Dec 14, 2016

Adventures of an Agnostic in the Weird World of Catholicism

This piece originally appeared on the blog Sick Pilgrim, here.

When my roommates first told me that they were going to get time off their Purgatory sentence by going to confession, praying for the Pope’s intentions, and walking through a holy door in a church downtown, I didn’t know what to do with my face. I asked a lot of questions that night.

I’m a volunteer in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and I often feel like a fraud because I don’t believe in God. I want to, but I don’t. With my Gideon bible and plastic rosary hanging as decoration on my mirror, I flirt with religion but can’t claim it as my own. I live in intentional community with five other volunteers working at various non-profits, we pray before meals and have Spirituality Night once a week, and despite my willingness to take part I still sometimes feel like an anthropologist with a notebook in my back pocket.

Thankfully JVs are not obligated to go to mass every week, pledge our celibacy, or proselytize to those we serve (I’ve realized that Catholics aren’t as into that as other Christians can be.) There’s no way I would have joined the program if that was the case. But I obviously knew there would be spirituality involved, and knew that I would be around a lot of Catholics. I finished my B.A. degree at a Catholic college, DePaul University, but I was drawn there more for Chicago and their American Studies program than Jesus. During the two years I spent there, I learned about JVC by taking service trips and decided to sign myself over to the Jesuits upon graduation.

I grew up a discontented Episcopalian girl who read books in her lap during the service and skipped out after Communion to plonk around on the musty piano in the fellowship hall. I remember being furiously indignant that I had to say things aloud in services that I didn’t understand or believe – I felt like I was being made to agree to a contract I hadn't read yet. I don’t remember any time in my life when I labeled myself as a Christian. My father is a Christian author and I knew how to speak the language because of him, but never felt comfortable in that world. We lived in Vermont, a fairly irreligious state, and I didn’t know many people my own age who believed in God. The only friend I had who was interested in discussing religion with me was an older boy on the bus who identified as a Satanist.

I have always been intellectually drawn to religion, keeping it at arm’s length through the lens of academia. I especially love learning about the dark and weird corners of religion, like snake-handling churches in Appalachia or the sky burial of Tibetan Buddhist monks (look it up, you won’t be disappointed.) Catholicism is just dripping with history, with more than enough darkness and morbidity in its past to satisfy any curiosity. I feel like I can move in religious circles because of my upbringing, but always as a politely interested outsider taking notes on everything that is new to me. For months I worked at a New Age crystal shop in Massachusetts, and although I dabbled in Tarot cards I did not find a belief system that made sense for me. It was also the most petty, dysfunctional, back-biting work environment I’ve ever been a part of and that soured the whole philosophy a bit.

I have had religious experiences in my life. I have felt a sense of the sublime while reading about space and astrophysics; beautiful music can do the same thing. And the Eucharist can move me to tears for reasons I can’t fully explain. Whenever I decide to attend mass with my roommates, during communion I have to walk up the aisle with my hands crossed over my chest like a mummy and stand before the priest while he says a blessing over me. This happened during my second week in JVC. After returning to my seat and seeing myself surrounded by sated, prayerful people who believed in God, I felt hot tears leaking out of my eyes. I felt alone, confused, and childishly left out of something huge. I hurried out of the church and waited for everyone in the parking lot.

I wanted to do a year of volunteer work before deciding on a career, and I did not choose the Jesuit Volunteer Corps at random. I wanted to put myself up against religious faith, even one fairly alien to me, to see myself in relief against it. From what I can tell so far, Catholicism is about pursuing and paying homage to the great mystery of existence. There’s that stark moment during mass when the priest says, “The mystery of faith,” and lets it hang in the air, a sentence fragment suggesting something deep and shadowy. For me that also encompasses the mystery of how someone can have faith, the leap that is required to get from cold rationality to God. I really admire that.

Dec 1, 2016

On the Bus

Left at the bus stop
This article originally appeared on the Love Wins Community Center blog, here. I am working there for a year as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.  

You can’t hide on the bus. You can deaden your expression, look at everyone’s knees, angle your body into the window, but none of it will stop you from having to share space with strangers. One evening after work I was riding the bus downtown to catch another bus home, and was horrified to realize that I was crying. A text I’d gotten while at work had upset me and it was just then sinking in. All I could do was stare fixedly out the window and try to control the shaking of my shoulders as I listened to the banter coming from the front of the bus. There was flirting, gossiping, commiserating, and harmonizing once a couple of ladies starting singing “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” They were the regulars of the evening #19 bus. It would have been a vibrant, fun scene to witness if I didn’t just want to disappear.

Riding the bus makes you realize that privacy is a privilege. Driving a car by yourself, silently gliding past crowds of people, seems radically insulated in comparison. You can’t hide while standing on the side of the road waiting for the bus to arrive, wobbling on your ankles as you tilt over the curb and peer down the road to watch for its approach. You can steel your eyes to not catch anyone else’s, look into a book or phone in your hand, or stare down the cars as they surge past. If you’re female sometimes cars will slow down and bray out something about your appearance, making you feel even more exposed. You will get hit on at the bus stop, but you will also have the most neighborly conversations you’ve had since living in Raleigh.

I’m accustomed to buses; I rode them out of necessity while living in Chicago, New York City, Massachusetts, and even Vermont. I’m in a year-long service program that encourages me to live in solidarity with the poor and marginalized. But I’m also new to this work, and by the end of the day I’m at the end of my emotional rope. It can be dispiriting when your transportation home takes 45 minutes instead of the 10 it would by car. If I am able to get a ride from someone I know, I will. While being in a constant state of solicitousness doesn’t feel great, it has also put me a little closer to understanding our community and how it feels to have to ask for things you need to get through your day.

Cabs are forbidden fruit, which I have succumbed to on a handful of occasions. It’s especially unpractical because I am only paid $100 a month through my service program. But when the bus doesn't run as planned, when I miss a bus and have to wait for an hour for the next one, or just when I've had a long day and feel emotionally exhausted, I have occasionally called for a cab. The first time I took one home from work I was standing at the bus-stop with a mom and her three toddlers, who were shouting and running up and down the sidewalk. After a while, we both noticed and read a sign taped to the bus stop pole, stating that the bus had been re-routed due to construction and would not stop there until January. She called her friend to come and pick her up, but her friend couldn't get there for an hour so she hauled her bags over to wait outside a building across the street. I walked up the road and sheepishly called Taxi Taxi.

People in our community are often surprised to learn that I ride the bus. I will sometimes see people I know from Love Wins at the stop or on the bus, and get into conversation. Yesterday I was standing at the Moore Square station waiting for my connecting bus, and one of our regulars walked by – a vivacious trans woman named Dustin. I called out to her and she came over to give me a hug, saying, “Hey! What are you doing out here with us commoners?” It’s times like that when I feel like I’m in the right place.