The ladies at church seemed startled when I climbed out of the window of my minivan.
When the driver's side door handle broke the week before, I decided to avoid the overwhelming task of getting it fixed by learning to live without a functioning car door. I was too tall to scoot over the seat and out the passenger side, but I grew up watching The Dukes of Hazzard and knew that entering and exiting vehicles through windows was a perfectly viable option. In fact, people wouldn't even realize that anything was wrong! They'd be so impressed with my smooth moves that they'd just think I was too awesome to open the door.
I quickly learned that the upper-body-strength to lower-body-weight ratio of the lean, male, twenty-something actors who starred in The Dukes of Hazzard is quite different from that of a thirty-four-year-old mother with a penchant for cookies 'n cream ice cream. Also, that the window of a minivan is about two feet higher off the ground than that of the sporty vehicle featured in the TV show.
Unfortunately, one of my first experiences with these realities occurred in front of my acquaintances from church.
A lady named Teresa, whom I knew through mutual friends, walked over to say hello. I tried to wave—this was mid-exit—but my foot got stuck in the steering wheel and I lost my balance. I tumbled out the window, letting some profanity slip as I grasped for something to break my fall. Teresa glanced nervously at her children, probably not sure whether to assist me or flee while she had the chance.
I stood up, brushed myself off, and proceeded to make small talk. Assuming that she was also there to drop her children off at the parish Mother's Day Out program, I made a little joke in reference to the increasingly ominous noises coming from inside my car. "If only we could drop them off by catapult, right?"
"We homeschool," she explained with a smile, nodding towards the three smartly dressed children standing politely beside her. "We're just here for daily Mass."
I glanced at my children in the car in time to see a baby doll fly through the air. My two-year-old was chewing on a shoe. I excused myself to haul the avalanche of kids and backpacks out of the minivan, and Teresa said goodbye and walked with her children toward the chapel.
Am I Doing Something Wrong Here?
After I dropped the kids off, I lumbered back through the window and sat in the driver's seat for a moment. This sort of thing happened all the time. I'd joyfully converted to Catholicism four years before, but I felt like I'd never quite found my footing. Intellectually, I had it down—I'd read enough books that I could think like a Catholic—but I seemed to be failing at being a Catholic.
While other women enjoyed joining prayer groups and running ministries, I was so introverted that my spiritual director once joked that I should have been a desert hermit. When I did attempt to socialize at the parish, such as my morning exchange with Teresa, it only added credence to that theory.
I had a specific idea of what the authentic Catholic woman was like: She was the picture of joy and grace every time she went to Mass, and always had an emotionally powerful experience upon receiving the Eucharist; she kept her home tidy and she joyfully crafted elaborate celebrations for each liturgical season.
And then there is me. I have five young children spaced so closely together that fellow Catholics, when they first meet my husband and me, often ask, "Would you like to borrow our Natural Family Planning book?" Mass is usually more of an exercise in survival than something I enjoy on an emotional level. My house is not exactly neat and my biggest success with celebrating the liturgical year had been buying a package of purple napkins one Advent.
There in the driver's seat of my van, I noticed scuff marks on my blue jeans from my encounter with the parking lot pavement, and I thought of how lovely my friend Teresa had looked with her colorful, flowing skirt and her neatly pressed blouse. Comparing myself with her and all the others I perceived to be true Catholic women, I sank a little lower into the seat. I wanted to say a pious prayer beseeching the Lord for assistance, but all I could come up with was:
Lord, I am failing at this whole Catholic womanhood thing!
I started the car, pulled out of the parking lot, and prayed all the way home. I even spent a few moments in silence when I got back to the house instead of rushing over to my laptop as was my habit.I begged God to show me what it meant for someone like me to be authentically Catholic.
The Search for the Modern Mary
Shortly after saying that prayer, I had an idea: I should search for a role model, specifically for an image of what the Blessed Mother would look like if she lived in the 21st century. Having a visual would give me something to cling to when I strayed off course; it would provide a clear goal as I transformed myself into a real Catholic woman.