Wednesday, May 25, 2011

With or Without You?

I'm of the generation that experienced the release of the 1987 U2 album, The Joshua Tree, as a cultural and spiritual moment.  (There were also plenty of catchy hooks; have to admit that.)  I remember a couple of friends standing in line at midnight outside the record store on Grand River in East Lansing, waiting for the LP to go on sale.  (Perhaps one or two of my friends bought it on CD, though  most of us did not own CD players at that point.  For many people my age, that seems to have been one of the first albums they made a point of buying once they ponied up for a CD player a few years later.)  Plenty of wonderful songs on that album.  The first one to hit the radio was "With or Without You," a song you can listen to on any number of levels--romantic, existential, spiritual.  Both desire and ambivalence pound through that song, and the dilemma is no closer to being resolved at the end of the song than it was at the beginning.

Fast forward two and a half decades.  I'm not that angst-ridden undergraduate.  Now I'm a somewhat angst-ridden middle-aged fellow, and I still love that song.  Today, though, when I hear it, I think largely of my identity as a Catholic:  This church into which I was born (baptized at two weeks old, thank you very much), this church which I thought was something nearly flawless during my nine years (K-8) of Catholic school.  (That school closed forever last year.  My year of graduation was smack dab in the middle of its sixty-year history, whatever that signifies.)  I spent most of eighth grade thinking about whether I had a vocation to the priesthood even as I recovered--ever so slowly!--from a crush on a girl the previous year who ended up going with another guy to the school carnival.  I wished them well (sort of) and thought that Jesus was with me every step of the way.  (There must have been some girl that a fourteen-year-old Jesus thought was cute, right?)

It was not until my junior or senior year of high school that I first questioned why women couldn't become priests.  It wasn't until college that I first began to question--during a late night conversation with a friend who had been brought up Methodist--the shaky logic and disturbing implications of the church's ban on artificial contraception.  Not until my late twenties or early thirties did I question the church's teaching that the only way a gay or lesbian person could live a holy life was to remain completely celibate for his or her entire life--even if that individual had found an opportunity for love and commitment that, from all appearances, was both real and life-giving.  (No, I'm really not interested in any debates about procreative potential.  Life-long romantic relationships can indeed be "life-giving" in many senses that do not involve the combining of a sperm and an egg.  I write this as somebody who is one-half of an infertile heterosexual couple that has experienced any number of "life-giving" moments over the years.)  

My point, however, is that I've learned to question.  I've learned that I cannot be a good Catholic (or a good Christian of any variety, or even a half-way decent human being period) without asking tough questions.  Questions about the sexism in the church; questions about the continuing difficulty the church has in honestly coming to terms with the history of sexual abuse and cover-up and excuse-making that has pervaded the church for far, far too long.  (Think the issue is completely resolved?  Read this recent piece by Catholic apologist George Weigel and think again.  One silver lining, though, if you click on the article:  Even the readers of the very-conservative National Review call Weigel to task on the issue of abuse victims' ages.)

I'm left to wonder whether I can live with the Catholic church.  Can I stay Catholic?  Should I?  (My spouse and son are Catholic.  I don't want to go across town to worship at the Episcopal church, even if I suspect my conscience and soul would feel more at home there.)  I believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist in the Catholic mass--I truly do.  However, I also believe that Christ is truly present (if in a different sense perhaps) in the people who gather in all sincerity to worship and serve God in other faith communities...and, not infrequently, I have brief glimpses of Christ's definite presence in people and groups that do not bother at all with the label of "Christian" or devout church-goer.  God is present--can work through, can be seen in--all sorts of folks, no matter what they call themselves.  This I believe.

And yet I do get something out of the Catholic route to God.  I dig many aspects of Catholic spirituality.  I get a lot out of the stations of the cross (when I take the time to do them).  I love St. Francis and Julian of Norwich and Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Mychal Judge, the Catholic fire chaplain who died while ministering to his firefighters during the 2001 attack on the WTC.  Those folks were not the "property" of the Catholic church, but their lives were rooted in the best parts of Catholic teaching and spirituality.  Too often, though, the Catholic road I see myself traveling is cluttered with vestiges of sexism, self-righteousness, legalism, and outright corruption.

With or without the Catholic church?  (Bono's voice: "A slight of hand and a twist of fate...")  I can't live with or without you.  But maybe--who knows?--maybe one of these days I'll find out for certain if I can.


shadowlands said...

I identify with a lot of what you describe here. I have found a peace within myself, regarding my own Catholicism. That is, my own authentic response to Jesus' question, which He asks each of us, "Who do YOU say that I am?"

I didn't take the thinking/ questioning/debate route. I would have ended up even more confused than I already am. I didn't need to hear any more individual's opinions. I needed my own peronal encounter with the risen Lord. Do I fit in? Does he want me? A bit basic, but that was my bottom line, fear of rejection. I didn't even know the action I was taking would lead me to a clear peaceful perspective at a deep soul level. However, it did. So, what action did I take? I asked Jesus, if it was His will, to allow me to get closer to His Mother. I began to pray the rosary. Within a very short time, so many questions and fears just fell away. I actually evolved into my faith without even realising it! I mean this, truly.

Now, the negative externals of my life are still there, to be dealt with, kids health issues, my own alcohol issues. But, I am conscious now, that I am never alone in these trials. I also own my faith in God and my place in His Catholic Church, as these have been confirmed. They are also attacked, from within my own faith, which I think is disgusting, how fellow Catholics segregate what they see as the sheep and goats.Not their task to do! He, Jesus, welcomes me.

I promote the Rosary, because Mary, our Mother, will not lead us into error. She soothes troubled souls. It's one day at a time. I fall down. Heaven picks me up. There are joyful times too. If I race back to my Mother's heart, I gain the confidence to go out into the scarey world of Catholic fellowship again haha!

I will pray for you Steve, for peace of mind, within your faith, as God is unfolding it, to you. Becoming aware that you are involved in a living realtionship with a God who is inviting you to meet with Him, is very exciting, if not a little terrifying, but hey! You're an eighties guy, terrifying is good!

God bless. And say your prayers!

Steve said...

Hi Shadowlands,

Thanks for stopping by. And thanks for the good thoughts and prayers. I do appreciate them!

I think you speak a great truth when you describe Mary as one who offers soothing to troubled souls. Mary's humility is a great example for any Christian. I find similar comfort when I read Julian of Norwich, who, in her Revelations of Divine Love, has a beautiful refrain: "And all shall be well. All manner of thing shall be well." I listen to those words on restless nights and sense God's presence in them. God can be present even in stormy waters -- Jesus in the boat on that stormy night.

Peace to you on your walk. I hope you will stop by again.