Honey, I’m Still Free

What’s the biggest chance you ever took? Did it work out? Do tell!

The biggest chance I ever took was when I dropped out of graduate school and moved to Kentucky with one car load of possessions to work as a “lay missioner” for the Glenmary Sisters (an order of Catholic nuns.) It was a brand new program for them – an experiment to see how to continue their mission in the face of dwindling numbers. Spoiler – it was a complete failure for everyone.

It was a leap of faith for me. I had grown up Catholic, drifted away and found my way back in college and graduate school. I was engaged in what I didn’t then understand to be a spiritual struggle between my somewhat socially conservative beliefs and my commitment to social justice. Of course I didn’t understand, I was 25 years old.

The nuns seemed so nice and our three-month training was very deep and powerful work with the people we served. I went to Mass several times a week, I prayed. I visited a lot of other churches in this town and was often caught up in the intensity and commitment – perhaps trust? – of many of the believers. But as much as I came to appreciate the various communities of faith, I was certain that being Catholic was who I was.

One day a reporter for the local paper was meeting with me to discuss our work. She told me a story about a woman who had called her asking for help with food. The reporter said  to me “I was on my way to church so I told her I would pray for her. I just didn’t know where to tell her to go to get food.”

She was on her way to church so she didn’t make time to respond to the Gospel in the most literal way possible.

I have no idea what else she said because I was struggling very hard not to point out that contrast. As time went on, I saw a very clear distinction between those who went to Church and those who lived their faith. I felt that I was caught in the middle because those who went to Church always – always – controlled the purse strings. And I was confused because my growing familiarity with rural poverty and the total lack of systemic response was messing up my head.

For example, the parish which sponsored me had a large hall and about 10 bedrooms in a loft area, rooms used to house student volunteers on mission trips mostly during the summer. I wondered why we didn’t use them for something more practical the rest of the year. I received an ear blistering lecture about liability insurance and the community’s trust. I wasn’t supposed to point that out. I was just supposed to distribute the tools that were given to me, not ask for more.

Lest this come off as some sort of arrogant 20something claim to see what the elders could not, I should clarify – I was also ill and not being properly treated so my filters were very loose, I know I was considered valuable prey by some of the pastors in town who eagerly wanted to show that they could stand up to the Catholic Church by converting me and I was very alone. The other 20something had been dismissed from her contract because lay mission work didn’t work out so well if you had kids. I didn’t have any real friends because I was always the social service person.

So it wasn’t some grand epiphany on my part. I wasn’t able to keep up my part of the social contract of a mainstream Christian Church. And when the Church didn’t keep up their end, I blamed God. It was a bitter, ugly and unpleasant “breakup” between this 25-year-old kid and the Church.

So I gained everything and lost everything when I took this chance. I cannot bring myself to trust any Church since. I am equally unwilling to let go of my cultural Catholicism so no other Institution can ever fill that void. I have a thousand excuses why taking a chance on religion again won’t work out.

I have no faith that any Church will have faith in me. I have no faith that Church exists. And I feel Church is necessary to be in a relationship with God. I believe in God, I just have no relationship with them.  I’m not sure a relationship is even possible, that it’s not Western ego putting us in a relationship with the Divine the transcends dimensions. I understand why people choose to believe, I do. I miss that.

Please don’t respond by inviting me to your Church. Don’t tell me how you found God in a nontraditional manner. Don’t impose that experience of the Divine on my story. I will respect that you are being authentic, but I’ll never actually believe you.

I’m glad I took that chance for many reasons. My faith and spirituality ripened and matured during that time, even if I lost them both in the end. But I would not go back to the self-centered, foolish girl I was before Kentucky.

I’m sure there’ s a lot more I could explore about this, but enough for now.



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