The Golden Helmet of Jubilation
Most (if not all) lapsed Catholics carry around a large or small feeling in their stomachs. That feeling is, in short: Maybe I should go back? But I hate it! You could throw in a lot of other stuff about traditions, and fulfilling basic human ritual-magic needs, and do-gooding, and God’s love vs. stultifying nonsense, massive cover-ups, and deeply entrenched sexism. I don’t really want to get into all that.
I had been carrying that feeling for quite some time. It sometimes emerged as scathing criticism of the Church; other times, a sentimental petting of the Churchly kitty, thinking: It’s rather cute and I do know it so well, even though it sometimes scratches and bites me, breaking the skin; even so, it’s my kitty. I also felt that it was okay for me to mock the church, but if one of the Unwashed did so, I felt personally attacked.
The dissonance was a kind of chronic disease. Sometimes worse, sometimes better, but not curable. One imagines a doctor with his hands folded sincerely, saying “The good news is that it’s a dissonance you can live with, although eventually, it will kill you.” I began to write about Catholicism during cancer treatment. The thing about illness is that it’s so damn lonely. No matter how loving your friends and family may be, it is a solo trip far, far into the dark: basically a great time to consider the mysteries of God and death. Writing about Catholicism also gave me something to do with myself while, despite appearing stoic on the outside, I was panicky and way way way beyond freaked-out on the inside.
My “journey” (ick) followed this arc:
1. Comedic Attacks: Along with amusing myself by aiming arrow after arrow at the Vatican, I read deeply on the Faith well into many sleepless nights, eating Klonopin and holding vigil with fellow travelers, Teilhard and Nouwen among them.
2. Back on Board: Worked myself up into reinstatement: I am sweaty-giddy, increasingly freaked out but enjoying new friendships, Catholic shop talk, reader feedback. I find I am good at talking about faith, but not so good at having it. I pray but it feels hollow, off, like a bell without a clapper. Dissonance continues, interspersed with stretches of really, really trying to buy it, or at least feel okay about trying to buy it. I tell myself: It’s okay if you don’t believe; it doesn’t have to be literal; sometimes comforting rituals are nice. Except that I don’t really find the ritual all that comforting. I find that what I am is nostalgic about something that never really happened. As this time progresses, I want to quit but force myself to keep going. I am aware this is a liminal period, and the only way to get through it is not to flinch but keep marching along and accept any outcome. This was my chance to sort it out once and for all. The alternative was to accept the discomfort of wavering, possibly indefinitely, and that, I decided, I could not do.
3. Pax Maria (more about this to come).
In the last days of my rematch with Rome, I even signed up for a parish, feeling that maybe actually signing my name to something might sort it out once and for all. But it didn’t. The urge to run for my life during Mass was still very much present, only worse, since I was the one who was doing it to myself. I felt like I was holding my own head underwater, but I was still thinking, Well, no one ever said that religion is easy and I must be getting something out of it. I once read that the way advertising works is to set up an unsolvable question in your head. That’s what makes it stick. I feel like Catholicism does that times infinity. It’s a million little contradictory statements and simultaneous love/hate messages that, when repeated enough, can begin to feel like some kind of invented torture, which, in fact, it is, except that somehow, you get blamed for not being “good” enough to accept it. The truth is that people made it up. People just like you and me.
Compound the mindfucks with “smells, spells and bells” and religion can feel etched on your DNA regardless of whether or not you are actually participating. Why do humans return to and/or replicate experiences that were unpleasant or even damaging? I think, in part, because we want to clear up the static. We want to make some sense of it. Also, the little holy fishhooks in my head had each grown thought-barnacles of their own—Catholicism became a sticking point for a lot of other festering furies.
At the heart of it was a sadness: I wanted answers for why life can be so scary and sad at times, and the answers that my religion provided weren’t sufficient. Illness can make you angry that it happened to you, but I came to accept that I was a part of a great wave of suffering, in the wards and all over the planet. I was not unique or alone in my despair and pain, and that was a comfort.
The “coming full circle” of my Catholicism (which is a key anticipatory theme in Christianity) was my last gasp of wishing for a heavenly parent to eventually make it all better when I die. As my career as a reborn Catholic continued, I felt even more jittery, fraudulent, even. On a whim, I heeded some advice a wise person once told me. If you feel stuck, try something new that scares you a little, and do it by yourself.
I went to a drum circle. I’m not exactly sure why, but sometimes that little voice in your head knows what it is doing. At the drum circle I laid down to take a “shamanic journey.” Say what you will about the authenticity of modern-day American shamans; the use of rhythm to induce trance states has been used across all human cultures.
We were instructed to pick a familiar spot where we would go down a tunnel into the earth. What immediately popped into my mind was the area behind a backstop, during an afternoon at a summer day camp where I met a red-haired girl named Amber who said she was a friend. She went on to explain that she was a Friend, that is, a Quaker. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, other than hooking together “warm, friendly girl” and “Friend or Quaker.” She seemed a little happier than most people I knew. Out of nowhere, there she was: Amber the Friend. The drumming hadn’t even started and I was already going deep into my psyche.
In my vision, I swam with whales as a mermaid who transmogrified from maiden, to mother, to crone and back again. I met a little girl in the forest and asked her if she was my spirit guide, and she pointed to the sky. I saw the constellation Cassiopeia in a great, inky firmament, and she turned into a queen on earth, beckoning me to take my place in a throne in a great hall. What transpired next was a scene of bloody mass slaughter, perpetuated by me alone. I sliced and diced the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and a bunch of men in various types of religious garb, both real and fantastic. After which I smoothed out my robe and sighed with contentment. There was more to come after that, including my own heart being served to me on a plate, and watching my own body age, die, and crumble into dust.
When I told the leaders about all of this, they seemed a bit taken aback, and offered their help in “unpacking” it all at some other time, since this was all very serious stuff, murder and dissembling of one’s own body. I told them it was all right, it all made sense to me. I wasn’t scared.
I understood that I don’t have to be a part of anyone else’s program if I don’t want to. I do not have to listen to the religious dictates of men. I need to climb on my own personal throne and exert sovereignty over my existence. In other words, I have the perfect and necessary right to stop trying to like things I really don’t like: no explanations required.
I felt deeply relieved. The friction vanished. I no longer had the question looming in my mind, or the dissonance in the pit of my stomach. It felt like clear space opened up in my soul. There was no loss or angst; no hatred or spite; no regret. No blame.
I am so grateful for not wishing I could believe any more. That wish always triggered a circular avalanche of unsolvable riddles, the only answer to which is “accepting the mystery,” and that I can’t do; thus, I can’t really “belong.” It is, quite frankly, a miracle that I am free of that heartache and of all its piggybacking miseries. Is it possible to thank God for removing the longing for God? Because I do. I may find “God” elsewhere. I may find that concept useless. Doesn’t matter, really.
I find that the quotidian feels more sacred now—that “lightness” makes me aware of moments passing in all their different colors. I am enjoying the little things. Declaring Softrocktober and tweeting about it daily was pure joy and, even in its own way, nurtured a great blossoming now in progress. I have been searching for the perfect concealer, no small matter if one looks like late-Zeppelin Jimmy Page (in one’s mind) or perhaps a very tired human white asparagus (in reality). This, too, is a fun and fulfilling quest.
I have acquired a spirit animal. His name is Loki and he’s the rightful king of Asgard. We have a lot of things in common, being perpetually iron-deficient, witty, unpredictable, dramatic, and an outright pain in the ass among them. My husband has blessed me with a Loki keychain. “We all need our personal myths,” he said. “And you don’t know what it is until you find it.” The trickster is kindred, being neither good nor bad. Just like me. Without even intending to, I’ve been throwing up little prayers to the Loki of Nordic lore.
Oh, who am I trying to kid? Nordic lore? I’ve been praying to the character Loki in the Thor movie series. There, I said it. Do you ever admit one thing to yourself and cause all the tumblers of a lock to fall in place in your head? Because once I realized I was sending up (down?) (sideways?) prayers to a fictional character who sometimes wears a mullet, a rush of moments lined up and waterfalled.
The truth is that I have a long history of praying to other people and things besides God, the Father Almighty. Here are just a few of my illicit pray-ees. Strict constructionists, you may want to turn away from this list. Or, possibly, play this video while you read it.
1. The Beatles
As a child Beatles fan, I turned to the Fab Four when I was terrified in my room at night. This began in kindergarten. I would lie in the dark and send out thought-prayers to the Beatles, who I imagined sending me love right back. I saw it flowing out from me into the dark and back to me in white waves. Even though I knew that the Beatles weren’t technically “together” any more, they were in the among-world, which is a sort of eternity that runs through our world in the past, present and future. (This is also how you can marry people who are dead, for example.) I knew it wasn’t quite “right” to pray to the Beatles, but I did it anyway. For years. The Beatles were there for me.
“We don’t pray to statues,” they said. “We only use them as visual aids.” Then why were there statues everywhere with kneelers in front of them? Here’s just one example of the religious transmission jam, which made me feel like God is the sort who puts snowy white wall-to-wall in the family room and then proceeds to freak out at the tiniest blemish.
3. My grandmother
I waited three days after Granny died, and locked myself in the bathroom, kneeled down on the rug, and let her know how I felt. Praying to my grandmother didn’t stop there, either. Oh no it didn’t.
4. Emily Dickinson
Which brings us to Loki.
When sending mental missives to Loki, I feel a little buzz of connection, and I get a surprising amount of real-world feedback. I’m going to go ahead and say that Loki is my new Beatles, prayer-wise. So, if you detect something in the space above my head, that would be my invisible two-pronged golden helmet of jubilation.
I must conclude that it really doesn’t matter where I direct my prayers. And, in general, I’m going to stop making myself like things that I don’t like. I’m not going to watch unappealing shows, knit, wear fleece, train dogs, or community garden. I’m not going to pray to unwanted Gods.
I recently considered the thousands of hours I have logged at Mass. Was there anything, strictly in that context, that was particularly memorable? Deep? Touching? Epiphanic? Hilarious? Only one memory came to mind: on the first day of high school, I attended an outdoor Mass, complete with guitar-playing algebra teacher, girls in pastel uniforms, and that familiar sense of being held hostage in awful clothing that I didn’t want to wear—in short, the stomach-clenching terror of experiencing, in real time, the ongoing, systematic squelching of my own self. As I walked to my space on the grass, I passed by an older, red-haired girl laughing with her friends. I felt the spark of alignment. I found a spot behind her, but a person or two over. Later, I saw that she had put on a Walkman, which she didn’t take off for the rest of the “celebration.” My heart lit up, knowing I wasn’t the only active unliker of mandatory, never-ending tellings of the execution of the God-Man and the attendant eating of his flesh.
In long, Catholicism just isn’t for me. I support my Catholic friends completely. I know you all are great people doing good in the world. Roman Catholic Church, I would like to dedicate this song to you:
We’ll come back for Indian summer.
We’ll come back for Indian summer.
We’ll come back for Indian summer,
and go our separate ways.
Watch this space for reports from the among-world.
Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.