Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My Catholic-ish roots

I grew up in a small, predominantly Mormon town in Northern Arizona. When I was in fourth grade, my class took a field trip to Flagstaff. We were out walking around town and stopped at a Catholic church. I remember the stained glass windows and how pretty it all was, and I remember wishing I was Catholic so I could go to a pretty church. Mormon chapels are terribly sparse and utilitarian, with absolutely no artwork inside the chapel itself. A couple of plants next to the podium is the extent of the decor.

I'm not sure if this is official Church policy or not, but I remember my mother telling me that artwork wasn't allowed in the chapel because that was the beginning of the slippery slope into idol worship. I also remember being taught that the ancient Egyptians and other idol worshipers of the Old Testament literally worshiped their idols, believed the workmanship of their own hands were actually gods with power. How silly they were! Well, no, how silly my mother was not to realize that the idols were only visual representations of the gods these people believed in.

Many times we were taught that the only two churches that could possibly be true were either the Mormons or the Catholics. It was either the Catholics who had the true priesthood keys handed down since Peter, or the Mormons who had the true priesthood keys restored through Joseph Smith. Every other Christian church was just a splinter group and could be doing no more than playing make believe at their services since they didn't have any real authority.

I'd heard a rumor that the Catholics prayed to Mary, and that appealed to me very much, possibly because I was never close with my mother. I prayed to Mary a few times, but then felt guilty about it because of all my mother's warnings that apostasy starts with the tiniest diversions from the Truth and the Right Way. There was something about all the imagery and relics and trappings of Catholicism that seemed so much more mysterious and alluring than Mormonism is my childhood and adolescent mind.

But there were a couple of things that knocked Catholicism out of the One True Church running for me. (Looking back now, these were not at all good reasons, but this was how I thought at the time.) One was a family trip to Southern Arizona where we visited some of the old Spanish missions. I thought they were fascinating, but I remember my father affirming that he sensed a spirit of darkness in those places. (From an adult perspective, I think more than likely he was just uncomfortable because it was unfamiliar.) The other was a discussion with a friend in high school. We were both gung-ho about seminary and had just had another lesson about how we were one of the only two churches that could possibly be right. And she said, "But you look at some of the stuff that the Catholic church did, and you know that just can't possibly be anything from God." Hmm, that makes sense, I thought.

None of our seminary lessons covered the Mountain Meadows Massacre. We only talked about how much the early Mormons were persecuted, ironclad evidence they were doing God's will. Any wrongdoing on their part was glossed over and justified if it was mentioned at all. I was a diehard, nerdy, scripture-lovin' super seminarian, but I never heard about Mountain Meadows until two years after I'd left the Church when I watched Helen Whitney's documentary The Mormons on PBS. There goes the Mormons' "holier than thou" card when it comes to religious violence.

I graduated high school and began college at Arizona State University. My favorite spot on campus was Danforth Chapel. It was non-denominational, just a nice quiet place where I liked to go to be alone with God. The Mormons also had an Institute and chapel on campus, but Danforth felt holier to me. There was a daily Catholic mass there, and I used to go to that, just because I liked it. I was still very much a believing and practicing Mormon at this time, but I'd always had a fascination with other religions. My parents had taught me with well-intentioned smugness that other religions were full of good people who were doing "the best they can with what they know." We were superior because we had the Fullness of the Gospel, but those other churches had a lot of good too, even if they weren't as ultimately awesome as we were. So I went to mass pretty frequently. I liked the ritualism of it. I liked when we all wished each other peace. I even took communion because at the time I didn't know that non-Catholics weren't supposed to.

Also, I was a Spanish major, so Catholicism interested me because of its importance in the Spanish-speaking world. I had a Catholic classmate and I went to mass with her at the Newman Center. This was where I learned that I shouldn't be taking Catholic communion. Another time, I went to a lecture there about the book of Revelation. Afterward they served cookies and punch and I remember thinking, Wow, our churches really aren't that different after all.

Now like every church, the Catholic Church is full of flaws: too many rules, too much obsession with humanity's "unworthiness," too many hang-ups about sex (or not enough when it comes to priests and kids), way too patriarchal. But I still have a soft spot for all the symbolism and the rituals and history and heritage. Catholicism offers so much for the imagination to latch onto, so many potential corridors for the mind to wander. I don't believe in their authority; I think they're just playing make-believe like every other church, but I like make-believe.

I ran the Twin Cities Marathon last October, and either just before or just after the 26-mile marker (it's all kind of blurry at that point), I passed the Cathedral of Saint Paul. I was down that way this last weekend and decided to take a look inside. It was a Saturday morning and a wedding was taking place. A few tourists were milling around the peripheral parts. I wandered through the side chapels, one for Mary, one for Peter. The sheer size of the place was astonishing. Exploring the place reminded me of reading a poem, something new to discover and consider around every corner, some new meaning to extract, some new way to be changed.

They had a special display of a replica of Michelangelo's Pietà.
I'd seen photos of it, but being in front of the sculpture was a different experience. Mary looked so peaceful, quietly joyful even, cradling the body of her murdered son. Christ looked spent and defeated, but Mary was an anchor of calm and strength.

I wanted to press my cheek up against hers.

The lyrics of a song I sang in recital a couple of years ago came to mind:
Ah! Sore was the suff'ring borne by the body of Mary's son.
But sorer still to him was the grief which for his sake came upon his mother.
From "The Crucifixion," from Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs.


I went back to my hotel for a nap, then slumming in bookstores and coffee shops, then back to the cathedral for the Saturday evening vigil. I stood and sat and recited "And also with you" with the rest of them. During the homily, the priest asked how many parents put as much effort into making sure their children get to heaven as they do into making sure their children get to college. Could it be, he asked, that heaven doesn't seem like a real place to us, that it's in the same category as fairy tales in our minds? Well, for me personally, yes actually. But he made some nice points about making heaven more of a real part of our lives here and now, about going before the Lord and saying, I have become aware of something unheavenly in my life, and I want this encounter with you to change me.

Isn't that really the point of any religious practice?

And I know you don't need religion to be good or to be happy, but I still like it. I like the ways it stimulates my imagination, and it is through my imagination that I become a new, and hopefully better, person.

When it was time for communion, I went forward with the rest of the congregation, crossed my arms over my chest to indicate that I would not be partaking, accepted the priest's blessing and returned to my seat.

Changed.

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19 comments:

  1. I was just thinking about a trip I will be taking where I will finally get to see the original Pieta in person. I really like your post. I love religious symbolism because it has created some of the most beautiful images. There is no art history without religious art. I have only seen La Pieta in a photograph on an overhead projector but even that had the power to move me despite my disbelief in Jesus as a savior.

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  2. For me, Mary is the truly powerful figure in this work. Regardless of whether you regard it as true, a mother witnessing the suffering and death of her son is a story with the potential to make us consider our humanity and our lives.

    And I love art history.

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  3. This post brought tears to my eyes. Well written as per usual! :)

    I'm going to be starting a university art history course soon, and now I'm even more excited for it to begin!

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  4. "During the homily, the priest asked how many parents put as much effort into making sure their children get to heaven as they do into making sure their children get to college."

    The only way to definately ensure your kid gets to heaven is to kill them before they reach the age of accountability. And if people really truly believed in an eternally blissful heaven they would do that (and, sadly, some do).

    I think that deep down the vast majority of christians in the U.S. know that the god/heaven/hell fairytales aren't real. The stories are just a fantasy to indulge in for an hour or so a week; but they live their lives like there's no afterlife.

    Unrelated to that, I am curious as to what it is about religion (rather than science fiction or fantasy fiction or something else that doesn't have all the negative baggage religion does)that stimulates your imagination.

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  5. Touching story.
    I wonder why some of us are more susceptible to religiousity than others.
    And even among those, there are huge variety:
    the mystically inclined
    the visually inclined
    the emotionally inclined
    and many more.
    But inclusive beauty can come in many forms.

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  6. I think I understand what you are saying here, but with all due respect, I personally am unable to share the sentiment.

    The taboos that enslave could have no strength or force without their underlying scaffolding of superstition -- including those aspects of the superstition which seem harmless in and of themselves.

    As for aesthetics, well, Triumph of the Will is a visually impressive film if you can separate it from the ideology it was made to promote. Some can; I can't. And doing so was not the intention of its creators.

    Some mosques are very beautiful, and even if I had the power, I wouldn't tear them down, but I could never like them -- my awareness of the horrors of the Sharî'ah which underpins them is just too strong.

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  7. Well written. I do understand the feeling, I too, have that warm glow in a Catholic service. No I don't believe any of it but the service is very beautiful and the churches are works of art.

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  8. skepticmatt, Sabio, and Infidel: All very interesting comments. I'm working on a post in response to them, expect to have it up Saturday.

    Interested, thanks!

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  9. Leah - next time you're in town for the TC Marathon - (congrats btw) - look me up - or check out the Basilica in downtown Minneapolis. I have no Catholic background - but I have gone in there on occasion to sit in awe of the beauty and to light a candle for the goddess Mary... and to just look at how beautiful she is - and to gaze at the amazing, beautiful spaces we humans can create to honor and encourage inner beauty and awe.

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  10. Christine, I'm not doing the marathon this year, but I will definitely send you an email the next time I'm down that way.

    I ran past the Basilica near the beginning of the course and have been wanting to go inside. I love that you refer to Mary as a goddess! She essentially is in Catholicism and I find her a beautiful and inspiring figure, even though I'm skeptical about whether she was even ever a historical figure.

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  11. Hi Leah,
    I came over from Conversion Diary. I like your honesty. I am a convert to Catholicism. The beauty attacted me also... I like it that you say you are a lover of truth and wisdom. Me too. Can I suggest a good author and philosopher who will accurately present the Catholic side of things? Peter Kreeft can be most helpful. www.peterkreeft.com He says the only reason to ever believe anything is because it's true. I will say a prayer for both of us right now that he will show us truth and give us wisdom! God bless you!

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  12. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for visiting, for your comment and your goodwill. I've heard of Peter Kreeft and do admire what little I know of him. Thanks for the link and your prayers. Take care.

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  13. That's a really interesting insight on the Catholic church. Being born and raised Catholic it's hard sometimes for me to grasp how it would be perceived by someone who first experienced it as an adult, to see which things people find weird or wrong and which things people like a lot. I have to say that I had the same feelings about Mary. A lot of Catholics get very defensive about the implication that we "worship" her, but when you look at it honestly, you can't come to any other conclusion. We do, we worship her. But I really think it's just patriarchal misogyny that makes people get angry about that. lol

    A lot of what you write really resonates with me, especially the (sometimes) compulsive need for ritual and religion. It's really funny how I can see the experiences you had in mormonism were so similar to mine in Catholicism growing up.

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  14. Carla, I think most religions are a lot more alike than not when you get to their core. And it's fascinating how some people feel drawn to religion and truly seem to need it and others don't feel anything lacking without it.

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  15. "During the homily, the priest asked how many parents put as much effort into making sure their children get to heaven as they do into making sure their children get to college."

    The only way to definately ensure your kid gets to heaven is to kill them before they reach the age of accountability. And if people really truly believed in an eternally blissful heaven they would do that (and, sadly, some do).

    I think that deep down the vast majority of christians in the U.S. know that the god/heaven/hell fairytales aren't real. The stories are just a fantasy to indulge in for an hour or so a week; but they live their lives like there's no afterlife.

    Unrelated to that, I am curious as to what it is about religion (rather than science fiction or fantasy fiction or something else that doesn't have all the negative baggage religion does)that stimulates your imagination.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I was just thinking about a trip I will be taking where I will finally get to see the original Pieta in person. I really like your post. I love religious symbolism because it has created some of the most beautiful images. There is no art history without religious art. I have only seen La Pieta in a photograph on an overhead projector but even that had the power to move me despite my disbelief in Jesus as a savior.

    ReplyDelete
  17. GundrumphotographyNovember 2, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    I don't know if you will even see this comment, but I happened to stumble across your blog, what beautiful writing!  I am from the Twin Cities, may I suggest St. Agnes church in St. Paul? Just wanted to add I am a revert to the Catholic faith and truly the MAIN reason I am Catholic is the Eucharist.  After learning and experiencing the great truth of the Eucharist, I could never leave...  I would rather die than leave my church, my church is Christ, He is everything to me.  I will pray for you on your journey, we are all on one!  Blessings, Mary

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Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism