This post is part of a series. See Dana’s introduction to the series here, and Dana’s own post here. Last week Charlie contributed his post here. I’m humbled by the opportunity to join the conversation.
I believe in God.
I believe in a God beyond gender, beyond naming, a God whose energy holds the moon in orbit and the stars in place… a God who is more “verb” than “noun” … and a God who is as close to me as the air I breathe. I believe in a God beyond human reason, who is nevertheless known through reason. A God beyond human history, who is nevertheless known in human history. A God beyond human language, about whom I continue to speak. I believe in a God who inspires deep compassion, who understands fairness and divine justice through a lens of mercy. A God who invites, and waits, and listens.
I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that his earthly ministry modeled divine compassion and radical love. That Jesus came to share the good news that relationship with God was possible, and that one could demonstrate love for God best by living a life of love and service.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, present among us to bear witness to suffering, to inspire, to sustain, to challenge, to comfort us in our searching.
I believe in the church, community of saints and sinners. Discipleship of equals. Both product of and shaper of culture.
I believe that our planet is sacred, that human nature is precious though broken, that evil is real but not as strong or as enduring as good.
A wise professor once told me that “all theology is autobiographical.” In the process of writing this, I’ve come to see how so many of my theological commitments are grounded in my experiences. Maybe my experiences will resonate with yours. Maybe not. One thing I do know is that faith is not a static thing set in stone but a dynamic process by which we come to more fully understand who we are, what life is all about, and how God holds and sustains us through the journey.
Summer, 1978.I was baptized into the Catholic Church in St. Lawrence Parish, Fairhope, Alabama. I’m that cute baby in the picture. My parents are beaming. On my baptism day, my parents and godparents promised to train me in the Catholic faith. They kept their promise. I grew up in a loving family and learned about the Christian life from some of the best teachers around: my parents, siblings, and friends.
Memory, Second Grade, St. Ignatius Catholic School, Mobile, Alabama: Other moms brought cookies or helped with art projects. My mom, who played guitar and loved folk music and spiritual songs, used to come to my second grade classroom to teach us songs and play along with her guitar. Rise and Shine… And They’ll Know We Are Christians by our Love… His Banner Over Me is Love… Jesus Loves Me… Jesus Loves the Little Children… and silly songs like My Aunt Came Back… When it was time for our class to learn the Ten Commandments Song (“First, I must honor God…”) to sing at our First Communion, my Mom helped us learn it and practice it.
Memory, Fourth Grade, Easter. My siblings and I are dressed in coordinating outfits. I’m the oldest and I just turned old enough to find it embarrassing. My new white shoes are giving me blisters. Church is taking a long time. I want my chocolate Easter bunny. I’m grumpy. But the music is nice today. The choir has practiced their songs, and the songs seem happy, not like the last few weeks. The priest is wearing white and gold. There are trumpets. We never have trumpets. I think to myself, this isn’t so bad. No one will notice if I take my shoes off under the kneeler, and I can wait to eat my chocolate.
Memory, Eighth Grade. Our class is preparing for Confirmation, and we are told to think about how serious this is. Do we really believe it? Are we ready to be adults in the faith? The whole preparation kind of seemed like a series of hoops to jump through. I could trust Kit, so we talked about it, and I asked her, if I am not totally sure that the communion wafer is really Jesus’ body and the wine is Jesus’ blood, does that mean I shouldn’t be confirmed? But wouldn’t it be strange to skip it when everyone else is doing it? And my Mom already bought the dress. Were we supposed to be able to feel the Holy Spirit descend on us like a dove? Was it ok if I didn’t?
Memory, Summer 1993. World Youth Day. I’ve been excited about this trip for a long time. Sure, I’m as excited about crushes on boys, time with friends, and a long road trip as I am about seeing the pope. I’ve been involved in Youth Group at my parish and we travel by bus from Mobile, Alabama, to Denver, Colorado, and back. We see John Paul II in Mile High Stadium. Among the spiritual highlights of the trip was the night we were camping in the middle of a huge field with hundreds of other pilgrims. We met Catholics from all over the world. That night, I saw a shooting star.
Memory, 1995. My high school religion teacher is explaining that the Catholic Church is the one true church, and salvation is only possible through the church. Our only textbook was the Catechism. I’ve been attending Young Life meetings and Bible studies, and have developed friendships with the leaders, none of whom are Catholic. I think to myself, Are these holy, good people going to hell because they aren’t Catholic? It didn’t make sense to me. Jane was so generous, kind, compassionate, honest, funny. She was authentic. Jane met us at the Young Life office at 6:45 on Thursday mornings so that we could have a girls-only Bible study before school started. She spends her summer vacations with high school students leading Young Life camps. She taught me what it means to have a personal faith in Jesus. And she’s going to hell? Deep inside, a question.
Memory, 1996. There’s a rumor going around my high school campus that my favorite history teacher likes President Clinton and defended a Clinton policy in the other section of the class. I wish I had been there to hear it myself. I’m curious. At this stage in my life, politics and faith are not always easily separated. There is an easy marriage between Catholicism and conservative Republican family values, “Southern” values. I absorb this. I don’t question it. Honestly, I didn’t think that one could be Catholic and Democrat. I grew up in a loving environment, and also an insulated one. The only non-Catholics I knew were Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists. Non-Christians were totally “other” to me. My experience of reality was filtered through my privilege in a way that I never recognized and certainly never interrogated. But I had great friends, and and we had a lot of fun together in our high school years and after.
Memory, 1997. What’s your major? At first I dreaded the question. I always had an interest in theology, but I grew very tired of people asking me if I wanted to be a priest. Many wondered aloud why a woman would want to study theology. After my first semester, I thought about declaring theology as my major, but trusted advisers from home, including our parish priest, youth ministers, and others I looked to as guides on my faith journey, warned me that the theology department at Notre Dame was liberal, and I was likely to lose my faith if I chose that path. Much better to study philosophy, they said. I ended up at a PLS (Program of Liberal Studies) major with a theology minor, and I do not regret that decision. I loved PLS. But I do think about the warnings I received, and my own fears about going off to college so far from home. The thing is, I did not lose my faith. But my faith was challenged in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Not only in the classroom, but in little ways through friends and relationships and experiences outside the classroom. I went through different stages. There was a time when I craved certainty and rigidity, and I delighted in explaining official teachings on a range of issues. When I participated in mission trips or service projects, I felt God’s presence. I thought I was doing the right thing, that this service was part of what it mean to be a good Christian. I wanted to help people, and I wanted to learn more about my faith. There was a time when I preferred the social justice projects to prayer groups, when I would rather go to the Center for the Homeless than Mass.
Memory, 1998. There’s a chapel in my college dormitory, and I am one of the liturgical coordinators. I was drawn to Notre Dame for a lot of different reasons. Catholic. Solid academics. Snow in winter. I loved that there was a chapel in every dorm, and I had heard very good things about the campus ministry programs so I knew I could get involved with activities that would nourish my faith. At Cavanaugh Hall we baked our own bread for Eucharist, and residents pitched in as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, and musicians. The Prayers of the Faithful were always personal and meaningful. It was Mass, but it was homey and real. People actually sang. Praying together formed our community in a way that late night studying or partying couldn’t.
Memory, 1999. What will you do after graduation? For a time I dreaded the question. I wrestled with profound insecurities in high school and college. I had a difficult time figuring out what it meant to be a strong, self-reliant leader while also feminine and proud of my Southern heritage. It took being away from home, and with trusted friends from other places, to have the distance and safety of thinking critically about my upbringing; of course, there was a heavy trade-off there. By moving further away, it became more difficult to nurture relationships with family and friends back home. It was expensive to travel on breaks, and I was sorry that I missed many milestone moments in the lives of my younger siblings. When I did come home for breaks, we had all changed, and while I always had a good relationship with family members, we hadn’t seen the small steps of our changes, only the big jumps over time, so it became harder to understand each other. In some ways we grew apart, for a time. My grandfather told me everything would be ok as long as I didn’t fall in love with a Yankee. Paw-Paw, may he rest in peace. I am not sure if Paw Paw ever understood why Notre Dame was such a special place for me, or why it was good for me to move away from Mobile. I wrestled with what was expected of me as a woman. Should I feel guilty for not wanting to marry young and start a family right away? I experienced some culture shock in college, and that unsettled me. But I also think that it initiated deep learning and openness to new ideas as an undergrad. There was a freedom that came with being away from home. A freedom to explore new ideas. And yet I was frequently homesick and was very aware of what a privilege it was to attend an expensive university. Of course, it was the sacrifices of my parents that made my journey possible. My parents have always been patient with me, and they encouraged my graduate studies even if we didn’t know exactly where it would lead me. Family remains important to me, and even though my theological convictions might be different than those of my parents or siblings, we respect each other and want the best for each other. I feel very grateful for their love and support.
My travels, my relationships with friends from other parts of the country, my experiences studying abroad, and my journey in the history of ideas—through PLS and other courses in liberal arts, as well as my first encounter with the writings of theologians like Karl Rahner and Elizabeth Johnson– profoundly shifted my understanding of Catholicism. I am grateful for the college professors who nurtured my faith while also challenging me to think critically and to speak up more in class. In particular, I am grateful to Rev. Nicholas Ayo, C.S.C., who once told us that “the best chance of getting at the Truth is for everyone to talk.” Some of my biggest “aha” moments in college were in his classes, and he had a gift for using creative analogies to help students understand the material. I still have the notebook where I wrote down my favorite quotes from Fr. Ayo.
My relationship with the Catholic Church has not been an easy one in my adult life. Lately it has felt more like the loud and confusing maze of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride than the tranquil and happy boat ride of It’s a Small World.
It was at Weston that I had my real feminist awakening, although the seeds had been planted years before, and would be nurtured later at Loyola and USD. Growing up, God was male. Since we called God Father, it was natural to think of God as a male authority figure. But in my early twenties, this seemed wrong to me. Communion wafers weren’t the only part of the liturgy that seemed stale– the prayers, too, seemed limiting. It felt like Mass was the hoop I jumped through to avoid feeling guilty but my real prayers were my time spent with books that gave me permission to question, doubt, challenge. Sometimes it was theology, sometimes poetry.
I was at Weston when the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting uncovered story after story of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. I felt betrayed by the church. I was sad and angry. The bishops lost a lot of credibility in my mind. I lost trust in authorities. I became more suspicious of and critical of clericalism. At the same time, my faith was nurtured by Jesuit priests and scholastics at Weston, including my teachers, Rev. Jim Keenan, S.J., Rev. Ed Vacek, S.J., and my friends Jean-Baptiste Mazarati, John Thiede, and my community at the lay student housing. Had I been anywhere else while the clerical sex abuse crisis unfolded, I may have left the church for good. But I couldn’t give up on the church when my Weston friends wouldn’t give up on me. Solidarity with victims became primary for me. I was comfortable thinking of the church as a human institution. My God was bigger than my church. And I could approach my faith critically, asking feminist questions like: On what evidence do you base those theological claims? Who benefits from your construction of reality? Whose voices are at the table? Whose voices are missing? As I read more feminist theologians, and more newspapers, I had a growing awareness of the enormity and gravity of suffering in the world. And I feel so small in the face of it. I came to see with deeper clarity the intersecting injustices of race, class, and gender. I came to recognize my privileges with humility and gratitude, and a good deal of discomfort.
Having friends come out challenged me to rethink church teachings on homosexuality and gay marriage. I wanted to trust my church. I understood that church teachings have a presumption of truth. But I did not believe that Jesus was calling me to blind obedience of religious leaders. When I talked with gay friends, I realized that we shared some experiences of pain and confusion in our faith. Of feeling excluded at Mass, though for different reasons of course. I interned for one summer with the Los Angeles Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics, led by Rev. Peter Liuzzi, O. Carm., and Marge Mayer. I really admired how they walked the tightrope of fidelity to church teaching while also welcoming and listening to the voices of lesbian and gay Catholics. We had a booth at the LA Pride Festival with a large banner reading “Welcome Home Gay Catholics!” Father Peter used to say that it gets messy in the middle, but that his job was to navigate that messy middle. I really admired the work they did and continue to do. But I came to see that I was not being called to parish ministry. I believed that my gifts would better serve the church if I worked in the academic side of theology instead of pastoral ministry. But I returned to Weston carrying the stories of the summer with me, thinking that if church leaders had been able to hear the stories I had heard, they might have to reconsider the teaching that a homosexual orientation is “intrinsically disordered.”
I go back and forth in my prayer life between the apophatic and kataphatic traditions of spirituality. Sometimes I lean towards the apophatic, the way of negation, the encounter with God through silence. I admit that this is my most difficult practice: to slow down all of the conversations in my head long enough to just sit in the presence of God is a real challenge and takes work. There are some times in my life when I long for this kind of prayer, which this is the only kind of prayer I can pray, when words don’t work and images don’t work and I just need to cut through the bullshit and sit with God.
But my more everyday, realistic approach to prayer is the Ignatian mantra of God-in-all-things. I think about the sacramentality of everyday life. God’s call to service as I fold laundry or make dinner. Knowing the God of creation as I savor a sunset or take my daughters for a walk. Remembering the waters of baptism as the girls are in the bathtub.I am most in touch with God, most attuned to the presence of the Holy Spirit, when I am awake enough to be fully in the present, the here-and-now beauty of little moments that have their own transcendence. Lately, I feel closest to God when rocking my infant daughter to sleep. But before having kids, I felt close to God when walking the dog, jamming to a great song, reading a provocative theological text that helped me to wake up to the presence of God.
It helps, sometimes, to take the long view. When viewed in the context of the history of the planet, my religion is relatively recent. When hiking in northern California I saw a tree older than Christianity. Think of the age of the stars and it boggles the mind.
Nevertheless, I grow impatient. I thirst for justice. I have an activist spirit, and grow impatient with the academy sometimes. I wonder if I should have been a social worker, or worked in direct service to the poor through an NGO or charity. But the truth is that I love my job. Accompanying students in their spiritual growth through the college years is a privilege, and theology conferences make me feel like I’m in the “inner circle” of church work, even if we get bogged down in certain ivory-tower sort of discussions sometimes.
Why do I do what I do? Because I still have questions, because theology is more of a journey than a destination. And because it is not a solitary venture but one done in a community of faith where we learn from each other.
As a teacher, I try to honor where students are in their own faith journey. I try to help students understand that they are beloved of God, no matter what. I try to choose texts that inspire them. I ask them what rings true for them and why. I think it is better if I avoid offering simplistic answers to complex questions. I think it is better for me to say I don’t know.
And the truth is, there is a lot I don’t know.
Here is where I stand, in the big tent of the Catholic Christian tradition. It is a tent big enough for both Christopher West and Andrew Sullivan, for John F. Kennedy and Dorothy Day, for Paw Paw and me. Don’t get me wrong. I know why people leave the church. I still struggle with the exclusively male language we use for God at Mass. I wonder how my daughters will come to understand their identity as Christians if this is the way we form their theological imagination in liturgy. But I also think that if you leave the Catholic Church in search of a perfect community of faith, you won’t find one. So while I know that my faith community is not perfect, and I have a list of concerns, still the Catholic Church is my spiritual and religious home. Leigh’s baptism (see picture), was at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Fairhope, Alabama. Same parish where I was baptized. Now Leigh is three years old, and she loves to dance. We sing all of those songs that my mom sang with us growing up. Last night she wanted me to sing This Little Light of Mine before bedtime. Lately her favorite song is Lord of the Dance. Seems a fitting end for this post. I love the image of God dancing, of Jesus inviting all of us in to a big cosmic dance party. Cue the music:
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me
I am the Lord of the dance, said he
Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he