For the Love of a God I hated, I remain Catholic

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These days being asked why remain Catholic is more a challenge than a question. Friends and peers have responded with personal stories of commitment rooted in the theology and beauty of our Church. Their speed of thought and brilliance in writing is astounding!

I’m a bit slower, and struggled in prayer to find words to fit the depth of my love for all our Church offers. My story for why I remain Catholic began with rage.

At ten I stormed through a darkened church, past the communion rail and, standing in the sanctuary, yelled at the crucifix “I hate you!” Four years later lost and hopeless, I became an emancipated child in the 1960s.

My only remaining connection with the Church (and my family) was my maternal grandmother. Because of my love for her, I did whatever she asked. As a teenager, that included accompanying her to Mass. I would often stop at the narthex’s massive doors and glare at the crucifix as Grandmother dipped worn calloused fingers into the holy water font.

“I’m not here for you,” was the snark I offered the Trinity. “I’m here for her.”

Standing up straight, I would proudly walk the length of the nave beside my grandmother to a pew near the front—she was under five feet tall—and sing with her from a shared cardboard hymnal. I still have that sheet, yellowed and permanently imbued with incense.

My wedding was to be a Catholic affair; the matriarchs would have nothing less. I wanted a garden wedding with a crown of flowers and veil of ribbons, a small reception with tea and cake. At age eighteen, with fourteen attendants, a priest-cousin flown in from Texas, hundreds of strangers filling the church, and several thousand dollars later, the wedding was had. It was a beautiful ceremony but not what I wanted—in a Catholic church.

The marriage ended three years later when my husband ran off with my brother’s wife.

Overly social and profoundly isolated, I found nothing to fill the massive gaping wounds to my heart. There was no family, no spouse, no children. I continued my solitary rage at God—a gnat flinging spit—and planned for a doctorate, financial independence, to be a feminist in full control. Then one day it all stopped. My rage, and my desires and drive to continue stopped, never, I intended, to begin again. I fully disconnected from the life I had constructed.

Somewhere from the recesses of a mind gone insane were the words of a catechism Nun—and I believed what she taught—that my eternity would be much worse than what was now my miserable life. And I hated God for leaving me without an option, hated His plan of free will, knew that, as a good parent will want to do, He’d tough-loved me until I turned around.

I did the only thing I knew to do and went to a Catholic church. I couldn’t bring myself to touch the holy water and don’t recall genuflecting or from where the rosary in my hand had come. I was on my knees in a pew, silent, angry, hurt, adrift and hopeless. Tears ran down the back of the pew in front of me. For an hour or more, without words, I emptied myself.

In that time, alone in the dark with only the glow from the dimly lit crucifix, I asked and owned the phrase from John’s Gospel. “Lord, to whom shall [I] go?”  And in asking realized how personal hate can be; I could not hate something that didn’t exist.

The conflict since childhood had always been between the brutality of men and the joy of nature, both God’s creation. Nature was the only place where I consistently found peace, where my longing to be loved—by whom I hated—escaped my control. When I experienced the beauty of mountains, wilderness, gardens, and oceans my soul would soar.  Now, thirty-some years later, my soul soars in that same way—in a way that I now find in Adoration, at Mass, and occasionally in the oratory when conversing with Jesus.

The intimacy with which I had hated God, has in time as intensely become love. And it has taken time—as water unto rock to wear away the edges.

My coming home to the Catholic Church has been incremental. With guidance, I began to grasp the beauty of our signs and symbols, the freeing nature of our catechism, the liberation of surrendering to God. And all in all, I found in our Church the lessons of fortitude in forgiveness and with that an intimacy with God beyond human expression.

Why do I remain a Catholic? When you find true love, when you find a truth and a joy ever present and easily held, there is a greater insanity in turning away.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay .

(2015)

In Hope of Being Pruned

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I love to prune. It’s like art to me, a hope filled art. Each cut is intended to produce either a directional growth, to form and shape hardwoods for beauty, or to enhance the bearing of fruit.

Sometimes with ornamental trees a whole section of limb that rubs against another will need to be removed, allowing the stronger limb to develop more fully. At other times the interior has become so cluttered with unnecessary branches that they block the light from reaching deep inside. More often if pruning has been done regularly, it is a simple nip here or there to keep things growing as they should.

When doing light pruning I look at the bud that would be just behind the cut and estimate its future growth pattern. Will it grow backwards and into the interior? Does it face out and up toward the sun? I imagine and calculate the plant’s development before daring to trim it back.

I like to get an overall view of the condition and shape of a tree as I work. On more than one occasion the Groundskeeper at the retreat center where I had volunteered,  had lovingly chided me as I repeatedly circled my object of renovation. Maybe I do take too seriously the ramifications of my pruning efforts. But like other things in my life, I do not want to throw things off balance through carelessness or haste.

Back then, as now, I contemplate being pruned as I pruned or, of being cut to the ground and starting anew. As I have done, so God too rings-me-round, looking to balance growth.

My interior life had become overcrowded with things of this world hampering the light of God from shining in where needed. Other things needed to be completely removed so there would be more productive fruitfulness.

Drawing closer to God as I worked, I learn that in His pruning he too wants beneficial maturing, purposefully directed.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

An Earth Embroidered with Prayers

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I stooped at the waist to pull a few weeds. A twinge in my back caused me to stagger a bit so I lowered to kneeling and moved closer the flowers—a familiar intimacy.

The rose next to me was Tuscany, a maroon heirloom rose, its richly perfumed center was fluffy with gold pollen. The base of the dark velvety petals were tipped with white where the keel connected to the calyx. It gave the illusion of light radiating from its center. ‘Tuscany Superb’ is a polite shrub rose that remains relatively compact, at about four feet high and wide, and its stems are covered in hairy prickles rather than the usual woody thorns.

I worked my way a little farther down the garden bed, scooching along to where the Oriental lilies ‘Pink Pearl’ grew. The oversize anther pads floated on fine pale green filaments above the white edged petals. A humming bird zoomed in, took a couple quick sips from the lily’s trumpet and darted off.

The roses and the lilies, the fragrances known in July, rustled enough of me into the moment that the anxieties of the past few weeks eased.

I had been nearly consumed by worries, what were perceived as potential threats. A ghost from decades ago had returned to haunt, and fear bit hard like a hungry dog on grizzled bone.

I’d become terribly upset and thrown off balance, losing the comfortable peace so well known in my days. I attempted to regain perspective through regimented worship: intercessory praying, rosary, Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, and Adoration. Tentatively I reached out for prayer and shared the situation with a group of peers. They acknowledged my fears and began their own intercessions on my behalf.

In all this, it wasn’t until I lowered myself to the ground did the tension seep away.

To kneel on soil—instead of on padded wood—is to join oneself intimately with the Creator, to lean into, and on to, God. To arch the back and offer ones hands to toil with joy or tears, distracted, alone, loved or not is to embroider the earth with prayer.

We are placed upon this sod of love spared from the Garden of Eden. For as low as our lives are from the heavens, we are, always, the humus of the earth—from it and to it, nourished and nourishing, full circle in the created affections of God. We scratch upon it. And not all scratching is fruitful and not all seeding sprouts.

It is the effort to draw closer to God that brings us to our knees. And every prayer waters the ground that rears us to our sainthood.

Image by Mammiya from Pixabay 

(2017)

 

Unexpected Beauty, Ancient and Alive

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After morning Mass at a 115 year old country parish, I decided to take a drive along farm lanes, through “God’s country.”

County roads here run straight and intersections at 90º a mile or two apart. I turned south along Hawley—roads were historically named after the land owner—and was surprised to see a hops farm. I wondered if the grower crafted beer or sold to local breweries. The grove was surrounded by a ten-foot-fence against deer browsing, and dozens of 16’ crosses pierced the earth. The cross-beams trailed heavy twine, secured at the base near the bushy vines.

I found the view unsettling as thoughts of Saint Paul Miki and Companions came to mind; twenty-six martyred by being hung on crosses in Nagasaki, Japan.  I shuddered and shook my head to clear the intrusive image of suffering.

Refocusing on my drive, I made note to come back to the farm through the summer to see how the vines progressed.

In south-central Michigan there are several small lakes, marshes, and muck-land farms—which grow celery, onions, cabbage, and peppermint. Crisscrossing three counties I drove past several, and had come upon a massive wetland whose beauty took my breath away.

Tussocks of tall marsh grasses glowed chartreuse in the morning light. They were surrounded by expanses of open water floating groups of lily pads and reminded me of paintings seen hanging in a restaurant by a local artist. The rains of the previous week had raised the water above the ditch-line; it reached the edges of the road.

I left the car and stood near what would have been the shoulder. The soft breeze carried the deep, low scent of a quagmire, and, lucky for me, was enough to keep the mosquitoes away. Up the road a fully grown, two foot Northern Water Snake casually made its way to the opposite bank. In the stillness I listened to the peeper frogs’ trill.

Then from behind, and startlingly near, a loud swish. Instinctively I ducked as a pair of Great Blue Herons flew a few feet above my head. Their bright orange beaks were slightly open, long black legs were extended and tucked tight against their gray bellies. I had never been so near these large, seemingly primordial birds and was amazed at their size.

My heart was beating fast from being startled. I watched with an overwhelming sense of reverence as they landed a few yards away. The pair stood poised in shallow water, and elegantly folded their powerful six-foot-span of wings.

I stood in awe of the vastness of the marsh, the holy silence of nature, and felt the boundless gift of peace that is God’s. It is a peace that though a gift must be sought, and like the Herons that came from behind, brings with it unexpected beauty, ancient and alive.

Witness to the Holy, through Catcalls and All

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This past week while gardening in the front yard I experienced catcalls from broken men as they drove by; they seemed to think entitled to comment about my weight.

Sadly it wasn’t the first time.

A few years back I spent time outdoors helping a friend by doing light painting. He had offices at a very busy intersection outside of downtown. Out front was a wooden sign, about 8’ x 10’, installed several years ago. Like all things made of painted wood, it needed maintenance.

Driving past one day I noticed how shabby the sign appeared and stopped to have a closer look. The situation was dire. Most of the furring strips — that secured the sign to its posts — had rotted through. One hearty gust of wind and the sign would collapse. And the paint was flaking off.

My friend is a busy kind of guy running his business, attending to his family, and being active at church. I offered him my help repairing the sign and he gratefully accepted.

Painting is something I can still do and a three-step ladder is not an issue. We talked about what needed to be done and bought supplies. I looked forward to helping him and being outdoors under the locust tree.

Over several days the work progressed as expected. What I had not anticipated was feeling vulnerable.

The building is located in a section of town that is not the best. Low-income apartments surround his building on two sides — two shootings took place there last summer — and across the road is another complex. Traffic cuts off from the main street down the 100 foot road in front of his business. And the traffic is loud. There were cars and trucks with mufflers gone bad, the deafening thunder of open trailers hauling equipment hitting potholes, and jacked up cars with punk-rock blaring hate-filled words.

At first I felt uneasy working alone with no one in the offices, and assumed I would feel more at ease with time. After all, I was painting on Saturday afternoons on lovely spring days.

That attitude worked for the first day. It was after the second that my fears rose. There were catcalls from drive-bys, the being looked up and down by gangs of adolescent boys, and abusive yelling that escaped through open apartment windows.

I felt exposed and vulnerable. I couldn’t tell who was good or who was a threat. I prayed for my safety as each car drove past, prayed as I avoided eye contact with people walking by. Twice, overwhelmed by fear, I scurried into the offices to quell my panic; I had to finish that sign!

I read one morning Acts 14:16-17 “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Up on the ladder again, painting around lettering, I wondered how many of those that passed, including the men who bellowed slurs from cars, knew God and had faith. The Lord allows us all to choose our own way. He offers the same fruitful seasons to the trying-to-be-good and those not-yet-seeking-goodness.

The Lord did not leave our world without witnesses — and that would be those of us with faith. I realized that working to make the sign look better was a witness to charity, my calmness as the gang of boys sauntered past an act of trust in them that they could perceive. To the people watching me from apartment windows, they saw a desire to persevere beyond the catcalls.

Back then and again recently, I found a means through my anxiety. My default is to pray, and I did for those who passed my way.

Image by Ingi Finnsson from Pixabay .