How in the world can any sane person stay Catholic?
Between the in-fighting, the factions, the pedophilia, the cover-ups, the abuse, the scandal, the politicking – how can any sane person stay Catholic?
Or rather, why would any sane person stay Catholic?
Many friends have been pondering this question, while many friends who’ve left the faith breathe a sigh of relief and offer a way into some sort of safety in this valley of tears. Others, in typical fashion, go on and on about the proofs of this or that theological point: all valid, but clinical. Truthful, sure, but about as useful as a doctor taking the time to explain anatomy to you, when you really just need him to start the surgery already.
Why stay Catholic? Why leave Catholicism?
Well, ultimately: it’s Personal.
The truth is, Catholics have done a terrific job of dissuading anyone from receiving the sacraments. The number one reason to leave the Catholic church are other Catholics themselves.
Before any theological consideration that might warrant an hour on The Journey Home, before arguments about the True Presence or the place of the saints, or any other cranial exercise is the simple truth that the Catholics who have stayed Catholic – the priests who purport to represent Christ Himself in the sacraments, the “tsk-ing” church ladies in the pews, the posturing of certain universities – are a sorry, sinful lot. Are sometimes, too often, right now, Catholics are unsafe. Criminal. Evil incarnate. Theological pun intended.
But if faith is anything, it is encounter with the divine.
Some have been graced with a direct encounter with Christ. Faith, religion, is communing with God. Whatever your faith: this is the ultimate core. Knowing. Being known.
For the past few years, I’ve had the joy of tutoring elementary and middle school students theology in small, private classes. Inevitably the question gets asked:
“How do I meet God?”
And the only answer always, always is:
“Talk to Him. Then listen.”
“But what if He doesn’t answer?”
“Then talk and listen more.”
And the unspoken truth, the one I’ve yelled at Him about: sometimes, often, He doesn’t reveal Himself to us.
And then it’s faith indeed. Faith received from whomever says they’ve met Him. “Tell me about God. Who has met Him? Who can tell me what He’s like?”
And that’s a great responsibility: something I’ve been asked many times. Something I’m sure I’ve failed to answer well, probably every time. But I strive, seeing in the faces of my students a desire to see God somehow refracted through myself. Aware that, if somehow this student and God have a missed connection, that I may be the only Face of God these students think of. And my behavior, in my fallen, weak and sinful self, will forever color how they see God Himself. How they see His Church.
My faith does not inform those who seek God. My behavior does.
I cannot give you my faith, in these times. But I can tell you what I know of God. You do not have to believe me – perhaps it’s better if you don’t – and you keep yelling at God, listening, and yelling again.
But why am I Catholic? Because: He called me by my Name.
For myself, from a very early age, I had direct encounters with Him, so that I can no more deny Him than I can deny knowing my own mother. I knew Him before I knew about Him. Knowledge of homoousios or the hypostatic union or whatever clinical information has always been secondary to the God I know intimately: that silly, serious, deeply caring, powerful, fiercely merciful, awesomely just, and often frustratingly smug with a twinkle in His eyes when He’s planning something God.
I know Christ best. Met Him several times throughout elementary and middle school, including viscerally once when He seemed to appear in my mind’s eye saying, “Emily, Emily, how long I have waited for you.” To which I hung back, weeping, maybe eleven years old, and saying: “I’ve done so much wrong.” To which He just gathered me in His arms and held me there. I’ve seen Him dancing with His saints. (He’s goofy.) I’ve heard Him snap at me when I was going to miss a Good Friday service in college for no better reason than apathy – one of the only times He’s yelled at me – when He snarled: “Emily: It‘s My Death.” Needless to say, I bolted out of bed immediately.
I’ve tasted Him a few times, usually the Blood. For an extended time a few years ago during a period of utter devastation. When I needed desperately to be touched, reassured, reminded that the world was not crumbling into ash. I can no more disbelieve the Eucharist than I can disbelieve the ice cream at my elbow, or the touch of my lover’s lips against my own. And the Church is the only place where my Lover lives. Truly lives in Flesh and Blood – and I need His Flesh, His Blood. As surely as I need a hug from a friend: the bone-crushing, breathless exorcism of false emotion and harmful thoughts. He is – dare I say – erotic, sensual. He is not ashamed of bodies, although we may be. He gave His Body, as we clothe ours.
And I’ve yelled at Him. A lot.
Yelling at God is prayer. Sometimes, it’s the best prayer you’ve got.
Each time, He’s patiently blinked back until I’ve yelled myself out, and then He swings in with Words I’d never think myself. I yell at Him: “You should do this thing! Why isn’t this thing done? What’s wrong with You? Someone should get this done!” And He waits. And when I’m ready to listen again, He says: “Yes, someone ought to do just that.” And we stare at each other until I cave and grumble and He laughs and pats my head. Or I yell, and He answers: “Patience.” Or I yell, and He listens, and we weep at the horror of the world together.He can withstand yelling. I am not too big for Him. My anger cannot fill His oceans. And He does not get angry: but He does get just. And He will raze the ground of those who hurt His little ones. I’ve seen it several times. He will have justice – here or hereafter.
I’ve told Him I hate Him. I’ve meant it, too. Even this is prayer.
I’ve conversed with Him, not as often as I should. As I know that He’d prefer. As I know I’d prefer, if I could ever be honest with myself. The closer I get to Truth – messy, impossible, full of strange spillets and gullies, unexpected mountains and breathless expanses of impossible flowers, aching glory and absurd pains and conundrums as I stumble underfoot – the closer I get to His interior castle (if one can ever move beyond the foyer, really) – the more I understand His multifacedness and supposed contradictions that resolve into a single, half-glimpsed and hazy reality: too dense for these eyes to understand.
The closer I get to unravelling the broken threads that have bound my skin and burst it, unnecessarily, the more casual conversation with Him becomes. Situations that I had thought unholy before become sacred now. He sees beauty in everything. I cannot express this enough: just how much He delights in us. Like a crazy, benign scientist excited about algae and plumbing and things gross and unpolite in nature. How giddy He becomes when we see, even momentarily, the beauty of the banal. When we catch a secret He embedded in the universe: millennia in the making, waiting for us to find Him in the hollow of a hill. How He aches, even as He does not need. How He yearns, friend, for you.
And – and this is important my clucking Church friends – how He will take any affection we give Him. In the Church or outside it. Knowing Him, or only guessing at His shadow. Yelling at Him and scratching at His skin and saying how much we hate Him – and we mean it, too.
He is more catholic about the prayers He hears than we give Him credit for: wanting to confine Him, as though a gold box could confine the architect of galaxies. He stays in that box, but He is not bound by it. And He is, as C. S. Lewis noted, the most unscrupulous lover who will sit patiently beside you, silently, your entire life, until your soul slips from your body and you notice Him, gazing on you with such love, and His wounded Hand holding yours and saying words you hardly hoped were real: “Welcome home, beloved. How long, I have waited for you. You are never alone. Even here in Death. You are not alone. Come, beloved: live.”
He will find the souls that He created in whatever Church it pleases Him.
And if those who aren’t even good enough to hate Him, those who desecrate His sacred banal, those who whisper lies about His Face and say that He is cruel where He is merciful, those who in His Name twist up pain and pleasure, loyalty and law, not even for anything worthwhile here or hereafter but because they can – if those who can’t be bothered to crucify Him force His children from His Church –
He will have justice.
Here or hereafter.
He will have justice, and leave the guilty to the grey, damp, dull, lonely, boring, neverending indifference of their own creation. No more smells, bells, whistles, or anyone to look on them. Not even the excitement of a torture chamber: just His Love, which sears their skin and causes them to breathe out hot air: letting Love torment them. For that these evil men twisted up the Name of Love Himself.
He will have justice.
And He will gather the little ones to His Heart, who were never far from His Heart – for His Church is bigger on the inside, and there is nowhere you can run, really, that isn’t in Him anyway – He will gather you up, and God will beg your mercy, and He will bathe your wounds with His wounded Hands, and whisper absolutions until you find your own voice to weep out the tears His ministers denied you on this earth.
And you cannot frighten Him. He can withstand your tears. Your frustrations. Your pain. He is there already with you. Visible, if you can stand Him visible. Hidden, if you need space. Patient. Polite. Apologetic. Stronger than your pain. And – most pain-wonderful of all – full of secret blisses, full of exultant Joy, that is now and has always been your birthright. Even as you wander through this valley of tears.
If I speak in metaphor, it’s because several times through this I found there are no words true enough to express even the barest, most minuscule sliver of Him I’ve been granted. Metaphor gets close to capturing the dazzling light that peers under the counterpane of life: full of colors we have no language for, joys we cannot comprehend, Truth more ache-wonderful than my tongue can express. God hangs heavy on the back of my tongue, and I cannot describe Him further.
But: why am I Catholic?
Because these weasels who got in are not.
Because there is nowhere I can go that is not Him.
Or rather, where there is not Him, there is nothingness at all: and in that nothingness are my enemies. And I will not join them in their bleak despair. There is no language for the Nothing that they have atrophied themselves into. Something grey, and ashen: like a shrunk cigarette, discarded and dissolving in the rain. He will stomp them out under His foot. Send them cascading among the dying stars.
But as for me, and my house: He is.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.
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