Tuesday, March 27, 2012

That's Me in the Corner; That's Me in the Spotlight

The crux of the problem is this: they don't ever sing the song “Jesus Loves Me.”

Annie entered first grade last year, and so along with all-day school and actual nightly homework at our neighborhood public school, she also became eligible to attend weekly catechism at the Catholic church our family attends. According to the schedule at our church, after she attends the Monday night sessions for two years, she’ll make her first communion toward the end of second grade . . . and receive the sacrament of reconciliation at the end of fourth grade, and be confirmed at the end of eighth grade. Sitting in the church basement with the other parents on the first night, holding that schedule in my hands, I got nervous. Suddenly, it seemed we were signing our six-year-old up for years and years of instruction, and I didn’t know if I liked where it was going.

For Jason, who grew up Catholic, it was a no-brainer. He’s the kind of person who keeps a Bible on the nightstand on his side of the bed, the kind of person whose Catholicism is buoyed by years of Catholic school and by an extended family that makes pilgrimages to shrines in honor of the Virgin Mary and has the priest over for dinner regularly. 

For me, it’s a bit more complicated. I’m the kind of person who used to keep a Bible on the nightstand on my side of the bed back when I went on mission trips with my high school youth group and taught Sunday School to the little kids at my church. My faith was buoyed by going to a small, Christian liberal arts college and by an extended family who had been elders and deacons for generations in the Protestant tradition in which I was raised. 

I came to the Catholic church later in life, after I met and married Jason, and it was around this time that my faith started to sink. Oh, I was fortunate enough to go through the RCIA process at a vibrant, progressive student parish in a university town, and my family was never anything but supportive of this turn in my faith journey. I become Catholic because I wanted our future family to share a tradition and because it was more important to Jason than it was to me that we worship in a particular way. But for me, there was always confusion and even outright disagreement about things like indulgences, purgatory, social issues, and Mary. I wasn't thrilled to be welcomed into the Catholic church during the same year that the priest abuse scandal hit the news, either. I found things I appreciated – the quiet prayer after eucharist, the passing of the peace, the emphasis on social justice and compassion for the voiceless in our society – but I also saw things I didn’t understand, things that seemed (not to put too fine a point on it) a little crazy. 

For example, Jason and I put our house on the market about a year after Annie was born.  My in-laws came to babysit for a weekend just as the sign was going in the yard so my husband and I could go to his college roommate's wedding. While we were gone and without telling us, my in-laws secretly buried a statue of St. Joseph upside down in our yard in some sort of Catholic voodoo belief that the statue would help our house to sell. When I found out weeks later that there was an upside-down statue of a saint somewhere in my yard, I was fairly annoyed. I may have actually dug around under our front hedges with a trowel, trying unsuccessfully to locate the statue.

“That is not how God works!” I informed my husband.

“Well, how does God work, then?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I answered, “but not that way.” (The house took five years to sell.)

Other things rankled. I sat through more than one homily that used fear and guilt to strongly suggest that anyone not in full compliance with every tenet of the church was Doing It Wrong. I saw people putting an awful lot of effort into praying certain prayers in a certain order on certain days, believing in a magical formula for staying out of hell, putting all the emphasis on procedure without any nod to the meaning behind it. I read bulletin articles that barely disguised their contempt for gay people, for other Christian traditions, for certain political parties, for anyone who questioned things that seemed a little off. More often than not, I felt harangued, badgered, scolded, disheartened when I left church. I did not feel loved, empowered, valued, surrounded by grace.

I had become a reluctant Catholic, and I stopped keeping a Bible on my nightstand. I focused instead on the tangible things I could do to be a positive part of a church community. We gave a percentage of our income to the weekly offering. I signed up to bring meals to homebound parishioners. Later, after we had finally moved, I volunteered in Annie’s (and, eventually, Jemma's) Sunday School class, where they made crafts and learned to make the sign of the cross but did not, I noticed, ever hear the sweet little Bible stories of my youth or sing the song Jesus Loves Me. The lack of this song – the very core of the idea I believed a church should be teaching its children – bothered me, but I said nothing. I stopped thinking about things too much.

When I did think about my faith, I found myself less and less sure about anything. If pressed, the most I could say with confidence was that I believed there was a God. Full stop. And that was pretty much all I knew. “I had," as Dani Shapiro writes in her memoir Devotion, "reached the middle of my life, and knew less than I ever had before.” I was suspicious of anyone or any organization who thought they had all the answers about such a mysterious Being. When I looked around at the world and its daily exhibitions of strife, wars and terrorism brought in the name of God; when I noticed people in my own country continuing to use the Bible to discriminate; when I stood in church and wondered why The Powers That Be had decided it was critical for the faithful to bow during a certain phrase of The Nicene Creed but not another, I couldn’t help but speculate that maybe we humans had messed up religion beyond repair, and definitely beyond anything an all-knowing, all-loving God would have intended his people to do in his name. 

Privately, my friends and I admitted this to one another. “Sometimes,” one friend said, sitting on my couch late on a Friday night with a pint of porter, “I think the whole thing is made-up.” This from the granddaughter of a minister, a woman who, like me, spent years of her life learning Bible verses, attending youth group, choosing to learn at a Christian college. Another friend signed on for years of Christian schooling for her children, mostly at the behest of her husband. We agreed, my friends and I, that our families would be horrified at our doubts. We agreed, my friends and I, that we aren’t sure what to tell our children when they ask their wise questions.

Now, as Annie approaches her first communion, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to instruct my daughters in their faith at the exact moment that mine has nearly left me. That first night of catechism last fall, I sat with her, freshly six years old, in a pew in the sanctuary and listened as one of our church deacons talked to the kids about God. I was nervous. I looked down at her, tired from her full day of school and letting me scratch her back, and I was afraid that this church was going to tell her things I would not. I worried about trusting her to a system I'd become suspicious of, worried that she'd learn about rituals without knowing the reasons, worried that the emphasis would be on the wrong things, worried that she'd receive a heaping helping of the infamous Catholic guilt alongside it all.

We've gotten through this last year and a half of catechism, though it hasn't been without its hiccups. I've stood in the hallway and listened to her teacher nearly yell at the children, "What do you do after communion? You KNEEL and PRAY!" in a voice that couldn't be less loving if it tried. I've watched Annie's homework be "Find out how many processionals are in the Mass" and "Make a chalice" but never "Read this Bible passage" or "Write down a question you have." We're grateful, as May 6 approaches, for Annie's godmother, her Aunt Lisa, who has become a very special person in her life this year. We're trying to be joyful and proud to have our seven-and-a-half year-old join our family taking communion each week. We're trying to talk to her about what that really means and why we do it, even though it's mysterious at any age.

But we have resolved to do things differently next year. We are going to home-church-school. And when I ask myself what I would have the girls learn instead, I come back to the verse in the Bible that comes to me most often, unbidden, swimming up through my conscious because it was memorized years and years ago, Luke 10, verse 27:  “He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.’” 

When it comes down to it, what I want my children to learn about their faith and the faith of our family, muddled and uncertain though it is, is to learn to love. I want them to love a God who loves them back, to love their neighbors, and to love the messy mystery of making sense of the world. I want them to doubt, to wonder, to challenge. They are going to ask their hard and wise questions, and they are going to have to find the answers themselves. And I have stopped believing that those answers can be found in just one place. They're in the Catholic Church, yes, but they're also in the words of Rob Bell and Elie Wiesel, Anne Lamott and C.S. Lewis, in the music of The Indigo Girls and Fernando Ortega and Jason's guitar, in the Children's Bible and Mary Oliver's poetry, in the dunes and in the lake, around our kitchen table. They're in a conversation with my Catholic friend around the corner and in an email from my atheist friend in another state. They're in the song Jesus Loves Me. And I don't have the answers to all of their questions, but it's time to start finding them together.


  1. Amen:) Beautifully, wonderfully written.

  2. Stephanie, there's so much I want to write in response to this essay. I just get it, so very, very much. I think I'll send you an email. Thank you for this.

  3. Wow, Steph. This is such a strong, open essay and I love it. I attempted to write a long reply, but need to call you instead. Or send a nice, long e-mail.