As we grow and age in life, most of us arrive at a point where we’ve experienced the beauty and wonder of life, but also its fragile moments and numbing tragedy.
And those experiences, if we are open to them, encourage us to learn, grow, and adapt to a world in constant flux.
A deepening and more enduring faith, and a certain peace with Catholicism, slowly and rather surprisingly found its way back into my life, like some quiet raindrop joining others in small swirling rivulets, eventually finding their way to a larger stream on its way to the sea.
You live your life thinking you’re in B-flat and all of the sudden you’re modulating to other keys, or moving from oils to watercolors to collage.
I had a Catholic upbringing, an isosceles triangle shaped by my home, neighborhood parochial schools, and the church. But while my collegiate mother knelt as nuns, shaped by an asphyxiating doctrine, took a measuring tape from the bottom of her hemline to the hardwood floor, it was the Immaculate Heart Sisters in Los Angeles who shaped and influenced me as a young adult.
Inspired by the feminist movement of the 1960s, these nuns sought greater independence from religious orthodoxy. Unsupported in their efforts, many nuns left, surrendered their vows, and reorganized as a progressive lay community. At the time, it was the ultimate challenge to an inflexible male hierarchy.
They were my enlightened and loving high school teachers.
One of our primary texts was The Religions of Man by Huston Smith, a brilliant writer, educator, and scholar of world religions raised in China by Methodist missionaries. Who thought one would be studying Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism at a Catholic girls’ high school?
The impact these women had on my adolescent years and beyond cannot be underestimated. As I moved into my young adult years, I yearned to do exactly what they eagerly cultivated—break free of tradition, explore the world, and live a life that was, for the most part, not available to women of my mother’s generation, and almost impossible in that of my grandmothers.
I studied Spanish and Latin American literature. Liberation theology and Marxist literary criticism were powerful lenses through which we interpreted and discussed many readings. And religion? Faith? No longer. Much later a student of mine decided to go into religious studies. But in my teenage world, Che was chic. Fidel, a hero.
Too many choices and freedom from restrictions, with no road signs or maps, can be a burden.
I look back at how prone I was to poor judgment and the mistakes of youth. Despite all the marches, the struggle for equality, the anti-war movement, I didn’t realize the many destructive elements of the era’s libertine counterculture. The left ignored the failings of its heroes, Che and Fidel among them. There were far too many drugs with too many young deaths from overdoses and suicides (and there still are). There was sexual freedom for all with responsibility for none. Early sex was trendy.
I had always wanted to live abroad. After teaching for a few years near home, I found a position at an international school in Italy on the Slovenian border. I wish I could say it was just my adventurous spirit that took me across the Atlantic! But it was overwhelming grief at a young love lost that took me there. That grief colored my world.
And it was in Italy, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, where I found myself in a relationship with an abusive and sociopathic alcoholic, alone, pregnant, and far from home.
I had an abortion at age 31, a monumental decision with which I struggled.
For many Catholics, it is the ultimate unspeakable crime, the most unpardonable of sins, and for women in some countries, a prison sentence. In some U.S. states, abortion is still discussed in the same sentence with the words “death penalty.”
While abortion was legal, finding a clinic that provided abortion services in intensely Catholic Italy was beyond difficult. I was especially traumatized, as the delay took me almost into my third month. The aftermath of an abortion is not painless. I couldn’t walk to get to the bathroom, and I called for nurses that never came. I finally crawled on hands and knees.
How do you deal with all that? Where could I go pray and scream out for peace and guidance? I often took refuge in the closest basilica where the only Mass available was in Serbo-Croatian.
Over time, I shared this painful experience with my closest friends. I have always considered myself, both then and now, to be pro-life. By that, I mean I support a woman’s right to choose, or, in the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself.”
None of us, however, would leave the experience unscathed. What helped heal those scars more than anything was a powerful sense of love and compassion that we all developed with respect to life choices for women, and not just abortion. It’s an evolving narrative in every way, and one that I embrace as part of the person I am today.
I don’t really know when a bolt of lightning finally hit me over the head, making me pivot and change course.
My time spent on the border with Yugoslavia, from 1989 to 1991, was a time of momentous historical changes in Eastern Europe. A 1991 trip to Prague became, for me, a life-changing moment. The Russian occupiers fled, leaving the width and breadth of this part of the world bewildered by over 40 years of totalitarian occupation.
Overjoyed youth, with decades of greater freedoms stretching before them, sold Red Army uniforms at the open market. The elderly packed churches, wept in their pews, mourning decades of inexpressible loss, of aspirations denied.
The overwhelming sense of despair was palpable. It somehow, though in a much larger way, echoed my own.
Or maybe it was motherhood and marriage that changed me. My life eventually became more grounded, and I returned to live in Colorado. I bought a home, adopted a child on my own, and married soon thereafter. In one ceremony, I went from being the mother of an adopted child to wife and stepmother.
The questions I asked of the world became ever more urgent. How do you build a marriage? How do you raise and teach children? Haven’t we all learned that perhaps the songwriter Graham Nash was right in the beautiful passages of his ballad, “Teach Your Children”—don’t we all need some kind of code to live by?
My husband was raised Lutheran, and I started attending a local Lutheran church. It was refreshingly Catholic-lite with a wonderful liberal outlook. I expanded my friendships there and worked with youth groups.
Then my troubled marriage, unsurprisingly, came to an end, and the people there embraced me with all of their generous warmth. More than faith, a loving community with a shared sense of humanity was what I needed at the time.
I think it all came home for me when I moved back to California with my daughter to take care of my aging parents.
Every Sunday, I took them to the church I begrudgingly attended as a child. I put my mother’s walker in the back of the car and took my father’s hand to steady him as he walked, cane in hand, to the front pew. We attended Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, with few exceptions, for years, until the time came that increasing frailty required more care than I could provide. And every Sunday, my parents huddled in their same pew and bowed their heads with a faith that has helped sustain them over 64 years of marriage.
“Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art,” says Eleanor Roosevelt.
There’s love in this Catholic church that I had turned from for so much of my life. Marta sits in the center front pew every Sunday, walking over a mile and back in her walker. She worries if I don’t show up on any given Sunday. There’s Charlotte—she taught at the local school we attended and stayed even after a white family pulled their child out of school when they discovered that Charlotte, her teacher, was African American. And that choir! How could such beauty not come but as a gift of some divine spirit?
You can’t sit in a pew all those years and listen to all those sermons without hearing something that stays with you.
At the suggestion of a friend, I went to have a long conversation with Father Lopez during what Pope Francis called the holy year of mercy. The language of mercy was returning to the lexicon (why had it gone?), and I could talk openly with him about my abortion, my crisis of faith, and my self-excommunication. He compassionately held my hand.
I visited Father Nguyen, the pastor. I’ve grown to like him quite a bit, though I was reluctant at first. You can’t be in a Catholic church these days and not be dismayed at its misogyny, its corruption and criminality, its culture of denial.
But still today, I meet with Father Nguyen. He tells me to breathe deeply and to be mindful of the moment. Yes, he talks to me about mindfulness, about my chi. Is it in alignment? Don’t worry about dogma and doctrine, he tells me. Just think about walking with Jesus, he says, this humble Jew, for some a rabbinical teacher and healer, for others the embodiment and incarnation of the divine, the longed-for Messiah.
It is this desire to walk with some larger spirit that is the one of the most basic threads of commonality among people of many faiths. So that’s what I do.
And sometimes when I walk with Jesus, I find myself at the pews of my childhood church, frayed at the edges and largely abandoned by the young, my daughter among them.
But oddly, I stay at this place of beginning, much like the author Huston Smith. When asked about his own faith, this deeply learned man of world religions, a scholar of the Upanishads, responded that he remained a Methodist. He found his parents to be deeply loving people and he remained inspired by how they lived their faith. His mother worked to discourage the foot binding of young girls.
While I, like Smith, found myself at the place of beginning, my faith had modulated over time. Was there a place for reform within the church? I joined Future Church, an organization that advocates for the end of mandatory celibacy, an equal role for women, and hence a return to some of the earliest traditions of the faith. Mary Magdalene is recognized as an early apostle, later shunned as the patriarchy took over. I sometimes listen to sermons given by women of faith and it is often a refreshing point of view.
Exile has been the choice of many Catholics, as it was mine for many years.
James Carroll, on the other hand, himself a former priest and reformer, proposes a reclaiming of the faith by the faithful themselves. He favors abandoning clericalism and creating space for “internal exiles” or dissidents within the church. It is a vision that suggests the Hebrew prophets of old who challenged the world around them, the historical beginnings of communities of faith, a time before wealth and power corrupted the trajectory of a faith quite profound yet subversive in its simplicity.
Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. We are all radically equal before God.
I love these openings in the faith, these progressive concepts. I can find some space here, though it may still be from the periphery of an evolving faith tradition.
My parents, Martha, and Charlotte are by my side. For after all, aren’t we two or three or four, gathered in a common bond and grounded in love, the church? And I can listen to that beautiful choir, and occasionally, as they crescendo, I can reach the high notes with them. And I think of many things, about what I might talk about next time with Father Nguyen, if my chi is in alignment.
But most of all, I think about my sense of wanderlust, taking long walks with Jesus, and sometimes turning to meet and talk with those of other wisdom traditions along the way.