I don’t think I’ll ever be able to become Catholic. There is too much of their beliefs I don’t agree with. But this is how they stole my heart.
Freshman Year was rough—I was in a Biochemistry program at the time and it didn’t help that the director of the program had a mandatory ‘class’ Freshman year where he spent class periods rambling about the stupidity of religious folk (all the ills of the world came from the British Empire & Catholic church, etc), details of our presumably active mating practices, and the ascendancy of atheism. He made us read strident atheist literature. (Trying to be ‘intellectually honest’ I read some New Atheist literature—it wasn’t rational, it was just an emotional assault.). The emotional/existential onslaught of it all was a bit overwhelming at times. My sister was firmer than me. She wasn’t in the Biochem program, and I was the one always trying so hard to appear rational, reasonable, etc. Of course it wasn’t just the professors, but the fellow students. Every double entendre, anatomical reference, every contemptuous jab at religious/moral folk…it all seemed to me at the time an attack on The Order of Things as I had known them. I would stutter, try to smile, flee. I would go to my room and cry. I hid in my room a lot. At this time, a number of fellow homeschool families’ children (my age) started acting up, leaving the faith, having relationship issues. It seemed to be crumbling on all sides.
But something else shook me up a lot more. UPenn is a bit of a party school. And I was homeschooled since age 8, and grew up without a TV, reading Lord of the Rings and bottle- feeding half a dozen younger siblings. That was my world. I knew about “world views” and “liberals”, etc, but it was a distant/theoretical thing. Now suddenly me and my twin were in the middle of a culture of subwoofers, condoms, beer and vomit…. It was a shock. All the dorms were were coed—completely, mixed floors (and some bathrooms too), so that element was impossible not to see. The campus hook-up culture shook up my faith the most.
Just witnessing the de-sanctifying of human flesh somehow de-sanctified the whole universe. I’ll try to explain. The blasphemy of it all…the vomit, the “i was so trashed I just remember the color of his shirt“, the loud laughter over anatomy as if was just meat…it was too overwhelming, threatening the Order of Things as I knew.
Because it denied the sanctity of human flesh, and thus the sanctity of a human being. And if the human being had no sacred-ness, then there was no Soul, no Spirit, and no God himself. Because if sex isn’t sacred, than what is?
The existence of God, spirit, and beauty, all hung in the balance.
It wasn’t a rational argument that was shaking me…it was just the weight of it all. I can explain it now—but I couldn’t then, because it wasn’t a conscious thing, not a logical/rational argument, it had nothing to do with propositions or syllogisms; and had everything to do with Symbol, with Ritual. At the time, all I could say was that I was in room full of black smoke, and it was getting into my lungs and nose and mouth. I didn’t admit I was terribly shaken, I claimed I was fine, just a little troubled….
Nowhere before did I need something physical, something to hold onto in all of this. A homesickness for something outside of all this. Something clean. I remember weeping, for of all things, my mother’s tired face (her health wasn’t well at the time), I just wanted to touch her face.
I taped a wallet photo of my family to my cellphone, and held it in my hand even while sleeping, I found myself kissing it and pressing it to my heart, as it to draw strength. I also had a small child’s rosary (a fellow homeschooling catholic friend had given it to me—I kept it as a souvenir, but had never used it). Without even meaning to, I took it and held it in my hand, pressed it to my face, my eyes, my forehead, kissed it and cried.
A couple days after that, me and my twin went for the first time on the March For Life. Our struggling Penn for Life group was all of half a dozen people, we were a ‘secular’ club, but everyone in it (except for me and my twin) were Catholic. For the March, we rode the bus with the Newman Center.
There were three priests on the bus, they had the kids pray the rosary. Before the March, we went to the National Shrine, they were having mass, it was packed, we walked in as they were saying “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Just seeing so many declaring the truth of my faith, tears (of relief?). The priest quietly led us into a side chapel, an image of Mary. The holy statues, the burning of the candles, declaring allegiance to a Sacred realm. The priests gathered our group together, prayed for us, for our generation, for America, to see the light of Christ, the sanctity of the human life. Prayers similar to those my mother would pray at breakfast, back at home.
We went out to the mall. We stood for several hours as the people assembled, I looked up and saw the thousands as far as my eye could see coming, declaring allegiance to the existence of the Holy, and a rejection of ‘all that’ shaking me up at UPenn. It might seem strange to say that affirming the personhood of the fetus gave me strength to hold on the creed of Jesus Christ, but it was all connected for me. ‘All that’–this Spiritus Mundi–was the same thing by different names (Abortion, ultilitarianism, new atheism, materialism, campus hook-up culture). Now, none of this rationally crossed my mind at the time, I just wept.
I had expected a political protest, fuelled by a decent amount of indignant anger, the rights of Americans, the good of society, etc. Instead, all around me, crucifixes, banners of Mary, nineteenth century images of flaming hearts, thorn-pierced and bleeding, and roses and fire, the Christchild holding a white lamb, all these things, carried by parishes of SouthEast Asian immigrants, speaking with heavy accents, monks and nuns, Hispanic priests. It was religious yes, medieval religious. No attempt to look rational, reasonable, modern American. The signs, quotes from the pope “Every human life is willed and beloved of God”, “sacred”… “sanctity”…. “Jesus was a fetus!”…(at first, this last one made me cringe when I thought of my UPenn Professors..how was THAT going to win an argument?) And there was a white middle-aged woman with a wistful smile, who tearfully thanked me for being there (I think I was around the age of what her child would have been). It was wet and cold, but there were those in wheel-chairs, down syndrome children on their father’s shoulders—here they all were, the malformed, mentally-retarded, the medieval-religious, the celibate, the misfits, the third world, the ‘unintelligent’…the very thing so scorned by my Penn professors and savvy classmates. The procession, all rain coats and nose blowings, hobbling/walking/pushing along, surged through the tidy streets of the Capitol, bearing the banners and the crucifixes.
I was swept along by the force of it all. There were groups of squirrely junior high (parish?) schools, chanting about how they loved babies. The immigrant parishes. Other parishes—blue collar and plain. The nuns and the monks—Orthodox (with their big beards) and Catholic. Ordinary folk, older folk with white hair, younger families dragging along their small
children. So much…singing of…rosaries and the chaplet of divine mercy. We ended up near another pro-life College group, from Steubenville. They were singing… “Lion of Judah on the throne”. Hannah and me joined in. I dropped any pretense of this being a purely political protest.
This was about God. About the existence of the Sacred, the Holy.
The feeling of the crowd was so strong….one of repentance. Broken, weeping, love, calling out to…God. This was not a political protest, it was a pilgrimage. A witness. We finally arrived at the Supreme court steps, fenced off from us, towering above us the policemen in their sharp uniforms with their arms folded and their sunglasses. The spanking white building of with “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW” proudly stated. On the other side of the barrier, below, crucifixes and praying, images of weeping Christ and nineteenth century hearts and thorns and fire and Mary. We fell in among a Spanish-speaking parish, the priest was standing before his kneeling, praying congregation. Hannah and me kneeled too. He sprinkled Holy Water on us all, the weeping. I think they were praying the Rosary in Spanish. They gave my twin and me holy cards (sacred heart, Mary and Christ’s). Someone was handing out roses, we placed them at the bottom step of the Supreme Court, our hands through the fences.
Eventually, our group made it back to Union Station, and the National Shrine. We wandered about the chapels of the shrine, there were masses. There was an aryan Christchild doll, crowned—royalist, sentimental, ahistorical, objectified (the very things I had most reacted to in Catholicism.) But as I looked at it, grace poured through suddenly, and I saw it for what it was. “Jesus was a fetus” rang in my ears. There, up on the archway of the crypt chapel, “AND THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH”.
Everything I was seeing with new eyes. This whole time, starting with the march, I felt…something, something was flowing from God, flowing onto his people, these Catholics. Flowing yes, through the flaming hearts and the Marian banners and the Christchild. The point of all this—Making sacred the human race, through the Incarnation. Through suffering, His and ours. Sacred. Yes, the fetus, yes the child, yes the womb. The Blessed Virgin. We needed her, we needed the christchild. All of this wasn’t some nineteenth-century sentimental mush. This wasn’t alien, this was directly for now. It was the answer in symbol, in flesh, incarnate. Ritual to answer ritual, symbol to answer symbol. It was the answer, answer to the assault/charge of UPenn/World. I looked at the images, saw what they meant, these crowns and halos and gold and faces…pouring through these things, the heart of the Gospel, the reality of Christ himself, this… this grace, this rain, this incarnation. I wept. Prayed for America, for people, knelt on the kneelers, lit candles.
In the gift shop, I found a picture of a woman in blue kneeling, with a shining light coming from her face and womb. On the back was this prayer, “To Our Lady of the Unborn O Mary, mother of the unborn, protect the gift of human life which your divine Son has allowed to be given. Give strength and joy to all parents, as they await the birth of the precious child they have conceived. Give courage to those who are fearful, calm those who are anxious, and guide all of us with your motherly care, to treasure and protect the miraculous gift of human life. We ask all this through your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
It made sense now. And yet—there was nothing triumphalist about it, It wasn’t like my usual infatuations with ideals/nationalities/etc which I habitually set up on pedestals and idealize.
The Catholics here were not on some pedestal, weren’t somehow triumphantly right, shining with starlight and romanticism. No, it was rather….His people….God pouring out himself on his people, they the supplicants, ordinary humans with problems, broken and sinning and weeping, and yet….testifying to Him, calling to Him (yes, through all the flaming hearts and christchild dolls and banners and holy water and marian statues)…and he was pouring his Grace through these things. There was a humbleness in it, a grace, a rain. Because…here in the capitol they were willing to be the ‘foolishness of man’ for Him. It was their finest hour.
We got on the bus, dozing off through the night, arriving around midnight. I remember waking up on the bus, feeling the peace, this presence of prayers about me—I knew the priests were praying for us. When Hannah and me got back to campus, we were pumped. Our
international Chinese friend showed up a couple days after the March, asking for us to give her a crash course on Christianity before the biblestudy started next week on the gospel of Mark. It was a couple hours—we started with creation and ended with the second coming. Somehow, as it all tumbled out—I knew I believed again. Something outside myself pouring in. That close of January 2007 was a high point.
The rest of the semester passed by, my emotions faded, the doubts came crowding back. I was still being shaken in my ‘biochem’ class and in the goings-on in the dorms. My sister got concerned about my faith—I blew up on her, told her I was fine. We finished our freshman year, the week after finals Hannah went to a bible camp with our evangelical biblestudy. I didn’t go—I made up some excuse, but I was troubled again. Our family was coming up to fetch us the next week, so I spent that time with my paternal grandparents. My paternal grandfather is a great (nonfiction) reader, he suggested I read John Paul II’s biography (one of his heroes). I picked up his copy of “Witness to Hope”, cracked it open in the middle, read a few things about his theology, and skipped to the beginning and read a bit about the communists. It was interesting, but I didn’t feel like reading.
Then the family came—and my little sister brought me a blue plastic rosary. They burst out giggling when they gave it to me. Apparently, I was “Bekah, the Catholic”. It was half a joke, but half-serious, she had thought it was pretty at the Hispanic thrift store, bought it, and decided I could have it. Like a foreign souvenir, I carefully tucked it away. I didn’t use it—I still thought ‘praying to Mary and saints’ was not something I should do (though I had done it a few times on the March)….
I came home. The next two weeks my nerves were on edge, I blew up on people. So I knew I was disturbed, a quite anguish inside. I went to the basement and shut the door, lay on the floor. I face it, felt dizzy. What if….what if…Christianity wasn’t true? What if I just believed because of my family, my homeschool culture? What if my Biochem professor, and the New Atheists were right? Was this just…a beautiful dream I wanted to believe? I felt like I was standing on the edge of an abyss. The overwhelming convincingness of that alternate reality, there was this blackness that opened up, the universe void of God. I couldn’t run back. I felt dizzy and scared. This wasn’t something I could explain to anyone, or get rid of by rational argument. It was just this overwhelming feeling. I mumbled something to my family, I knew I was disturbed.
And then at the end of May 2007, I had this dream. It was our stressed homeschool moms trying to get us ready for church tomorrow. There was another Homeschool protestant family there, whose children were having second thoughts about Christianity. Our mothers were stressed, the house was a mess, broken casserole dish…and in middle of it, I looked, and there was John Paul II in a golden robe, watching our generation, praying for us. In my dream I knew, I realized—of course, he is praying for the faith of my generation. For us, especially for us, and for me in this crisis. I came up to him shyly, offered him my rosary to bless, he did, in a foreign language with a thick accent. I woke up that morning with a strong sense of peace. It didn’t go away.
It was “just” a dream, but…I don’t know, it was more than that too, at least, it wasn’t an ordinary dream. I bought “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” that summer, and read it carefully, soaking in the basic tenets of the Christian faith. I knew it already of course, but reading his words gave me strength, peace. I printed out some pictures of him, taped them inside my bible and by my bed.
Continued in Part 2