How I sort of left the Church, and why I came back

Here is a little story about how I left the church, sort of, and then came slouching back home, more or less.

The late, occasionally great Mad Magazine once published a bit that showed people’s secret thoughts. A scene looks one way from the outside but is very different and allegedly very funny on the inside. The one I remember showed the inside of a church. The congregation piously bows their heads, apparently engaged in placid worship. But on the inside, the well-to-do man is freaking out over gambling debt, the adolescent boy is slavering over a sexy fantasy and the teenage girl is desperately praying for a negative pregnancy test. It is just as well I don’t remember what the priest was thinking.

This was supposed to demonstrate that religious people are a bunch of hypocrites who pretend to be righteous and clean but are actually a mess on the inside. Har har, religious people! Look how they live.

The cartoonist was, of course, not making this up. When my parents had found Jesus but not yet the Catholic Church, my poor mother was perpetually humiliated when people visited our shabby, disorderly home. She was overworked, outnumbered and struggling with undiagnosed thyroid issues. And their allegedly Christian landlord thought laundry lines made the outside of the house look tacky, so whatever my mother did, she did it fighting her way past a line of damp diapers drying slowly over the hot air vent. A poor substitute for the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit that they sought.

But conversion happens stepwise. She knew her fellow Christians believed that outward disorder and chaos were caused by secret sin, so if anyone came to her door, she fell into the habit of making excuses. “Sorry about the mess,” she would say, and then explain that someone had been sick or they just got back from a trip. Here was always some temporary, mitigating factor that explained the general chaos.

Then one day, she didn’t. Someone came over and saw their typical chaos, and what came out of her mouth was: “Sorry it’s such a mess. This is just how we live.”

I don’t know how long after that moment she began to feel a pull toward the Catholic Church, but this moment in our family mythology feels like a very Catholic moment. This is literally what the church is for: So you can have a house to be a mess in. It is your house; you are a mess. Why try to deny it?

This is just how we live, and it’s not new. Chaucer, anyone? Dante’s “Inferno”? The Gospels? This is just how we live. If there were no mess, there would be no reason for the church to be built to house it. If there were no sin, there would be no need for baptism and confession and the Eucharist. If there were no human misery and wretchedness, there would have been no need for God to become man. I know this, or I thought I did. At home in the Catholic Church, we are a mess, and we cannot seem to help opening the door to show all comers our own weaknesses and sins and hypocrisies.

But as I write this paragraph, it feels a bit like I am distilling the faith down to an Etsy-worthy wall hanging for suburban moms: Bless this mess, Lord!

But the mess of the church is no adorable, kid-style mess, with couch cushion forts and colorful alphabet blocks strewn around the rug. It is the sex abuse scandal, which continues to break and break and break on the shore like a punishing, never-ending tide. It is the scandal of pastors and bishops pitting faith against science. It is the scandal of open disobedience and contempt for basic doctrine. It is the general crappiness and malaise and infighting of Catholic culture and Catholic social media. It is the disorder where culture, tradition, doctrine and lived experience all try to inhabit the same living space. This is how we live, and it is a mess, and the mess goes down deeper than I thought.

A number of personal experiences have widened some cracks in my life that used to be manageable. I used to think my personal faith-house was rock solid. It is not. It was shored up with 10,000 little pebbles, and some of them carried a bigger load than they should have. Many of them have been swept away, and when I look at what’s left, I don’t even know what to call it. “Mess” seems inadequate. It’s nothing comfortable or homelike, anyway.

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Image by Michael Garlick  (Creative Commons)

The cracks in the wall of the church

Have you been to one of those churches that is tidy and fine and in good repair, but the architectural style is . . . ongepotchket? A little of this and a little of that, and it all adds up to much too much.

Church buildings like this have clearly gone through countless renovations. Some parts are neoclassical, some are vaguely nautical. The light fixtures are from the 80s; the stations of the cross from the 50s, and the tabernacle is from who knows when. When was it okay to put those particular colors and textures together, and when was that shape ever anything but grotesque? And that’s where we keep Jesus.

It’s not just church buildings, but the Catholic Church itself that is this way. It has undergone more renovations that we can imagine. What we think of as Catholicism is not a coherent, uniform, elegant whole carefully curated by the Holy Spirit, but a sort of yard sale arrangement patched together out of whatever is made available to us in our era, in our region, in our budget, in our tradition.

That goes not only for architecture and decor, but also for styles of worship, for what we emphasize in how we incorporate our faith into our life, and for which virtues and which sins we emphasize, and for how we think about God.

The indispensable core of what unifies us as Catholics is smaller and more basic than we may realize, and so much of what feels normal and even central is actually just cultural, and may very well someday be renovated away.

Does this thought cause some discomfort? It should. The Church is not just about us or our times, and never was meant to be. Even the things that appeal to us and nourish us and give us comfort and support are not as central as we might imagine.

But wait, it gets worse! For some Catholics, living the faith is like coming into their old familiar ongepotchket, hodgepodge, yard sale church building, and one day they spot not only some aesthetic incoherence, but an actual crack in the wall.

And suddenly, they can’t shake the idea that the crack isn’t just a crack, but a portent. That everything they see around them, the things that appeal to them and the things that don’t, are an edifice built over a sinkhole. They feel they must tread carefully or the whole thing will cave in. That the cracks are structural; that there’s a yawning abyss under our feet.

Sometimes that emptiness seems like the only real thing, and every part of the church that has been built over it looks like it’s moments away from tumbling down into gehenna.

Those people who leave the Church over little things

People leave the Church for all kinds of reasons. Usually it’s more than one reason; but sometimes people will be able to point to the one thing that tipped them over the edge. Very often, it’s the sex abuse scandal. But also fairly often, it’s something that sounds less serious. It sounds like something that people should be able to get past:

“I was going through a rough time in my marriage and a priest gave a jerky sermon about divorce, so I walked out and never came back.”

“I was trying to organize my grandmother’s funeral, and the parish secretary was so rude, and even mocked the music I chose. That was the last time I set foot in a church.”

“I was in the back with my crying baby, and an usher angrily told me to control my kid. I decided if they didn’t want me, I didn’t want them either, and that was that.”

These things are upsetting and demoralizing, and can legitimately make us angry. But are they worth leaving the Church over?

When someone tells stories like these, other Catholics will often respond: Well, if you’d leave Jesus and the sacraments for something small like that, it shows that your faith was weak and shallow to begin with. If you leave the Church because of sinners, your faith was in man, not God.

I used to believe this. I no longer do. Or at least, I see a bigger picture of why humans — including me — do what they do.

Don’t get me wrong. When someone decides to leave the Faith, there couldn’t be more at stake. It’s one thing if someone decides they’re quitting their tech job and taking up weaving, or they’re tired of Twitter and they’re giving up social media. I may think they’re making a mistake, but they can live with the consequences.

But when you hear that someone has had enough of the Church, it’s so hard not to say, “Yes, but . . . don’t you want Jesus? I know that one Catholic you met was so cruel and awful, and I’m so sorry that happened, but are you really prepared to give up Jesus, just because of that? This is your immortal soul we’re talking about! Eyes on the prize! Get over it!”

But it occurs to me that everyone’s priorities are skewed — people who leave the Church because of the sins of other humans, but also people who stay in the Church because of the goodness of other humans.

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Image via Piqsels (Creative Commons)

You can always come back

One Sunday afternoon, I posted on Facebook:

“Reasons the Fishers left their pew this morning:
Had to go to the bathroom.
Also had to go to the bathroom.
Had to check ketones and bolus.
Had to go to the bathroom after all.
Had to take migraine meds.
Had to get to work.
Had to leave the building entirely because, while the four-year-old could behave herself, her puppy Crystal could not.
BUT WE ALL CAME BACK EVENTUALLY.”

I’m not sure how the other parishioners feel, but I have no problem with this level of traffic during Mass. We’d rather keep a lighter grip on the reins, and let the kids do what they need to do, as long as they always come back. And we do always come back.

When I was a teenager, I also didn’t sit in the pew. I did come to Mass with my parents, because they expected it, but I never made it as far as the pew. I would lurk sulkily in the back of the church, glowering at the little red votive candles as they flickered in their cups. Sometimes I would sit on the steps to the choir loft, my head between my knees, hating every moment of it. I never prayed, I never went to confession. I chose the path of misery for years, rather than sit in the pew.

And you know, I eventually came back. Look at me now! I’m so Catholic, the Jehovah’s Witnesses barely even try. I’m sure my parents were worried when I started to stray as a teenager, but they knew they were playing the long game. They kept a pretty loose grip on the reins, and I think that’s a good principle.

Almost as if to illustrate this principle: During that same Mass I described above, where my family spent most of the hour coming and going and to-ing and fro-ing, the pastor made an announcement: An elderly couple in the parish would have their marriage convalidated. They’d been in a civil marriage for many years but had recently come back to the Church . . .

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Image: Public Domain