Last week I could feel autumn in the air. It gave me a tender, gloomy feeling: like Vincent Price’s voice, or finding a scrawny cat nursing her kittens in the back of an abandoned truck. Like that old love letter you’re not able to throw away just yet – it seems morbid to read it, but you take comfort in its hidden physicality.
There’s that certain tang beneath the humidity, a rot beneath the heat. The sounds have changed, too. The cheery birds that sang throughout the sunnier months have started to grow silent. Now it’s the crow who yells in the morning – such a bleak, memory-laden sound. The cicadas have dropped to a lower pitch, too. Things are waning. I’m noticing the heads of wheat along the road and the heirloom tomatoes in their bins, noticing them because things are less riotous in general, and there’s less for simple beauty to compete with.
I’ve always felt a Presence in nature. I stand and look at the gladiolas and feel as though they are looking back at me.
And in the Fall, when things are either slumbering, dying, or hiding, I feel that Presence most acutely.
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit, als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten; sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde…
Lew and I ran to the store yesterday morning, mainly for fruit and naan bread (I’d gotten a hankering for it, and later on I toasted it on my cast-iron pan). There was a big bucketful of gladiolas near the potato display, and I took two of the unwieldy bunches – one an aubergine, the other an aggressive pink – and put them in the cart beneath Lew’s ever-kicking feet. Once we got home I put them in the kombucha jar that typically sits listlessly in the corner, awaiting another chance to embrace something beautiful for a few short days.
The gladiola branches are curved out in every direction, poised like the arms of a diver, rigid and attentive. It almost seems like a new blossom unfurls by the hour.
I have never written an informal blog-post. I always have some point in mind. So this is a bit of an experiment. I’m not even sure what I’m here to say, or who I’m saying it to.
I have had many emails come in since I posted my last blog – the one about my not being Catholic anymore. For the most part these emails have been encouraging, grateful, loving, vulnerable, and heartening.
A couple came off sounding accusatory – I looked up to you! – and a couple came off sounding, simply, mean.
The most encouraging response – which came from someone who knows me very well – was, “I want you to know how much I respect you for choosing to follow your conscience. It was very brave, and I know you do not take it lightly. You have a greater love for truth than almost anyone I know, and I know it is only pursuit of truth that would cause you to make a decision like this. I know you have respect for people who hold religious convictions in a healthy manner. No matter what sort of negative comments you get, you are loved beyond measure. I know that you are more running toward something than running away from something.” These words made me feel totally seen, in the best way. They are accurate words from someone who has an accurate perception of me – someone who knows both the good and the bad in me. Still, my shoulders tense up whenever I see an email from an unknown address in my inbox, or a notification telling me another comment has been made on the post. While I have made strides in letting go of worrying about others opinions (parenthood has a way of doing that), I still find it emotionally taxing to have people projecting their own fears and dysfunction onto what they perceive to be my dysfunction. Doesn’t matter if their perception is accurate or not: it just sucks that they feel the urge to be cruel.
It’s nearly always other women who say vicious things. I think some people need to have someone to hate and tear down – a scapegoat. We all do that, to some degree – heap our unresolvable anxieties, questions, guilt complexes, resentments, etc onto some “Other” and then stand at a distance, snarling self-righteously. Competitive desire and resentment make for an ugly set of twins. They, along with smarminess, are two of the most hideous sides of this human nature we’re all dealing with, in my opinion.
On another note, I’ve found it interesting how some folks have chosen to interpret the decision as being the result of my being seduced by postmodernism. It does seem to be that for some minds, it is inconceivable that an individual could possibly be healthier, happier, and more integrated after leaving the religion of their youth (unless it’s Mormonism. Or Islam. Or – well, anything other than Catholicism). It is also inconceivable, within this line of thinking, that a person could come to such a decision and yet maintain their moral compass, their belief in God, and their desire to live a meaningful, virtuous life. More than a couple people wrote offering to help me through this time of delusion and, though they didn’t say it, “sin.” Leaving the Catholic church seems to automatically transform an individual into a pansexual barista who sleeps in until 2 on Sundays and is utterly irreligious – basically, Shaggy from Scooby Doo. This is catastrophically dreadful in the eyes of this sort of Christian.
(Personally, I a) don’t think Shaggy is the most morally bankrupt dude out there, all things considered, and that we could all learn or thing or two from him, and b) don’t follow the logic.)
But you know something? I don’t mind. Not to the point of feeling anxious or conflicted about it. There would have been a time when my emotional volatility would have called the shots, and boy oh boy, I would have seethed. Small example – someone said to me the other day, “You may have left the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church hasn’t left you.” I have yet to understand exactly what was meant by this weird statement, but at one point in my life I would have chewed his head off without stopping to consider that he probably meant well, and that there’s no way he could possibly know precisely how a statement like that would land on a person with my history. I either don’t have the emotional energy to care about the opinions of those whose opinions used to rule my emotional state, or, I’ve reached some small measure of serenity such that I recognize everybody’s a bit fucked up and a bit frightened, and that it’s quite all right to use “I don’t exactly know,” as an answer to many of life’s most enormous questions.
Anyway. What else can I tell you about? How about a small glimpse into dating post-divorce/annulment, as a single mom. A few months ago I hopped on several dating sites, and – it’s been…mildly discouraging?
I have yet to meet a man who is open-minded enough to accept my faith journey (feels sentimental to call it that, and also a little inaccurate – maybe ‘existential questioning’ is a better fit) and the fact of my being divorced/annulled with a child, and who is integrated enough to be living a meaningful, value-oriented life.
I honestly couldn’t care less what religion a man practices (or doesn’t), so long as he is noble. One’s purported Creed is no guarantee of one’s character. That proves itself pretty clearly over time and exposure.
Most of the men I know are
a) single, militaristically Catholic, and disturbed by the idea of dating anyone who is not Catholic;
b) single, atheist (“and laughing about it” as OKCupid describes), and vocally enthusiastic about having as much sex with as many people as possible (most men are silently enthusiastic about it, or at least the idea of it, imo)
e) not into women
f) on the treadmill of ennui
g) some combo of any or all of the above.
(This is not meant to be super serious, in case you didn’t already pick up on that.) I went on a date with one man who, upon hearing that I believe in God, asked with clear disdain, “So – do you believe in Creationism, then?” I stared at him. “No. I do not.”
“Oh. Well. Do you think it should be taught in schools?”
He blinked, pleased but skeptical. A few minutes later he asked, “Did you vote for Trump?” Again, negative. I pretended that none of this was insulting, and nodded politely while he explained that all philosophical problems are semantic problems and if people just knew how to talk properly, there would be no problems. Having ascertained that I wasn’t a fundamentalist sheep with a gun in her corset and a tobacco boil festering on her gums, this same guy later asked me, about five minutes into dinner, how kinky I am (on a scale of 1 to 10).
My, my, what a swing.
At this point, I began to feel less – agreeable. That I was eating a salad consisting almost entirely of troublingly warm feta cheese wasn’t helping, and that the feta began to feel like a woolen sock trapped between my jaws added to the general hideousness of the whole thing. I smiled agreeably (after struggling to swallow the sock of cheese) and told him that I am a very open-minded, imaginative person but that it ultimately wasn’t his business to know. He nodded, remarked that I had the most unreadable face he’d ever seen, and proceeded to talk about sex drive, his own and that of others, including his two-timin’ ex who cheated on him with his best friend. I did my usual empathetic listening thing and secretly wished I could observe the sparrows that were dancing around on the sidewalk just beyond our table. I find birds to be very funny. But “people are more important than birds, Alanna, even disagreeable ones”- conscience. Anyway. Once this fellow figured out that I wasn’t into casual sex, his eyes glazed over and he started to do alot of shoulder-coasting. I stood up and smashed my plate over his head ala Anne Shirley, and feta streamed down upon his head like the oil streaming upon the beards of whoever wrote those weird proverbs in the Old Testament.
All of this accounting is true except for the last sentence.
It occurred to me, on another date with a different guy, that the restaurant we were at probably serves white beets because they don’t want people to think they’re dying the following morning (we were eating said white beets at the time: I did not divulge my poop-related thoughts to him). During this date, I asked the man what song had first moved him to tears, and he said, without hesitation, that it had never happened.
I have learned that I do not click romantically with hyper-logical people, generally – the “T” types – and I quietly reminded myself that another bleeding heart is out there, somewhere (though, hopefully, not a bleeding small intestine).
Options are slim, it seems. I have deleted my OKCupid account.
So how’d I do, informally-speaking?
I bet if you have no sense of humor, you are annoyed and/or offended.
“Wherever, in the relationships of men to men, ‘belief’ in the strict sense is demanded or practiced, something essentially inhuman is taking place, something that is contrary to the nature of the human mind, something that is equally incompatible with its limitations and its dignity. The ancients expressed the same idea in their more temperate manner: ‘The cognition of one man is not by nature so correlated with the cognition of another man that the former may be governed by the latter.’ That is to say: no mature man is by nature so spiritually inferior or superior to another that the one can serve the other as an absolutely valid authority.”
– Josef Pieper, On Faith
It’s one of my most vivid memories.
Senior year of college, early May. A couple weeks of classes left, and then I would no longer live my life by semesters.
I was sitting in a classroom listening to a man speak about how the Masons are a diabolical group whose sole, burning desire is to undermine the Catholic Church by any means necessary. Occasionally he would switch gears and focus on some aspect of Marian ideology: his particular fixation was apparitions.
“Our Lady of Kibeho,” he said, pacing. “The apparitions began on November 28, 1981.” Around me, my classmates scribbled notes. The professor had told us that remembering exact details about apparitions would serve us well on the final exam. He went on, describing the series of purported apparitions. I remember that his voice had an odd, controlled affectivity which set my teeth on edge. I also remember feeling guilty for thinking there was something false about him when everyone else appeared to think he was a saint.
And then suddenly, a pivot moment. One of those crystalline instances in life that, even as they occur, you sense will leave a profound impression.
It was as though I zoomed back on the situation, like I was observing it freely, floating above. The most ruthlessly honest part of my psyche asked: what am I doing here, in this classroom on this tiny campus, perched on a hill in a depressed midwestern town, taking notes in a class called Mariology, listening to a man drone on about something that the planet has zero practical need for, surrounded by peers who appear to accept it whole-cloth, and – my God, most importantly – how does any of it make me a more ethical, honest person?
Really, does it?
When it comes to religious belief and conviction, I think at the end of the day, we believe what we want to believe.
Or maybe, we believe what we need to believe. We believe what we need to believe in order to feel okay about ourselves. There’s a pragmatist in all of us.
If we want (if we need) the Catholic church to be the Truth, we will find things that corroborate that; and likewise, if we do not want it to be (if we do not need it to be) the Truth, we will find plenty of inconsistencies.
I remember reading a blog post by a devout Catholic woman who was poking fun at the belief Mormons hold about Joseph Smith’s magical spectacles. I thought it was funny: but probably not for the same reason she thought it was funny.
When it comes to religious conviction, it’s not a matter of “right” or “wrong.”
Conviction is totalitarian. It’s always right.
I think most people assume I’ve made this decision because of the way people have reacted in the wake of my divorce. Strangers message me to remind me not to leave Jesus because of Judas.
I’d be lying if I said that that doesn’t play any role in this decision. But it’s hardly the basis for it.
My intellectual doubts about Catholicism began in college, although I have had phases of agnosticism since I was a child. A philosophy class on comparative religion exposed me to the origins, vastness, and commonality of mankind’s religious impulse and its manifestations; and the classes I took in metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology exposed me to Kant, Otto, Kierkegaard, Scruton, Eliade, and Nietzche (apropos to nothing, I remember once hearing a cute barista muttering “Nietzche is peachy,” to himself). A couple of psychology classes introduced me to Jung and Freud. And a class on none other than The New Evangelization exposed me to Rodney Stark, who opened my eyes to considering religion from a sociological perspective.
These thinkers exposed the tear at the corner of the wallpaper: the wallpaper being religious ideology, gorgeous and gory and ancient as it was. The only lens through which I had looked to understand myself and other people. I wanted to pick at the tear. I wanted to see what was underneath the wallpaper – more layers, perhaps? Other patterns, other designs? Colors I’d not seen before? Words scrawled every which way? A single Word? Or – a blank nothingness?
But fear kept me from doing so. Fear, and pride. An anxiety disorder. Social conditioning, the need to be accepted. The fact that I was majoring in theology, for God’s sake (nice – double meaning).
And also – this I cannot overlook – a genuine love of God, a genuine love of liturgy, a genuine belief in Meaning. Loves that remain strong in me to this day.
So I pushed the questions down, I closed the books that threatened my worldview. I told myself (and others) that those who left the Church did so because they just couldn’t hack it, morally or intellectually. “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been tried and found too difficult,” I texted to 20+ people: a real Chesterton zinger. (Thank you to the commenter who corrected my blunder of misattributing that quote to Lewis.) A warm shot of triumphalism to keep the cold touch of doubt at bay. (Doubt, I now ask myself, or an active, curious mind?)
(I’m sorry about my weird love for parenthesis. I like whispering and being conspiratorial. Hissing into peoples’ ears, like Sir Hiss from Robin Hood. You know, the snake that gets drunk in a barrel, the one who’s way smarter than the King? Love him. He also becomes airborne by way of sticking his head into a helium-filled balloon and whirring his tail behind him. I don’t understand the physics of that situation, but we all have our secrets. Also, he wears a very stupid plush hat, and looks nothing like a snake.)
(There is no double-meaning, there. I just… really love the animated Robin Hood.)
So what is it, then, that I questioned about Catholicism, and ultimately couldn’t reconcile?
Well, there are several things.
One is papal infallibility. The more I studied it – the Schism, various scriptural interpretations, political and historical happenings, Vatican I and its inspiration – the more I felt certain that the Papacy, as it is enshrined in the Vatican today, is not a divinely instituted reality. I have tried to understand it (and deconstruct it) from a variety of angles. To refuse to consider the possibility that some of the most brutishly human projects masquerade as God’s wisdom on earth is, in my mind, deeply naive, as is the refusal to accept that Catholicism behaves much like other doctrinal religions behave, from a sociological perspective.
I may make another blog post about this, but part of me wonders if that would be worth anybody’s time. I readily admit that the Schism, the diverging interpretations of the passages upon which the Papacy is apparently based, and the historical, political landscape of Christendom are all topics that are complex and beyond the scope of one person. And frankly, it’s nearly impossible to get an objective opinion on any of it: it may be one of the most polemical topics of the last thousand years. I am still wading through all of it – and I’m wading through it with a massive bias, mind you. I think it’s a sham. But I’ve heard enough from both sides to feel entirely uncomfortable with simply accepting that something is so because a sainted fellow said it is so.
We believe what we believe because we trust the ones who told it to us (see Josef Pieper’s book On Faith). In this case, I distrust both sides, and resent that something so thoroughly human and political has been promulgated as something Divine.
I understand that institutions – religious or otherwise – need to be organized, and that as a species we are instinctively hierarchical. But to insist that belief in the Papacy’s ecclesiastical supremacy makes the difference between having access to the Fullness of the Truth or remaining on the outside of this beatitude smacks of hubris beyond imagining. Indeed, this belief is demanded over belief in the Eucharist (which is described in the Catechism as being “the source and summit” of the faith). In the concluding paragraph of Session Four, chapter 4 of the First Vatican Council, issued on July 18, 1870, the senior archbishops and papal legates in the Vatican proclaimed that they “. . . teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, on the exercise of his office, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by divine assistance, infallibility. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not by consent of the Church, irreformable. So, then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition, let him be anathema.”
This leads into another issue that has disenchanted me: the issue of compelled belief. It doesn’t sit right with me that membership in the religion requires assent – unilateral assent – to a set of prescribed doctrines that claim to be divinely inspired, but which, upon inspection, reveal themselves to be a muddy mixture of divine inspiration, political clout, preservation of tradition, and material for zealotry (which, practically speaking, drums up and sustains membership).
This dynamic offers both the cancer and the cure.
The cancer – notion of mortal sin, which means if you die you’re probably going to be cut off from God forever.
The cure – confession, the sacraments.
Convenient. But psychologically devastating if you start to notice a tear in the wallpaper.
Another area I could not reconcile is the Church’s approach to human sexuality. Much of it I love and accept. But some of it I see as being massively damaging to the psyche. I touched on some of this in a recent Youtube video, in which I challenge the age-old notion that concupiscence imbues human sexuality with a perduring proclivity toward disorder – a theological concept that is hardly ever tempered with acknowledgement of the biological aspects of our nature.
I am also deeply troubled by the Church’s long-standing approach toward virginity and celibacy, and the psychological impact that has had on her most thoroughly orthodox, Conservative, die-hard members.
And no. This is not because I myself am not a virgin. It’s because I think it’s repressive, untenable, and in desperate need of updating.
This is an ancient idea in Catholicism. Virginity has long-symbolized wholeness and perfection, and this comes as no surprise, considering the doctrinal emphasis that’s placed on Mary’s perpetual virginity (and considering the fact that the notion of a God-man being born of a virgin had been swirling around in the mythological ether long before Christianity emerged on the scene. The most compelling counter-attack to the unavoidable tension this caused within the early Church can be found in the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman and Fr. Hugo Rahner, who offered that God prepared the world for the Incarnation via a preparatory sequence of symbols, beliefs, and rituals – God meets us where we are at, basically).
St. Ambrose wrote that for a woman to lose her virginity was to “deface the work of the Creator.” St. Jerome said that marriage is a humiliation that is tolerable only because more virgins are born as a result. St. Augustine taught that original sin was passed through the passion of sex, and that we ought to love chastity “above all things, for it was to show that this was pleasing to Him that Christ chose the modesty of a virgin womb.” More recently, we see this notion persisting in the obsessive emphasis put on Maria Goretti’s inviolate martyrdom at the hands of a would-be rapist: read any rendering of the tale and you will see that her purity is somehow conflated with her strength of character, her holiness.
And again, the notion of sexual intactness being synonymous with capax Dei was popularized/revitalized by Pope John Paul II in his Wednesday audiences, wherein he claimed that the eschatological state of the body is virginal; this idea was furthered by the writings of Giussani and Dubay – among others.
All of these modern (celibate) writers push the idea that celibate men and women represent a foretaste of heaven, where everyone’s love for God will be wholly undivided. Somehow, apparently, not having genital, sexual experience renders one more perfect: symbolically or otherwise. (I could get into how the notion of eschatological virginity doesn’t make sense in light of Aquinas’ thoughts on the resurrected form, which will, apparently, possess the fullness of every sense and faculty – which would make one think, logically, that the genitals – the only incomplete set of organs – would be involved in that, would be engaged: but no. The most perfect situation for genitalia, according to JPII’s logic, is that they be let alone.)
Some will push back on what I’ve just said and insist that, if you really look into the theology, you’ll discover this language is mostly symbolic – that Giussani, for example, just uses the word virginity to mean “singleness of heart”, or something. But this is a refusal to acknowledge the sociological impact these kinds of ideas have on a body of people, as well as a refusal to appreciate just how deeply the early church Fathers have formed the Church’s collective psyche – for good and for ill.
(And this is part of the reason why I’m considering going back to school to become a sex therapist, not even kidding.)
Lay people are not going to be splicing and dicing who said what, when, about why the celibate state is so holy and perfect. For most lay people, the trickle-down message is simply: virginity is the better than sex, and the people who are the most serious about God are celibate, and we all know virginity and celibacy have to do with genitalia and sexuality, so, I guess those of us who engage sexually are just a little less into God, and a little less good.
As a result, the clergy are seen as “Other”: holier, higher, to be more revered. Trust what the priest tells you. Go to the Bishop to get that special slip of paper signed. Do not ever question the Pope when he speaks ex cathedra.
I look at this whole situation and want to throw my hands in the air, saying, “Don’t you see?” Don’t you see this from any other angle other than the one you’ve been told? Don’t you see the practicality in making the priestly class privy to some greater power, derived from their purity; and don’t you see how unhealthy enforced celibacy is?
Don’t you see that the idolization of priests is craziness for everybody involved?
When I see manipulation – particularly in a lopsided distribution of power – I stop trusting.
On the topic of sexuality, another thing that I cannot support about Catholicism is the practice of “enforced” (didn’t know what other word to use) celibacy in the priesthood (I know there are exceptions – Anglicans who have converted, etc). I understand and respect that for thousands of years there have been men and women who have embraced lives of celibacy and asceticism. But I think the kinds of people who can embrace that particular charism in a healthy manner – and I’m talking about it as something distinct from religious life – are very far and few between. And that the best candidates for it are people who are asexual.
Or, if they’re not asexual, that they be discouraged from taking a vow of celibacy until they’re middle-aged.
I think many young men grow up hearing about the nobility, meaningfulness, and goodness of Holy Priesthood – they hear words like service, sacrifice, sanctity – and it stirs something profound inside of them. Some, too, probably have had positive relationships with priests who they genuinely admire as people. But they can’t know – none of us can know, when we’re young – just how long, lonely, and hard life is, or just how rare are the individuals who can healthily abstain from any kind of sexual release throughout their lives (note that I said healthily: I think many people probably avoid sex for fear-based reasons).
They can’t know how profound is the need to be intimate. They can’t know it because it isn’t spoken of as something just as profound – something even more profound – as the spiritual perfection they earnestly desire. And if they feel any such stirrings they interpret them as being “less than,” as something to be valiantly struggled with, something to be swallowed.
And I think some young men – those who realize they are gay (yes, I said gay, and not “those who struggle with same-sex attraction”, and I have reasons for that), but who love the Church, who don’t want to deal with the social stress of being repeatedly asked “Why aren’t you married yet”, who feel like something is intrinsically disordered about them – I think some of them feel like the only thing they can do is enter the priesthood. Maybe for some it’s subconscious. Where else can they go in the Church without being made to feel like a project, without being made to feel like they need to be the poster-child for how to embrace living an integrated, chaste life as a flourishing Catholic?
My guess would be that 3/4 of clergy have a sexual life of some kind. Can’t prove it. Just my opinion.
Not having sex for your whole life isn’t natural. Catholics are all about natural law and biology when it comes to, like, homosexuality, but as soon as celibacy comes up things get abstract and Eschatological real fast.
Please, don’t give me the “it’s just symbolic language” line.
Most Catholics don’t think about it symbolically.
Hell, most people don’t think twice about Ecclesiology, Eschatology, Mariology, Soteriology, or theological anthropology – no matter how many years you’ve spent studying it, man.
Many required beliefs in Catholicism strike me as superfluous: ethically speaking, that is. They serve a practical, institutional purpose, certainly – sustained membership, allegiance, fomentation of popular piety, etc. But just how they inform my ability to willfully choose to live an ethical life in imitation of the life of Christ – which, I believe, ought to be the heart of religion – to become like God, to enter more fully into Being – is lost on me. I am unable to see how believing Mary’s hymen remained intact through childbirth inspires one to better love my neighbor, nor am I able to see how believing in Petrine authority, and brandishing it as the bulwark of Roman Catholicism, inspires one to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. In my experience, these doctrines have not lead me to love God or my neighbor: they’ve lead me, rather, more often than not, into snobbish pontification, intellectually and spiritually lazy appeals to authority, and a gross vacillation between self-congratulations and self-flagellation.
And then there’s the contradiction of proudly claiming the agnosticism at the heart of Catholic metaphysics (Bishop Barron’s own words) – apophatic theology – whilst claiming we can know the precise moment transubstantiation occurs.
But maybe that’s just user-error, and if I was a perfectly aligned human I would see the Truth of Catholicism. Honestly, maybe that’s so. They say that once the conscience becomes clouded, it gets mighty tricky to apprehend the true, the good, and the beautiful (Mormons say that, too, by the way. As do Jehovah’s Witnesses). And I’m sure parts of my conscience are murky.
But my gut says it’s not that simple, after having been steeped in this religion for 27 years, studying it for four years, and actively questioning it for the past three.
There’s much more – many other areas that I could not reconcile – but I need to take a break for now. A follow-up post may be in order.
There isn’t really room for free thought in Catholicism, when you get down to brass tacks and consider its claims. Assent to these unbending claims is the difference between having access to the fullness of Truth and not having access to it. This is how all doctrinal religions behave – it’s not unique to Catholicism. It’s the way religions preserve themselves and maintain membership, among other things.
If there were more room made for the fact that faith, belief, and assent of the will are dynamic realities that unfold continuously throughout a person’s life, being Catholic would seem more sensible, healthy, and integrated to me. I seriously wish that there was more room for the prophetic in Catholicism; I wish the thoroughly Conservative ideas upon which it is built could be updated, and that dialogue would be more than shuffling papers around amongst higher-ups who ultimately call the shots, every single shot.
I’m honestly saddened that I can’t honestly remain Catholic. Maybe things will shift such that I can call myself one again, someday, but I’m not banking on that. I look at someone like Fr. Richard Rohr and marvel at his ability to peacefully bop along, calling himself a Catholic, despite that fact that much of what he says is wonderfully heterodox.
How does he not die from cognitive dissonance?!
I think part of the reason why I can’t just do the “Cafeteria Catholic” thing – you know, where you pick and choose what you like about it, and leave the rest – is because I still think in a painfully black-and-white manner. It will take me a lifetime to heal that tendency, I think.
(It helps listening to people describe their psychedelic experiences. It’s beautiful and mysterious to me.)
(I myself will never work up the nerve to try psychedelics, no matter how much Joe Rogan extols its wonders.)
(Guys, I have never even smoked pot.)
Another reason I can’t be selective is because I genuinely care about the basic, fundamental claims of the Church, and I take them seriously. I take them too seriously to be flippant about them.
And part of it is because I’d be pretending if I said I believed the fundamental claims of Roman Catholicism – the ones that depart from the basic metaphysical truths of Christianity, the ones that are distinctively Catholic.
And pretending is dishonest.
Are some of my conclusions connected to my lived experience of relationships? Yes. Most definitely. We can’t entirely parse these pieces of our lives apart. I don’t think we’re meant to.
Did I grow up in a home with unstable authority figures, make bad decisions regarding relationships, compulsively repeat the situation I grew up in, go through phases of feeling intensely angry at people who weren’t really to blame for my shit, isolate and judge? Yes, I did.
Did my faith community pull away from me when I needed it the most, thereby allowing my eyes to be opened to the pain of the other Biblically “unacceptable” groups of people who are trying to find and love God just as earnestly as everybody else? Yes.
Did all of that, does all of that, color my perception of the world, of religion, of relationships, of God? Indeed, it does.
(Does the fact that some of this is personal – that some of this plunks down from the cerebral and into the belly – make you feel sorry for me?)
(Do you pity me for allowing the humanity of other people – the good and the bad – to affect my approach to God?)
One of the bluntest things I can say is that I can’t be a healthy person and be Catholic.
Is it possible I have everything wrong about Catholicism? It is indeed possible. That’s always an option, thankfully, and one I’ve lately begun to lean into more freely, one that I never allowed myself to consider when Catholic, funnily enough.
As I said on my Instagram post earlier today, I have no desire to discourage anyone in their faith walk or religious devotion. Not everyone has to wrestle with stuff like this, not everyone leaves the religion they were born into, not everyone’s brain is wired the same way. I don’t intend to convince anybody of anything by writing about this, because, as I said earlier – conviction is totalitarian. And if your belief in the Church is helping you flourish, if it’s giving you access to God, to healing, to integration, and to actively loving those around you, I support your belief in it.
I’m more interested in the Truth than I am in calling myself the adherent of any one religion or ideology. (I’m sure some Catholics out there would say the same.)
I believe in God. I believe that God is more than an abstraction or a projection. I believe, most days, the metaphysical claims of Christianity. I believe them because they are reasonable and life-giving, but mostly, because I have faith.
Independence is in the air, it seems. Jordan Peterson, whom I have immense love and respect for, approaches religion in a Kantian, utilitarian manner. He exercises belief in the great traditions, but he seems to be a faith-less man (although, no one is entirely faithless, if they interact with other humans/if they have any relationships that are meaningful. Trust in another person requires faith beyond observation and verification).
Honestly, it’s really hard to tell with Peterson. He’s said a lot of ambiguous things – haven’t we all. Anyway – I see this as a deficit in his approach. His definition of ‘God’ is so flexible as to be almost meaningless, and he seems to think the numinous ultimately arises from the material.
I regard man as having metaphysical import beyond that which can be described by the sciences.
Most days I believe that God has spoken to us in space and time through Christ. Some days I do not believe that. But every day I attempt to behave as though I do.
I’m not going to pretend and say that faith comes easily to me, though I wish it did.
I admire Peterson’s way of cutting off the fat from around ethical beliefs & practices. It seems to be effecting real, positive societal change – to a more massive degree than most religious institutions are able to do. But, I do wonder at the longevity of his utilitarian approach to religion: it doesn’t seem likely to me that religious atheism/agnosticism will be able to inspire a deeply ethical society over a sustained period of time. Embracing the Golden Rule such that it spills over into future generations probably will require the continued, unreasonable leap of faith into the metaphysical claims of Christianity. It’s that promise of eternal life, I think, that inspires genuine love of neighbor. You have to be a little bit nuts to be radically compassionate.
But maybe not? I’m not sure. It’s an enormous question. How does the faith value – believing the Resurrection, for example – make a person more ethical? Does it? Why does it? Is there any moral action or statement that can be done or made by a Christian that can’t be done or made by an unbeliever?
I think there will always be people who don’t believe the metaphysical claims of any religion – at least, not consciously. And I think we can all learn something from one another.
Maybe believers and unbelievers are both a bit right, and both a bit wrong.
I’m somewhere in the middle. A wise friend of mine, who finds herself in a similar place, described it as being like a greeter at a door, saying goodbye, saying hello, offering a warm meal, a cup of water.
Nothing is being slammed shut, as I stand here, understanding and loving a bit about both of the rooms that I straddle.
I wrote this post for the folks who are coming and going. The ones who, like me, love religion, love God, but wrestle sincerely with either the cognitive, ethical, or moral sides of any given situation. I didn’t write it to discourage devout Catholics from their faith. I didn’t write it to disparage a Church that I genuinely love, or to imperil the souls of the faithful.
I think the ones who know it’s for them will understand what I’m saying.
Beyond the joy of getting to see you, I can say that I sensed some unease in you. It probably carries a sense of rejection, of loneliness, and, at a fundamental level, a sense that your life has turned into something morally wrong (blah blah blah).
Pardon my Portuguese, but fuck ‘em. If someone can’t handle you as a human being because of your life, they have no business moralizing to you. No one knows what they’re doing. Really. No one has a clue, and doctrines are a mighty fine way for people to act like they do.
You’re not in control of what’s happened in your life, nor are they, and that’s okay, because no one has any idea what they’re doing as they try to make it through everyday on this planet, drinking coffee and eating food pretending they’re not on a spinning orb in a random corner of a universe that may be heading towards dissolution and there’s no guarantees of what happens after your body stops letting you drink coffee, desire other bodies drinking coffee, and think about the tunes of Paul Simon.
So, never apologize for your life, for who you are and what brought you to this point. While the loneliness and rejection from people in the Church is disconcerting, I’ve found that there’s far more people who are ready and willing to meet you as you are, as a human, than there are people telling you you’re not getting your spiritual vitamins.
Anyways, know of my love and support for you always.
* * *
Wanted to share these wise, irreverent words, which came to me months ago in an email from a friend who I’d caught up with after years of being out of touch, in case they offer as much solace as they brought to me.
Experiencing divorce and annulment within the Catholic Church – which I have – is not an easy thing (please don’t misunderstand me: I realize that it ought not be easy). In addition to whatever trauma and pain lead up to the decision to end an avowed relationship, the social reaction thereof is a bitter cup to drink from. Fearfulness in one’s contemporaries is masked with biting assumption, and/or uninformed judgment. It has shown me a saddening, though not surprising, side of human nature: one I am not unfamiliar with in myself.
For a long while I felt the urge to explain myself, to explain the situation, even while deeply desiring to maintain my privacy and that of my ex’s. Neither he nor I owe anyone details about what specifically happened, but I was told on one occasion that it was gravely misleading of me to publicly share about the fact of our divorce without giving exact details. For the sake of avoiding scandal, the faithful had a right to know why this had happened in my life. One woman told me she and her husband would never be able to listen to my music in quite the same way: “I’m just so shocked. This is just so painful for me to hear.” (I remember resolving in that moment to never again make someone else’s grief and misery about me. If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. Just sit with them, listen, be for them.)
The judgment, pity, and – at times – the smug pleasure I read in the eyes of others was sometimes more than I could patiently endure. The sweeping assumptions, the quiet withdrawal, the unfair suspicion, the sense of being fodder for gossip under the auspices of “prayer” – it was tiresome. It made my shoulders tense up and scoop forward; my body was trying to make me smaller. It made me cry in bed a few days.
But I have to say that the most cutting remarks have come from people who do not know me or the situation. They have come from people hidden behind Instagram handles who wield a so-called muscular Christianity that is sorely lacking in wisdom and compassion.
I am sad for these people. I say that with no contempt, no sarcasm. It would be a hellish prison to be so consumed by fear that one is unable to consider that his or her operating system may be fatally flawed. I operated similarly for many years of life – so I know. It is an anxiety-ridden, colorless mental space to occupy that requires one tenuously maintain rigid control over a categorical concept of no less than God, no less than grace.
In a word: suffocating.
When such a system is threatened by reality, people get uncomfortable. Deep down, beyond their tickled pride or their human curiosity, they ask – could this happen to me? Could my vocational trajectory fall apart – my life, my social circle, my community? Could God perhaps not be a vending machine? Could grace perhaps not be something I either know how to “do” or “not do”, akin to tying my shoes?
(I am so damn good at tying my shoes. Please let it be as simple as knowing how to tie my shoes. I’ve memorized the CCC. I know more Aquinas than you do.)
(You are bristling as you read this, perhaps. A faint feeling of annoyance. You think I am over-simplifying? Maybe. But I am willing to bet money that if you’re a serious Catholic, you have serious control issues.)
Those who know me, however, have spoken differently. Those who know me have met me with measured eyes, they have wept with me over the phone. They have reached out to me repeatedly. They have sent me care packages packed with wild honey and pickled green beans, they have planned to float down the river on inner tubes with me in the summer months. They have told me about their trials and sorrows, they have remembered the whole of me, they have rejoiced in the restoration of my heart and life. They have given me thoroughly honest feedback when I have pressed them for it. They have dropped a few f-bombs in anger for my sake. They have had the humility to say, “I don’t know why this has happened,” and the directness to say, “You deserve to be loved and you deserve to feel safe. Full stop.” They have given me advice – when I’ve asked for it. They have flown thousands of miles to be with me, they have let me love them, they have trusted me, they have sent me emails like the one shown here.
These are the people who have broken my heart open in the right way; the ones who have left me walking out of the rubble a more honest, confident woman than I was when I walked into it.
You know who you are. Thank you for being Christ to me.
This evening I was listening to a fairly popular podcast geared toward Catholic women. The host, a woman, had invited two other women onto the show as guests to discuss “love, sex, and orgasms”. Toward the end of the episode, the conversation focused in on orgasm within the married context, specifically the experience of female orgasm. A listener had written in with a question regarding what is/what isn’t appropriate when it comes to sexual pleasure from the Catholic perspective, and one of the guests answered the inquiry by first giving a definition of “woman’s orgasm.” I will share her definition here, as I remember hearing it while listening, and will then give my rebuttal, because I think her perspective is a dangerous and unhealthy one that’s worth challenging.
“What is the meaning of a woman’s orgasm? … It’s a moment for you to show your husband how wonderful he is. In the best possible situation what you want is not to have an orgasm for your own pleasure, for your own satisfaction, for your own enjoyment, but because it’s this moment when you’re showing your husband how wonderful HE is, right? It’s an affirmation for him.”
This is an oversimplification, and a problematic one, at that.
While sexuality is meant to happen within the I-Thou context, it is also a deeply experienced aspect of the subjective person – it is something that, on some profound level, is incommunicable.
Sexuality is more than one’s genitals, obviously. It is bound up within the very personality of an individual. Orgasm is more than the stimulation of said genitalia: it is a bodily, psycho-spiritual experience that occurs within a specific moment in time to a specific embodied person.
While orgasm – mutual or staggered – is affirming for a partner to see and experience (I believe it’s validating for a man when he can “please” his partner, as female orgasm is a tad more elusive than male), he is, nonetheless, a witness to his partner’s ecstasy. He cannot experience it for her, nor is he meant to. The body is impervious to true union, in this sense: while the genitals are the one set of organs that are incomplete on their own, and while sex unifies the complementary sets, nonetheless the experience of sex and orgasm are uniquely male or female, and neither can fully understand the other’s experience of the act (including the pleasure). There is a reason why, from time immemorial, tales have been spun about people who shape shift (I’m referring here to Greek mythology) so as to discover which sex experiences greater pleasure: we witness the Other’s ecstasy, and we wonder at it. We realize that we are seeing our beloved in a uniquely vulnerable moment of self-expression. It is a sexual expression, no doubt, but it belongs to them uniquely, as an individual. It is an expression, indeed, of their personality. And so to insist that the purpose of female orgasm is to affirm the male is tantamount to asserting that she, a persona incommunicabilis, is a means to an end. This flies in the face of the fundamental ethic that each person is and end unto him or herself: and so, it won’t do. This is not to say that a woman can’t bear her husband’s self-confidence in mind as she surrenders to the moment of intoxication brought on by his embrace and his touch – she would do well to do so. But I’d wager that a man feels plenty satisfied upon seeing the woman he loves reveal this most particular part of her personality – the wild, self-forgetful, full-to-the-brim, vibrant prism of her pleasure. What’s more, I believe it is a pleasure for a man to pleasure a woman, and vice-versa; and that, in the context of a respectful, loving relationship, there is no need to overcomplicate this matter by cerebralizing the life out of the sexual experience.
If a woman were to follow this problematic line of thought thoroughly – that female orgasm primarily exists to affirm the male – then there would be no point in her discussing with him the details of what is preferable to her, what is uncomfortable, what relaxes her, etc (though such open discussion is an essential part of a healthy, trusting relationship). Her personal preferences, in this purview, must take the backseat. Her pleasure (which, one of the guests said, is “gratuitous, anyway – we shouldn’t take it for granted”) must be at the service of his self-assessment. (It’s also worth noting that if a man were to make this same assertion – “My woman’s orgasms are all about me, yessir, and that’s how it should be” – he’d be quickly labeled as a masochistic pig, a selfish jerk, a childish loser. The heartbreaking objectification that is part and parcel of the stance would be immediately evident.) I also want to note that, at one point, the other guest on the podcast chimed in during the discussion to say that a woman’s experience of orgasm should mirror, in some spiritual way, the creative ode that is Mary’s Magnificat (or the women of the OT). Her point, as I understand it, was that orgasm happens more readily when a woman is fertile and this makes sense spiritually because, in her words to me, “what we see all over Scripture is conceiving a child is the most joy-inducing thing, on a natural level, that a woman can do.” This is both bizarre and untenable, not to mention, alienating for those who cannot conceive. Further, it is predicated on a specific interpretation of Scripture that not everyone shares.
Sex happens between the ears before it happens between the legs. A woman’s brain is her biggest sex organ: what she holds in her thoughts will bear itself out in bed. So if she is mentally obsessing over somehow imitating the Mother of God, whom the Church regards as having been a perpetual virgin (not to mention entirely without sin), or some other scriptural figure, in addition to regarding herself as a willing martyr for her husband’s satisfaction, there’s a chance her experience of sex will be painful, perhaps in more ways than one. So, too, the pressure of having to hold in mind the purported idea of the Biblical notion of the conception of a child as being the “most joy-inducing” event in her life is, while a lovely ideal, one that could easily give rise to intense cognitive dissonance for a woman who either cannot conceive (but still finds orgasm deeply pleasurable), or for a woman who conceives in a situation that is fraught with external stressors (for example, poverty, illness, etc). I myself can say that upon realizing I was pregnant with my son, I felt a complicated mixture of emotions. Joy was among the strongest, to be sure; but there were also significant feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety. Do I see this as a moral failure on my part, an inability to properly align myself with the highest good? By no means. Point being: human situations and experiences do not always lend themselves to unequivocal statements.
What you believe about sex, what you believe about pleasure, what you believe about the body – that matters. While it is fine and good to read works like Theology of the Body, Love and Responsibility, et al., and to strive to incorporate the ideals therein, I believe it is crucial to police the human tendency toward abstraction – because it has real ramifications.
Orgasm, and the pleasure that it brings, is something an individual experiences as an expression of their personality: it is a subjective experience that is unique to each individual. This subjective dimension ought not be dismissed via over-emphasis on the communal dimension of sex & sexuality; it ought to be regarded as part and parcel of it.
I wouldn’t say pleasure is the primary purpose of orgasm, because that’s too reductive. But I do say that pleasure is essential to it, in a way that is unique among other pleasures. Eating, for example, is indeed pleasurable, and it serves a function – to nourish the body. Female orgasm doesn’t need to happen in order for conception to occur – in a sense, it’s “useless.” That, to me, says something profound regarding the design of the female body, and what the purpose of orgasm actually is.
Certainly, it is meaningful for a partner to see it and experience it. It is a gift for them, in that sense. But also certainly, it’s incredibly fun – just because. I think this is beautiful, worth celebrating, and that it ought to be remarked on more often.
There’s a great deal more that could be said on the subject, but this will have to do for now. I just felt it was important to offer a slightly more nuanced view on the matter. I acknowledge freely that I may have misunderstood what these women were trying to say: but I will not admit that, if this is the case, it is entirely due to my inability to comprehend the complexity, orthodoxy, and theological fittingness of what they were saying (one of them felt the need to point out to me that the other has a Graduate degree in theology after telling me I have slandered both of them and misconstrued their meaning and intention). I believe their language was imprecise and that their beliefs are problematic. And so I felt the need to respond as a matter of conscience. Desiring to slander or misrepresent doesn’t enter into it.
[Below is an open letter to anyone regularly consumed by Schadenfreude upon learning of the misfortune or anguish of others, and/or who is regularly consumed by envy upon learning of the joy and abundance of others.]
Dear Sir or Madam,
Your heart appears to be turning to stone. Left unattended, this will inevitably have an adverse affect on your over-all posture.
potential friends you’ve scrutinized but have not yet truly seen.
Around ten pm on November 28 I took a few last pictures in the mirror, standing to the side: “For posterity.” As I laid in bed afterward, I told the baby that he could come that night – that I was ready for him, and so was my body. He responded with a few of his throbbing kicks and jolts. In my bones I felt a heavy peacefulness settle over me, and as I fell asleep I focused my mind on the visual cues I’ve been meditating on throughout pregnancy: a wide circle fashioned out of water; a flower coming into bloom; an endless crashing of waves.
Around midnight I woke up suddenly and completely. My water broke as soon as I stood up – though initially I was skeptical that it was just that, despite the amount. I’d already told myself it wasn’t likely my water would break at home – it doesn’t happen nearly as often as they make it out to be in the movies, believe it or not, replete with elated screams and shots of the dad running out the door with a pair of shoes tied around his head in confusion. But the heavy feeling in my bones – an imperturbable, preternatural sense of “knowing” – was far more certain that any lingering questions I had about just what the fluid was indicating.
The breaking of the membranes was accompanied by contractions. After timing them for awhile I went downstairs to make myself something to eat, sensing that I only had a brief window of time to get something in my stomach before things became too intense. The cats followed me down, screaming and leaping around as usual; I fixed them their breakfast (saying it like that makes it sound as though I made them crumpets and jam) and then got myself some toast topped with peanut butter. Mid-way through the toast I had a contraction that got my attention – it was markedly more intense – and finishing the food wasn’t enjoyable, but I knew I’d need the stamina so I forced it down.
After that I phoned my doula Mary to let her know what was happening. We both agreed to go ahead with the plan that I labor at home for as long as I felt comfortable doing so, and after that to notify the midwives and hospital. We hung up, and I felt a mixture of reassured and excited: so this was really it.
I drew a bath for myself and got a glass of wine. The warm water was such a welcome relief; I hadn’t quite registered just how painful the waves (i.e., the contractions: semantics mean a great deal to me, so throughout labor I referred to the contractions in my mind as “waves”: hearing the very word contraction elicits a bodily response in me, making me more prone to tense up) were becoming.
By this point, time as I’ve ever known it was beginning to cease, and I entered a very instinctual place mentally. I had the presence of mind to ask K to put Audrey Assad’s Fortunate Fall album on, and in between waves I could still talk with him somewhat casually. But eventually the waves progressed to the point that I couldn’t speak through them, nor could I focus my eyes on anything in particular: it was like the eyes of my body had been replaced by a deeper set of eyes, as odd as that sounds; and my visual way of understanding and apprehending data was replaced entirely by some other mechanism. My focus went entirely to the waves as they came over my body. They were so all-consuming that distracting myself from them wasn’t even an option. I began to tell myself with each wave, “This is one contraction I will never have to have again,” “Each wave brings my son closer to me,” “I’m ready to meet you, my son.” I reminded myself again and again that I could trust my body and trust the process – that in this moment, I was more connected with the natural flow of things than possibly ever before. I kept my jaw slack and my mouth in a circle, and found that making low mantra-like sounds – “oh, oh, oh” or “sh, sh, sh” helped me move through each time.
There were moments when the pain was so great that I wasn’t able to keep my voice low and steady. At one point, after getting out of the tub, I went into the closet to grab something to wear, and a wave came over me that made me fall to the ground. I don’t remember feeling panicked at this; more just surprised at the force of the experience, surprised at just how pervasive it was – like every cell of my body was being engaged in it. I let myself cry out in pain, figuring that expressing that now was better than suppressing it or pretending – even with myself – that it was less painful than it truly was.
I’ve been trying to find words to describe what the pain of labor is like, and have been finding that, as with the topic of time, it is decidedly difficult to describe. Perhaps that has something to do with its relationship to time, on a cosmic scale. (My inner Jimminy is berating me, now, saying that if I were to try to probe too much into that line of thought I’d undoubtedly end up sounding like a total roob.) But take that for what you will.
The best I can describe it is to say that the pain of labor is the most focused, all-consuming, overwhelming, terrible, progressive, creative, sensational, and personal pain I’ve experienced. It was “being done unto me.”
I went into the bedroom after getting dressed and climbed into bed, thinking maybe I could find a position to labor in comfortably (by this point my thoughts, as I mentioned earlier, were becoming less clear). As soon as a wave began, I dropped onto the floor and turned so I could cling to the side of the bed; with my arms outstretched in front of me across the mattress and my head bowed, I moaned through until it passed. K came in then, sat on the bed and gripped my hands as the next wave came on; I found that having a resisting force to pull against helped me relax throughout my body, even as it was being racked by the contraction. (In Australian birthing centers, it’s common for birth-rooms to be equipped with thick ropes hung from the ceiling: this allows women to support themselves and work with an opposing force while bearing down in the squatting position – which, from a gravitational stand-point, makes a great deal of sense when pushing out a baby.)
I have no idea how long this part of the process lasted. Eventually I knew we shouldn’t stay at home any more, and I told K it was time to head out. On the way out the door I forgot my toothbrush, but I did remember to pour some food for the cats (who were, once again, leaping about and screaming excitedly. I tell you, they knew something was happening).
The drive to the hospital was a bit tortuous. K drove as fast as he could while I writhed in the passenger seat. The contractions were very strong at this point, and I couldn’t force myself to relax through them because of how uncomfortable the car was (sitting at a 90 degree angle during labor isn’t jolly fun). I couldn’t bear to be touched and felt like my body was being torched from the inside-out with each wave that came: I was sweating profusely beneath my puffy and fleece, but in too much pain to get them off. Each contraction was accompanied with a wall of intense nausea, and I wondered if I would vomit. I thought, at the time, that maybe it was the wine that was making me feel nauseated – ridiculous thing to wonder, given the context of the situation; but I didn’t realize then as I do now that I was in active labor. Additionally I felt the urge to bear down, which alarmed me: I knew what I was feeling was my son, pressuring against my body, on his way into the world.
The drive felt neither short nor long. It just was, and being secondary to the event of labor, I hardly registered it.
After a quick check-in I was wheeled into a tiny room where they took my blood pressure and checked how far dilated I was. What a relief to hear I was already at 7 centimeters! Had it been less than that – say, something totally depressing like 2 centimeters – I’m not sure if my spirit would have stayed strong. The pain was great and the waves were unrelenting at this point – maybe 30-60 seconds apart – and in between each one, my body convulsed and shook involuntarily. “It’s hormones,” they told me, “Very natural part of the labor process.” Needless to say, I’d been in labor for only a few hours and was already feeling exhausted, both from the mental effort of relaxing through each onslaught and from the physical demand of forcing a human through my body.
Jen, my other doula, came in shortly thereafter. Her joyful demeanor and familiar face helped calm me into a rhythm, although I couldn’t speak much at the time. The nurse took my blood pressure several times, as she was alarmed at how high it was; Jen told me later that her first assessment upon coming in was that my contractions were very intense indeed, and she wondered what kind of night lay ahead.
Soon enough it was time to go to the birth room. It was dimly lit and everyone spoke in soft, confident tones – except for one brusque nurse who, by the end of her shift, had seared herself forever in my memory as a mortal enemy (not really. But kind of). She was just trying to do her job, which required her to make constant check-ups on my and the baby’s vitals – but her manner in doing these tasks was harsh. I could feel my body tense up a great deal whenever she was near – my focus would weaken, I’d go rigid with irritation, and the pains would become less embraceable. We were all relieved when she went off-duty and took her grump elsewhere.
The emotional setting in which a woman labors makes an enormous difference on how things go down. Each person present gives off certain emotional “vibes” (no, I am not a chakra advocate) that consciously or subconsciously affect the woman’s ability to relax. Giving birth is a tremendously vulnerable experience – maybe the most – and, while it has the potential to be perhaps the most empowering event in a woman’s life, it also has the potential to be deeply traumatizing, depending on a number of factors. Some of those factors, medically speaking, are outside of the mother’s and birth team’s control – but others, such as the emotional and psychological climate of the room, can be planned for in advance. This was a huge part of the reason why I knew I wanted a doula. Even before I was married, let alone engaged, I asked my cousin Mary to be present at my first birth: not only is she an intimate friend who knows me well, but she’s also a mother and experienced birth-coach. She knows my history, my joys, my struggles, and my hopes. We share values and beliefs regarding life, death, birth, and most things in between. And – perhaps most crucial of all – she is also a woman, and has an understanding that goes beyond words and procedure. I was lucky to have Mary’s sister-in-law Jen present during my labor, as well – Mary suggested she come in case she (Mary) got tired out during my labor as a result of being nine months pregnant herself. Fortunately my labor didn’t go very long, so they were both able to be present throughout the duration.
After getting positioned on the narrow bed and laboring for a little while, Jen drew a bath for me. It was a relief to step in – especially that first moment of lowering down into the warm water. I was comforted being in a smaller space with two trusted women. We put my birth playlist on and, in between waves, they discussed how things were progressing. Sometimes my mind cleared enough during the brief pauses between contractions for me to enter in to the conversation: mostly I just listened or went inward, gathering up strength for the next wave.
The one song I can clearly remember hearing was “How Can I Keep From Singing” – in particular, this line: My life goes on in endless song above earth’s lamentation. I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear its music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul: how can I keep from singing? In that one moment I felt total peace, a peace beyond understanding. A wave was gripping my body and I surrendered to it completely. I sang the words aloud as I swayed back and forth with the sensation of the contraction: a slow build, a peak, a falling away. I thought of everything I’ve been trying to surrender in my life this past year – so many enormous, painful things – and I let my body express that surrender, because that is what it wanted to do – it’s what it needed to do. “Don’t be afraid to go into that pain,” Jen would say, quietly. If my eyebrows began to knit at the start of a wave, she would reach out and touch her fingers to my head, saying, “let your face relax.” Often being given just a simple instruction – such as relaxing my facial muscles – buoyed my spirits enough to face the wave with the right mixture of determination and acceptance. Relax my face – I can do that. Relax my body. I can do that. Bear this boy. I can do that. Don’t fight my body. I can do that.
When I was a child, I came up with a coping mechanism for physical pain. I found that, if I thought of it with an attitude of curiosity and openness, it didn’t cause me mental anguish. It just “was”: it was a sensation to experience, a sensation that would eventually fade. This probably sounds odd, especially when you consider it occuring in a child – I remember describing this mental process to my mother, and she definitely looked bewildered – but it’s served me well through life. While I was walking the Camino, during the most physically taxing moments I would envision the pain as “someone” I could “invite in for tea” – basically, I assessed that, even though I was in great pain, I wasn’t in any danger; and I didn’t need to be afraid of the feeling. I could rework my thoughts regarding the pain such that, in a sense, I had a certain agency in the matter – I was choosing it.
Don’t mistake me: I’m not a fan of pain. I don’t go looking for it. If one of my arteries were severed in some unfortunate event, I wouldn’t be calmly saying to the sensations coursing through my brain and body, “Care for a cup of Red Rose, imminent death? Come in for a visit! Tell me about yourself!” But I have found that it pays off to be objective – as objective as possible, any way – about what kind of pain I’m experiencing in my body. This step of assessing pain and the danger it presents – or lack thereof – has prevented a lot of unnecessary suffering.
There’s a difference between pain and suffering. The difference is the presence of anguish – that is, mental, spiritual, and emotional distress. Childbirth, for as painful as it is, is a natural process. It is innate to my physiognomy. Maintaining the perspective that the pains of childbearing are ultimately creative, not destructive (barring medical emergencies and other health complications that can occur when things don’t go as they ought) was one of the biggest pieces in achieving a satisfying labor.
After awhile in the tub, the urge to bear down became very strong. Under the midwife’s direction I changed positions so that I was more directly aligned with the contractions: I leaned forward with my arms resting on the edge of the tub. Mercy – the pain was great. But I felt safe and loved.
As intense as labor was at this point, the room was filled with peace. Looking back now, it reminds me of a time I was hiking in the Adirondacks. I was standing on the bank of a wide, tumultuous river. The water was moving with incredible speed and ferocity. It looked dangerous, mighty, and much more powerful than I. Yet it was exactly as it should be, and in that, it possessed some kind of restfulness. As I watched it flow by, I felt a tinge of sadness, almost like envy but without the weightiness: how I wished to know my part in all of it, to move with that same confidence and serenity, unafraid of the gifts God has given – unafraid of letting his power crash its way through my life.
I have often felt that way when I’m in nature. I’ve never seen a tree going through an existential crisis – It must be nice to be so rooted, physically and metaphysically. But God became man, not a tree; so I’d rather take the tension.
Mary and Jen sat on either side of the bathtub, and the midwife, Sarah, sat at the head of the tub, unobtrusively keeping an eye on my face and body language as I breathed through the waves. All three of them abided with me as I worked to bring my son into the world. It was one of the most reverent experiences of my life – an experience of sisterhood and community unlike any other.
“I want to push,” I declared at one point. I was afraid Sarah would tell me to wait, but she seemed confident I was at that point. She checked my dilation and said it was a go: “Push whenever you want to.” I felt a rush of adrenaline at those words, hardly believing that things had progressed to this point. To think that my little boy would be in my arms so soon – that I was almost there…
The pushing took about two hours. My sense of time was totally nonexistent through this portion of labor: each time I looked at the clock I was shocked to see how much time had passed. With every wave I pushed as hard as I could. My whole body was soaked in sweat from the effort, and I could feel my hair curling around my face as heat radiated from my body. My lips and throat were as dry as the Gobi desert, but Jen stood by my side and offered me little sips of water and gatorade after each contraction had passed. The smallest gestures of love can be acts of great magnitude, depending on how you look at it.
There were moments during this phase when the weariness I felt went beyond the limits of my brain. I would look to Mary and simply say, “I am so tired. I am so, so tired.” It was a mercy that my sense of time was nonexistent: I wasn’t able to consider the thought of not continuing. I was totally in the moment, and when the moment found me exhausted and spent, I simply remarked on it. Mary’s response was unwaveringly the same message of confidence and love: “You are tired. You’re working really hard and you’re doing a wonderful job. You’re so strong, Alanna. Soon you’ll see your son.” Other times, if I had a moment of fear, I would look to Mary and she would simply look back with complete understanding. As helpful as the midwife’s instructions were – her style was more task-oriented and challenging – the most helpful thing of all was that look of silent compassion from Mary or Jen.
It seemed that nothing was happening – that all I’d been doing was pushing with little to no progress. I had a moment of wondering if my child was anywhere even close to making his way out of my body, and felt frustrated and confused because the sensation of needing to bear down was so intense and immediate. Was there even a baby to be had? If so, why wasn’t he moving? “Tell it to me straight,” I said, finally, “Is he actually getting any closer to coming out or am I just about to have a huge shit?” I was half-joking, and meant to make them laugh; but I was also serious and a bit desperate. They did indeed laugh and said, “Feel.” I reached down and felt something that was definitely not me. “That’s your son’s head. He has a thick head of hair, by the way.” Something about feeling my child for the first time, and learning about a distinct feature of his – a thick head of dark hair – brought me a feeling of deep elation and courage. My resolve was strengthened again, and I went back to pushing with greater determination.
But still, he wasn’t able to move past the pubic bone – things were just too tight. I won’t go into details regarding the methods they tried to get him through, but let’s just say it was by far the most excruciating part. Finally, when his little heart was slowing from the effort and the contractions had begun to wear off (I was pushing out of sheer grit for the final forty-five minutes or so) the midwife informed me they were going to proceed with an episiotomy. For those unfamiliar with the term, this means they get some scissors and, um, use them. Frankly I was relieved when she finally said this, because I’d figured it would come to that point anyway, based on my genes and physique. I was so bruised by this point that I actually didn’t feel anything except for a popping sensation, almost like when you’ve fastened a button just a tad too loose and the fabric suddenly becomes un-done and your shirt flies open. Within moments after that, with a couple more pushes, my son was set free.
I don’t know how to describe the feeling of a baby leaving your body. It is unlike anything else. The physical sensation is tied intimately with the psychological reaction – relief, disbelief, wonder, elation, complete & utter accomplishment. It almost felt like a water balloon bursting – a water balloon filled with a small person.
“He’s here! He’s here! Here is your son!”
“Your beautiful boy!”
I heard his first cry – a watery, determined, bewildered cry. They laid him on my chest and covered us with warm blankets. I held him and kissed him, comforted him – “It’s done now; you’ve made it. You’re here with mama.”
It was 7:41 am on Nov. 29.
(PS: I’ve noticed an alarming amount of vitriol and dogmatism surrounding the topic of childbirth. In particular, there seems to be a trend that encourages people to perceive “shaming” when there isn’t any: for example, I’ve read a handful of blogs from women who chose to get epidurals and who insist that every other woman is judging them unfairly because of it. In my experience, I’ve never actually come across any woman giving her account of natural labor at the expense or belittlement of women who have chosen differently, whether for medical or personal reasons. The wonder of carrying a little burgeoning life inside one’s body is astounding: and it’s something every mother has experienced. The wonder of meeting your child for the first time is also a shared experience, regardless of what steps were taken during labor to achieve that first sweet encounter. That is the thing that ought to be celebrated and rejoiced in: the bringing forth of new life, the start of a new chapter. Why do we waste our time and our hearts on something as petty as who’s “more badass” as a woman? This is apples and oranges, here. It just doesn’t matter. Let’s just build one another up, and bite our tongues unless we have good things to say, things that will really help one another.)
In coming to realize more and more that I am responsible for another life – in realizing that I will be his first experience of “love,” for better and for worse – I want to empty my heart and my body of every knot of unforgiveness, resentment, and hatred. Or, at least, I want to want that.
I will be my boy’s first experience of home, of love, of beauty, of woman. His first place of repose and acceptance. My feelings toward every man of significance in my life will some how, some way color my interactions with my son – if not at first, then eventually, in myriad idiosyncratic ways. Now is the time to examine these feelings, conclusions, and convictions; to beg to know what is true in my concept of Man and what is false or harmful.
Surely, sometimes the truth is painful: men hurt women, women hurt men, all of us thrash around like the bull in a china shop. But however painful the truth of Man & Woman may be, the truth is not destructive, stifling, or calculating. It is clear-eyed, expansive, red-blooded, agile. It is not a friend of the fickle subterfuge that sits in a corner, arms crossed possessively over an increasingly frozen heart.
What is more tragic than a mother with a cold, distant heart? What is more monstrous than a mother with an insatiable, possessive heart?
Not one of us can untangle ourselves from our mother, not one of us can fathom her influence as “the starting point.” Of this I am keenly aware.
Woman! All she has ever wanted is to be loved and set free. What devastating cages we begin to build when we are small, from the first moment we see indifference, lust, or amusement in the eyes of a man. We adhere with devotion to a pattern of gridlock from such a young age, without ever stopping to ask, “But is it true?” We thwart every honest attempt that comes our way, subconsciously accepting the bars (that is, the disappointment) that will surely follow every expression of “love”, to the point of retreating into the cell of our own making: only to then throw ourselves at the four walls surrounding us, wildly seeking release and demanding freedom, accusing everyone standing with out of forcing us in.
I feel my son moving within me now, as I write. What he knows of me at this point is simply water, warmth, safety, and life. My body knows, better than my mind, how to embrace the reality of “loving and setting free.” My body has quietly and constantly knit and nourished this little boy, cradling him without question. And one day soon, my body will set him free, doing what it is built to do, without pausing to consider “the options.” Without pausing to consider, “But is it true?” My body knows better than to build a fence around love made flesh.
To be loved and set free. Over and over and over again. This is what we all want, men and women alike. This is what we crave throughout life, from the moment we leave the gates of her body to the moment we rest in the earth. To be loved, so as to be set free. And we look to her to show us how, long before we recognize we exist apart from her.
It takes all of my courage to make this prayer to God – but even in offering it, I sense him answering it.
God…Father. Help me to live in the sole conviction that I am loved: that I am set free. Pump the red, hot blood of compassion into all that is frozen in me. Dismantle the pattern, the gridlock, the walls. Let me sway in your love like the green tendrils that sway in the sea – anchored but agile.
Let me teach my son that to be loved is to be set free. Whatever that means, again and again and again: to be loved, to be set free, season by season and age after age, until he is laid to rest in the heart of the world.
I admire authors and artists who are able to convey the full, gritty gamut of human experience without falling prey to either gross moralism or gratuitousness. Tolstoy, Greene, Chekov, Leonard Cohen (sans some of his erotic poetry), Andrew Wyeth, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, etc possessed an incredible talent for maximum expressiveness with the minimum of means. Hemingway, when describing a sexual encounter under the stars between a man and a woman in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, simply wrote, “and they were both there, time having stopped; and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.” You understand what he’s saying, here. Your mind takes that information in, appreciates the lyricism and frankness of it, and appreciates the role of sex in human experience. There is no need for obscene imagery to convey the weightiness of the encounter; in fact, Hemingway’s self-control and economy of language imply a sense of respect and reverence toward the intellect and imagination of his reader; as well as a true mastery of his craft.
(CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT DEVIATION/RELEVANT ASIDE: This is also part of the reason why Alien is such a freakin great movie: it’s what you don’t see that utterly devastates your nerves and draws you into the story. The subterranean terror of a hidden presence speaks volumes within the viewer without needing much help from gimmicks.)
The human mind flourishes when it is challenged by subtlety, nuance, hiddenness, implication, and suggestion. It deteriorates when it is exposed to sheer vulgarity. Those who say that the explicit sex scenes in GoT serve to tell the story (or are easy to overlook and forgive) are apparently forgetting that the creators of the show are surely shrewd enough to know what kind of culture we live in. This is a culture where having the wrapping violently torn off is celebrated; a culture with a voracious appetite for porn; a culture unfriendly to women. A culture with a palate so over-salted by sex and sensation that it no longer knows how to distinguish true artistry from a peep-show. Shrewd, yes; imaginative, no.
Explicit sex scenes – many of which display disorder – are not necessary to carry a narrative; nor are they neutral. They have an intention – and I doubt that intention is to plunge the viewer into a heightened state of awareness. Though I’m not a fan of Nietzsche’s philosophy, I hear wisdom in his line, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” You become what you ingest. No one is invincible to that. The very volume and vehemence of the protestations of those who staunchly defend the “artistry” of pornography – wherever it may show up – belies a myopic attachment that in and of itself might need some attention.
To quote Roger Scruton: “The camera lets the world in. The temptation is to encourage a kind of ‘reality addiction’ in the viewer, to focus on aspects of real life that grip or excite us, regardless of their dramatic meaning. Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the characters, rather than the vicarious emotions of our own.”
In Greek tragedies, famous sculptures throughout Europe (think the Rape of Proserpina), and countless paintings and tales, actions are not real but rather represented, and however realistic and unsettling they may be, they avoid becoming the stuff of fantasy. The purpose isn’t to make death, rape, murder, etc less weighty than it is, but to keep it within the realm of our own imaginations. With torture porn and every other sub-genre of porn, the interest shifts from interest in the embodied person to interest in the body itself. Pornography obsesses over a fantasy interest, whereas erotic art addresses an interest of the imagination. Pornographic sex is explicit and depersonalized, while eroticism invites us into the subjectivity of another person, relying on implication and suggestion rather than explicit display.
Now, George R. R. Martin treated these subjects with greater sensitivity in his books, and it goes without saying that the man has created a rich story-line that’s unique and enduring. I’m not out to ridicule anyone or cast aspersions on him as an author. The purpose of this post is to examine the visual medium of television and how it depicts sex and all things related, and why it’s worth examining who we become as consumers of the show.
Erotic art – art that uses veiled terms, creating a distance so as to allow rumination on the person who is the subject of the piece – is a triumph that frustrates the voyeur’s intention to objectify, consume, and dominate the object of his or her fantasy. And honey, we all got that creepy old Peepin’ Tom inside of us, to some degree or another; and caring about other persons as persons is a life-long work that doesn’t come instinctually. Our daily diet either gives that interior Peeping Tom a leg-up to glance through windows that are better left alone, or else it starves him and weakens him.
Before you get your underwear in a twist, let me say that this isn’t about religion or how such-and-such might “tarnish your soul” – that’s not the conversation I’m looking to start, here, cause that’s just a turn-off. I’m as sick as the rest of you with the snarky, sanctimonious blog-posts about how people who watch GoT are spineless tools with no moral compass, or geeks who ought to be shoved into lockers. This is, rather, about what’s art and what’s not: and from where I stand, porn isn’t art. It lacks value and sneers at our innate need to be challenged and confronted by that which isn’t readily apparent; to be vexed by the possibility of significance beyond nerve-endings.
Sex and sexuality are hugely valuable: I’m a big fan. They ought to be expressed artistically because they play an enormous role in who we are as persons. But I doubt anyone will look back fondly on all the explicit sex scenes they saw during their lifetime as they lay dying (which could be any day) and say, “Gee, that really helped me figure myself out as a person.”
You can’t crucify a projection anymore than you can marry one.
There’s nothing like human love – ordinary, corrupt, insatiable, feckless human love – to remind one of the sheer folly and honesty of the Incarnate God. A man born into poverty, available to poverty: and not the poverty described by Dickens’ with removed, romantic flourish, but rather the poverty of the pervert, the adulterer, the atheist, the pornographer, the drunkard, the handicapped, the forgotten, the unremarkable… A man who knows this fragile frame, these tired limbs, that ravaged heart, those beleaguered eyes – and shows no partiality. A man, solid, enfleshed, warm with virile strength – unafraid of what we call grotesque, unafraid of the bloodiness of it all, taking it unto himself as only the most honest of realists could do. There is no escape hatch, no pre-nup agreement, no measuring life out “in teaspoons.”
And as I stand in a dark church, candles sending lapping light against the eerie statues with their sightless eyes, with the familiar form stretched across those cruel beams above the altar, I am unavoidably confronted again with the claims this man made. I look at the lines of the body (a form I have seen and cherished in the way of a wife, a form I have felt), at the brutal nails and the blood, the gently drooping head bound in thorns…and I think, “Wish-fulfillment? What kind of wish would take this form? What kind of dream would find its satiation in this anguish?”
Who, but You, who truly love would affirm the lovability beneath the shadows, the blood, the dying? Who but You who truly love would come in such a bodily way – knowing that this makes such sense to me – in order that I might know what it means to be truly alive? Who but You who truly love would refuse to shy away from our inveterate nakedness by becoming utterly naked Yourself? Who but You who truly love would give us exactly what we ask for: and then call to us through the rubble of our attained desires?
The epiclesis. The bite of wood against my knees. The consecration. Elevation. “Domine meus et Deus meus.” It is too real for me to comprehend, too solid for me to touch: but I believe (help my unbelief).
“I made myself available to those who did not ask for me; I appeared to those who did not look for me. I said, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ to a nation that did not invoke my name.” Isaiah 65:1
Assisi, March 30, 2015. On the hillside in the olive grove above Santa Chiara.
O Dio, tu sei il mio Dio, all’aurora ti cerco, di te ha sete l’anima mia.
Here I am, God. And here, I know, are you.
Forgive me for my doubt, my fear, my hesitancy.
But what if you do not come through?
You have never abandoned me: never, not in moments of joy,
nor in moments of despair and darkness.
Always you follow me. Always you interrupt my self-satisfaction, my misery.
I could not make you up: yet the world says this is so.
We are all running from you, we are terrified of remembrance.
We do not want to be responsible, to regret, to hang our heads
in shame or guilt. We have to recover from
“the sickness of seeking you.”
How did it come to this?
When we think of you, we feel infinitely wounded.
We grapple with you, wrestle with you, and your hands batter us still more.
“No more God. He is hurting me in the deepest places,
and that is unfair. I have a right to live a life free of pain.”
When I am hungry, I will eat, so that my stomach does not hurt.
When I am thirsty, I will drink, so that my throat is not parched.
When I am tired, I will sleep, so that my body is not weary.
And when I am alone
when I am alone
That is; when my soul is so
thirsty, so hungry, so tired,
I will cry out to You.
I will remember you who have never forgotten me.
Even if only for a moment
(you are the fullness of every moment)-
I will think of you, and I will remember that I am made to drink of you,
to eat of you, to rest in you.
In that moment, I will be aware of creation as a glorious “being with.”
The continual agony of self-actualization will
fall away because, in that one moment, I am alive in you,
and my soul knows who she is meant to adore.
I will see the stance of life: everything strains upward to you, everything loves itself
because everything belongs to you.
The olive tree, ancient and elegant, stands alive year after year;
the grass sprawling on the hills around it, so tender and green, so sure of itself and its
mission to receive life without ceasing.
The human heart that tries again and again to love and be loved;
the heart always yearning to ascend.
Everything wants to be what it is, which is a live creation; everything wants the fullness of everything:
to be with you.
And then the moment will pass, and I will try to forget you (this takes more effort than remembering, but I tell myself otherwise), and to do that I jostle myself out of silence, recollection, receptivity, and adoration, and back into a state of agitation and noise.
Whenever I remember you,
I start to crave you;
and I sense the uncontrollability that comes with intimacy and belief.
The piercing way You touch me…
I am forced to encounter a choice. Either I relinquish the god I have made out of control,
distraction, and anger (a god I can predict and manipulate, according to my whims and whatever company I find myself in), and thereby open myself like the rest of creation to you, the God I came from and the God I run from:
or, I can say,
“No. No, it is too risky.”
March 31, 2015. Tomb of St. Francis.
Intimacy requires a sober decision to relinquish control.