Two years ago today, with the helpful n of my fraternity Brother Joe on my shoulder, Fr Michael officially welcomed me into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. By her own teaching, I’ve been Catholic since 2002 when Fr Victor gave me the sacrament of Chrismation, but I was “not in full communion”. While there are vagueries of theology that may not interest the non-Christian, and while there are similarities in politics that may not let the outsider see any difference at all, yet perhaps to other sheep, all sheep do not look alike.
I still can’t put my finger on it.
I’ve made so many friends, found so many locals, both in the spiritual and the physical way. In my rooted, Benedictine desire to be a San Franciscan, I’m not alone. To be clear, I’ve discovered that Stability and Spiritual growth are somehow connected. My peripatetic past notwithstanding, it seems important to be here now, to be Catholic in the Local, to incarnate in the scandal of particularity the universal truth of the faith.
How’s that read?
What I mean is I think I spent 50 years running hither and thither as an Orthoneo-Episcopagan Hedonist just to finally land as a rooted lay monastic in San Francisco. Somehow it’s all connected: location, vocation, and salvation. If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there I never really lost it to begin with.
Catch me now while I’m still in the crazy, honeymoon phase, but I think of 2002, when I was leaving ECUSA and didn’t want to go RC, because they were just on the edge of chaos, or so I felt. 15 years later I could see that American Orthodoxy and American Catholicism were not that far apart…
But I lament something else.
I hear folks at Church who have known each other since Catholic Kindergarten and I lament not having been raised there. Even in the Archdiocese of SF, one of the largest in the world, folks you can’t talk to someone very long without finding out they went to school just over there with everyone else. And as welcoming as literally everyone everywhere is to converts (unlike Orthodoxy, to be honest) it’s hard to still feel on the outside sometimes: to not know the lingo, to not have experienced the history (even if one knows it).
This is not a case of “I wish I had been raised in SF…” for this is true everywhere. I’m reading a book on the history of the Courage apostolate in 1980 in the Archdiocese of NY. You can tell the same thing was going on there. I’ve known Catholics from New Jersey and western NY express the same thing. I hear the same things about Denver as I’m listening to the Catholic Stuff podcast.
It’s a gigantic church – world wide is the meaning of Catholic – but locally it’s always very intimate. It’s a village, here, right now. And I’m fully integrated into it. But I lament not having been so since childhood. I feel like I missed something. Methodists are not like this. Nor are Episcopalians. I think the Greek Orthodox are like this, but I don’t know. And maybe the Arab Orthodox? But it also seems like those communities have “the old country” roots on their minds. The Catholic Church is here and now… here it is a village. Here, now, there are roots. Here, now it’s Catholic. People move from Catholic Australia to Catholic San Francisco and plug in: same memories, different places.
I realized a while ago that there’s a reason for spaghetti dinner on Sunday: you can set the sauce to cook in the oven, on by the fire, or in a crock pot without breaking the pre communion fast. Grandma or Momma can set everything up and walk away… come back after Mass, a feast is ready for the family after boiling the water. I can imagine that there are other such food traditions that make so much sense in the light of piety… cioppino, fish fries, pretzels… monastic beer… I was raised in a culture devoid of active piety.
And I’m thankful to be here now… but envious of not having had it before. I know there are things like this in Orthodoxy, but I never lamented their loss or my missing them. Nearly everyone I knew was randomly cobbling together something new from old things. Here… I have a spiffy new suit, yes, but everyone else has well warn, comfortable garments. They are not threadbare, they are equally spiffy. But they don’t look new or out of place.
There’s always something new to plug in to. There’s always something new to connect with: the connection is never refused, but it’s like discovering you had always been homesick for exactly this. And you could have done this a while ago.
Catch me now in my honeymoon phase. I may later complain about isolation and religious neophobia. But right now, I just wish I had gone to Catholic School.
Antiphon: God, bless the broken road that led me straight to you.
In your baptism, O Christ, our God, you opened the pathway of initiation for us, into your Mysteries. I thank you for all who have moved me along this path, awkward and jerking though I have been. I’ve been on my way in for so long. And I have to thank those men who held the door open: the Pastor at the Marietta Baptist Tabernacle that wouldn’t know a trinity from a hole in the ground, and did it all wrong… but he taught me how to swim. And Pastor Pinto who gave me communion first. And Jim Lowery who got me wet again – this time in all the right names, and it stuck… Then Paul Moore with Henrician hands, but wait we’ll try again. And Bill Swing, who welcomed me back into Christ’s flock after I had gone a Paganing. And then Father Victor, who Confessed, Chrismated, and Absolved me into the Church Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. There was another turn unexpected, and Father Michael welcomed me into communion with Peter. God, bless the broken road that led me straight to you.
At the wedding, O Christ, you changed the water into wine. The things we offer are not divine, but what we offer in good faith, you take, and change, and elevate. And all the things I thought I’d have to carry all this way, you let me drop. All the things that were not according to your plan. But each one taught me by not being yours, each one held me in arms that were not love… but so nearly there… that I could not but keep looking, more and more, in the right direction. Do what ever he tells you, and you said, love… and I tried loving and even through I was wrong, you took it – and drew it deeper into yourself, the jars were full, the guests were drunk: and you brought out the best wine last. God, bless the broken road that led me straight to you.
In preaching and proclaiming the kingdom, O Christ, you laid out in words, in simple human terms, the divine truths of all time. And I would be woefully arrogant if I did not know and see all the places you have taught me. I would not be me if it were not for Pastor Pinto, Pastor Lowery, Jeanette and David, my Sunday School teachers, these people gave me love for the Bible. And Pastor Lowery opened the door to John Wesley’s writings – and they, in turn, showed me the Church Fathers. And Mr Witkowsky opened my high school brain to history, and Dr Carlson confirmed the Freshman me in those mysteries. Jim Carse showed me the Tao and Games, and Frank Peters (SJ) showed me the Torah and the Church. Nina and then Starhawk danced me round the spiral for ten years, then Shadwynn called a change and Donald and Rick brought me back to Christ. And then they again opened to me the Fathers as well: and so out again to Fr Victor and Fr Joseph, to a wider Dance with Sare and Cam. In the end, though, stumbling along, it was Steve and Steve and Mom and Dad pointing the way. Then Michael. And again Father Michael, and last, my little brother, Joey… God, bless the broken road that led me straight to you.
On the Mountain, your truth was revealed. All things that are, are yours. Nothing that is isn’t yours. Only, without you, nothing alone is strong. Your light is all – and there is naught but darkness where you are not. And by your light, we see light everywhere. And so I can thank you deeply, that I have known the joys of all the wrong places, and I have known those pains as well. I have never once stopped looking, but you were always further along, just a light around the corner. A couple of times I thought, let me rest here… but no, the light was higher up the mountain; further up, and further in. You were in the cloud and I, unknowing, stumbled right into your arms. God, bless the broken road that led me straight to you.
Bread and wine are your body and blood. And Christ, there, is the mystery in sum. The things of this earth are made divine – see it in water, see it in the wedding, see it in the words we use to proclaim you, see it by your light in all light: this broken world, is transubstantiated by your grace. The whole damned thing is lifted up and blessed and broken, and it is you that we receive when we take it up in love. Every fracture, every quake, every tear, every wet eye, sobbing lung, and running nose, is held up in your hands, every broken heart is not healed but rather is iconified by the offering, made into your image which is the only true image there ever was, is, or ever can be. What is not you is not. And under the weaving of failure, runs the water of blessing, changed into the wine of love. Under the waving of the rotted grains of earth is the bread of heaven – and the whiskey of life. You, God, this broken road, is your narrow path destroyed by us in our pride, and damning ourselves to walk the other way, you went behind us and said, “boo”. Interception! God, bless the broken road that led me straight to you.
Preparing to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ on Saturday Night, gathered in one room, not knowing it about each other, were:
A Fraternity Brother whom I’ve known for 30 years.
A Coworker whom I hadn’t met yet.
A Goddaughter from the Orthodox Church, and her husband, now returned home.
A musician with enough Anglican History to pick all the right sort of music and keep me singing most of the night.
Two people with whom I’ve spoken maybe 20 words? Who had a gift for me I wasn’t expecting.
A man with a bad pun on my name.
A whole lot of new friends I didn’t know I had.
Quite a lot I already knew.
That, in a nutshell, has been my experience of the Catholic Church. “Here comes everybody.” The Anglican, Prot, Eastern, Benedictine, Marian… all meet here. And some new things: the Courage Apostolate, the Angelic Warfare Confraternity, the Jesus Psalter. I used to be afraid of Dominicans… cuz of the Inquisition, you know. I didn’t know my family included a Catholic martyr. The number of Lapsed Catholics – or as my friend, Bernardo says, “Collapsed Catholics” – that are in my life is astounding. Everything is here.
There are good places and bad places in the Church. There are good and bad people. There are corners of Mother Church that are nuttier than the darkest pools of Orthodox Converts on the internet; there are folks more triumphalist and sectarian than the bazillion Holy Remnant “True Churches” of Orthodoxy. Yet there is a wideness in God’s Mercy, and a depth in the Church that cannot be obscured by the shallow bywaters. For every Saint Maria of Paris there is a Dorothy Day, for every Czar Martyr Nicholas, there is a St Louis. There’s something else as well: I can’t put my finger on it. Only half-jokingly it seems, Tu Es Petros really is a thing, after all.
Maybe it’s just sheer numbers for in Russia or Greece it must be the same for the Eastern Church. Orthodoxy preaches the same divinely revealed moral teachings as the Roman Church. Yet in this country she rarely gets accused (other than by her own members) of interfering in modern secular “values” and “moral choices”. Orthodoxy is “Mystical” whereas the Catholic Church is political and scary. Those politics can be viewed as isolated from the Church’s Doctrines and thus as “Left” or “Right”. Or they can be taken as an integral whole and seen as transcending earthly partisanship. But these political actions can (nearly) never be confused with “mystical” and “spiritual but not religious”, therefore, “safe” for the modern world.
Perhaps in Russia or Greece, she does hospitals and orphanages and food for the poor. I say “perhaps” but I’m reasonably certain of it. Were I in Russia, it’s Catholicism that would be the Boutique. Here, it’s hard for a member of the Orthodox Parish Council to donate a sign to hang outside with service times for fear the wrong sort of people will come in the door.
Some would say I’ve left the Boutique and gone to Wal*Mart. But the grace is no less dearly given, nor the piety less deeply prayed, the teachings no less strongly struggled for or lived. The podcasts tend to be about beer, politics, and birthin’ babies. The priests tend to sound rather like Bros and Bubbas. Or – and I’m hella lucky here – Surfer Dudes.
I’m on Aisle 42, near the avocados, hunting camo, and inflatable pools. I’m trying to engage the culture and learn New Evangelism, Theology of the Body, and Rosary-based-but-not-the-Rosary forms of prayer.
At RCIA we discussed sex and sexuality. What an interesting thing, in the context of (Adult and Teen) confirmation class, to have an entire session devoted to sex. I say interesting because I think in 12 years I’ve heard the topic come up only a couple of times, and never as the main topic of teaching. It was certainly never touched on in adult classes. Archbishop Benjamin once mentioned marriage in a sermon that was on the topic of “we will never change our teaching” but without talking about what that teaching actually was.
Anyway: Father started with Does the Church say sex is good or bad? Uncomfortable laughing. No really, he asked again. Finally getting a few answers, he said that the Church teaches sex is holy, a Divine gift. From the beginning of the human story the first commandment is to participate in God’s bringing forth life. My brain wafted off on a meditation then. The issue is not sin or evil sex, then, but rather the constant essay at desacralizing sex. We just want it to be fun, useful, no more nor no less what we want it to be. It’s taking the leavened Lamb of the Byzantine Liturgy, after the anaphora, and slicing it up, serving it with butter, lemon curd, and tea.
Amusingly: there are those Christians who would do that to the communion bread. They also don’t think sex should be held that way either. This is the real issue. We live in a world that tries to define Sacred beyond its properly described boundaries. That is the only issue around sex.
But it is not the only place this same issue comes up.
I had a conversation once with my housemate in Astoria, NY. We were walking home from “the bars” at 4:30 or 5:00 AM on a Saturday. We were talking about a song that was running through my head from a TV show I’d seen once in childhood. I couldn’t remember the rest of the show – and he couldn’t place it from the fragment I had in my head (it’s in the video below). But I pointed out to him that it came up whenever something was “impossible” but I knew it wasn’t. I took it as a sign that things would be ok. He looked me square in the face and said,”There has to be something in your life that doesn’t mean something else.” In fact, there is nothing of the sort. Nor, until recently, did I know that this was the case for anyone. I just assumed that for most of us the issues was disagreeing about what things meant. Evidently, for some folks sex (and other things) only mean the thing itself.