NOW” logos on the large white picket signs along the sidewalk. My studies in feminism have familiarized me with NOW, the “National Organization for Women” that headed up America’s Second Wave feminist movement. I have fantasized about marching in their protest lines at the height of their movement in the 60’s and 70’s, a time when it seems collective action was so much more energetic and visible than today.
As I drew closer, there were other familiar images. Banners with the colorful emblem of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Masses of people, their hands thrust into the air cradling rosary beads or wooden crucifixes. Women in habit, and men with starched white collars. The anger in the air shook me as I realized: I am walking straight into a feminist/Catholic standoff over abortion rights. And that’s exactly what it was.
Where do I stand? My eyes darted from one activist crowd to the other like the screams that flew back and forth between them. Where do I stand? For a moment I thought I would just continue to the park, but I couldn’t. These are my people en masse! How could I pass this up?! …But where would I stand? I kept asking myself this. Where do I stand? I didn’t fit in among the harsh juxtaposition of the protest lines. My convictions about abortion–and any other topic for that matter–aren’t relegated to one aspect of my identity (feminist) or any other (like, Catholic). My views about the world are Catholic and feminist–because I am both Catholic and feminist. In the “us” or “them” of these protest lines–and in much of the moral debate between these parties–there often isn’t a place for someone like me to stand up as I am.
I wanted to stand where I stand–between the lines and posters and the yelling–right there in the middle of it. You see, I live in the middle of it all the time. And the anger in the air shakes me.
“Well, folks…the cup I left on the table flew away, so do you still want to have the champagne…um….from the bottle?”
The wedding officiant, a Protestant pastor and friend of mine, asked me to help facilitate the intimate ritual during the ceremony. When the marrying couple, the pastor, the two Best Men, and I, the Maid of Honor, circled around the small Communion table in front of 200 guests, I immediately noticed that the empty plastic cup I had placed there before the wedding was no where to be found. The mountain breeze must have carried it away during the vows!
We passed the grainy loaf around while the pastor read scripture, and I said, “This is Christ’s body, broken for you.” As we chewed my eyes darted around inconspicuously searching for the cup. “WHY did I pick a clear cup!” I wondered silently to myself.When our jaws stopped chomping and everyone’s eyes turned to the uncorked bottle of champagne we had grabbed before the ceremony (someone forgot the intended Communion wine), I divulged our Communion predicament. “Yep, lets just drink it from the bottle,” my cousin said, her new husband nodding and smiling in agreement. How it must have looked from the audience, watching the bride lift the big green bottle of Champagne to her mouth amid this quiet, intimate moment of the ceremony! People laughed as we passed it from person to person. With each swig, I reverently proclaimed, “Tad, this is the blood of Christ, poured out for you…Sy, this is the blood of Christ, poured out for you…” Finally, I took my swig of the bottle, returned it to the table, and smiled.
Earlier in the ceremony the pastor had preached on John 15:13, where Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his/her life for a friend.” The pastor said that this is the kind of incredible, unselfish love exemplified in marriage. Jesus reasserted this same extravagant love on the night of the Last Supper, saying, “This is my body given for you.” Amazing, generous, lavish love is what we celebrate in marriage, and what we celebrate in Communion. So, as I stood there smiling at my beautiful cousin and her wonderful new husband, all I could think about was how fitting this Communion ceremony was. This was no sterile cup and stale wafer ritual. No. This was fresh bread and champagne from the bottle, an extravagant, lavish Communion fit to reflect the love of Christ, and their new wedded life of love together.
For months I had been hearing about this friend-of-a-friend. We have so much in common, I was told. She recently finished up two Master’s degrees, one in social work and one in divinity, so we share commitments to social justice and faith. What’s more, during her studies an intense interest in feminist theologies blossomed. After hearing all this, I eagerly awaited our introduction. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure.