After my last post, I received a question that’s fairly common when it comes to my dissatisfaction with the Church: Why do you stay?
I’ve been attending a UCC church for over a year now, so the easy answer to that question would be, “I don’t.”
Of course, it’s not as simple as that, which is why I put off answering.
In my personal essay “Where I First Met God,” slated for publication in Unruly Catholic Women Writers, I wrote about how, despite my dissatisfaction with the Church, it was where I first came to have an understanding of the Sacred, and that wasn’t something from which I could turn easily away. The essay was written four years ago, back when I was still a “practicing” Catholic. Somehow, explaining why I “stay” feels a little disingenuous to me now, when Catholic service is no longer part of my weekly rhythm.
Yet, I can’t truly say I’ve “left,” either, not when I shy away from becoming a full member of my new church. This has all been pushed to the front of my mind because it’s the time of year when that church welcomes new members, and my husband and I have been invited to become members–just as we were invited last year. I don’t feel great about this fence-sitting. I love our new church, and it must be somewhat perplexing to the pastors that we attend faithfully every week and yet stubbornly maintain our status as “visitors.” But by becoming a member at a non-Catholic church, does that mean I’ve really left Catholicism for good? Somehow, I still haven’t let go of an attachment to the idea of baptizing my children, if I have them, Catholic. How can I become a member of one church, and baptize my children in another?
The Catholic Church instilled within me many beliefs that still occupy prominent places in my understanding of God and the Sacred, and I carry those things with me even into places that don’t affirm those particular beliefs. Last weekend, confirmation was celebrated at my new church, along with a sermon about the “four” gifts that were bestowed upon the new confirmants. I was a little jarred. Only four? Although they were indeed worthy gifts (unfortunately, I can’t remember all four of them right now and the Internet isn’t helping me), I found myself longing for the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit that were so meaningful for me to examine in my own confirmation journey. The UCC recognizes only two sacraments: baptism and communion. Yet, they practice ordination, marriage, and confirmation–and I don’t understand what keeps these momentous rites of passage from being sacraments. In my heart, they will always be sacraments–and that’s one of the things I love about Catholicism–the way it equips us with outward signs of inward changes, and affirms that, yes, this transition is blessed. And I still believe in the Transubstantiation, and feel a sense of peace and completeness when participating in the Catholic Eucharist that I don’t get elsewhere, where communion remains more “symbolic.”
I want it to be clear that I am not in any way criticizing the way the UCC does things; it’s just that, I don’t have as deep an understanding of their foundation, and no matter how much I study, no matter if I become an official member, it will still never be my foundation.
So as all this went through my head during last weekend’s lengthened service, I asked myself, “Does this mean I should be going to Catholic service again?”
I’m not going to lie–the thought of it made me sort of shrivel up inside, as if I was being asked to enter a dark, confining space after I’d enjoyed time in sunlight and fresh air. For all the spiritual groundwork Catholicism has lain for me, it loses its meaning when Jesus’ principles of love and inclusion don’t feel present in the day-to-day experience of practicing Catholicism, in a place where I still don’t trust the leadership as a whole, in a place where I’m not encouraged to continue seeking and questioning and wondering. I often leave Catholic service with a jumble of emotions; I leave UCC service challenged, but inspired to keep bringing my life in line with Christian ideals.
That’s when I started thinking of Catholicism as the “basement” of my spiritual house. It’s crucial to everything that came after it. If it were pulled out from under me, the faith I’ve built as an adult would sink or crumble. Just as I have faith that the basement of my house will withstand the violent weather predicted for this summer, I have faith that what I’ve learned from Catholicism will offer me some shelter from life’s turmoil. But just because Catholicism is the structure upon which my faith journey is built, that doesn’t mean it’s the place I want to spend the majority of my time–anymore than I’d want to live in the basement of my own home. I need something warmer, brighter, more inviting, to get me through the day-to-day struggle of living.
I don’t think the question of, “Why do you stay?” will ever be an easy one for me. In fact, I think it would be easier for me to articulate reasons for leaving. But in many ways, it’s just not a choice. Perhaps the real question is not why I haven’t left Catholicism … but why Catholicism hasn’t left me.