Saturday, April 2, 2022

My love-hate relationship with Catholicism

    I am a happy, contented, hopeful woman. But that hasn't always been true. I've been through major depression, trauma, and burnout. I've struggled to understand myself, and accept the challenges of living with my particular neurocognitive quirks. I chose the name "Felicity", not only because I'm happy now, but because my present happiness is such a contrast to the way I used to live. I have reached a point in my life where I want to extend a hand back to people who are struggling like I used to struggle. I want to share what I've learned, but at the same time, I'm not at all sure how to translate my long and winding path to health and happiness into words that others might be able to see themselves in. This blog is largely my attempt to do that.

    One of the first lifelines I found, at my lowest point, at 19 years old, was a 12-step program (offspring of Alcoholics Anonymous) for people with childhood and adolescent trauma. I stayed for two years. That is where I came to believe in -- where I first encountered, viscerally -- God. A God who loves me, who cares what happens to me, who is able and willing to help me to heal and grow and flourish. God, who is always waiting for me when I shut up, get still, and look within. God who speaks to me in the voice of conscience, or intuition, a deep pacific knowing, who soothes me with love, lifts me up and thrills me with infinite possibility. 

    I was not raised religious. I became a Catholic in the first place for the music. The church on the corner, during the time I was first discovering God, had a fantastic gospel choir. I went first to listen, then I joined the choir, then I joined the church. Ironic, since gospel music is not exactly traditionally Catholic. But it is an example of the diversity that is one of the things I value in the Catholic Church, which is Irish and Bolivian, Nigerian and Korean, Bangladeshi and Lebanese, Navajo and Italian, on and on.

    I love the diversity of Catholic tradition, which never seems to throw anything out. It spans the whole 2,000 years from Palestine to Rome, all through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, always threatening to fall apart, always having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a new era, losing or throwing out dissenters at every step in the process, sometimes with blood and fire. And yet at the same time, the mad diversity of tradition in the Church makes space for a surprising variety of heroic nonconformists in every era, including modern saints as diverse as Dorothy Day, Charles de Foucault, Teresa of Calcutta, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. 

    For myself, I find my most natural home in the early Christian monastic tradition of the so-called Desert Fathers and Mothers, a movement centered in Egypt in the 3rd and 4th centuries. I am a monk and a hermit. It's my language, my framework, my lens through which I understand myself and the world. It's how I pray, and how I order my life, and it's "my tribe," the comfort of knowing that however madly counter-cultural it might seem, there are other people in the world who "get" me. The tradition lives on today in the Catholic Church, where it continues to be studied and taken seriously by monks, nuns, and the laypeople linked with monastic communities as oblates or affiliates. I live and breathe a monastic life, and I love it.

    But I can't turn a blind eye to that other face of the Church. The Church that is always being dragged, kicking and screaming, into each new era. The one that always is either excluding people, or people are giving up on in disgust. The institutional Church, the church of the bishops. The one that still, in 2022, hasn't figured out what women are for. That still insists stubbornly that real marriages never actually end, that divorce is an illusion, that a second marriage after divorce can't possibly be real. The one that admits that homosexuality exists -- but calls it "objectively disordered," and absolutely denies that same-sex relationships can be as blessed as heterosexual ones. The one that admits more moral nuance in the questions of war (mass killing) and capital punishment (judicial killing) than abortion (a woman's or girl's dilemma). The same Church that is still reeling from wave after wave of exposures of real sexual sins in its own closet, but still arrogantly condemns normal, healthy, messy adult sexuality. The same Church that is so utterly clueless about women, and yet doesn't hesitate to lash out against those who are questioning the boundaries of gender identity. I chose to be a lay hermit instead of a "consecrated hermit" mostly because I would sooner have punched my local bishop in the face than made a vow of obedience to him -- the guy was front and center in the US bishops' despicable fight against expanding access to affordable health care, because they were so opposed to expanding women's access to birth control.

    I know the distinction between the monastic world and the bishops' church is not black and white. There have been sex-abuse scandals in some monasteries, and there are definitely some progressive bishops out there. But the distinction, if not absolute, is real. You would think that diocesan priests, the ones in the parishes hearing confessions and dealing with all the messiness of ordinary laypeople's lives, would be more sensitive to hard moral questions than celibate monks who spend their whole lives in a same-sex cloister. But in my limited experience, it seems the opposite is true, and I think it must be because the monastery is a community of peers. The parish priest hears all the anguish when a pious parishioner falls in love with the wrong person, or faces some other hard dilemma, but who sees into the pastor's heart? In the cloister, in a reasonably healthy cloister, this little group of women or this little group of men really can't hide from each other, which keeps them from hiding from themselves, either. And as a lot of people found out against their will in the pandemic, a hermit can't hide from herself, either. The result is a kind of humility and realism about human nature that seems to be completely foreign to the Church hierarchy as a whole. 

    I suppose I am just as judgmental about the hierarchy as the hierarchy is about sex and gender. But it's a thing I feel I must say out loud, because I don't want to be associated with attitudes that so many people find genuinely traumatizing. I am Catholic, I live and breathe, eat, drink and sleep Catholic monastic spirituality and psychology and values. That is my private and my public identity; and I do not want the people who are hurt by the toxic self-righteousness of the out-of-touch institutional church to see it and assume that I agree with things I totally reject. I don't want to be part of the problem. I want to be able to share the peace and joy and wisdom I've found in my faith with other people, who may have been through the kinds of painful challenges I've come through. 

    The road I have travelled to get here has twisted and turned, and gone through some pretty dark places, places not approved by narrow Catholic morality. And anyway, I learned about God in a 12-step program. I learned about God from the addicts and alcoholics. I came into the Church in a historically, and still majority, African-American parish, where the margins were always at the center. I learned about faith alongside the people Jesus shared his table with, not at the feet of the Pharisaic teachers he was always at odds with. I learned that lives, that my life, could be completely turned around, and that what it takes is vulnerability, honesty, open-mindedness, and the willingness to keep on showing up. 

    And I don't give a damn how you express your sexuality, except that it be with integrity, mutual respect and self-respect. Or even, just that you recognize where it falls short, and hurt, and want more integrity. My path has led to celibacy and solitude, and I'm very, very happy this way. That's not what I want to talk you into. It's a rare vocation. What I do want for you is to find yourself, and that means the inner voice that is yours alone, and that is all of ours but unique in each of us, that I know as the voice of God. I don't even care if that's what it sounds like to you. It's yours, and no one else's. Not mine, not the bishops', nobody's but yours. Be still, and know.



  1. This is the real Felicity, your last posting wasn't.
    If I dare play older brother:
    - Don't shoot all your ammunition at once. Keep some in reserve to maintain some sort of blogging regularity.
    - You're well on the way, but don't think you've arrived yet. There are likely to be some difficult twists and turns still.

    P.S. Did I tell you that I have been offered priesthood if they can get me out of the Russian Church.

  2. Michael, nice to know you're reading this! Thanks for the feedback. I will e-mail you. You did tell me about your news. I hope it will come through for you! That's huge.