A Crush on God

How a Young Priest Helped Me Hear Jesus

I meet him at a building at the top of a steep hill. A trickle of men, all of them clean-cut and casually dressed for the Berkeley summer, flows in and out of the doors as I stand there waiting, and soon enough, one of them walks up to me and says, “Kaya?” magically pronouncing it right. He ushers me into a side room and closes the door behind us. Italian, maybe in his mid-thirties, he has blond hair, big blue eyes, and round cheeks that seem to constantly flush red. This combination makes me think of the face of a cherub in a fresco. He’s wearing a shirt with the Jesuit logo—a sunburst around the letters IHS—stitched onto a pocket. Jeans, sneakers. He could be any grad student I grouchily bump into while waiting in line for my morning coffee. I ask if he’s a student at the school. “No,” he replies. “Already I am ordained. I am a priest.” I say, “Cool.” I have never been around a young priest before.

In many ways, I am the least likely of Catholics. Berkeley born and bred, I left the church in my teens, more interested in punk rock and creative writing than sacraments and theology. And yet, in spite of my politics, which only grew more progressive the older I got, some arcane part of me pined for the church I’d left behind. By the time I was in my mid-thirties, I found myself sneaking into Masses, drawn to the community, the intellectual tradition, and the rituals. After a lot of mental wrestling over my problems with dogma, I had finally signed up for RCIA and had been confirmed at Easter. But when RCIA ended, living my faith felt like being in a boat without oars. When an e-mail arrived from one of the RCIA leaders about spiritual direction with seminarians who were in town for the summer, I shrugged, said “Why not?” and signed myself up.

Laypeople have long sought out religious advisers in times of crisis, but in the secular world I dogpaddle in, we go to therapy. I’m used to therapy; I know the lobby in my shrink’s office, with its arty prints, old issues of Sunset magazine, and kilim rugs, better than my own office at work. But the notion of talking with her about God doesn’t quite work. She knows a lot about the mind, but I’m not sure she’s an expert on the soul.

Aside from being young, this Italian is really different from the priests I know. He has a way of leaning his chin onto his hands when I’m talking, and he blushes the whole time, shyly gazing at the floor for long pauses when I bring up some particularly tricky theological point. And I’m different from the people he’s used to talking to; he’s familiar with the idea of RCIA, but in Italy, he tells me, “everybody is Catholic already. Nobody comes into it as an adult.” He struggles with English, taking a while to find the right word, which is often wrong, and stringing things together in a manner I’m not going to reproduce, because it would make him sound like a spaghetti-twirling character from a bad film, when in fact he’s highly intelligent and very well read.

Much of our first conversation is heavy on the pauses and questions and repetitions. I mumble some things about being adrift in my faith life, not being sure why I’m a Catholic, and he nods and asks me to repeat a few things and suddenly, the hour is up. “I’ll give you some reading,” he says, and sends me home to read a couple of Gospel passages: Mary Magdalene at the tomb, in John, and the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair, in Luke. Priests keep making me read that passage. I could begin to wonder whether they think I’m some sort of reformed prostitute, but I know that’s not the case. When a woman comes to them asking for answers, talking about what a shitty, sinful mess she used to be, it’s a story that offers some consolation.

A good student, I go home, do the reading, and return two days later. “What did you feel when you read these?” he asks. And I explode into a torrent of slobbery tears. “I’m sorry,” I say, snuffling into the proffered tissue. “I never cry, seriously.” “It’s OK,” he replies. “I’m a priest, I’m used to it.” And that makes me laugh, and we begin talking about what it was that snapped the bawling switch to “on.”

In the passage from John, Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb of Christ to anoint the body. She gets to the tomb and discovers the boulder rolled away and no Jesus inside, at which point she understandably freaks out and begins sobbing. Jesus, who’s kind of sneaky in John’s telling, walks up to her and asks why she’s crying. She doesn’t recognize him—John says she thinks he’s a gardener—and she replies, “They’ve taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where to find him.” The Italian stops me here—I have a bad habit of rehashing everything I’ve read to people who probably know this stuff by heart—and says, “How does Mary know it’s Jesus?”

“Well, he talks to her.”

“Yes,” he says patiently, “but what does he say?”

“Something about not being the gardener?”

The Italian catches my eye and leans forward. “He says her name.”

“Oh, right.”

“So,” he continues, attempting a small smile, “do you think Jesus ever says your name?”

And I start wailing again. It’s quite embarrassing, and he again has to wait for me to wind down. The truth is that if I ever heard Jesus say my name, I would run fast as hell to my shrink. Visions and voices are not my thing. But the Italian explains it’s more about being open to God; Jesus is God in human form, and the first thing Mary Magdalene does when she realizes it’s him is to try and embrace him, a very human impulse. So our job is to be open to finding God in other people, in the most unexpected circumstances. Of course, when she goes to tell the apostles what’s happened, they don’t believe her. Typical men, I mutter. And it’s time to go.

Thus begins the era I refer to as “crying in church.” Waterworks week after week. Sometimes it’s a hymn we sing, sometimes it’s just reciting a prayer along with so many people, sometimes it’s a homily, sometimes it’s the sight of the sun arcing through the clerestory windows above the altar. But whatever is happening, I’m not used to it. Shaky and vulnerable, I tell the Italian about the crying, and he nods, his cheeks pinking. “Maybe Jesus is telling you something,” he says. “Maybe he wants you to know he is OK with you crying; maybe you’re crying like Mary Magdalene. Because you’re surprised by God.”

He explains that Ignatian spirituality is about “finding God in all things.” He tells me about the Spiritual Exercises, which, in their sheer difficulty and rigor, are befitting of the guy who invented them. A nun once told me that a lot of women don’t like the Exercises; they’re too regimented, and in some ways too militaristic, to appeal to the more emotional way of living with God that many women prefer. But some part of Ignatius’s macho story appeals to me. Maybe it’s the cannonball he took to the leg. I know I’m not at that level of toughness in my spiritual life. I seem instead to be growing more gooey, more gelatinous, more sensitive. I try to explain this during one of our sessions—the problem with the crying is that it’s the antithesis of how I would like the world to perceive me. This wibbly-wobbly version of myself is one I’d rather leave behind. I’d rather be like Ignatius, I tell the Italian: “A badass.” He laughs a little at that phrase, then rests his chin on his hands again. “If God is making you weak, you have to be OK with that,” he says after a pause. “You know what Paul says: ‘When I am weak, I am strong.’”

“Easy for Paul to say,” I reply. “He had that thorn in the flesh as an excuse.”

“Yes, but you have to remember: God doesn’t want anybody to be angry all the time. It’s OK to be vulnerable. This is all new to you. Why don’t you write something about this?” He pauses for a moment, a flush creeping over his cheeks again. “Try to imagine yourself as Mary Magdalene. Write about why she cried.”

“Yeah, OK, I’ll try…”

“Just try. Writing is a gift, yes?” I resist the temptation to roll my eyes when I see how serious his expression is. “God wants you to use your gifts.”

So over the next week I try to write something about faith. How it takes forever. How disappointing it feels when a voice pipes up in my head during Mass, nagging me to get up and leave. It’s 9 a.m. on a Sunday and everyone else is in bed sleeping off their hangovers. What are you doing? You don’t belong here. These people are much better Catholics than you’ll ever be. Just walk out. Go home. But I keep sitting there, listening.

Sometimes I am so conscious of my sinfulness, my unworthiness, that I feel like I must be leaving a slime trail behind me when I walk up for Communion. I keep harping on the idea of sinfulness in my conversations with the Italian. This is clearly frustrating; he sends me home with Gospel passage after Gospel passage about Jesus forgiving sinners, but I keep coming back saying that they weren’t as sinful as me; after all, I have the modern world to assist me in my sins. Finally, in exasperation, he asks, “Do you know the movie The Mission?” I say no, I’ve never seen it; it looked goopy when I glanced at a bit of it on TV. “There’s a scene in it, when DeNiro, he’s playing a slave owner, he kills his brother and goes to a priest—a Jesuit—to get forgiveness. The priest says, you killed someone. Take all your armor and swords, tie them to your back, and climb this waterfall. It’s steep. So DeNiro does this. And he keeps doing it over and over again, he’s really suffering, and one of the other priests cuts the cord to the bundle of armor. But DeNiro, he picks up the cord, ties it around himself again. He keeps climbing and climbing.” I think about this story for a moment, but can’t think of anything to say. “Kaya,” the Italian says. “You keep tying your sins around yourself. You don’t need to.” I realize that these conversations with the Italian are unlocking something else, something rougher and scarier than anything yet. They are unlocking my sense of belief.

But there’s a problem with seeing him and talking about these matters in such depth. I realize what it is when I spend half an hour picking out which dress I’ll wear, fidget with my hair in the car, peer at the squint lines between my eyebrows, reapply makeup, and wonder if I’m showing too much cleavage. Halfway up the sloping block that leads to the Jesuit residence, I stop myself, look at the shoes I’m wearing, my painted toenails. Oh God, it’s finally happened, I think. I’ve got a crush on a priest.

The fluttering guts, my hand flying up to my mouth to cover my crooked teeth when I giggle inanely, thinking about things I want to tell him, raving about him to anyone who’ll listen—all of it makes me feel pathetic. Even my husband picks up on my mooning after the Italian, and he teases me about The Thorn Birds and presenting some sort of temptation to this guy. As if, I say. I look like a turnip on good days; I’m married; and besides, it’s not like that. My crush is really on God.

That sounds ridiculous, but think of it this way. You’re a teenager, you’re fumbly and greasy in your new body and face, and you have a creative temperament, so you might decide that you want nothing more than to be a painter. And then one day for the first time you meet somebody who is a serious painter, somebody who lives in a dingy studio and sleeps on a cot, eats nothing but Cup Noodles and stays up all night every night painting and talking about painting with his painter friends and spends his days going to look at paintings. The guy sounds like bad news, but hear me out: he takes an interest in your painting, and he starts talking to you about it as if you have a legitimate chance of becoming a painter. So you spend some time learning from him, and then you start painting. And you fall in love with painting. It’s something you feel like you were born to do. The attraction to the painter was simply a conduit, a bridge that you needed to cross to get to something you could love—a way of expressing your oily and sweaty teenage self in a manner that just made a lot of sense.

After talking with the Italian for a few weeks and cycling through most of my good outfits, it has become clear that re-entering Catholicism was not the biggest mistake of my life. The crying at Mass is beginning to make sense. My conversations with the Italian have revealed something I had not wanted to admit: in spite of my going though the motions with RCIA and weekly worship, I have been holding faith at a comfortably intellectual distance. Or, as he put it: “You like to read about it, but you don’t like to feel it.”

Ignatius taught the Jesuits to end each day doing something called the Examen. You start by acknowledging that God is there with you; then you give thanks for the good parts of your day (mine usually include food); and finally, you run through the events of the day from morning to the moment you sat down to pray, stopping to consider when you felt consolation, the closeness of God, or desolation, when you ignored God or when you felt like God bailed on you. Then you ask for forgiveness for anything shitty you did, and for guidance tomorrow. I realize I’ve spent most of my life saying “thanks” to people in a perfunctory, whatever kind of way. Now when I say it I really mean it, even if it’s to the guy who makes those lattes I love getting in the morning, because I stopped and appreciated his latte-making skills the night before. If you are lucky and prone to belief, the Examen will also help you start really feeling God in your life.

In my case, this shift comes about in part because I take the Italian’s advice and start volunteering with the homeless. With its mild climate and relatively generous structure of food banks, shelters, and social services, Berkeley seems to have a disproportionate number of homeless people. Over the years, I’ve developed a tactic of total avoidance. No eye contact. No acknowledgment. But the more I hear during Mass about caring for the poor, the worse I feel when I walk by a homeless person on the way to the car.

My church hosts a monthly dinner for the homeless. Serious work is involved; volunteers pull multiple shifts shopping, prepping, cooking, serving food, and cleaning. I show up for the first time and am shuttled into the kitchen by a harried young woman with a pen stuck into her ponytail, who asks me if I can lift heavy weights before putting me in front of two bins of potato salad and handing me an ice cream scoop. For three hours, I scoop potato salad onto plates, heft vats of potato salad, and scrape leftover potato salad into the compost cans. I never want to eat potato salad again, but I learn something about the homeless people I’ve been avoiding for years: some are mentally a mess, many—judging from the smell—are drunk off their asses, but on the whole, they are polite, intelligent, and, more than anything else, grateful. As I walk back to my car, I’m stopped several times by many of them who want to thank me, saying how good the food was, how much they enjoyed it. “I didn’t do anything,” I say in return. “You were there,” one of them replies. It’s enough to make me go back the next month, and the month after that. And in between, when I see people I feed on the street, instead of focusing my eyes in the sidewalk and hoping they go away, we have conversations. It’s those conversations that move me from intellectual distance toward a greater sense of gratitude for the work of God.

Six weeks have passed, and my time with the Italian is running out. I knew from our first meeting that he would be leaving the United States, and perhaps that made me feel more comfortable asking him lots of ridiculous theological questions, weeping myself into a soggy mess, and dragging my burdens into the room. In a few days, he’ll leave Berkeley and go back to Italy, stopping on the East Coast along the way to retrieve his stuff from the seminary where he’d been living before he came out here for the summer. He is off to his first full-time assignment: teaching religion to teenagers in Sicily. “High-school students…I think they might kill me,” he says with a smile. I tell him he’ll be fine; I’ve taught teenagers for over a decade, and you simply have to clarify on the first day that cell phones are forbidden. That’s more than half the work. We talk about cell phones ringing at inappropriate moments during Mass. “Right when I raised the chalice!” he says with a laugh.

The last time we meet, I ask him if it’s OK to e-mail him. “I’m interested in your life,” I tell him, and it’s true. I wonder what things will be like for him, if Sicily is as hot as they say, if he will like teaching. “You know,” he says in the final moments we spend together, “God is really working in your life.” I laugh at that—sure, sure—and then I realize, he’s right. And I panic a little. What if God bails on me along with the Italian? Is the Italian going to keep a line to God open on my behalf? We only talked a little bit about all of my issues with dogma—how am I going to handle that on my own? He walks me to the door, and we stand for a minute, the hot July wind blowing up from the Bay. “I hope you pray for me,” he says. “I’ll pray for you,” he adds. And I go to shake his hand, while he tries to give me a hug. There’s one of those awkward half-lungy bumbling moments before we embrace. Then I walk down the hill, toward home.

This essay is excerpted from Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church, to be published by Counterpoint Press in July 2012. Copyright © by Kaya Oakes. Reprinted with permission of Folio Literary Management.

Published in the 2012-05-18 issue: 

Kaya Oakes teaches nonfiction writing at UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland, California. She is the author of four books.

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