Saturday, April 2, 2011

what I think about when I think about faith, part 2


After spending 12 years in public school, I decided that I wanted something different. When I started researching schools, I focused mainly on Christian colleges.

I ended up going to Eastern University for a few reasons. The first was practical: I got a full-tuition scholarship from them. I also got into their honors college, which was, in part, a Great Books program. Plus, every other Christian college I visited had some sort of chapel requirement, as in "you must go to chapel x many times per semester." Eastern doesn't have that; whether you go to chapel or to any other group is entirely voluntary.

And then there were the other reasons. Eastern has a reputation for turning out alumni who tend to be on the...I guess you'd call them the radical side. I actually had friends whose churches warned them against coming to Eastern, because it was too "liberal" (I snicker at this now). When I started college in 2002, Tony Campolo was probably the school's most famous alumnus/professor. In any case, they have a focus on social justice and social action, which is what I wanted.

In general, college was tumultuous for me. But, besides that, it shaped me in important ways; I think it would be safe to say that I'd be in a very different place now if I hadn't gone to Eastern.

Perhaps the most important thing I did was to join a group called YACHT: Youth Against Complacency and Homelessness Today. I've written about this before, here and here. The short version of this: we hung out with homeless people. YACHT was the brainchild and spawn back in 1997 of a group of people who eventually became the simple way community in Kensington (in North Philly). (My claim to fame? During my freshman year, I broke my elbow at the simple way--I fell off a ladder while I was sanding the ceiling.) I eventually ended up living for a year at the simple way's sister house in Camden, but that comes much later.

I want to say that hanging out with people who are homeless shaped me spiritually as well as politically. Homelessness and poverty are complicated issues, much more complicated than "get off your ass and get to work," which never fails to infuriate me. Spiritually, what I wanted to do then, what I still want to do now, is to take Christ's words about the poor seriously: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. And for me, those things pretty much defined what I did in college, or at least every Saturday morning during the semester.

It was hard for me to go into the city, hang out with people whom I knew would be huddling in the subways or going to a shelter, and then go back to my cushy dorm room on the Main Line. But that's what I did, what I had to do, unless I wanted to drop out of college and become a modern-day St. Francis. And I was too academic for that: besides my burning desire to save the whole fucking world (okay, so I was an idealistic 19-year-old), I also wanted to read and to learn and to comprehend everything.

So that was a big part of life for me. But there was also trying to figure out where I belonged within Christianity. During the first part of my freshman year, I stuck to what I knew and ended up going to churches that had the same type of feel as my church at home. It didn't take me long to realize that I needed something else.  I also stopped going to chapel after my freshman year, and stopped going to Sunday night worship after my sophomore year because of the same things: I couldn't escape the itchy, scratchy get-me-outta-here feeling I had whenever I went. In fact, the times I went to chapel after my freshman year were when YACHT did their Homelessness and Hunger Awareness chapel (because I usually helped organize it) or when Betsy Morgan, my favorite professor, spoke.

I flirted with Calvinism for a while before I realized that it was way, way too deterministic for me.
I also went to Circle of Hope for a while during my freshman and sophomore years. Circle's an interesting place, and they do a lot of good things, although it's changed quite a bit from when I went there (it was definitely a storefront church back then). They're loosely affiliated with the Brethren-in-Christ, which is traditionally a  Anabaptist denomination--if I'm getting my history right, they came out of the Mennonites.

And then a friend of mine invited me to Mass. Most of my extended family is Catholic, so I'd spent a lot of time when we visited family going to Mass and being utterly confused. I'd heard a lot of contempt for the way that Catholicism allowed "nominalism" and "cultural Catholicism"--which, basically, are the terms evangelicals use to describe people who go to church on Christmas and Easter. (Nominalism is also a philosophy that rejects either abstract objects or universals; that's not what we're talking about here.) And then there was the contempt for "rites and rituals," because, for some reason, these were seen as meaningless.

To my surprise, I went to Mass and didn't find it meaningless. I found, instead, that by guiding me through the rituals, by allowing me to kneel, stand, sit, pray, it allowed me to focus; I could believe without having an overwhelming emotional experience. And I liked that. One of my old housemates (who wasn't Catholic) said that he thought that the Mass was an emotional experience. I would say, instead, that it allows for emotion but doesn't require it. I liked that it existed outside of my own body. I didn't have to manufacture some sort of feeling in order to worship. I like the way Deird at the Slacktiverse puts it:

"I have learnt, very slowly, that my soul is affected by my body. That external manifestations of worship aren’t a distraction; they’re a necessity."

I think that describes my experience fairly well.

I think, partially, that evangelicals don't understand Catholics because their understanding of the Eucharist is so different. Take that with a grain of salt, because I obviously have not talked to all of the evangelicals in the world. But I know that, growing up, no one ever explained the differences between low-church Protestants and Catholics (and high-church Protestants) to me, so the whole Mass seemed completely foreign. But, in any case, in the Mass, the high point is the Eucharist; in an evangelical service, it's the sermon. For an evangelical, communion is a symbol; it's a representation of Christ's sacrifice. For a Catholic, bread and wine are body and blood; the congregation participates in Christ's sacrifice. And so in the Mass, the ritual's important. It's central to what you do.

I often joke that I became Catholic because of Dorothy Day and Flannery O'Connor. I am certainly inspired by these two women--Dorothy Day, who fought against oppression and poverty and once said, "Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system," who believed in the kingdom of God--that, as Jim Forest, a friend of hers, once wrote, "Justice begins on our knees." And then there's O'Connor, who writes brilliantly about the grotesque and the tragic and the comic all at once. She once wrote to a Calvinist friend of hers, saying,

“I don't think of conversion as being once and for all and that’s that. I think once the process is begun and continues that you are continually turning inward toward God and away from your own egocentricity, and that you have to see this selfish side of yourself in order to turn away from it. I measure God by everything I am not. I begin with that.”

Oh! There we go, I remember thinking when I read this. Conversion as process: this is what I was missing in the evangelical churches I'd gone to. This changed me a lot, I think, when I realized that the once-and-for-all idea of salvation was so different from the way I thought about it, as an everyday process, a lifelong journey, if you will.

I started RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) during my junior year, sort of as a dipping-my-toes-in thing. It was a long process for me. I went abroad during the second half of my junior year, so I actually stopped RCIA and then started it up again during my senior year. I was confirmed the week after Easter (it's usually on Easter, but I was up in MA with family on Easter). I took Clare, as in Clare of Assisi, for my confirmation name.

The Roman Catholic Church has a long, bloody, sometimes horrid, sometimes wonderful history. It has a sometimes horrid, sometimes wonderful present. And I say that because I realize that, as a member, I'm culpable in that. It's a struggle for me sometimes to think about this, because I'm naturally suspicious of authority--my dad, when I was becoming Catholic, said to me, "But you're so anti-authoritarian!"  I often disagree with the Church's stance on things. Maybe that makes me a bad Catholic, but as I've said before, I hope it still makes me a decent person. What I've also realized is that the Church is a huge organization that moves very very slowly. At a snail's pace, if you will. Look how long it took them to allow the vernacular into the Mass--although I really love Latin; perhaps if I were forced to hear it, I wouldn't love it so much. So, yes. Call me contradictory or something. I don't know. I'm still figuring this out.

I'm going to stop here, for this post. I have post-college stories to tell, but they will have to wait.


  1. Very interesting, Sarah, and a lot more cogent than I think you're giving yourself credit for. I've been thinking about my own spiritual journey a good amount lately, and you're inspiring me to at least think about putting it into a written narrative. Oh, how we love to try and make sense of our lives through stories.

    And, you'll be the first blog link on my new one!

  2. In my experience, the Catholics who only go to church twice a year are regarded by the rest of the community as unfortunate, but better that than not going to church at all - the priest might try to encourage them to turn up at other times, but I've never met a Catholic community that has the strong binary membership idea (i.e. you're formally "part of this church" or not, rather than just being someone who turns up regularly) that one meets in many American-Christian denominations.

  3. @Mark: Thanks! Glad you're getting stuff out of this. I always struggle when I try to make sense of my life. Writing it sometimes helps.
    I'll add you to my blog roll, too.

    @Firedrake: Yeah, now that I've been part of Catholic communities, I can see that. I think, also, what I was hearing was from youth group members/leaders who thought that the Catholic Church wasn't doing a great job of teaching kids and teens about their faith. I guess that varies from parish to parish, though.

  4. Garsh, I commend you for undertaking the task of writing all this out. If I tried to do the same for my life (and this is inspiring me to), I can't imagine how long it would be.

    I guess I still consider myself Catholic, but I feel quite at home among the Episcopalians I've been sojourning with lately. St. David's in Austin is a quite wondrous place, in that they are genuinely trying to build something that's the model of the kingdom of heaven. It's far from perfect, but they don't pretend for a moment that it is.

    Among all other virtues, I am coming to value that humility the most.

  5. @Rebecca: Well, writing all of this out is sorta slow-going, and, as I'm sure you can see, I'm leaving all sorts of stuff out in order to focus on things that are pertinent to the topic at hand.

    I'm glad St. David's is a good place for you. Sacred Heart in Camden is like that for me, but I rarely get over there. That bridge is such a barrier...

  6. Sarah
    I found your writing inspirational and informative. Thank you for taking me on your past journey. I always wonder what happened to "our kids" after we left Massachusetts. It is disheartening to hear how Chapel of the Cross changed. I have lots of fond memories of youth group with Matt B. So does Steve.
    Take care -Susan
    I now have a son who is in youth group .... how time does fly.
    You are a marvelous writer. Keep at it!