12 Extra Years: Anna Quindlen, Aging, and the Unreason of the Trinity

Waking up early on this Vigil of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, I caught a rerun of a Tavis Smiley interview with Anna Quindlen.

I’ve never shared the enthusiasm for Quindlen that many women my age profess. Much less would I join Smiley in referring to her as one of America’s greatest living writers. I find her prose pedestrian at times, and shrill often–and I had those reactions even during the great span of my life in which I agreed with her opinions. But there was nothing else on (I don’t have cable, and even if I did, there would still have been nothing else on), and I was interested to see if Quindlen would address the part of her memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake in which she describes her decision to leave the Catholic Church in which she was raised. In keeping with her role as one of the chief spokespersons for the war on women, she’s been getting a lot of airtime and a number of column inches lately over that chapter in her life.

We did get there eventually, but not until after Quindlen had talked about how wonderful aging is now that she’s admitted she’s doing it. Quindlen noted that members of the boomer generation can expect to live an average of 12 years longer than their parents did, and and should think about how much fun they can be having with that extra time. “We’re all so much more fit, and have fewer responsibilities,” she announced cheerily, apparently using “we’re all” to mean “I am.” She refused to be sidetracked by Smiley’s questions about the reduced quality of life many older people experience in the current economic climate, and shrugged off concerns about sandwich generation issues by reminding the host that her mother died when she was 19–a seminal event in her writing–so it’s not something she has to worry about. When pressed, Quindlen admitted that a good bit of what makes aging wonderful for her is that she comes to it “as a prosperous woman.”

Well, yeah. And without catching her breath, she switched to chastising Americans for being too materialistic, another seminal theme. “We went on those shopping sprees in the 90s,” she said, “and now we look at all those storage facilities full of stuff and wonder, Why did I think I needed that?” (Maybe as a hedge against aging unprosperously?) I do love it when the wealthy counsel asceticism.

The Faith Thing finally came up near the end of the interview, when Quindlen explained, with long-suffering directness, why she left the Catholic Church–and why everyone else should, too. It Just Doesn’t Work Anymore, she sighed. Raised a Catholic, she married a Catholic, and baptized their three children Catholic. (“Of course, like every woman in America, I used contraception,” she laughed, “or I’d have had fourteen children instead of three!”) But swallowing the Church’s hatred of women every week at Mass finally became too much, especially as the abuse scandals came to light, so she said Enough. Yes, it caused hurt to her family, but there comes a time when you say, This far and no further. It’s only reasonable. When the Church tries to shut down “our fabulous Planned Parenthood,” who in her right mind would stay?

And for one early-morning minute, Anna Quindlen got me wondering.

What if she’s right? What if a Church that appears to kick so hard against what everybody else knows is the goad of human progress–the liberation of women from the shackles of sexual repression and traditional marriage and childbearing, equal rights (including–and does this smack just a tad bit of irony?–rights to traditional marriage and childbearing) for people of all sexual orientations, population control by any means necessary for the purposes of preserving a threatened ecosystem, moral choices based on personal autonomy and economic expediency and “what I know in my heart is right” rather than outdated codes that don’t account for scientific development–is an unreasonable anachronism at best, and a tyrannical oppressor to be overthrown at worst? It wasn’t all that long ago that I’d have been not just agreeing with Quindlen, but standing with her in calling for Catholics to throw off the yoke of Rome.

Instead, I asked to take up the yoke again. I walked back in. And I have all but committed those extra 12 years I may have–though God knows I am neither fit nor prosperous–to being as Catholic as I can, out loud.

I can’t explain it, this thing that changed inside me two years ago in Assisi, when there came a time when I said, This is not far enough! Further! I am not in my right mind. I am unreasonable. And on this Vigil of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, all I can say is that I am, most undeservedly, in good company. Because the Trinity–the central truth at the heart of Christianity, the engine of Love that drives the universe–is not a thing of right minds or reason. It is the opposite of autonomy and expediency. It makes no sense. The Trinity is Mystery, and given my ‘druthers I will always choose mystery over what’s only reasonable.

But of course it’s not my decision at all. I am not (none of us is) the chooser but the chosen, called by God from before time to live in the Trinity’s timeless bliss when my time here–12 years longer than my mom’s or not–is done. The Church is the mystery of that Mystery embodied here, aged indeed and, in the world’s and Anna Quindlen’s eyes, both not fit enough and too prosperous. Quindlen may unfriend the Church for that, but the Mystery that is the Trinity will never stop choosing Anna, never stop calling her back, never say Enough. And that same Mystery will never stop choosing the Church, never stop calling her to account for falling short of the witness to love, never stop sending prophets (even self-appointed ones like Quindlen) to goad her into doing a better job of calling the world to true human progress.

So call me crazy. But when our days are ended, Anna’s and mine and yours, let’s not be caught looking back at lives like crammed storage facilities full of things the world sold us and asking, Why did I think I needed that? when all we ever needed was summed up by Patrick of Ireland in his great hymn:

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

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