Confirmation ClassFeatured — By Rebekah Mays on November 28, 2012 at 5:52 am
Over the summer I began attending mass. By week two or three, I responded to an announcement in the bulletin about RCIA (Catholic boot-camp). The leader invited me to the rectory, and after asking a little bit about myself, inquired as to what I was looking for. I had rehearsed answers to this question in my head, but when the time came I had no idea how to respond.
Why do I want to be Catholic?
In no particular order:
I read. I don’t know as much as I thought I knew. My boyfriend is Catholic, and it seems to be working for him. I can’t carry around the burden of predestination much longer.
I didn’t know how to answer the question. There was a lot to say.
Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead is perhaps why I’m Protestant still. I had read the book and cherished it, and fell in love even more when my Presbyterian pastor, with his Alabaman story-telling drawl, read to his congregation from its pages in our echoey, sacred gymnasium.
“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.” I would think this line to myself after coming home from church as I padded around in my back garden, dry since we lived in Austin and it never rained. I like that the narrator is honest about only “sometimes” enjoying a Sunday afternoon.
My own pastor was always telling stories. Genesis, which you could tell he loved, was an epic full of whacked-out folks who had received some kind of grace in spite of themselves. He relished the details that made these stories so raw and so gripping. “In the morning, behold, it was Leah,” my pastor read with blatant glee on his face, retelling the rather awkward narrative of mistaken conjugal identity.
But then later I learned that my church, my pastor, which had seemed so perfect in many ways, was severely broken. The congregants were honest and the pastor humble about our issues and struggles–it could have been much nastier than it was–but it hit me that nowhere was safe. Nowhere could I go to hide from sin, from shame.
Only a few years after leaving home, while I was taking a course on poetry at school, did I learn that one of the most famous English poets and influential hymn-writers was severely depressed. In his sad case, he heard voices that he was not one of the elect. It didn’t end well for him.
Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in his wings
One student in my seminar remarked that following his conversion, William Cowper no longer wrote lighthearted, witty prose. Another person, I think my professor, mentioned how significant it is that light only surprises the Christian “sometimes.” Doubt is inescapable for the religious, our class seemed to be saying. It was disturbing, to say the least.
But was it the Christian struggle, or psychology, or the specifc system of heavy, reformed beliefs that pushed Cowper over the edge? The questions swirled.
I remember arriving at the unit on The Reformation in my private, Christian high school. I remember what I blurted out without thinking when we were going around the room, sharing whether we liked Luther or Calvin more. After every single person had answered “Luther,” my response was, “Calvin–and I don’t know what’s wrong with everyone else!”
“I want to take RCIA classes because I have realized that my reasons for rejecting certain Catholic doctrines are probably a result of my upbringing,” I told the nice man sitting with me in the rectory. “I’ve started attending mass, and I really like it so far.”
“That’s great!” he told me, “I like everything you just said. Except I don’t want you to think of RCIA as a class. It’s more of a faith-sharing experience. My co-leader and I are there to learn from you guys, too.”
I nodded, not wanting to get off-topic. Maybe his college courses consisted of someone yelling facts at him. I like to think, though, that a class is where everyone, even the teacher, is learning.
“Behold, the Lamb of God,” the priest says, holding up a wafer (the body?) for all to see.
For my thesis I studied the stories and letters of Flannery O’Connor. A papist in the Bible-breathing South, O’Connor was a bit of an oddity. She loved chickens, grew up on a farm, was probably a virgin her whole life, developed lupus at a young age, and wrote stories too dark for many to handle.
Robert Lowell, her good friend and fellow Iowa graduate, left the Catholic Church, and O’Connor wrote to him. “That you are not in the Church is a grief to me and always has been and will be and I know no more to say about it,” she said, “I severely doubt that you will do any good to anybody ‘outside’ as you call it.”
It’s worth thinking about: Must we be inside the church to do any good? And what church should that be? What counts as inside?
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
Every time you pull down the kneeler in these old churches in New York, the sound echoes throughout the entire sanctuary. I always cringe, as I don’t want to draw any more attention to myself: I’m already a beat behind in the “Glory to you, oh Lord”s and the “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”s.
The altar boys keep their hands poised in prayer whenever they are in the sanctuary. One of them rings a chime both times the priest blesses the bread and wine. I used to jump from surprise whenever I heard it because the noise was so startling.
“Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!” the priest doesn’t say, even though it’s in the Bible. The concept of the Lamb of God is a strange one, especially if you’ve not grown up with church terminology. A lamb does not sound like it would be a threat to our way of life, but tell that to the early church.
“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” I start to say.
I struggle to remember the phrase in enough time to keep up with the congregation, but I notice I’m not the only one having trouble. “Lord, I’m not worthy to receive you,” one woman says by mistake, and smiles quickly in embarrassment that she momentarily forgot the latest updates to church liturgy.
I stay at the back during communion, but I watch as everyone takes the elements and shuffles back to their seats. I look at their faces, their posture. I can’t tell if they are any different, but they are supposed to be. I feel my face should be burnt off for watching, like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Perhaps I shouldn’t convert just because I like Flannery O’Connor’s writing and my Southern gothic pastor could have been a character in one of her stories. Perhaps no more of a justification is the overwhelming feeling that I don’t know where else to go.
For some reason as I sit silently during the Eucharist I think of the introduction to the storybook Bible that my old pastor liked with all the nice pictures. “The Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story.”
An old man walks with the help of his cane to receive the communion wine. He takes a gulp and keeps drinking, past the few seconds most people would put down the chalice and return to their seats. The server reacts, smiling and at last prying the cup from between the man’s lips. If Christians are heroes, they certainly are clumsy ones.
The first RCIA session came, and I introduced myself to my fellow faith-sharers. A woman sitting at the table looked at me and winked. She was of Presbyterian background and from Texas, like me.
The RCIA leader looked at me after everyone left for the night. “How was it? Was it alright?” he asked me. “Yeah,” I told him. “But this is definitely a class.”
Easter is still a long way off. There is still time to decide.