Ten years ago this Easter, my husband and I stood in a line in a little Catholic church in Olive Branch, Mississippi. We wore red felt stoles and felt both flushed and overwhelmed and hot—the first and last point because well, it was Mississippi, and the middle because we were being welcomed into Holy Mother Church (the red stoles were parting gifts). That line in led up to the priest distributing the Holy Eucharist, and there were but a few people between us and the reception of our first total, intimate communion with Jesus.
For me, it marked the end of a long, strange, painful spiritual journey, and the start of a new, beautiful, glorious one. Or so I thought.
Looking back, way across the time and space separating me from that woman a decade ago, I marvel at her naiveté. She thought she had seen it all— all the dark, painful, dirty places a human soul will go to when it wanders without God. That woman standing there in line to receive our Eucharistic Lord honestly thought she’d never have to bump up against that darkness and loneliness again.
I wish she had been right.
But she wasn’t.
Having come to the faith in my 30s, after years and years of spiritual wandering and abject hatred of Christianity, I figured my heart was finally at rest here in the Catholic Church. I thought I was somehow untouchable by the scandals and controversies and doubts and daily minutia that cradle Catholics faced. But then, slowly, with events that unnerved me every time they happened, unease set in.
First was my reaction to the news that Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down. I was shocked by my sense of abandonment. It hit me so out of left field that I didn’t know how to process it, and instead shrugged it off. Then, after the initial euphoria following Pope Francis’ ascension to the Throne of Peter wore off, came the increasingly wearisome task of standing firm in my new(ish) faith when sojourners in the secular world misinterpreted his words. A weariness I suspect I’m not alone in, soon gave way to exasperation.
Then came a move to an under-served rural parish. Two parishes, yolked, sharing a single priest and parish staff- neither up to the task of dealing with one parish, let alone two. There came the sense each Sunday and Holy Day, when my family walked into the church, that we made up a sizable portion of the parish population. When we sat down in the pews, we upped the total membership of the place by 20%, easily.
There was no religious education to speak of. The priest, who had only recently come from Poland, half-heartedly led the parish youth through a slap-dash program. He was visibly relived when I asked him if we could do Sacramental prep through our homeschool curriculum. I offered to help him teach some of the classes, but he told me that I was already doing enough and didn’t need to take on anything else.
Maybe I should have, though.
I think about Saturdays when my husband and I managed to load all six of the kids into the van to head to Confession—only to find the church locked, with no indication that the Sacrament had been cancelled, or even scheduled in the first place, despite the parish bulletin. I think about Masses when the priest rolled his eyes through the Consecration, tired, burned out, and burdened beyond capacity.
I was starting to feel the same things. In my personal life, I was starting to grow tired of fighting. Always fighting. Swimming upstream and hopefully passing that scrappy nature on to six other human souls. No help from our local parish. Little to no help coming from news out of Rome.
It came to the point where I started rethinking this whole conversion. What if I was wrong about this whole Catholic thing? About this whole God thing? Ten years ago, I had been so convinced that I was Home. Capital H Home, where God had painstakingly led me, to the sum total of revealed Truth regarding the nature of the divine.
But that rethinking never sat right with me. I was there—that faith part wasn’t an error. But what if I was mistaken about what that homecoming meant? I had foolishly thought that this safe landing space would mean there was no more doubt, no more spiritual struggling. But what a foolish thought. I had only to look to my spiritual betters—the saints—to learn how wrong I was.
Saints that we know, love and revere have been through this. The Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux, suffered from this darkness, wondering if anything awaited her upon her death. Mother Teresa, who took her religious name in honor of the Little Flower, also famously endured this same trial of doubt for decades, constantly searching for the face of Christ in every person she met. Look back even farther, and you bump into St. John of the Cross, who coined the term “dark night of the soul”, to express the anguish of being when faith in God seems slim.
So at least I was in good company. But what to do with all of it? Certainly the saints had some sanctity that they, but not I, could not be assured of, so what else could a body do?
One, I stopped reading secular reports of faith matters, particularly in these days leading up to Easter. It’s no shocker that the mainstream media tries to cash in on increased religious sentiment during the High Holy Days by launching every poorly researched documentary it’s got in its vaults. This seems particularly apropos during the reign of Pope Francis who, bless his heart, sincerely tries to meet the secular press where they are.
Two, I made an effort to connect with believers from the first through fourteenth centuries. If people then were able to learn, internalize, and pass on the faith before the invention of the printing press, then surely I could do my part to share the faith with my little tribe of offspring. I had to remember that the word “conversion” means “to turn”— as in: to turn away from sin, and put one’s face towards God. Was this nuance easier for people of the first 14 centuries to understand? I don’t know. But I do get the sense that it’s terribly hard for us in the last two centuries to grasp. How do we turn our faces toward God when there’s this glittering 24 hour news cycle to distract us?
Three, and hardest, I had to start daily making an offering to God. I’m talking about a radically humble, “God, I believe you brought me this far. Please continue to lead me through to the end” type prayer. Holy Mother Church may be riddled with scandal, but—much like we’ve been asked to endure in every age—it’s important for the faithful to remember that God is always with with His Bride and His Bride is always with His people. This is particularly important to remember when you feel like the Church has left you, somehow, standing behind.
It seems like every year, the Lenten season asks much of the faithful. To not only undergo an introspective analysis of their lives, to see where God has fallen from Primacy—but to also endure the slings and arrows of the secular world, and to re-make the radical “yes” that the Church asks of us.
This year, the first in a decade, has been the hardest for me to give my fiat, my “yes”. But by remembering our Lady, some 2000 years ago, and the countless faithful who have followed after her, I’ve been able to summon the courage and energy to give my yes for another year. And so, this Holy Week 2016, I ask you—are you ready to give God your fiat for another year?