When I look to my childhood for clues, it seems to offer no clear trail to my religious turn. But my parents’ connection to the mysterious is probably what set the dial for my religious attunement. My mother lived with spirits of ancestors, tracing a direct line from our behaviors to their displeasure to our consequences. She appeased, served, and honored the dead we remembered and the dead we could only imagine, ever vigilant of their ceaseless inspection and impossible expectations. Our home was rich with traditions both ancient and adapted to America, all of them liturgical.
My second daughter was born in October 2013. The Sunday she turned four days old, my visiting mother-in-law asked me a question as we sat up together in the early hours, listening to the baby’s rumbling sleep. “So, what do you think about Mass?” I’d pilfered the Anne Lamott books from her shelf during a recent visit, but we hadn’t told her that we were considering, tentatively, registering at our neighborhood parish. When she asked, without agenda, I thought of my C-section incision still inflamed around its stitches, of how I would remain awkwardly seated while everyone else took Communion, of everyone’s sleeplessness and disorientation in this new configuration of life. Still, when I said yes, it was not simply to please her.
My husband, his mother, and I piled around two bulky car seats and headed to Mass, me clutching my Percocet. Maybe it was the music lifting into the high arches of College Church in St. Louis, or my hormone-soaked body, or the fresh newborn and chirpy toddler taking up all our arms. Or that my body knew it was finished growing babies, that we were, after a lifetime of ceaseless building, suddenly looking at our completed project. A house, a car, two jobs, and two daughters were running our cups over. I was Simon pulling up nets so full they threatened to capsize the boat. I was reaching for something to hold the largeness of the catch.
Raw and open, I fumbled through the motions of Mass, standing and kneeling a few beats behind everyone else. Normally, I would have felt anxious and desperately self-conscious about my out-of-placeness. But that morning, despite the unfamiliarity that surrounded me—the strangers, the ritual, my own altered body and family—I recognized a calm, steady weight settling around and in me. I felt a sense of plantedness in a place I’d never been before.
I came because despite having a quiet, comfortable life with a job I liked teaching writing to community college students, and a steady group of friends in our small midwestern city, there was no other place to hold the conversation about why I’m here and what I am to do. And there was no other place that said quite so clearly that our answers would never lie in more exciting jobs, a bigger home, or moving to a coastal city. We certainly didn’t lack obligation or commitment, but more a sense of seeking together through, in spite of, and because of deep mystery.
For six years, staying has been challenging for reasons I know challenge many Catholics: the ongoing crises of abuse coverup, the disenfranchisement of women, clericalism that stands in the way of lay people’s empowerment, the prohibition on birth control, and the troubling treatment of LGBTQ parishioners and priests. Describing why we stay often sounds like an apology or rationalization. Perhaps it should be. We stay because of fellow parents in the pews, with whom we share a liturgy of crying, questions, hushing. We stay because we hear lectors and cantors in Côte d’Ivoire French and Burmese. We stay because of the way our choir sings “All Creatures of Our God and King.” And we stay because it is through all this that we see others differently, anew, and more.
A friend asked recently why I don’t choose a church that feeds me spiritually and aligns better with some of my personal values. My response, which surprised me more than my friend, was, “I think it’s because the transubstantiation matters to me.” I came for the faith that daily life is sacramental, that Jesus is present in moments of holiness and ordinariness, which grow harder to distinguish the longer I am here. I stay because people (mostly women) I respect who are older and wiser, relentless in their demands for justice, are here and I have something to learn from them. I stay because the church feels enough like my own that I can say to those guilty of abuse, neglect, and coverup, I won’t let you have it. Maybe the church needs to hit rock bottom, to experience death in order to be resurrected. I’d like to be there when we discover the stone that has been rolled back.