Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Of Signs, Coincidences, Telling the Difference, and Letting Things Come As They Will

My favorite icon! Sophia,
Wisdom of God, Kiev
Starring Mother Mary.

That's what I'd written on the side of the big, heavy, slightly dented-in box sitting in the basement of our new house. I was either feeling cranky, tired, or irreverent the day I pulled out the Sharpie for that box. The past year or so has been such a blur -- packing the old house, doing repairs before listing it, making the six-hour drive to look at new houses, buying the new place, and juggling unboxing with repairs and work here -- that it's hard to tell what my mindset might have been that day.

But boy, it sure is true. I do have a lot of "altar crap." I didn't realize just how much until I started wrapping up all my spiritual books, baubles, and statues at the old place. Years' worth of accumulation. Darn near enough to fill a church. And now, as I finally start unboxing them, I'm getting a chance to see, after being disconnected from all of it for a few months, what I really missed and what I can probably do without. The stuff that moves me when I see it will be a good candidate for my chapel-under-construction in the attic, three floors up. (Lord have mercy.) As for the rest, well, it's a good thing we have a lot of resale shops around here.

One of the first things that caught my eye as I rummaged through my stuff was this little round wooden box with the peace sign on top. Hmm. What did I fill this with?

Oh, boy. At least half a dozen little plastic rosaries, two brown scapulars, and my 108-bead Buddhist mala. If this box doesn't illustrate what a crazy spiritual journey I've been on, I don't know what will.

I've never had the heart to get rid of the mala. It's been with me for a long time. The rosewood possesses delicate and lovely scent, and it always relaxed me to bring the beads up to my nose for a quick whiff back in the days when I attempted to meditate. Some of the beads have cracked and been reglued. I once even sent the whole thing away to have a new red tassel put on when the old one became frayed and dingy, mostly from all the contact it made with the things around me as I wore it wrapped around my wrist -- which was most days.

The rosaries were either given to me by well-wishers on my return to the Catholic church or were ones I picked up from the free-take-one baskets at a few churches I visited. Sometimes I'd like the color. Sometimes I found a color I thought my daughter would like. Most of them ended up in drawers, forgotten.

Then there are the brown scapulars. I was visiting a Latin Mass church one time -- I can't even remember why -- when the priest announced that the parish had received a delivery of scapulars, handmade by Carmelite sisters in Valparaiso, Nebraska. At the end of the Mass, congregants were invited to kneel at the communion rail while the priest would place a scapular on us and invest us in the brown scapular confraternity.

Now, given that the contemplative practices of the Carmelites, like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, were one of the things that drew me back to Catholicism, and given that my spirituality was and is very Marian, investiture seemed like a no-brainer. Tradition holds that Mary herself gave the brown scapular to St. Simon Stock, appearing to him in 13th-century England, and told him that those who wore it would be saved.

Wearing the scapular marks you as devoted to Mary, particularly as Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and that if the person combines wearing the scapular continuously with a certain set of devotions -- daily recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example, or fasting and abstaining from meat two to three times a week -- then Mary would reward the wearer's faithfulness by rescuing the person from purgatory the first Saturday after his or her death.

As the Catholic church is quick to explain, the scapulars aren't meant to be lucky charms. It's the piety and devotion that comes with wearing them that confers the spiritual benefits.

One of my favorite Marian quotes, from a 1988 apparition.
So I wore mine faithfully, and I kept the suggested fast days for a good while. After some time, the scapular got frayed and dingy -- a lot like the red tassel on that mala of mine -- and I eventually bought a replacement scapular. It's not the particular scapular that's invested with the prayer, but the wearer -- so you can replace your old scapular with a new one and still have all the benefits and blessings of being part of the confraternity.

But at some point, both the new and old scapulars got set aside, for reasons I no longer clearly remember. And now, with my rekindled Marian devotion, I decided to put one back on when I found them both inside this little wooden box.

And here's where the story gets interesting. (I promise I have a point here.) I wasn't sure which scapular I wanted to put on, so I tried them both. I pulled out the old, ragged, and slightly smelly scapular -- the original one -- thinking back to when I was invested in the confraternity, and put it around my neck. And for no reason whatsoever, I felt a slight heaviness forming around my neck, coupled with a tinge of mild anxiety.

Wow! I wasn't expecting that. I took it off, and the feeling disappeared.

For curiosity's sake, I pulled out the replacement scapular and put it on. No heaviness around my neck, and instead of anxiety, I felt a gentle rush of calm and relaxation.

Now, understand that I didn't put either one on with any expectation of having a psychic reaction of any kind. The fact that I did tells me something about the power of the scapular and the prayers given to the person invested in it. I didn't question my experience and went with my intuition, which told me to choose the new scapular. Maybe the old scapular is holding a lot of the anxiety I felt when I was wearing it. Maybe it was happy to be retired and replaced. But for now it's back in the wooden box. As with the mala, I don't have the heart to throw it away.

Soon to be unwrapped and put on display.
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
The funny thing about that experience is that I've always been the kind of person who asks for signs, and then gets discouraged when none are forthcoming. In this case, I didn't even ask for a sign, but it seems as if I got one anyway. I don't know what to think about that. Are my intuitive senses sharpening? Am I getting more tuned in to the sacred through Mary?

I don't have any answers at this point, but it's notable to me that I had that experience just one day after I got another unexpected sign. On Sunday morning, I knew I wanted to attend a service somewhere, but I left home not really knowing where I felt like going. I told my wife I'd decide on the way and let her know, so she could have an idea of when I'd be back.

As I drove, I narrowed down my choices to St. Thomas the Apostle, a lovely Novus Ordo Catholic church in Coeur d'Alene, or Saints Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Church over in Spokane Valley, about half an hour past CDA. As I was driving down I-90 and looking around in the car for a particular religious medal to keep in my hand, I suddenly caught a whiff of something. I stopped what I was doing and took another sniff. It was the unmistakable smell of the incense the priest uses at the Byzantine Catholic church. I know that smell because I love it. Eastern Catholics love their incense almost as much as they love their icons and chanting "Lord have mercy."

Again, I wasn't actively looking for a sign at that moment. Instead, the sign came to me. I took it for what it was, headed off to Saints Cyril and Methodius, and told my wife I'd be home around 1:30 that afternoon.

I never did find the medal I was looking for, but I did unearth a little Padre Pio chaplet rosary, with a medal of the good father on one end, and another medal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the other. That would be good enough to drop into my pocket and keep me company during the morning's Divine Liturgy.

Getting down to business
Now that I've found The Way of the Rose -- a group of spiritual folks who center their spirituality around praying the rosary to Our Lady, in whatever form she takes for the people in the group -- I'm looking for a rosary from my considerable stash that I can connect with. One of my favorites has long been the jujube wood rosary I bought a few years back at Kaufer's, a Catholic religious-goods store in Seattle. (Happily, Spokane has a Kaufer's too.) The beads are big and chunky, and the rope between the beads is thick and strong. It's durable, it's very pretty, and it always feels good in my hands. Plus, I have a lovely zipper bag to keep it in, adorned with an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Jujube rosary and OLPH bag; Cataldo rosary.
But then there's the rosary I picked up recently out at the Cataldo Mission gift shop. The mission, now situated on a state park, is the oldest standing building in all of Idaho. It once served as a frontier post for the Jesuits to minister to the Indians who lived there. The rosaries on sale there are pretty simple, with a plastic center medal, a plain bronze cross (not a crucifix), and colorful little clacky beads -- ceramic of some kind, I guess -- that roll nicely under the fingers. Cheaply made, but individually handmade, and that counts for something. I'm thinking of swapping out the existing cross for a Brigid's cross, and the plastic medal with something Marian and beautiful. But we'll see. I'm no good at cutting apart and re-threading rosaries. I've tried, and it didn't end well.

Episcopal chaplet with Holy Family; prayer rope;
Prayer Rule of the Theotokos.
I've also uncovered my Orthodox prayer rope -- good for saying the Prayer Rule of the Theotokos -- and a beloved 33-bead chaplet rosary with a Celtic cross, also one of a kind and handmade, that I bought at an Episcopal church gift shop. (It's designed to say a specific kind of Episcopal prayer, one that borrows heavily from popular Orthodox devotions.) I slept with that rosary clutched in my hand for many a night, when I was going through the worst of my health bouts, and it brought me some semblance of peace and comfort.

The way things are going lately, I figure one of the rosaries will call out to me when it's ready to.

Our Lady of Seattle.
Proceed with caution
At the same time, discernment is important, and I suppose you have to be careful to determine when something might be a sign and when it's just an interesting coincidence. For example, after expressing my Marian spirituality in my last post, I had a few chance occurrences that seemed to want to point me back to a conventional understanding of Mother Mary. One came from within a huge Catholic missal I was leafing through. The odds of landing on the theological note I read about Mary, in a book of 1,900 pages, seem vanishingly remote. Later, while reading an article on the relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit, a key line from the Magnificat leapt off the page at me, one that put my confirmation biases to the test.

Both of these events would have me see Mary as the church sees her. What do I do with that? I'm just going to let Mary tell me in her own way, on her own time. If the signs keep coming, I suppose I'll have no choice but to take them as a nudge to pay attention.

The first Mary to summon me,
from Blessed Sacrament Church.
While rummaging through all my "altar crap," I came across a praying Mary statue that will fit nicely in a little alcove in our dining area, along with postcards of the two Mary statues back in Seattle that set me on my current path. One of the postcards shows Our Lady of Seattle, the century-old wooden figure of Mary that imparted an overwhelming message of love to me when I made contact with it. The other shows the statue at Blessed Sacrament Church, the one I kept looking over at while I, newly returned to Catholicism, huddled with a prayer team at a "Mercy Night" program in hopes of finding a way to strengthen my faith. Mary seemed to be calling me over for a chat that evening, and that's just what I did a little while later. That's how our new mother-child relationship got rolling.

I figure if I put those cards out, along with some candles and the praying Mary statue I found -- giving myself a temporary prayer nook till I can put my attic chapel together -- maybe I can tune in even better to what Mary is trying to say to me of late. Whatever it is she wants me to know, it seems to be important. She's been concerned with my spiritual well-being ever since I came back to the Christian path. And she hasn't led me astray yet.

Whether she gives me more indications of seeing her within her traditional role in the church, or whether she shows me something that centers her as the portal for my experience of the Sacred Feminine, I'll listen. I think she gives her children what they need from her. So we'll see where this latest chapter leads.

I'm all ears, Mom.

Friday, November 8, 2019

There's Something About the Virgin Mary

Serendipity is a funny thing, isn't it?

You know those "suggested groups" that come up in a sidebar on Facebook? I happened to click on one by accident while intending my cursor for another action on the page. What came up was a group called The Way of the Rose, which describes itself as "an open-hearted, inclusive community of people dedicated to the forgotten earth wisdom of the rosary ... and to the Lady, by any name you like to call Her."

Reading further, I found that the group was started by a couple who just happened to be former neighbors of a work associate of mine. The husband is a former senior editor of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine that I used to subscribe to when I was traveling the Buddhist path. To make a long story short, in meditation he had a vision of a woman who asked him and his wife to pray the rosary, speaking of its power to heal both people and the world. This Lady, instead of espousing church dogma, expressed a connection between the rosary, her body, and the earth, such that grounding a spiritual practice in the rosary might awaken people to the restorative power, hidden yet ever present, of the Sacred Feminine in the natural world.

I also just happened to come across this group as the husband-wife team were releasing a new book, also called The Way of the Rose. My copy just arrived, and I'm looking forward to savoring its content.

What strikes me about finding this group is that it came about when I'm working on setting up my own chapel -- a real-life adjunct to my virtual Mary Chapel -- where I can settle into a daily rhythm of private prayer, meditation, and devotion. I had a small prayer nook at our old house, but now that we have a bigger house with more room to stretch out, I decided to claim a portion of the attic for a peaceful getaway. (The basement was my first choice, but it's too damp and I kept hitting my head on the low ceiling.) I have grand visions for it. I want to eventually come up with my own lectionary of sorts, including the honoring of one female saint every day of the year. I once wrote a service but never did much with it; now's the time to change that and get the ball rolling.

Once I get set up, I was even thinking of doing some YouTube videos offering some spiritual reflections, with a longer-term goal of eventually fixing up one of the neglected out-buildings on our property, where a real-life "Our Lady of the Valley" chapel could one day take shape. As I said, adventurous, but this is my passion.

The Great Mother
Like the Way of the Rose folks, my spirituality is grounded firmly in the Sacred Feminine. There are many reasons for that. One is that it's painfully obvious to me that our world is in desperate need of a loving, nurturing, healing energy. The world is ablaze with the masculine heat of anger, aggression, violence, war. We need to listen to the restorative wisdom of the feminine to regain our balance and begin to heal our world.

Another reason is that, having passed through many of the traditions of the East, I saw how the spiritual energies of masculine and feminine seemed to exist in greater harmony. The predominant religious tradition of the West envisions an all-male Godhead, with no place for the feminine, save in a subordinate position. Yet a close examination of ancient texts and commentaries shows that the Sacred Feminine was once not hidden away, not suppressed, but revered. We find that Sophia, the Wisdom of God, was present at the creation. It was she who breathed life into the Father's creation. It was she whom the prophets longed after in the books of Proverbs, Wisdsom, and Sirach -- the latter two of which are present in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but absent in others. It was she whom the mystics understood as the immanent presence of God -- the feminine shekinah that the Kabbalists speak of -- or even the ousia, or essence, of the Trinity itself, something akin to a sacred chalice that contains the three parts of the Trinity and gives them their form. Without the fruitful emptiness of the Sophian chalice, the disparate parts would have nothing to hold them together.

In that sense, Sophia is analogous to the great empty vessel that the ancient Chinese mystics knew as Tao, the Great Mother that gives rise to all things, and whose sacred, life-giving rhythms we can see in nature and emulate by sharpening our intuition and cultivating lives of simplicity, patience, and compassion.

So how do we find Sophia today? Well, we might consider that some theologians have considered her synonymous with the Holy Spirit. The ancient Syriac tradition spoke of the Spirit as the feminine aspect of God. In the Gospel of the Hebrews, whose contents only come down to us secondhand through quotes from the church fathers, Jesus speaks of "my mother the Holy Spirit." The Gnostic Gospel of Philip likewise ponders how Mary could have conceived of the Holy Spirit, for "when did a woman ever conceive of a woman?"

But then we invite further controversy when we consider the words of St. Maximilan Kolbe, who pointed to Mary as a "quasi-incarnation" of the Holy Spirit, or former Catholic priest Leonardo Boff, who said that a voice spoke to him the secrets of the union of Mary and Spirit, such that when they united, the Spirit elevated Mary until they became, in effect, one and the same.

Now, couple that with the fact that the Catholic lectionary quite often employs readings concerning Sophia on Marian feast days or otherwise associates them with Mary, and that a small group of Russian Orthodox theologians -- most notably Sergei Bulgakov -- posited a strong link between Sophia and Mary, and a picture starts to take form. One can see its form suggested in an Orthodox icon from Kiev called Sophia, the Holy Wisdom, which features Mary, embracing the child Jesus, atop a pedestal that suggests the scene from Proverbs 9:1: "Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars."

The cherry on top comes from the book of Baruch -- again, found only in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles -- in a passage that expresses the longing among men to find Sophia, God's Wisdom, such that God felt moved to reveal her to his people. "Thus she has appeared on earth, is at home with the mortals," the passage reads. "She is the book of the precepts of God, the law that endures forever; all who cling to her will live."

Holy of holies
This is what no church theologian will admit. Yet it would explain, for example, the Immaculate Conception: Rather than needing the dogma to carve out an Original Sin exception for Mary so that Jesus could be born sinless, it would stand to reason that Mary's soul would be immaculate, if she were an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, in the same way that Jesus was an incarnation of the Word. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich once wrote that she received a vision of the creation of Mary's soul that was so brilliant and breathtaking that the angels marveled at it before the face of God; again, a divinity dwelling within Mary would explain what Blessed Anne Catherine called this "unspeakably beautiful" scene.

It would also explain why the angel Gabriel found Mary "full of grace," why God chose her above all others to bear the Son, and why Mary herself said "all generations will call me blessed."

It would explain how a young girl, no more than 13 or 14, could have possessed the faith, maturity, and bravery to bear a child out of wedlock, an offense for which she could have been put to death.

And it would explain why, according to Catholic and Orthodox tradition, Mary was taken body and soul into heaven after her earthly life came to an end.

Consider, too, the numerous Marian apparitions through the centuries, her many predictions that have come true, her ability to heal (Lourdes) and work natural wonders (the Miracle of the Sun, seen by thousands at Fatima). The church would tell you that she was granted those powers by God, by making her a vessel of his grace -- but why could she not possess those powers herself? Before the reforms of Vatican II, the church often came in for criticism that Marian veneration essentially replaced the work of the Holy Spirit with the Blessed Mother. Maybe there was a reason for that -- a reason the church was either unaware of or didn't want to admit.

This is not a conclusion I came to lightly. It's something I've been pondering for a long time, and after reading many works of speculative theology over the years. Could I be wrong? Sure. But to me, this picture of Mary simply acknowledges the power she has demonstrated to the faithful and connects her to all the symbols and images of the Sacred Feminine that peoples and cultures have been accessing from time immemorial -- from the time humans embraced the fruitful emptiness of the great Mother Tao herself. If Jesus is the masculine face of God, the yang, then Mary is the counterbalance, the feminine face, the yin, both supporting and completing each other in an eternal heavenly dance.

In short, the Mother comes to us in whatever form we need her to take. Sometimes she takes a darker form, like Hekate, because we need some tough love to get our act together. And other times she comes as the embodiment of compassion, ready to support broken souls and other works in progress. I needed the latter and still do.

So when my prayer nook was overflowing with statues and images of Kuanyin, Green Tara, Amaterasu, Gaia, Danu, the Hindu Tridevi, Athena, Hestia, and many others, Mary would have been there even if her image had not been present. But I'm grateful it was, because I needed her to give me the nudge to stop wandering aimlessly and come back home, to the face of the Mother that gave me comfort when I was growing up Catholic.

The origin story
Now that I've laid my heresy bare, let me circle back for a moment.

The day after I made my last post, regarding looking around for a church home here in North Idaho, I imagine some people who have read my posts about visiting church after church, some with no seeming commonalities with each other, must wonder why I can't just pick one church and settle into it.

Well, I could, but where's the fun in that?

The thing is, I've always been fascinated by what people believe and how they express those beliefs in their lives. I love to sit back and observe, to see how one church, priest, congregation, or Mass compares with another. And I also like to examine how things work, which is why theology in general fascinates me. I don't know what any of that says about my personality type, but I could probably be some kind of case study. Those Myers-Briggs tests are no help, either. I almost always score near 50-50 on all the "letters," save for introvert-extrovert: I usually notch a perfect 100 on the "I" side.

But religion and spirituality are more than just an intellectual fascination: I take great comfort in the good news and hope that religious systems and their texts offer. Having a religious practice also humbles you (well, it tends to do that for me, anyway), by reminding you that it's not all about you and you're not in control of your ultimate destiny. You can fight that reality with all your might, or you can submit to it and find peace with it.

I also like to think my practice makes me a little bit of a better person. The Sermon on the Mount is my guide for life -- an ideal that I'll never live up to, but one worth striving toward. 

But the funny thing is, I never felt like I had a very close relationship with the speaker of that famous Sermon. I can find no match for his philosophy and his ethical teachings, but sometimes I feel as if his message gets too junked up with all the theological baggage that's been hung around his neck for 2,000 years. It feels as if it puts a distance between me and him. And yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of a self-identified Catholic saying that.

So why would I continue to be attracted to Catholicism, then? Well, a lot of it has to do with the church's eternal pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty. A good Mass in a lovely church goes a long way toward making my day and my life better. Then there are the comforting rituals that come and go with regularity, Mass after Mass, liturgical year after liturgical year. There are also the mystics, like Teresa of Avila, who remind me there's more to the Catholic experience than communal ritual and vocal prayer -- that there's a wealth of spiritual insight waiting for us when we embrace contemplative practices like Lectio Divina that prompt us to slow down, look within, and embrace the holiness of silence. The Kingdom of God is indeed within us. Or, as the Sufi mystic Rumi once put it so well, "Silence is the language of God; the rest is poor translation."

And speaking of Teresa, it's comforting to know that you can be a thorn in the side of the church hierarchy and eventually come out on top -- a hopeful sign that change for the good within the church is always possible. The papal nuncio once called the headstrong Teresa a "disobedient and contumacious woman" who "teaches theology as though she were a doctor of the church, in contempt of St. Paul, who forbade women to teach." Well, Teresa got the last laugh: She's now a doctor of the church.

I also have to mention Catholic social teaching, as embraced by beautiful souls like Dorothy Day. Living out its values, in service to the poor and marginalized, could make the world a better place, if only the teaching were more widely lived out among the faithful. Same goes for the men and women of Pax Christi and their tireless work in pursuit of peace.

Plus, there's something fulfilling at church for all my senses -- the visual beauty of the statuary, the vestments, and the church architecture; the scent of the incense; the heavenly sound of choirs and organs and bells; the feel of the holy water on my fingers as I dip them in the font to make the sign of the cross; the taste of the communion wine.

And really, a lot of it probably just comes down to good childhood memories. The Mass takes my mind back to earlier, simpler times, when life wasn't so complicated.

And then, finally, there's that whole matter with Jesus' mom.

The long way home
Here's how this all began. Faith has never come easily for me. Even as a little kid, I asked my parents questions about Christianity that I don't think they were ever comfortable answering. That, or they weren't properly equipped to answer. The bottom line was that they preferred that I not ask questions and just accept things as they were taught to me.

But that didn't work for me, especially as I got older and my questions hardened into skepticism. I hung on for several more years for my parents' sake, but by my late twenties, I could no longer maintain my belief. Things just didn't add up in my mind. I'd also suffered through some difficult emotional times and felt betrayed when I felt I didn't get an answer to my prayers for help and mercy. And then there were all the self-proclaimed Christians who gave the faith a bad name. I didn't want people to associate me with them. So I said goodbye to the tradition I was raised in and looked east, primarily to Buddhism, but with several other interesting stops along the way.

It took me a good 15 years, and a confluence of events in my life, to eventually bring me back home. And when I did, I found a familiar figure waiting on me: Mother Mary.

The funny thing is, no matter how far I strayed from the Christian path, Mary was always present. Even when I was deep into my own eclectic Buddhist-Taoist-Shinto-pagan practice, Mary was there, in statue form, in the corner of that crowded goddess altar, silently and patiently waiting on me to reach out to her.

Now, is there something psychological at play there? Since I had a horrible, drug-addled, schizophrenic birth mother who gave me up for adoption after abusing me as an infant, and with the grandma who raised me doing her best but still weighing me down with her own significant baggage, was I looking for a better mother, an ideal woman-figure, to cling onto? Did Mary give me hope in the middle of the chaos that was my life? Was she an avatar of the unconditional love I felt I needed but wasn't receiving?

I don't know. It's possible. But I also think there was something deeper that kept me tethered to her, making her the only constant along my eclectic spiritual journey.

What is that something? I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. But I can tell you that when I found myself back in a Catholic church for the first time in 15 years, sitting with a prayer team in hopes of finding the faith I'd always lacked, I kept glancing over at a statue of the Blessed Mother while we were praying. I had the strangest feeling that she wanted me to come over and spend some time with her.

And so I did. I knelt before the statue, prayed a Hail Mary, and then just remained there for a while, contemplating her, trying to understand what it was she wanted. It was obvious to me that she wanted something, but I wasn't sure yet. All I knew was that I felt at peace in her presence.

Over the next few days and weeks, I kept talking to her, like a friend -- or maybe like a child would speak to a mother if the two actually had a normal, healthy relationship. Since I never had that, I wasn't really sure how that was supposed to work. But the more I talked to her, the more it became clear to me that she simply wanted me to know it was OK to come to her whenever I needed her, to talk to her, to spill my guts -- and that she would listen compassionately and lovingly, without judgment.

I'd never had what I'd call a religious experience before. I grew up around people who praised God with their hands in the air, speaking in tongues, all of it. I never understood that, because I was never able to feel what they felt. It was like they had this tuned-in connection to the divine, while my receiver was broken. So that made my deepening experience with Mary all the more profound. I didn't expect something like this to happen to me, when having faith had always been such a tremendous challenge for me. But for whatever reason, my defenses were now down, and I was experiencing something new, exhilarating, and scary all at the same time. Now I was "tuned in" too.

Our Lady of Seattle.
That experience reached its peak one day when I was visiting a side chapel at St. James Cathedral in Seattle with my daughter. In the chapel was a century-old wooden statue of Mary, dubbed Our Lady of Seattle, looking serenely down at the room from her pedestal. I gazed up at her, and I suddenly felt compelled to reach out for her hand. The instant I clasped it in mine, I felt a jolt shoot through my body. I instantly broke out in goose bumps. My body was enveloped in warmth. I felt frozen in place as I looked up into the eyes of the statue. My eyes welled up with tears. And the feeling that overwhelmed me is one I can only describe as unconditional love.

She was communicating with me. It was as plain as day. I never heard her speak a word, but she didn't have to. Her message was loud and clear: that she was my mother and I her child, that she loved me completely, that I could rest in her loving presence without fear, and that if I allowed myself to trust her, she would take me by the hand and lead me to the divine source of her love.

It took my daughter asking me what I was doing to break the spell that day. Otherwise, I don't know how long I would have stood transfixed there. But I left that chapel with a feeling of faith that I'd never had before, after all my years of trying and failing to just believe in something. It was as if Mary was telling me to stop leading with my head so much and to trust my heart for a change.

Starting over
What more she wanted from me, I wasn't sure. So I started off this new chapter in my spiritual life by attending Mass as often as I could, and to say the rosary daily. I eventually made the St. Louis de Montfort consecration to Mary, I joined the Association of the Miraculous Medal, and I got myself invested in the Brown Scapular, the Carmelite tradition whereby, if one acts in good faith, the Blessed Mother promises to rescue the wearer from purgatory.

I'm not sure any of it deepened my faith and trust in the institutional church, though it did bring me even closer to Mary. In fact, I soon found myself bristling against some of the legalisms of the church and unsure of what to do next. I decided to explore Orthodoxy, which also has a beautiful tradition of veneration of Mary the Theotokos, but that proved to be a dead-end. I explored other churches, some of which shared the Catholic liturgical tradition and some of which appealed to me because of their clear focus on living out the values of the Sermon on the Mount. But Mary wasn't there, and I felt her absence.

That's one reason I keep coming back around to the Catholic church, even when we don't see eye to eye on things. That's where I find Mary, even if, as with Jesus, the church restrains her under its own legalistic doctrines.

There's no doubt in my mind that the church's view of her is incomplete. I think there's much that the church doesn't want us to know about her. Where Marian veneration even exists anymore -- it was quite suppressed in the years following Vatican II -- the church chooses mostly to see her as meek and mild, tender and loving. She is those things, of course, but that's only one aspect of her. She's also a healer, a prophet, and, as we see in the Magnificat -- a passage whose public recitation has been banned more than once -- a revolutionary, calling out for justice for the poor and oppressed and the casting down of the powerful from their thrones.

And as I've discussed, her faith, trust, and bravery knew no bounds in an age when she could have been killed for her pregnancy. Consider, too, that she had to give birth to her child in a smelly stable full of animals; she had to flee with Joseph and the child for their lives from a murderous Herod; she held fast when the prophet Simeon told her a sword would pierce her heart; she didn't give up hope when the young Jesus went missing in Jerusalem; she nudged her Son into performing his first miracle; she remained steadfast at the foot of the cross, watching her Son die before her eyes, when all the male disciples save one fled in fear. And she remained faithful through Pentecost, surrounded by the community of the faithful as the Spirit descended on them all. Not exactly the life of a shrinking violet.

For me, Mary's experience at Pentecost was the moment her union with the Spirit became complete, and perhaps it was the moment when she came into the full realization of who she truly was. She disappears from the pages of scripture after that, much in the same way Sophia has disappeared from the consciousness of many Christians.

Yet Sophia remains there, obscured but hidden in plain sight, waiting to dispense her wisdom to those who seek her out. For the Wisdom of God is visible in the beautiful divinity of his creation, if only we take the time to slow down, look, and listen for her. She is there, ever present, as Mother Nature, who in turn is inseparable from the Mother Earth who gives us a home, who in turn points to the cosmic womb, the Great Mother of all, that gave rise to all things.

And as it is with Sophia, ignored by many but freely offering herself to all who pursue her, so it is with Mary -- deemed irrelevant by many, even disparaged by some, yet to those who know her, she reveals herself as a portal of mercy, redemption, motherly wisdom, and healing, an oasis of unconditional love in a world in short supply of it.

Hail Holy Queen
I still don't really know where Mary is leading me. I just trust her not to lead me astray. I've learned that she won't give me pat answers when I ask her for guidance. She expects me to put in the hard work and figure things out for myself, yet always reminding me that she'll be there for me if I stumble. I'm OK with that. She wouldn't be much of a mom if she helicoptered over me, took all my problems away, and didn't challenge me to grow.

Catholics more devout than I would insist that she's trying to lead me to her Son. But I don't feel like there needs to be a competition between the two. Because for me, religious life is not about being good to get an eventual reward, or about following arbitrary rules, or wielding the Bible as a weapon, or saying the right magic words in the right order, or staying out of hell, or condemning others to hell. It's about love. Learning to love ourselves more fully and authentically so that we can be a reflection of God's love in the world to others, treating them as we would wish to be treated.

That may sound overly simplistic, but how hard is it just to love others as ourselves, day in and day out? It may just be the hardest thing in the world to do. But it all begins with humbling ourselves -- and both Jesus and Mary show us how to live out our faith in a loving and humble way.

Mary and Jesus, in that sense, are for me more of a both-and than an either-or. "Behold your mother," Jesus said to the beloved disciple, and so to us. "Do whatever he tells you," Mary said to the servants at Cana, and so to us. They point to each other, for all time, for our sake.

On the days I struggle, I remind myself to set aside a few moments to contemplate an image of Mary and take a breath, so that I can see the Sacred Feminine at work, both in the world and in myself, and trust that all will be well. I regard her serene expression, and it tells me, "Relax, trust me, and dig deeper. Keep going. Don't give up. This is for your own good. Remember that I reached out to you for a reason. And always remember that I love you."

All I can do is keep listening, keep trusting, and let her light my way.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

New Home; New Churches

St. Alphonsus, Wallace.
Now that we've settled into small-town life in North Idaho, I've managed to carve some time out, away from the ongoing tasks of unpacking, addressing home repairs, and attending to my work duties, to see what the church landscape looks like around here. Long story short: It looks like the Catholic church is going to be the go-to option, almost by default.

Not surprisingly, the scene here is quite different from that in Seattle. The first and most obvious difference is the comparative lack of options. Wallace has an old Episcopal church that's been turned into a museum, a Methodist church that's probably heading toward the same fate, a Church of God and United Church of Christ that I don't know much about, and a lovely old Catholic church that, happily, was well attended when I visited. By "well attended," I mean probably 40 to 50 people -- which, for a church in a small town in the middle of nowhere, seems pretty good.

The few people I met after Mass in Wallace were kind and friendly, as was the priest, Father Jerome. I feel for him. He has to say Mass at five churches across two counties every weekend. In Harrison and Saint Maries, he leads Masses on Saturday evening, and then he comes back to the Silver Valley on Sundays, where he's the officiant at Kellogg at 9:00, Wallace at 11:00, and Mullan at 1:00.

I've been to a Mass at St. Rita's in Kellogg. It's a nice church. Modern, warm, inviting, and firmly Novus Ordo. I situated myself in front of a peaceful Mary statue, which stood serenely above a stand of flickering votives. That made the Mass quite meditative for me -- even in spite of the acoustic guitar-driven contemporary worship songs that dominated the sung parts of the service. That is not my thing at all -- but in a small town, you can't be choosy. In Wallace, at St. Alphonsus, we sang a cappella, like an old-time country church. I don't know if that's the norm, but it held a certain charm.

Cataldo Mennonite Church.
The lay of the land
In the following weeks, I set out to see what lay further afield from Wallace. Not too far from home, in Cataldo, is a little Mennonite church nestled back in the woods along a dirt road. I've long admired the Anabaptists for their commitment to living out the Sermon on the Mount, and for their dedication to living simple, uncomplicated lives. I'd visited another conservative Mennonite church a year or so ago, south of Olympia, well before we moved, and was struck by how serious and focused the folks there were about their preaching, their worship, their singing, everything. They didn't just go through the motions; they embraced and embodied their faith, from their simple clothing to their unadorned church walls to their extreme kindness in welcoming me, the stranger, into their presence.

The fellow who greeted me at the Cataldo church had relatives at the church in Western Washington. He welcomed me to join them for worship, and I did the best I could to settle and blend in, wearing my plain black slacks and my white collarless shirt. Turns out the rest of the men had collared shirts, and with my ongoing attempt at a beard minus mustache, I probably looked more like a confused combination of Amish and old-time Quaker than a Mennonite. But no one said anything. I listened to the preaching, joined in the best I could on the four-part harmonies of the a cappella hymns, and followed the men to the basement for Bible study while the women remained upstairs. One of the women graciously offered me a Bible so I could follow along with the preaching once the men came back up for the remainder of the service.

Knowing I had work obligations waiting on me, I left rather hurriedly when the service was over, intending to come back for the evening service so I could get to know the folks a little better. But I never made it. It's hard for me to carve out time for worship when I have to work on Sundays, and I'd already been at the church for over two hours.

Plus -- full disclosure -- as much as I admire their simplicity and their unwavering faith life, I just didn't really know if I'd be cut out for Mennonite life. I'd be expected to give up some of the modern amenities I enjoy and in some cases rely on, and I can also only imagine that it be would awkward coming there on a regular basis by myself and not having my wife join me. She might like wearing dresses once in a while and seeks a simpler life overall, but I know for a fact that never in this lifetime would she ever consider joining a conservative Christian church, wear a bonnet with her dress, and sit segregated from the men. My wife and I met when I was away from my faith, and there was never any expectation that she'd join me on my spiritual journey when I returned to the Christian path. It's not her style or her belief, and I'd never force it upon her. So in a church culture where the man is essentially expected to tell his wife what to do, at least in terms of having her follow him in his faith life, I don't think either one of us would fit in too well.

An old Quaker meetinghouse.
The call of the Quakers
Those who follow this blog know of my history with the Quakers. Like the Mennonites, traditional Quakers are all about living out their faith -- letting their lives speak -- and embracing Sermon-on-the-Mount values like the pursuit of peace. Quakers have traditionally been very politically active in the pursuit of peace and equality, where Mennonites tend to live out their faith more in direct service to the poor and needy. Quakers demonstrate and lobby in the name of infusing the world with the love of Christ through legislative action, while Mennonites pursue the same goals through things like volunteer aid work. Two approaches toward the same end.

But their manners of worship are quite different. Mennonites are guided by scripture. They study it, discuss it, preach on it, and let its values infuse and guide their lives and actions. Quakers, meanwhile, traditionally have had no ministers and view the Bible as one moment in an ongoing revelation of the Spirit that continues to the present day. Thus, Quakers sit silently in worship, listening for the Spirit to prompt them to share their preaching with the congregation, with a strong focus on living out their values in the world outside the meetinghouse walls. (Old Quaker joke: "When does the service begin?" asks the visitor confused by the silence. "After the meeting," replies the Quaker.) Some meetings pass in complete silence, while others will find a few members rising to speak briefly, and then sitting back down as the congregation absorbs each message in the returning and enveloping silence.

The belief in ongoing revelation, combined with their political activism, has caused some Quaker meetings to move past their emphasis on Christian scripture and toward a more universalist spirituality. That would be fine in itself, but some meetings have evolved to the point where talk of Christianity is uncommon, and sometimes even looked at with suspicion. In its place has risen a strand of progressive political stridency that often has very little spiritual content at all, with the result that those who rise to speak sound more like they're virtue-signaling about their own political wokeness. The end result is a meeting for worship that sounds more like a low-key political rally, or an NPR program. That's what eventually put an end to my Quaker involvement, even as I loved the manner of worship itself. I go to church for spiritual edification, not to hear a leftist political lecture.

I thought of all this as I tried to locate a Quaker meeting nearby that might still be somewhat Christ-centric. The only things I could find were a "programmed" meeting, with a pastor, meaning there would be no silent worship but rather something resembling a typical Protestant church service; and a liberal unprogrammed (i.e., no pastor) Quaker meeting that may or may not be like what I experienced back around the Seattle area. It's about 70 miles away, and I wrote to the meeting to get more information before driving out there but never got a reply.

So for now, the pursuit of a new Quaker meeting isn't high on the list of priorities. I am an affiliate member of a Conservative Quaker meeting back in Michigan, but it's so far away that I'll probably never be able to attend. The Conservative Quakers are most like the original Quakers, with their commitment to equality and peace, their silent Spirit-led worship, and their continuing focus on Christianity and scripture. But sadly, they're nearly extinct.

A female Episcopal priest.
Episcopal: So close, yet so far
So, looking even farther from home, I identified a few Episcopal churches in the Spokane area that I thought I'd give a try. Episcopalianism was one stop I made on my journey back to Catholicism. I appreciated the familiar liturgical high-Mass form of worship, combined with some less rigid doctrines and beliefs than the Catholics -- in particular, open communion and the admittance of female priests. I much prefer women to men at the altar; I think women are better nurturers of their flocks and do a better job of reflecting the qualities of love, compassion, tenderness, mercy, and forgiveness that Jesus so fully embodied.

I managed to squeeze in two Episcopal services one Sunday morning. If I was going to drive an hour and a half to church, I figured I'd better make it worth my time. The first service was at a church that prided itself on promoting a Celtic spirituality. I didn't pick up on that, but the service was still nice enough -- though not enough to make me want to make such a long drive every weekend. At the second service, the female priest was gone for the weekend, and an older male priest was filling in for her. His preaching was just fine, but again, it wasn't what I was looking for.

It was then that I decided I wasn't going to drive all over the Spokane area every weekend on a wild goose chase, in search of something that may not even exist. I've never found my perfect church anywhere I've gone, even when I had dozens of options around Seattle -- so why would I find it here?

Strange Catholic bedfellows
So I figured I might as well see what options are out there within the Catholic family of churches. After all my searching for the church I could call home over these many years, I always seem to come back around to the Catholic church, imperfect as I find it. So why not just stick with the tradition I was raised in and call it good?

Now, St. Alphonsus in Wallace was nice enough, and it's a bonus that the church is within walking distance from my house -- but what other choices did I have out there within the Catholic family? Well, as it turns out, there's a surprisingly large number of Catholic options around Spokane and neighboring Coeur d'Alene. Problem is, both cities are hotbeds of extreme traditionalist Catholics -- the more-Catholic-than-the-pope types who hate Pope Francis with a burning passion and place fealty to dogma far ahead of love, mercy, and forgiveness. We're talking about hardcore believers who angrily reject the Novus Ordo Mass -- and, essentially, anything to do with the Second Vatican Council -- in favor of the Traditional Latin Mass, or TLM as it's often called.

A typical rad-trad opinion of Pope Francis.
These are the radical traditionalists, or rad-trads, and their tribalism runs deep. They're at war with the secular world, railing at it with fear and righteous anger from behind their wall of religion. And they're especially fixated on abortion and homosexuality -- though immigrants and Muslims come in for their fair share of hatred, too. They fully embrace capital punishment, and most seem to glorify military violence, all while they claim to be rabidly pro-life. Altar girls and communion in the hand are, to them, innovations of the devil. And don't even think of showing up to Mass in anything less than a suit and tie if you're a man, or a full-length dress and mantilla if you're a woman. Proper form takes precedence over heart.

If at this point you're thinking "modern-day Pharisees," you're on the right track. You can practically hear them saying, like the Pharisee in the midst of the tax collector, "Thank God I am not like that man." Others, less charitably, have characterized them as the Catholic Taliban. Basically, they think they're still fighting the Crusades. At a bare minimum, they want to live in a world where it's perpetually 1950.

Now, I don't mind the Latin Mass. I've been to a few. I don't love them, but they're OK. I found them to be simultaneously very reverent and extraordinarily dull, with no vocal participation whatsoever from the congregation, and the priest reciting most of the Mass in inaudible Latin, with his back to the people, facing the altar. The Seattle area had a couple of Catholic churches that offered the TLM exclusively. Spokane/CDA has at least one such church, in St. Joan of Arc, run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, or FSSP, the same folks who ran the Seattle churches. They're hyper-traditionalist, but at least they're in the good graces of Rome and, as far as I can tell, don't spend all their time criticizing the pope.

Trads on steroids
It would be one thing if the traditionalism stopped there, but in Spokane/CDA, that's just the beginning. When you move deeper into the rad-trad thicket, you encounter the Society of St. Pius X. Marcel Lefebvre, a French bishop, created the SSPX in 1970 in opposition to the reforms of Vatican II, with the intention of preserving the church's doctrines and practices as they existed before the council -- including the Latin Mass. The 1988 creation of the FSSP would seem to have largely negated the need for the SSPX, as the former broke away from the latter with the intention of bringing a vehicle for the TLM into good standing with Rome. But the SSPX remains, and it apparently flourishes in areas like Coeur d'Alene. The SSPX's Immaculate Conception parish in neighboring Post Falls offers up to four Masses a day, and every time I've driven by, there are cars stretching for blocks down the street in either direction. The one time I popped in out of curiosity during a Mass, the sanctuary was packed, with an overflow of faithful standing in the narthex. (And everyone was impeccably dressed, of course.)

Best I can figure, the SSPX holds an appeal for those who want more than just a Latin Mass, since they can get that through the FSSP. Being an SSPX member appears to be a statement that you oppose any post-Vatican II modernization of Catholicism whatsoever, while still remaining more or less on speaking relations with Rome. The Vatican isn't thrilled about the existence of SSPX, and Lefebvre was smacked down for his insubordination by more than one pope. But relations appear to have at least softened in recent years. It's hard to know whether that makes the SSPX faithful happy or angry.

Sede vacante -- the chair of Peter
is (allegedly) empty.
But we have further to go into the rad-trad thicket. Beyond the SSPX are the sedevacantists. These are the hardest of the hardcore rad-trads. Not only do the sedevacantists oppose all Vatican II reforms, but they also maintain that the reforms that came out of the council are illegitimate. Therefore, all popes who have upheld the council's reforms are illegitimate as well, leaving the chair of Peter vacant -- sede vacante is Latin for "the seat being empty" -- since the 1958 death of Pius XII, the last pope who had no connection to the reforms. Not surprisingly, they are not in communion with Rome. So they're basically hyper-traditionalist Protestants -- but don't tell them that. They'll maintain that they, of course, are the true and most faithful Catholics, preserving the deposit of faith from the usurpers of the chair of Peter and their "satanic" church reforms.

Sedevacantist Central in this area is at Mount St. Michael, an isolated compound just outside the city of Spokane. Run by the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, the center includes a Catholic K-12 school, a rectory for priests and brothers, and a motherhouse for nuns, as well as a chapel and a gift shop. I met some of the sisters when I picked up a few posters, books, and statues at the gift shop, and they were delightfully friendly, if strict and disciplined in manner. It's not a place I would go regularly for spiritual edification, though I did subscribe to their Reign of Mary newsletter. My spirituality is deeply Marian, as many readers know, so I felt I might find something edifying in the newsletter's pages. Plus, I'm always interested in trying to learn what makes other people tick -- or, in this case, to learn why the sisters of Mount St. Michael and their allies believe what they believe.

Not an Orthodox church. Eastern Catholic!
Light of the East
After all that, I decided to pay a visit to Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Spokane Valley. C&M is a Byzantine Catholic church. If you don't know what that means, imagine an Orthodox church, only one that's in communion with the pope. The "Latin" church, or "Roman Catholic" church, is the church most people associate with Catholicism, but it's not the only Catholic church in existence. There are 23 church families under the Catholic umbrella whose services are Orthodox in style, and any Catholic can attend one of their liturgies and fulfill his or her weekly Mass obligation.

On my journey back to Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, I spent quite a bit of time exploring Orthodoxy. The more I learned about it, the more I realized I resonated with the Eastern church's theological views, with its beautiful veneration of the Theotokos ("God-bearer," i.e., Mary), and with its emphasis on humility -- something I find lacking in much of the Western church. There's also a sense that the East is more comfortable with letting spiritual mysteries be just that, mysteries, while the West tends to want to intellectualize the faith experience and define every aspect of it. That approach sometimes leaves me feeling cold, as it places a distance between the worshiper and a direct experience of the divine.

There's also a sense of greater spiritual rigor in the East. You're expected to do as Jesus said and to actually take up your cross and follow him. You may be forgiven by the grace of God, but that doesn't exempt you from putting in the hard work to live a Christ-like life and refine yourself to become more and more like him. Theosis, the process by which we become divinized by becoming more like God, is something the Orthodox take seriously. It's a never-ending process, one that they believe continues after this life is over.

It's the opposite of the easy-believism that afflicts much of the Western Christian tradition, where all you have to do is accept Jesus, say you're saved, and go on autopilot, with no attempt to better oneself and become a reflection of God's love in the world. The thinking goes that if you're saved anyway, why bother? That view has long stuck in my craw, as it gives too many Christians an excuse to act like judgmental jerks and ends up giving all of Christianity a bad rap.

Of course, Orthodoxy isn't without its own problems. For one thing, it's very ethnocentric. You'll find Greek Orthodox churches, Russian Orthodox churches, and so on. And in my experience, many of the churches can be suspicious of you at best, and unwelcoming at worst, if you aren't a member of the target ethnicity. Some of them also express something of a bias against the West, and others are stridently anti-Catholic. All of these things can make it very hard for an outsider to break through and become an accepted part of the family.

Rebaptism is also a thing among many Orthodox. Some churches will accept Catholics without repabtism, but others will insist on a new baptism. Doing so, of course, flies in the face of the creed that Catholics and Orthodox both recite every week -- the one in which we say that we both acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. When I brought up this point to an Orthodox priest who said I would have to be rebaptized, he told me that "one baptism" meant "one Orthodox baptism." Sorry, but that's not going to fly.

So I figured the next best thing to being Orthodox was to be Eastern Catholic. Same Orthodox liturgy, same Orthodox theology, but all within a Catholic context. I joined an Eastern Catholic church when we lived in the Seattle area, and I may well become a member of Saints Cyril and Methodius out here. The only challenge is the distance. If I have a lot of work to do on the weekend, I have to weigh that against a minimum commitment of five hours of my day -- an hour and a half there, an hour and a half back, an hour and a half for the service, and some time afterward to say hello and get to know people.

A little closer to home...
The next best thing will be to find a nice, reverent Novus Ordo church. For All Saints' Day, I visited St. Thomas the Apostle in Coeur d'Alene, about 45 minutes from home. It was the closest church to me that had a service; the Catholic churches here in the Valley appear not to open for non-Sunday obligation days. The priest at St. Thomas, newly ordained this year, gave an excellent homily and radiated a very friendly and welcoming air -- and the church itself was beautiful. Above the altar was a detailed crucifixion scene, with Mary looking plaintively up at her son, the apostle John looking on in grieved disbelief, and Mary Magdalene clutching the foot of the cross. It conveyed so much deep emotion, and it's not like anything I've seen in any other Catholic church. All of the statuary, in fact, was quite beautiful and induced deep spiritual reflection for me. I sat next to a statue of the Pieta and contemplated Mary as she held her son's lifeless body in her arms, reflecting the great sorrow of a parent who lost her child, but also maintaining an air of dignity, as if to say her loss was not enough to break her -- that her faith was stronger than the vindictive anger and violence of men.

The striking view behind the altar at St. Thomas.
Most recently, I took the time to visit two more Catholic churches out in Spokane. One was the cathedral of the diocese, Our Lady of Lourdes. The other was St. Aloysius, the Jesuit parish on the campus of Gonzaga University, itself a Catholic college.

I didn't care much for the cathedral. It was so perfect and polished and immaculate that it felt sterile, more like a museum than a place of worship. It just felt cold -- not welcoming or inviting at all. It was also a bit disorienting that the statue of Mary was not in its usual place on the left-facing side of the altar, but on the right. In her place, over on the left, was a statue of the Sacred Heart, with Jesus' hands stretched out toward the congregation. Unusual placement, to say the least.

It probably didn't help my frame of mind that a word from the pastor in the weekly bulletin spoke disparagingly of the homeless in the area who would use the church's bathrooms and sometimes disrupt the services. The note seemed to take pride in the fact that the church's decision to hire security for weekend Masses helped tamp down the problem, as if the needy were some pest that needed to be exterminated. As St. John Chrysostom is alleged to have said, "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice." Amen.

In contrast, the bulletin at the Jesuit parish, St. Aloysius, included information on an upcoming discussion of homelessness in the area and how to lovingly address it -- a seemingly proactive and compassionate move -- along with a note about the experiences of a group of parishioners who traveled to the southern U.S. border and heard the harrowing stories of the refugees there. Now these are Sermon on the Mount Christians, Matthew 25 Christians. Do unto others. Whatsoever you do to the least of these, my brethren, you do unto me. That's more like it.

Being Jesuits, of course, they appear to decline to give God a pronoun, so that the homily ended up being one of those clumsy affairs where the word "God" is repeated in place of "he" or "him." "God wants to share God's love with you," and that kind of thing. I realize that God is spirit and that everything we say about him is analogical, but Christian tradition has always envisioned God as Father. Jesus did as well. That's good enough for me. This could be a topic for a blog post all by itself, but suffice it to say I've always found it peculiar that progressive Christians do this with God. And I have a deep devotion to the Sacred Feminine, so it's not that I insist on seeing God as a man. It's just that I find ways within the existing paradigm to embrace the Sacred Feminine without dispensing with the God-as-Father analogy that's been a central part of Judeo-Christian history for millennia.

But hey, nobody's perfect. Not even the Jesuits. (And not even me.)

Settling for imperfect beauty
I don't think there are too many other places left to explore. There are some other Catholic churches out in western Montana, but it would take about as long to get to any of them as it does for me to drive to Spokane. So for now, those churches will go unexplored. I'm working on setting up my own private chapel, so I can practice my own way on my own time and just have somewhere peaceful to go during the week -- but after many years of struggling to find a spiritual home, I'm pretty sure I'll make my permanent home with the Catholic church I grew up in, with all its imperfections and shortcomings.

When you struggle with "good enough," maybe moving to an area with limited options isn't such a bad thing, since it forces you to make a choice. In a sense, the choice has been made for me. Now it's just a matter of which Catholic church I want to settle down in for the long haul. Time will tell.