Thursday, February 13, 2020

Dispatches From the Church of Whatever

I recently heard one of the worst homilies of my life.

We didn't go to our usual church because we'd been in an accident just a few days prior. And even though we have a second car while we await the insurance company's ruling on our primary vehicle, none of us was in the mood to make the 45-minute trek to the church where we all like the priest and my daughter is taking catechism classes in preparation for her first communion. So we traveled to a church much closer to home.

I could go every week to this church, or to one of two others closer to our front door. But I like having my family go with me to Mass. And to make it worth my wife's time, I wanted to take her to a place where she'd feel at least somewhat comfortable with her surroundings. And she happens to like the priest at the church 45 minutes away. So do I. I find him personable and engaging, and his homilies are always informative and offer good food for thought. He tries to put the day's readings in historical perspective, often with a quick lesson on the geography and politics of the biblical world. And then he frames the readings in a way that makes them relevant to our faith and to our everyday modern lives. There's a lot to be said about that.

Now, obviously, not all priests have the same gifts. Maybe the priest who tends to the three churches closer to our home has talents I'm not aware of. And I certainly appreciate his dedication to manning not just the three churches near us, but also two others a little farther away. He has his hands full, and I'm sure he works hard tending to the needs of the parishioners at each location.

But his sermons, well... they leave much to be desired.

I'm not even going to go into why this weekend's talk was so bad. Even though it was offensively bad, my intention is not to embarrass him.

But it struck me that if I'd encountered something so awful in my past, I would have used it as a self-righteous excuse to pack up and leave the church altogether.

I'm not sure what it says about me or my place in life that I don't feel compelled to do that this time. Because I've always been an all-or-nothing person. Anyone can look back through my old blog posts here and see evidence of my wearying pursuit of the perfect church, or the perfect political philosophy, or the perfect whatever. And if something didn't go perfectly my way, I'd cut my ties and move on.

It's the principle of the matter, I'd say.

I even did this with my family. I couldn't deal with my adoptive mom anymore, so I stopped communicating with her. But to do that, I had to stop communicating with my whole family. And I came up with all kinds of justifications for why I was right to do that.

But eventually you wake up and realize you only ended up hurting yourself, because in your desire to be free from your problems, you only created new ones. And when you do that, you sometimes alienate and hurt innocent people along the way. Some family members have welcomed me back in the aftermath; others never will. There's nothing I can do about that.

Maybe it helps that I feel more content on my spiritual journey. I had to wander through the traditions of the East and take many other odd diversions till I found my way back where I began, albeit with a new perspective.

Maybe it helps that I don't need Catholicism to be the end-all and be-all of my spiritual life. Catholicism feels comfortable to me, probably because I was raised in it. I know its theology inside and out, and most of it -- not all, but most -- resonates with me. Maybe that's enough.

Maybe it helps that I've drawn from other Christian traditions -- Quaker, Anabaptist, Episcopalian, and Orthodox in particular -- and have allowed their teachings and practices to bring me comfort in times when I find the Catholic church missing the mark. (Having my own personal home chapel, where I can be my own minister, is a great outlet as well.)

Or maybe age, poor health, or both bring you to a point where you just want to stop running toward something better and get on with what you've got. In giving up the pursuit of the perfect, you can embrace the good that's already at your disposal.

Sure, there are days when I'd love to run off and join a Quaker meeting or an Episcopal church. But I also know from experience that there are things I'd dislike about both that would make me miss my Catholic heritage. Likewise, I'm pretty sure that I'm more Orthodox in my theology than I am Catholic. But the Orthodox church would have me publicly renounce the Roman church and would chrismate me when I've already been confirmed. Some Orthodox chutches would even demand I be rebaptized. And that's the kind of arrogance, pride, and triumphalism I'm trying to put behind me. It says something that the Catholic church, for all its flaws, does not demand that Orthodox converts be reconfirmed or rebaptized, nor does it demand a public renunciation of Orthodoxy. And that doesn't even touch on Orthodoxy's ethnocentrism that often makes outsiders feel unwelcome. I'll always love the ancient beauty of the Orthodox liturgy and its church buildings, but I won't ever be an Orthodox Christian in this lifetime.

Besides, to side with Catholicism is to side with Western civilization. I am a product of the West. As much as I may admire the Eastern church, it's not part of who I am.

And anyway, I know at this point what truly sustains me in my faith life, and that is that I love reading about the life of Christ and honoring his Blessed Mother. I love the Sermon on the Mount, and the rest of the Gospels, and a few other biblical books here and there. (James and 1 John, I'm looking at you. Paul, not so much.) I take great joy in meditating on scripture, and in delving into biblical history, and comparing the nuances of different translations. The geek in me loves that stuff.

The mystic in me sees Mary echoed all throughout the Old Testament, in the words of Sophia and elsewhere, challenging us to find and embrace the nurturing and healing love of the Sacred Feminine that our world so desperately needs.

The ethicist in me, the part of me that wants a fairer, peaceful, more compassionate world, sees conventional wisdom turned on its head in the nonviolent, enemy-loving, power-to-the-powerless teachings of Jesus -- teachings so bold that they could transform our world if we really embraced them. When I see so many Christians praising Jesus with their mouths but dishonoring him with their actions, it is the ability to look past them and go back to Christ's own teachings that keeps me centered.

Besides, in a world where I have an aversion to joining things and embracing other people's truths, I find it remarkable how much I'm down with the Corporate Works of Mercy and with Catholic social teaching. All of it. Not just the abortion stuff -- even though there are plenty of people in Catholic culture who would have you thinking that the church is a single-issue political action committee when it comes to abortion. The way I see it, if "pro-life" doesn't mean all life, then it seems like a pretty empty slogan.

At the same time, I still feel a fondness for the wisdom of the Buddha's Noble Truths, but I don't feel the need to trade in my rosary for a set of mala beads. Thomas Merton embraced the essence of Zen without ever leaving his Catholicism behind. I think he understood that Jesus was, in essence, a Zen Jew. So why go looking for the Zen anywhere else?

Likewise, the Tao Te Ching is probably the most life-changing book I've ever read, but I can embrace Lao-tzu's love of simplicity and nature through the mystics like Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Richard Rohr, and Hildegard of Bingen.

And I love the emphasis on the feminine that the goddesses of the pagan world embody. But I can find all the maternal love I need through devoting myself to the Blessed Virgin and seeking out the nurturing embrace of the feminine through Sophia and Spirit (and yes, I feel fairly confident that the Holy Spirit is a girl).

Mary and Jesus, put simply, are my yin and yang.

I have what I need. It doesn't have to be perfect. I don't even have to like Paul, Augustine, Constantine, or Luther. Because I really don't. And I'm OK with that.

I'm even OK with the fact that most people who call themselves Christians are actually Paulists who reflect Christ's words little, if at all, because they're too busy lifting judgmental quotes from Paul and the Old Testament to stand in self-righteous angry condemnation of the same people Jesus called us to love. It's unfortunate that they are what most people think of when they think of Christians and Christianity, but what can you do, other than try to set a better example?

Likewise, I no longer feel the need to set up an appointment with my priest and introduce myself and bore him with my views and my questions. I always used to need to do that -- to have my voice heard, and to receive some counsel so that maybe I could settle down in one place and be content. Fast-forward to now, and I doubt that I'll ever have a conversation with our priest. And that's OK. He has weddings and funerals, confessions and baptisms, visits to the sick, and a million other things to take care of. He runs a big church. He doesn't need to hear my story. And I don't feel the need to bother him with it.

I also no longer expect to be healed of whatever's wrong with my body. I used to think of God as some kind of wish-granting genie, and I got mad at him when he didn't give me what I wanted, never really considering the fact that it was my job to conform to his will, not to try to bend him to mine. If I suffer, there must be some reason for it. It must be my cross to bear in this life. Why? Maybe to break down my self-centered pride. Who knows. Humility is the queen of virtues, after all.

And to that end, I never really pray for things anymore. If someone asks me to pray for them, I do. But if God already knows what I need and will ultimately dictate the outcome anyway, then most prayer seems futile. The only prayer that seems worthwhile is the one that, again, conforms me to his will. Prayer, then, seems not so much about asking for something as it is about finding peace with whatever our fate may be, for good or ill. It's about submitting, about giving up whatever plans we might have for our own lives. After all, we're promised no tomorrows, and it's awfully arrogant of us to assume we are.

At one time I also would have raised a self-righteous stink about the hoops someone has to jump through to receive rhe same communion that Jesus freely offered at the Last Supper. But my daughter wants to receive communion with me, and so we're jumping through those necessary hoops. Baptism, then confession, then communion. Sometimes it's easiest just to play along. And if my kiddo decides a week before her baptism that she doesn't want to go through with any of it, that's OK too.

Make no mistake: I find closed communion insulting. And I think it's ridiculous that the Catholic church won't ordain women. But the churches I know of that have open communion and ordain women have lots of problems of their own.

There is no perfect place. And once again, that's OK.

Being chill with things isn't like me, but I'm trying. Trying to take things as they happen and not insist on controlling the outcome. It's hard to give up that control, but until you do, until you stop demanding that the world play by your rules, I don't think you ever truly find contentment. Like Lao-tzu, fed up with society and riding off on his water buffalo into the mountains, perhaps it's best just to go one's own way and not concern oneself with what the rest of the world does, or thinks, or expects. Who cares? Let them judge. They'll judge no matter what you do anyway.

Coming to terms with that reality, surely, is the road that leads to peace.

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