Friday, December 14, 2012

8 Years as a Catholic

This past Wednesday was the eighth anniversary of my Baptism, Confirmation and first Eucharist. I still regularly surprise people who don't expect me to be a convert.They say I fit in way too much. I guess that's a compliment.

So, how did I get there? I was raised in a family that was largely non-religiously affiliated. My parents both felt like they had been forced to go to church as children and they didn't want to do the same thing to their kids. We celebrated Christmas and Easter, although the religious meanings of the holidays weren't high-lighted. I wouldn't say they were all about Santa and the Easter Bunny though. We weren't materialistic like that. I would say that my parents emphasized the family togetherness above everything else. Somehow, although I never went to church, it was engrained in me that there was a God and that God was infinitely loving and forgiving. I've tried out a number of different religions, but I've never questioned that fact.

I was a very religiously precocious child. I remember asking whether Adam and Eve were apes when I was in early elementary school. Every year when my mom took out the nativity set, I would play with it with my Happy Meal figurines making up my own stories about what happened. Some of my earliest memories are of meditating in my backyard trying to become one with everything. Well before the age of ten, I was already conversant in the belief of reincarnation and astrology.

When I was in third grade, one of my grandmothers died suddenly in a car accident. Her husband had always adored me and my parents let me spend a lot of time with him to help him through the loss. I wasn't the only person helping him through the loss and he remarried three years later. His new wife's church became his whole life. He practically lived at that church. He was there for several hours every evening and on Sundays singing and listening to fire and brimstone sermons and participating in altar calls. They called themselves "Southern Baptists" and their God was going to damn to hell any non-white, non-straight person who did not go to their specific church building in southwest Missouri. He started to intensely believe in this angry, vengeful God and he did everything he could to make sure I was saved. In the meantime, my other grandmother died and he told me she was in hell because she didn't go to his church (I think she was Presbyterian). I associated all this hate with the Christian God and if this was what the Christian God looked like, I didn't want to have anything to do with Him.
My grandfather would fit right in.

I looked into Buddhism and practiced it for a while. I took a quiz on Beliefnet that suggested that I might be a Unitarian Universalist, so I tried on that label for a while. I had a number of really good, really meaningful experiences as I explored my own spirituality. Due to my experiences with my grandfather, I didn't want to have anything to do with anything connected to Christianity. As such, I was part of the outsider/weirdo crowd in high school. And as part of that crowd, I gradually found myself more and more surrounded by practitioners of Wicca/Neo-paganism. I discovered that I liked that belief system and in February of 2003, I officially started my year and a day of study toward becoming an official witch as part of the coven of the guy I was dating. I graduated high school later that spring and I started college that fall.


In October of 2003 (I believe it was the 12th) I went to my first Catholic Mass. My first semester of college was very hard for me. I was away from everyone I had ever known. I could not do the caliber of work that was expected of me. I tried to be a physics major and my first physics professor was a nightmare. Someone I knew fairly well committed suicide. One of the main bright spots in my life was my World Religions class. For that class, the main project was to go to a religious service in a religion you had no prior exposure to. Now, one thing you need to know about my college, Truman State University, is that it is a dumping ground for all, and I mean all, of the Catholic private high schools in St. Louis. I was one of only two or three non-Catholics on my floor in the dorm. So, I decided to go to Mass with some of my new floormates.

[As a side note, while all of this was going on, I was experimenting with Christianity. I was not intending to convert. It was just that since I was so far away from my old life, I wanted to prove to myself that everything my grandfather did no longer had any power over me.]

So, it was a Sunday evening. I sat down in the back near the door. It was at the Catholic Newman Center so it wasn't really a traditional church. Mass was held in a multi-purpose room using a wooden portable altar and plastic stackable chairs. I had a notebook and pen with me and I remember one of the first notes I made was, "What is up with the boards with numbers on them?"(You know, the ones that have the song numbers on them.) Throughout the service, I had no clue what was going on. But I felt like I belonged. I felt like God was calling me to join the Church.


I was upset. I ran off to the sunken garden on campus to yell at God. I was a free-spirit! I was a tree-hugger! I still believed in reincarnation for crying out loud! How could God call me into such a structured, conservative church? I went back to the dorms and was sucked in to a midnight walk with one of my friends who was a fallen away Catholic. I shared with him my experience and he launched into a rant about all of the reasons why he left the Church.

He was for gay rights.........................check! So was I.
He was pro-choice..............................I was pro-life. In fact, I was the only one among my family     and friends who felt that way.
He was pro-death penalty..................I was against it. Again, I was the only person among my family and friends who felt that way.


...Wait a second! I've been pro-life and anti-death penalty for as long as I could remember. Long before I ever heard the lingo "consistent life ethic" I had one. In addition to being against abortion and the death penalty, I was against war, I was against euthanasia, I was for any and every policy that could help the poor...I had always been a weirdo among my family and friends. I constantly had to defend my views on abortion and the death penalty.


AND NOW HERE WAS A CHURCH THAT AGREED WITH ME!

Why the hell had no one told me there was a billion people out there who agreed with me? For years I had thought I was a freak!

I started RCIA soon after. I had an even more intense experience at my first Eucharistic adoration. I felt like I had known every one there my whole life although I never met any of them before. I also felt as if everything in my life had been geared to that moment in time.


Because I was a non-Christian convert, I was asked to wait the following Easter out. I got very close to a well-respected, dying old man though. I was initiated off schedule in the middle of advent because we wanted me to get baptized while the elderly man was still alive to see it. So, on December 12th, 2004 on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Gaudete Sunday, I was baptized, confirmed and received communion for the first time in the same multi-purpose room I had attended October the year before.

Fast forward to eight years later:

I just graduated with my Master's in Pastoral Studies where I was trained as a hospital chaplain. I'm married to great guy who I met a couple months after my baptism (and didn't start dating until two years after that). I'm the mother of an adorable seven month old. I regrettably live half-way across the country from where my story started and I hope to get to move back soon.


I'm still a free-spirit and tree-hugger. The analogy I like to use is that of a river. I have discovered through my conversion (and marriage) that I'm like water. Without banks, I will go everywhere and not get anywhere. I need the structure to channel my energies and I just can't make my own structures, they need to be imposed from the outside. I still hold to a consistent life ethic. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about reincarnation. Of course it's contrary to Catholicism, but what throws me is that my "memories" of "my last life" are so vivid, I have a hard time believing it's entirely my imagination. I'm still searching for an explanation of those without resorting to reincarnation.

To use another analogy, I see my conversion to Catholicism as a marriage. For better or worse, I'm going to be Catholic until the day I die. Sometimes I'll disagree with the Church, sometimes I'll have a lot of questions, but I still love Her and support Her. I'll never leave Her. Some mornings I'll wonder to myself "What was I thinking when I became Catholic?", some mornings I'll wake up happy to see the world through Her eyes. (Exactly like with my husband, sometimes I really don't like him, but I'll always love him with all my heart.) I will be Catholic named Mrs. Ryan when I reach the pearly gates and (St. Barbara pray for me) I'll receive last rites before I get there. [Side note: I've already received last rites once before James was born because of the complications involved. So, I've already had all of the Sacraments (at least once) I can get as a woman in the Church. Go me!]

 

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