Why I love liturgy.

A view of the famed Rose Window in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France.

A view of the famed Rose Window in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France.

Back in April, during the Easter Vigil mass, I became a Roman Catholic. This came as a surprise to many people I know, since I’d spent most of my life as an agnostic and at times veered close to atheism. I’ve also toyed with Buddhism and Scientology (and I admit I still have a soft spot for Buddhism because it appeals to my rational mind, and that isn’t likely to change). Due to the recent charges of sexual abuse taking place in the Catholic church, this oldest and largest of all Christian denominations has become more criticized than ever, and probably rightfully so. I don’t think it’s the only religious organization that has been guilty of such behaviors, but I think it’s the most publicized. I’m also not ignorant of the fact that the Catholic Church has a bloody and often very un-Christlike history, especially during the Middle Ages, as well as being the wealthiest religious organization in the world and often full of hypocrisy. In addition, I do not believe that being a Catholic is the only way to salvation. Any Christian who has accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior in their hearts will get to Heaven, regardless of denomination (why did I almost spell that DEMONination?) and don’t necessary even have to attend church at all.

So why did I become a Catholic, you ask. Why did I join a church that’s so rife with its past of violence, and a present still full of intolerance, sexism, and heirarchy? The answer to this is complicated.

I was raised in a family that although nominally Christian, was basically agnostic. We did not attend church regularly (although I was sent to Sunday school as a young child), and holidays like Christmas and Easter were recognized more for their fun/materialistic secularity (gift giving, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, new Easter dresses and coats, etc.) than for the solemn events in the life of Christ they actually honor. My family regarded them as “children’s holidays” that adults indulged and that would eventually be outgrown. Although I was baptized Methodist (and I was surprised to learn my Protestant baptism was recognized as valid by the Catholic Church), we never became very active in any church and therefore were not part of any enduring “church family.” When church was attended, it was a sterile, secular affair, full of feel-good stories of God’s unconditional love, lessons about tolerance and social justice (nothing wrong with that, of course, but it wasn’t very religious nor fill me with a sense of awe or wonder), and very little that was Biblical or traditional. Services revolved mainly around the sermon, always a feel-good pep talk about God’s all-encompassing love and loving one another. All of this clap-happy, touchy feely reformed-Protestant stuff flew in the face of the constant anger, rage, loneliness, and discord that was constantly going on at home. Due to that, all the messages about positive-thinking and feel-goodness seemed insincere and meaningless, and didn’t address the very real problems in my family that made me feel so defective and different from everyone else.

For a short time–maybe one or two years–my father became fascinated by Christian Science, and I was sent to a Christian Science Sunday school. I was too young to comprehend the metaphysical beliefs they espoused, which basically preached that all that was material was an illusion, and only Spirit mattered (later my father would become active in Religious Science, a similar belief system that isn’t based in Christianity and overlaps a great deal with New Thought, part of the New Age movement). I couldn’t wrap my young brain around the metaphysical mumbo jumbo I heard on Sunday and I desperately needed something tangible to offset my growing feelings of dissociation from myself and the rest of humanity and from God Himself. I was filled with uncertainty about what was real and what wasn’t. Living on a diet of spiritual junk food, I was starving for emotional and spiritual sustenance. Although I coudn’t have put it into words, I needed to experience the Divine with my five senses.

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How I envied these girls!

Enter Catholic school. In 5th grade, the bullying at the local public school became so bad that my parents decided to take matters into their own hands and despite their misgivings about the Catholic Church, I was sent to a Catholic girls’ school. My grades immediately improved and I found it easier to make friends with these girls than at the public school. My parents were surprised (and probably a little disturbed) that one of my favorite classes (and the one I did best at) was Religion. I didn’t become religious back then, nor did my faith in God deepen (I was for all intents and purposes agnostic), but I found myself always looking forward to the masses we used to have at school on religious days. Although the highly liturgical services confused me at first (knowing when to stand up and sit down, memorize the various prayers, etc) I found myself drawn to the orderliness and beauty of the Mass. It somehow seemed Godlike and was steeped in history that the Protestant services I’d attended with my parents just didn’t have. I envied the cool trappings of Catholicism (when the other girls were going through Confirmation, they got a new name and a pretty dress and I wanted that too) and longed to be able to take Communion with everyone else. I wanted a set of my own rosary beads. Today I know these things really don’t matter (I think whatever denomination you are–even if none at all–is a matter of personal preference) but at my tender age, these tangible things seemed part of some wonderful, sacred, mysterious and heavenly world I couldn’t be part of. Sitting there in my folding chair watching the proceedings, I always felt the presence of God and a benevolent, forgiving love I never felt from my own family, even though I had to remain seated during the communion. It was one of the few places where I could feel the benevolence of God.

Many cradle Catholics remember negative experiences from their childhood about the Church and turned away from it as they came of age, but as someone who only knew it as a refuge from the harsh realities that took place in my agnostic home, I never developed those negative associations with Catholicism. I loved most of the nuns at my school. With one or two exceptions, they seemed so kind and compassionate, very saintlike–and they seemed to care about me in a way I never felt I got from my own family. Although I never talked about what went on at home, one nun in particular who seemed to favor me for some reason, guessed that things at home weren’t ideal, and told me to come see her anytime I needed to talk. I never did (for fear of what might happen if I “squealed” about the family to an outsider), but it felt good to know that she cared enough to reach out to me.

As I grew older I fell away from Christianity (not that I’d ever really embraced it much and knew next to nothing about the Bible or the life of Christ), and experimented with other belief systems, including Scientology and Buddhism, if anything at all. The Bible seemed to me like a book of ancient fairy tales with no relevance to my own life. I rarely prayed and looked down on churchgoing and religious people as ignorant and deluded. Although I never embraced full-on atheism (it was too depressing to think there was no afterlife at all), I thought that if God existed, he was pretty much hands-off and that everyone, other than the most hardened criminals and mean, cruel people, would get to Heaven, if there even was such a place. The concept of reincarnation made a lot more logical sense to me than the idea of heaven or hell.

But my soul was still starving and I think deep down I always knew this. Every once in a while, in spite of my doubts about the existence of God, I’d make time to attend a Catholic mass. I didn’t believe what they preached, in fact I thought most of it was pretty silly, but I loved the ritual and the order, and somehow always came away feeling transcended. I’d go take Communion (knowing as a non-Catholic I wasn’t supposed to) and feel somehow nourished. In a way I couldn’t explain, witnessing the reverence and beauty of the Mass, made me feel like part of something much bigger than myself and accepted for who I was, not (as in my FOO) expected to be someone I could never be.

I toyed with other Christian faiths, including Lutheranism and the Southern Baptist church. During the late 1980s, I attended a Lutheran church (and was confirmed as Lutheran) mainly because the man I married was Lutheran. The services were called masses and were very liturgical and quite similar in many ways to the Catholic mass, but they seemed watered down, somehow. For instance, the communion wafer was regarded as symbolic rather than being the actual Body of Christ. We never became deeply involved with the Lutheran church, and although we had our kids baptized Lutheran, we did not attend church on Sundays or otherwise do much to encourage their spiritual development.

When we moved to North Carolina from northern New Jersey, we were faced with culture shock–instead of having mostly Catholic and Jewish neighbors, suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by Southern Baptists who insisted we needed to be “saved.” Still looking for spiritual nourishment, I started attending services at the local Baptist church as well as Bible studies on Tuesdays nights. My kids attended 2 years of Vacation Bible School. I never cottoned to the hellfire-and-brimstone preaching though, or the literal interpretation of the Bible. I was especially turned off by the church’s conservative political agenda, that actually told us we were “going to Hell” if we didn’t vote Republican, as well as their dismissal of science. I decided to stop attending church there.

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Hellfire-and-brimstone preaching is a turn off to me.

A few years later, my daughter had a friend at school whose parents were Southern Baptists, and my daughter, age 9 at the time, decided to be baptized in their church. I was fine with that, even though I disagreed with the southern Baptist belief system, because it took the burden off of me to be responsible for her spiritual growth. I attended her baptism and was surprised at how modern the service was, with a pop-rock band that played contemporary Christian music rather than traditional hymns. Intrigued, I decided to attend a few more services, but I always felt like I was at a rock concert rather than at church. In spite of the emphasis on Biblical literalism, during the long, emotional sermons, I never felt my soul uplifted or any real feeling of spiritual transcendence. Although very different from the touchy-feely, heaven-awaits-no matter-what-you-do preaching of the liberal Protestantism of my childhood, this hellfire-and-brimstone preaching bookended by Christian contemporary music with the words splashed on a huge TV screen didn’t do much for me either. I longed for tradition, for history, for meaning.

I still occasionally attended Catholic masses, but never thought I’d actually become one. But shortly after I went No Contact with my ex (who freeloaded off me and mentally abused me for almost 7 years following our divorce and nearly bled me dry emotionally, mentally, financially, and spiritually) I began to blog. My mental and physical health came back first, and then I realized I was still starving spiritually. I needed God, who after all, had been watching and protecting me all the time I was in an abusive marriage and had shown me on several occasions how real He was. Last October, I decided to start attending Mass as well as RCIA classes (the classes you take to become Catholic). I had doubts about much of the doctrine (and truth be told, still do). I still wasn’t sure I wanted to become Catholic, but I thought I should at least take the classes and make an educated decision.

To my surprise, I found that Catholic doctrine isn’t very different from what I’ve always believed anyway. The Bible is held as important (more important than many fundamentalist Christians believe we do) but much of its content is not not interpreted literally and therefore doesn’t fly in the face of centuries of scientific discovery and achievement. Yes, we are saved by grace alone (all Christians are), but works are also important and are tangible evidence of God’s grace. Sacraments (communion, confession, etc) give tangibility to God’s grace although (I don’t think) they are necessary for salvation. Confession is not a punishment; it is an opportunity to unload to someone else and makes you feel better afterwards (very similar to a 4th step in a 12-step program). Although I had my doubts at first, I’ve come to believe the Host (the communion wafer) does actually become the body of Christ, due to the glorious, transcended way I always feel after partaking. I do feel like my soul is being changed for the better, even though it’s not a Saul-to-Paul-like sudden conversion full of fireworks and drama.

I admit I do still have some issues, mostly having to do with the Catholic church’s stance on social matters such as abortion and homosexuality, as well as the fact that priests still must be male. I don’t think the Pope is infallible either (he is just a man), but I understand the reasoning behind having a Pope and I happen to like the current Pope anyway. I don’t venerate Mary and the saints, although I have utmost respect for them. Veneration isn’t the same as worship, anyway. Only Jesus as God is worshipped so there’s nothing un-Christian there, a far as I’m concerned.

rosary_beads

Because of my doubts and personal proclivities, I’ll probably never be the “perfect Catholic” or “perfect Christian” but that’s okay. I pray that God keeps working on my soul to cleanse it from sin and I’m willing to believe anything God wants me to believe. I’m willing to turn my soul and my life over to the Creator. Whenever I’m at mass, I feel part of a vast family and something glorious, beautiful and so much bigger than myself or all humanity. I feel accepted in God’s kingdom and have begun to fear death and the future less than I used to. The tangibility, beauty and order of the liturgical tradition–the memorized call-and-response prayers, the communion procession, the incense, the swelling organ music and the singing, the kneeling and the standing, the Sign of the Cross, and all the rest of these “silly rituals”–makes me feel that God is a tangible, real thing, someone who is RIGHT THERE and that I can see, hear, smell, feel, touch and even taste. The traditional hymns with their pipe-organ and piano music and the ancient prayers imbue a sense of mystery and history into the services that neither liberal Protestantism or fundamentalist pop-rock sing-alongs do for me. And I love the Bible readings too. I’m beginning to feel that the messages in the Bible do have meaning for me personally. The orderliness and ritual of the mass is regarded by some as mindless, dull and lacking spontaneity (and to some extent I can understand this view), but I find the repetitive and predictable aspects such as the call-and-response prayers and chants to have an uncanny way of eventually filtering down from my mind into the deepest part of my heart, in a way a hellfire-and-brimstone or feel-good, prosperity-gospel sermonizing can never do.

Before becoming Catholic, I toyed with the idea of becoming Eastern Orthodox, a religion which, if anything, is even more liturgical and steeped in ritual, history, and tradition than the modern Catholic church (and is somewhat more liberal in its stance on women’s rights and birth control), but finding a sizable Orthodox community here in the Southern United States is a huge challenge to say the least. I did actually attend one Orthodox mass about five years ago (my son’s Kung Fu teacher was Russian Orthodox and invited us to attend his church), and although it was incredibly beautiful (and the food served afterwards was delicious), the feel of the Orthodox mass was a little too “foreign” for my taste. Anglicanism (The Church of England) also has a rich liturgical tradition (please see my Christmas post “O Come All Ye Faithful”) but again, is uncommon here in the southern US, and it’s still Protestantism anyway. I like the idea of being part of the oldest and largest practicing Christian community in the world that has such a rich and colorful history (even if at times in the past it wasn’t especially Christ-like). I feel proud to be a part of that. Although I know the trappings and ritual are more a matter of personal preference than salvation, for me they make an abstract God seem more real. Coming from such a chaotic, unpredictable background, the order and predictability of the liturgy is food for my soul. My adopted religion may not be the only road to salvation, but it’s the only road for me. Thanks be to God.

Millennials and liturgical Christianity.
As an aside, the Millennial generation, although largely turned off by religion, are, when drawn to religion, are converting to “high church” (liturgical) Christianity such as Anglicanism, Catholicism, and the Orthodox church. They are a generation that (like me, even though I’m not a Millennial) longs for a sense of tradition and connection with history that’s lacking in the evangelical, fundamentalist, and liberal Protestantism or New Age or atheistic belief systems they were raised with, all of which largely ignore or dismiss 1800 years of Christian history and tradition.

Further reading:
Why Millennials Long for Liturgy: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/why-millennials-long-for-liturgy/
Millennials are Seeking Tradition, Sacramentality, and Liturgy: http://www.catholicvote.org/millennials-are-seeking-tradition-sacramentality-and-liturgy/

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So apparently God accepted my deal… (Part Two of Two)

stainedglass

As far as Catholic mysticism goes, I never had a problem with it and don’t now. In fact, I always liked the idea of Mary and the saints, not for any theological reason, but simply because sometimes the saints and Mary are just easier for the average person to relate to. According to Catholic theology, in no way does Mary or the saints replace Jesus and God. They are venerated and honored, not worshipped. They act as intercessors and do not answer prayers themselves, but pray on behalf of the person who is addressing them and those prayers are offered to God. Of course, belief in Mary and the saints is not a requirement for Catholics, but is encouraged. Mary is particularly venerated because, as the woman chosen by God to give birth to the human incarnation of Himself (Jesus), she is held in high esteem by God and deserves such honor. I happen to agree with this. I always thought Mary was sort of cool, actually. As far as her physical assumption into Heaven, I have some problems with that, but it’s a minor point and I’m willing to let it go. Again, this doctrine is not a requirement to be a Catholic.

Although unscientific, I really like the idea of transubstantiation (the literal transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ during Communion). Suspending scientific disbelief at the climax of the Catholic mass, Communion (which is considered a sacrament, not merely a symbolic ritual) becomes something very special and mysterious and seems an appropriate way to end such a solemn event as the Mass. I also like the “Peace be with you” ritual, where just before communion, parishioners turn to one another and offer this sentiment. If only this sentiment were more often followed in daily life! Throughout my life, I always felt a sense of great peace during this and the Communion rituals, something I never felt at any Protestant service.

In the Catholic faith, while we are saved by grace and Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, grace ALONE is not enough. Protestantism in part arose from Martin Luther’s idea that grace alone was enough to satisfy God, and works were not important. But works are very important. While works won’t give you salvation, they are important as a means to practice and use the grace Jesus gave us when he died on the cross. In evangelical Protestantism, you can be a murderer or a selfish, immoral person in life but will still get to heaven if you accept Jesus as your personal savior. There’s something wrong with that picture and it just seems very lazy to me. They get to have their cake and eat it too: say a few words in the “sinner’s prayer,” but not be required to show anything for it (although according to most evangelicals, accepting Jesus will change your heart so you won’t want to do bad things–of course this doesn’t always seem to play out in reality!).

I also found out that Catholics do NOT condemn other Christians (or even non-Christians who do good works in life) to eternal torment. (This is a sea change from what I understood the Vatican taught when I was in grammar school.) It seems the Vatican has changed their stance on this issue, and they now accept that ALL Christians who accept Jesus as their divine Savior will go to Heaven, regardless of denomination. (It’s okay to be Protestant!) Denomination is regarded as personal preference. It’s tragic how much bloodshed and misery has resulted between groups of Christians who couldn’t agree on the extraneous details of their religion, Catholics in the past having been one of the biggest perpretators (which the Church readily admits). Even if you’re not a Christian but are a good and moral person, you will not necessarily go to hell (although the greatest glories of Heaven may be barred to you). Hell itself is something Catholics can’t seem to agree on, and while some interpret it as a literal lake of fire, others do not (hell being merely a spiritual state of separation from God). However, there does seem to be a consensus that if you are a terrible person who spends most of your life deliberately hurting others, you will probably go to hell. And of course, there is also Purgatory, which is kind of a way station on the way to Heaven, for those who have been saved, but whose works don’t measure up. Purgatory has been one of the biggest bones of contention between Catholics and Protestants, but it makes sense to me, and it’s purpose has been misunderstood by many as one of temporary punishment rather than spiritual cleansing. According to fundamentalist Protestants, you are going to heaven or hell, with nothing in between. I just could never get on board with that because people aren’t all good or all bad. There are many shades of gray in between. In a nutshell, all that’s required to get to heaven is a belief that Jesus was born, lived and died on the cross to save us from our sins–something that evangelical Protestants also believe. All the other stuff (belief in the Bible as a literal document rather than allegory, evolution [divinely inspired] vs. creationism, veneration of Mary and the saints, participation in the sacraments, etc.) is basically window dressing that helps Catholics in their faith and their journey with God.

mary

Getting back to my own journey these past few days, the thing that happened that made me realize that maybe God had seen my post and was taking me up on my challenge to Him, was that suddenly I understood the concept of the Trinity in a personal way. In the past, I never could wrap my mind around how God could be three persons in one, no matter how hard I tried or how many Bible verses born-agains tried to make me read. Out of the blue, it all made perfect sense. There is God the Father (the one who created the universe), God the Son (God presented himself in human form because that was the only way we could truly understand each other and because only God in human form could deliver us from sin) and the Holy Spirit (which is basically what you feel when a hymn, sermon or religious work of art makes you teary eyed or overcome with awe–I also think the holy spirit can get through via ANY transformative experience, be it a work of art or piece of music, nature, encounter, etc.). I know I’m not explaining my revelation very well, but I could see how this concept does not negate science or logic. It was also very comforting. After reading the personal stories of conversion on WhyImCatholic.com and explanation of Catholic theology on Catholic.com, I realized that perhaps I could be “saved” after all–as a Roman Catholic.

Why Catholic? After all, there are a few mainstream Protestant faiths that don’t preach about hell and Satan, and are more “liberal” than Catholicism and may be in keeping with a progressive worldview like mine, but honestly I always found those churches to be kind of wishy-washy, as if they were cherry-picking what they liked from traditional Christianity and chucking the rest. Their theology seems like a sort of copout, a man-made compromise that has nothing to do with God. I don’t get that feeling about the Catholic church, even though they have updated many of their traditional doctrines for modern times.

It also holds a great deal of weight for me that the Catholic church was the first organized Christian religion, and all other Christian faiths emerged or split off from that. In spite of their bloody history and many transgressions, I felt Catholicism as it stands today could be something I could accept with both my mind and heart. That being said, I do need to point out that I don’t agree with all Catholic doctrine and there are several problems I have with the Catholic church:

–Their highly heirarchical structure. While I realize this is due to tradition and is perhaps the only way to organize and administer such a huge worldwide religion, I need to find out if talking to God directly is really not a possibility, and a priest must always be a mediator between myself and the Divine.

–Their stance on abortion and contraception. While neither affects me directly (I’m no longer of childbearing age) and as I already said, their rationale does make a type of sense, it’s hard for a liberal, politically progressive woman to accept such strictures on women’s reproductive rights.

–I need to find out more about their stance on homosexuality. While the current Pope (who is pretty cool) does not condemn homosexuality and thinks too much emphasis has been put on the entire issue by evangelical Christians, it’s my understanding it’s still not acceptable according to the tenets of the Church. As a mother of a gay son, this is important for me to find out.

–Celibacy of the clergy. While on a theoretical level this actually makes a type of sense (clergy who are not married or don’t have the option to be involved in a sexual relationship are less likely to be distracted by those things and can turn their energies into a closer relationship to God), on a practical level it doesn’t seem to work: witness the recent publicization of sexual abuse cases perpetrated by Catholic clergy–it may be unrealistic to expect a human being, regardless of how pious they are, to completely divorce himself from his sexual urges and the Church’s refusal to acknowledge these physical needs may result in inappropriate sexual behavior to “whatever or whoever” is available.

–Women in the priesthood. A no brainer. Women should be allowed in the priesthood, period.

There are other problems as well, but these are the ones that bother me the most. All that being said, overall I feel that I may have finally found a spiritual “home” that works best for me–one that’s been staring me in the face my entire life but I always dismissed for one reason or another. There are a lot of negative stereotypes about Roman Catholicism and some of them are deserved, but to my surprise I realized that most are not. There are a lot of misconceptions. The Catholic church may be one of the most misunderstood religions, but it says something that it’s been around so long and continues to have so many adherents all over the world. I’ll have to dig a little deeper and make sure this is really something I’m willing and ready to embrace. Tomorrow I plan to attend Mass and talk to a priest about upcoming RCIA classes.

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I’m completely blown away by everything that’s happened since I made that deal with God, and feel like he really is trying to get through to me. I haven’t accepted Christ yet, but I think maybe I could. One thing I have no doubt about is that God really does work in strange and mysterious ways. I’m on the quest of my life.

So apparently God accepted my deal…(Part One of Two)

outofthedarkness

For the past couple of days, I haven’t posted anything, mostly because something has happened I’ve been burning to write about, but am reluctant to because I’m afraid of what my atheist and agnostic followers will think (my feelings get hurt easily LOL). I know that’s silly, but if I don’t write about this I feel like I might explode. And I want to keep this blog active. I dearly hope my atheist and agnostic followers can keep an open mind and realize that this is something personal that has happened to ME, and in no way affects anyone else or my views about other faiths including agnosticism and atheism. I have a deep respect for all belief systems (including the right not to have one at all) and atheists and agnostics do make a lot of rational sense and I can understand why they feel the way they do about God and religion. Hell, I more or less felt that way myself until just a couple of days ago, and I don’t see myself as a person who would ever shut my mind off from their all too often very valid viewpoints.

But still. I have to blog about this, so here goes.

When I wrote my post, “I made a little deal with God,” I really didn’t expect anything to come out of it, other than a lively discussion about God and religion, which is what happened and I am grateful to all those who participated, no matter whether they’re Christians, pagans, atheists, or anything else. So after I wrote that post, I put it in the back of my mind and moved on to other things. After a couple of days, I concluded that because nothing dramatic had happened and there was no Saul-to-Paul-like “miracle” or sudden, earth-shattering change of heart, that perhaps the atheists were right and there was no God at all, that He was just a comforting construct invented by humans to deal with the stresses and injustices in our lives. Perhaps Napoleon was onto something when he said, “religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”

But in spite of all that, I’ve always been a spiritual seeker and was never satisfied with the atheistic idea that we are just a random bunch of cells that happened to glom together and gradually shape-shift into our current form. I’ve always believed there was something more, much more, but never found a religion I was happy with. Apparently God saw my post and decided to take me up on my challenge. Because two days ago while browsing the web, I came across a Catholic website, called WhyImCatholic, which is basically a bunch of testimonials from people who converted to Catholicism from other faiths, ranging from born-again (Protestant) Christianity to hardcore atheism. I have no idea how I found this website or what I was looking for, but the subject matter was interesting so I started reading some of the testimonials. Why would anyone become a Catholic, of all things? So I started to read and I couldn’t stop reading. I found that, unlike the many born-again Christians who had tried and tried without avail to explain their faith to me, these stories ACTUALLY MADE SENSE! Imagine that.

More about that later, but let me give you a little background on my relationship with Catholicism. While I’m not Catholic myself, I was raised in northern New Jersey, where Catholics were as common as toadstools after a rainstorm. Almost all my neighbors were Catholic (with a sprinkling of Jews and atheists) and I was sent to Catholic schools (the one thing I’m really grateful to my parents for, due to the superior education Catholic schools usually provide) for most of my childhood. As a child, I remember envying my Catholic friends, because of all the cool stuff and rituals their Church had–such as rosary beads, incense, a new name they got at their confirmation, and statues and painting of Mary and the saints. The Methodist church my family sometimes went to (we were really an agnostic family, and while I was sent to Sunday school and was baptized by my paternal grandfather, who was a Methodist minister, my parents were never churchgoers) didn’t have any of those awesome tangibles and there was no “mystery” to Methodism (or any other Protestant church I ever attended) like there was at the Catholic masses I had the privilege to attend with my friends or at school. As I got older, and learned more about what Catholics actually believed, I found I didn’t agree with their doctrine and also had a number of problems with their stance on abortion, homosexuality, women in the clergy, the celibacy of the priesthood, etc. But despite my issues with their beliefs, and even with my ambivalence about God and Jesus, my attraction to the Catholic mass did not wane. From time to time throughout my adulthood, I’ve attended Catholic services, just because I like the ritual and the formality of the liturgy, the chanting and the hymns. There’s a lot to be said on an aesthetic level about Catholicism, but I never really embraced what they believed and in fact now realize I had closed my mind off to a lot and had developed a lot of preconceived notions (some which are simply not true).

In 2003 I attended a 5-day retreat sponsored by a local Catholic church that also happened to be extremely progressive on many issues. It was an amazing experience (and a lot of fun), and I was surprised that one of its leaders, a Cherokee Indian named Owl, was not even a Catholic. He taught us about Cherokee symbology and mysticism and we spent one golden August afternoon making stone carvings of a “totem animal” we had chosen to represent ourselves. This was Catholicism? It was all so New Age, even Pagan. Of course this was all balanced by a morning Mass, Bible readings and very personal and deep group discussions about spirituality and God. There were other non-Catholics attending the retreat, including another agnostic, two Protestants and a Jew. There was nothing about that retreat to offend the sensibilities of an agnostic like myself, and so I decided to take their RCIA classes (the classes you are required to take to become a Catholic). But in my current spiritual state and embroiled in an impending divorce, I quickly lost interest once the discussions in the classes became too Biblical and religious. I explained to Father Bill (the priest running the classes) that I’d learned a lot but I didn’t think I was ready. He was very understanding and told me he understood and to take my time finding my path. And so I moved on, chalking up this experience to one more thing I’d undertaken but eventually abandoned (my track record for sticking with anything to the end is embarrassing). Other than attending one Midnight Mass about 5 years ago, I never thought about Catholicism again until a few days ago.

So anyway. I was reading the above-mentioned website, and was riveted by the stories of people, many much like myself–intelligent, thoughtful, educated, forward-thinking people who were ambivalent or even opposed to the idea of religion and submission to God and Jesus–who had decided through various means that the Catholic Church was right for them. I found a link on that site to another website that explained Catholic theology in exhausting detail and is set up in encyclopedic form, so that you can type in anything you want to know about in the search bar, and get all the information you need about the Catholic stance on that topic. Sometimes there was just too much to read! But what surprised and shocked me more than anything is all the misunderstandings and preconceived notions I had about the Catholic church. It came as quite a shock to find I agreed with most of their views, or at least wasn’t particularly offended by them when I didn’t agree. For example, while abortion and artificial contraception is still unacceptable, unlike fundamentalists, who preach about sin and what the Bible says/doesn’t say on these issues, the Catholic stance on these things actually made rational sense! Imagine that. I won’t get into their stance on those things here, as it’s not my desire to convert anyone, but suffice to say that there is nothing about their reasoning that offends my rational mind. I’m not saying I agree with them on these things (I don’t), but simply that their stance does not offend me. Nor does it judge opposing viewpoints in the harsh way that fundamentalist Christianity does. Granted, there are a few Catholics who are also very harsh and judgmental (and a few in politics), but they are almost always evangelical Catholics, who are not really any different from other evangelical Christians. There are extremes in any religion. It also holds a great deal of weight for me that Catholics are opposed to killing in general (in spite of their bloody past, which they have publicly apologized for), and while against abortion (for sound reasons to my way of thinking), they are also against the death penalty.

Some of the explanations the site offered seemed to be a perfect reconcilation between spirituality and science. They spoke to ME. For example, their stance on evolution is one that I’ve held myself for a very long time: that evolution is most likely a fact, proved by science (as well as the 3.5 billion year timeframe for the age of the earth), but was divinely inspired by a higher intelligence we call God. Now, they don’t actually take an official stance on this, and there are some Catholics who do buy the Creation story in the Bible, but Catholic theology doesn’t dispute evolution and it is acceptable to believe in it, as long as God is given credit for being behind it all. As for Adam and Eve, you have the choice to think of them as a literal couple in the Bible, or a figurative story about early civilized humans falling from grace. They acknowledge that while humans have probably been around for several million years, and evolved from ape-like ancestors, that shortly after we became sentient, and developed the capacity for self-awareness and the idea there was something greater overseeing things (which happened about 10,000 years ago), we fell from grace (which I won’t get into here as that’s not my aim in this article and it would take too long). Adam and Eve represent tribes of ancient peoples in the near East, not actual persons. I won’t get into all the theology behind that now, but that’s the gist of it, and it actually made sense to my skeptical, science-loving brain. Taken this way, it was possible to read the Bible as truth but realize at the same time that the details in the stories were allegorical, not a literal account of historical events. I always wondered how so many of the world’s greatest scientists could also be devout Catholics, and this explained how that could be possible. The Church’s support of science and encouragement of scientific thought is cetainly impressive: a very high emphasis is put on education and this is shown by how many Catholic-run colleges and universities there are today.

This article is getting too long and unwieldy to contain in one post, so Part Two will be posted later today. I have to run a few errands first.

Next up: Catholic mysticism, the concepts of grace vs. works, the Trinity, Jesus as Savior, and more.

Note to my atheist and agnostic readers: I certainly you continue to read and follow my blog! I value your contributions, and am in no way attempting to convert anyone, just relating what has happened to me in the past few days. I hope you keep reading!