This is the second post in a series that I am writing about my reversion process. The first post, which introduces the series and lists the first reason, can be found here. The title of the series is hopefully self-explanatory: I decided that my reasons for reverting to Catholicism were too many, too juicy even, to list in a single blog post.
Darling reader, thanks for sticking with me through this. My second reason for reverting to Catholicism is, predictably, belonging. Belonging is a word that encompasses several other concepts, most importantly community and identity. I touched on my longing for community and cultural identity in my spiffy inaugural post about veiling. The word belonging contains these concepts because belonging assumes that there is a community to belong to in the first place and that in belonging to that community, we find identity.
In 2011 or 2012, I began a peaceful friendship with a woman who, like me, loved to knit. We would get together to talk tea and fiber arts. We spent an awful lot of time talking about how depressing it was to be a Floridian knitter. As I grew closer to her, I learned more about her faith, which from my perspective, was enviably solid. I can remember one conversation in particular, in which she confidently told me that her husband felt called by God to move further North, where the soil was blacker, richer, worth working. She added with a shrug, “When I tell people that he feels called by God it freaks them out, but it wouldn’t be weird at all if I said ‘He feels like The Universe wants him to do this.'”
I had to agree, it did seem somehow more acceptable to speak openly about The Universe and the way in which she works in our lives. Speaking about God, on the other hand, especially a personal God, sent up red flags for many left-leaning, hippie/hipster types who considered themselves to be intellectuals. (I’m not making fun of anyone here. I am basically referring to myself.)
My friend is a Messianic Christian, meaning that for her, Christianity exists within the context of ancient Judaism. Some Messianics are ethnically Jewish and refer to themselves as Messianics or Messianic Jews, while those of Gentile decent assert that they are grafted into the tribe of Israel because of their faith and are known instead as Messianic Christians. Both Jewish-born and Gentile-born Messianics observe age-old Jewish traditions and holidays while still upholding Yeshua (Jesus) to be the Messiah. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are sacred. They do not use contemporary Christian customs that were borrowed from paganism, such as decorating a Christmas tree or hunting for eggs at Easter, nor do they celebrate the Christian holidays that many believe to have been concocted, choosing instead to stick with the Jewish feasts of the bible.
I found all of this fascinating! Situating Jesus within the context of Judaism gave Christ a much needed exotic makeover. Certain Christian teachings seemed to make more sense to me when placed within that mystical, earthy Jewishness. Jesus as a radical first century Jew was definitely way more interesting to me than the cartoonish blue-eyed white guy typically depicted here in the South. The Christianity I was familiar with up until that point often seemed empty, even compulsory. I fully acknowledge that my perceptions of Christianity were generally tainted by closed-mindedness on the subject. I had all sorts of negative assumptions about Christians, most of which I am embarrassed to share because they are so ignorant. For me, the Jesus-as-shepherd analogy was all too apt. Jesus seemed like more of a cheesy punchline than a risen God and as far as I could tell, gathered at his feet were a bunch of rule-loving sheep.
But I enjoyed hearing about my friend’s faith because I recognized the strength it gave her. I didn’t think these conversations would affect my own spirituality in the long run, I knew that I would never be strictly Christian. And yet I can look back and see that something was opening in me at that time. I wasn’t truly conscious of it, but something in me was opening up to the beauty of the Abrahamic traditions, which I had always written off as too oppressive and patriarchal to be worth considering. Without being fully conscious of it, I was noticing and appreciating how my friend’s faith seemed to inform her every decision. I was particularly envious of how she was able to rest in the simple laws and customs of the tradition she belonged to, how it gave her a sense of security, community and identity. Meanwhile, I myself was flailing about like a fish washed ashore, flopping all over the place, forever waffling on every belief, completely unrestrained by dogma and yet surely suffocating in that wide, boundary-less space.
It was around that time that my desire to belong to a specific faith tradition really caught flame. It had been there for most of my life but the drive for it was only increasing with each passing day. I wanted to give my girls the option of a particular religion. Just the option was enough: I couldn’t imagine myself ever heaving my faith upon them in an overbearing way, but it did seem to me that a happy medium was possible.
Several of my favorite, brainy lady friends asked why I needed to join a religion at all. Why pick one house of worship when God can be found in so many varied places? Why get tied down? I could write an essay just answering these questions, but my goal here is to circle back to belonging, that word that I wrote at the top of this page. The quickest answer to my friends questions is that I wanted to belong to Something, not to everything.
I live in an area with a high population of Mennonite families. I love the gentle folk: my neighbors are polite, hardworking, and they never turn my husband in for butchering chickens and doing other weird rednecky things in our backyard. I don’t know as much about Mennonites as I should but since I have lived among them for quite some time now, I know a little bit. I know what the men and women wear. I know how to tell the married from the unmarried. I know that they ride bikes everywhere, in spite of age or weight. I know that they tackle projects together as a community. You don’t have to be an expert in Mennonite culture to know that these are the things that Mennonites do. Mennonites have a culture all their own.
I am not a Mennonite, this fact should be obvious. Clearly thats not my tribe. I cross myself when I get on the highway because thats what Catholics do. I drink wine. I know the entire mythology of the Kennedy family. I have always collected rosaries. These days, I pray for Mary’s intercession and I study the Saints. These are tribal things, things that may seem too widespread or watered down to be called tribal, or maybe too clunky and dusty and grandmotherly, and yet that is exactly what they are: they are cultural practices that root us in a given community. They are little symbols that offer us the familiarity and comfort that becomes belonging.
Couldn’t I belong somewhere else?
I don’t pretend to be the most worldly person. But because I have always been a seeker, I’ve exposed myself to a variety of beautiful spiritual traditions. I have loved attending zikr with the Sufis, chanting in Arabic until long after sundown, a little lost in the scent of incense and longhaired men. Then it would end and I would say to myself: that was stunning
but it was not mine.
I’ve attend a shaman-led, Navajo style Mother Blessing and called the guardian spirits of each direction in a tent that smells like tobacco and sweat. And I have left there thinking: that was gorgeous, but
it was not mine.
In college, I went to a Hindu service, prepared to be totally miffed by the fact that men and women were required to sit separately. Instead I left there well-fed and overjoyed and I said to myself that was phenomenal, good God, the chanting and the saris and the fire and the curry, the delicious, glorious curry! But, again:
My husband and I recently crashed a Jewish event by accident. It was Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for the trees. The Rabbi’s wife asked us at the entrance, “But are you Jewish?” She was trying to figure out why we were even there, how we had even heard about this closed event. In the end, they let us in and we ate bagels and the Rabbi told an excellent story about a little tree who wanted stars on her branches, and I thought: these Jews are so smart and that Rabbi with his Prius is so chill but,
this is not mine.
Singing Kýrie eléison at Mass, my girls are all in. Even the little tone-deaf one-year-old.They may be crawling around the pew by the time we get to the Eucharist, but they are fully present for the Kýrie that opens the Mass, they are on it like white on rice. My three year-old loves the high drama, the way the soprano sings first then raises her hands to invite us to echo her. And there are so many people. There are so many people singing. Their voices are at once mournful and bright, echoing those anciently sweet and sorrowful notes, sung in whatever minor key, in a language that I believe is Greek and I wonder, how many people can this be? How many people are in this room and how big is this room? And how many rooms full of how many people are singing Kýrie eléison together with my little girls today, and how many people in how many rooms for how long, for how many centuries? And the very thought of this is like a balm. I close my eyes and I sing this thought without having to think it. I don’t fully understand the Penitential Rite or the Mass as a whole, for that matter. It’s possible that I never will. Still I am enraptured by the ceremony. Maybe I just walked into the right church when I decided to check out a Mass for the first time in 20 years. But it wasn’t until I got there, until I sang the Kýrie and Gloria and Hosanna with that many people, that I knew how lonely I was before.
I don’t think belonging is something that happens in a moment, it is not something we can plug into immediately, effortlessly. It is something we build upon. And yet the seed of it should be there, if we are indeed in the right place, we should catch that snug feeling that will in time become belonging. And then even if it is all brand new, there is still something achingly familiar about the newness that can finally, blissfully be called mine.
(The very authentic photo of Miss Rosa Maeve and her bag of plantain chips at the beginning of this post was taken by my dear friend Maria Levitov. Her album is lovely, y’all, and so is her photography.)