What Are We?

How to explain the inexplicable? It never ceases to amaze me how people of faith relate to their respective traditions. What thrills one, is anathema to another.

For one, the simplicity of the Quaker meeting room invites a strong presence of God, for others, like myself, nothing less than the full panoply of art and ritual will suffice.

This perhaps pertains to my earliest experiences as a child. I believe my first real church experience was attending a Catholic mass with my neighbors. The mother and several daughters went to St. Agnes in Flint. I was invited along, being probably ten or so.

I will never forget the splendor and mystery and magic of the place. Although it was summer and full daylight, inside it was dark. Filled with stained glass all around. It smelled different as well. Exotic would be the way I would describe it.

Women, dressed in long black dresses and long black headdresses walked about. When things began, the music was like no other I had ever heard. Deep, ponderous, and the voices rose in a crescendo of foreign words and phrases. Marching down the aisle were men, also dressed in a regalia of regal, long gowns. One carried a vessel from which smoke flowed. Golden crosses and boys with various other ornaments proceeded forth.

The altar area, still facing the wall, was alit with candles. People knelt and rose, and made crosses upon their bodies. They uttered unfamiliar words, and others responded, all in sing-song chants. I knew the language not, though it was of course Latin.

It all went on for a very long time and then people filed forward to open their mouths and have deposited upon their tongues “something.” They knelt and crossed, and what I later learned was genuflection.

None of this was really explained to me, but I pondered it for some time. Finding it all fascinating. When I asked why we didn’t go to “mass” I was told, “Because we are not Catholic.”

“What are we?”

“Methodist.” This was a lie, but I did not know.

Over the years to come, into my teens I was to have other Catholic friends. I marveled and asked curious questions about rosary beads, and white confirmation bibles, and mantillas, and missals. Nobody as I recall, seemed much interested in answering me. Taking for granted, what I began to secretly yearn for.

At fifteen, I decided to explore “my” faith tradition. I walked the half mile to a Methodist church one Sunday, dressed in my best. I entered and sat. I was encouraged to sign a book, and put money in a tray. I sang songs from a hymnal, and I listened to a man drone on interminably long about subjects that made little sense to me. We sang some more, and I went home.

I was very disappointed. I would remain so as the years went by. I envied my Catholic friends and so yearned to be like them. No one ever told me I could, except by some process whereby I must spend years sitting in the priest’s office answering questions and listening. Not true of course, but I had no way of knowing. It all seemed too daunting to me. And I knew of no one who had done so, and what does a young girl do on her own about things like that?

Not until I was in my 40’s did I mention this to a colleague of mine. “I wish I were Catholic,” I mused. She replied, “So become one.”

“But don’t you have to jump through a lot of hoops?”

“Yeah, so what? If you want to be Catholic, then go through it. You don’t have to BELIEVE everything you know, just go along with the program. Nobody believes all that junk. Everybody uses birth control even though we aren’t supposed to.”

Not the best of advice, but age had given me courage. So I called.

Wouldn’t you just know that I called smack dab in the middle of Lent. Sister Doris gently suggested that I might call her back after Easter when things were a bit less hectic. She took my name and number, evidence to me, that she would call me, if I failed. In the meantime, she encouraged me to start attending Mass.

So I did. And I went through the Catechumenate from September until the following June. And I loved it, and I love my Church, and I was the best Catholic in the world, as most new converts are. And I wanted to be a nun.

And then. Well, shit happens. . . .

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