I’ve been asked about my Catholicism a few times lately. There’s some material concerning my conversion in the archives of this site from 2007 if you’re interested, but the short version is that someone gave me St. Augustine’s Confessions to read right at the moment when I was trying to find the words to describe this incredible, world-changing experience I had recently had. I was shocked that he understood how my entire life seemed to have been transformed. I thought about words like “grace” and “conversion” for the first time in a very long time, and in a different, much more personal way than I ever I had before. Then I got into Thomas Merton, which is how I wound up at Corpus Christi, the church where he converted when he was the same age I was when I first read his books.
To say that everyone in my life was utterly shocked when I decided to enter the Church would be an understatement. Even people who had some understanding of the shift I had experienced and could appreciate to some extent how I felt about the Cross and the liturgy and the saints just did not see why any of that meant I had to actually join the Catholic Church with all the baggage that entails (the pedophilia scandal; the AIDS epidemic; the idea that there is One True Church, and that the Kingdom of Heaven and the sacraments are open to some people but not others). Simone Weil, with whom I identified even more strongly than Merton, was profoundly drawn to the Church and to the Eucharist, but could not bring herself to be baptized until she was on her deathbed, because she could not accept the fullness of the Church’s teachings. (It’s worth noting that the position she, rightly, had the strongest opposition to, anathema sit, was revised in Vatican II.)
But despite my own “issues,” and a lot of waffling until almost the last minute, in the end I felt quite strongly compelled to go through with it, baptism and confirmation and all. And I didn’t just become Catholic, I became the kind of Catholic who learns Latin and Gregorian chant and joins the parish council and takes the subway an hour to daily Mass and is celibate for 3 years and alienates all her girlfriends by railing against artificial birth control and carries a breviary around all the time to pray the Office, etc, etc, etc. I remember getting up at 7 to walk to Mass at the little church down the street from the conference hotel in the mornings before the first sessions at VSS (one of the vision meetings where I presented my work every summer), and how mystified my scientific colleagues were when they got wind of this. None of them had any idea I actually did the same thing back in New York, too.
Since then, I have “chilled out” considerably. After I moved away from my parish here in NY (which is very, very special to me and always will be) and a few months went by out in liturgical-slob land (which covers practically the entire Church in the US, I have discovered), I was doing well to make it to Mass on Sundays, let alone weekdays.
I still maintain that Natural Family Planning, and its secular cousin the Fertility Awareness Method of birth control (which should not be confused with the old Rhythm Method, which is total bunk), is one of the most amazing and empowering things I have ever learned about in my entire life. I’m never, ever taking the Pill again.
I guess one might even say in the past year, in some respects, I have “lapsed.” And there were, of course, issues I had with some Church dogma before I ever entered. I’ll probably always have those issues, but, though some conservatives would not, I still consider myself to be a practicing, devout Catholic Christian. I often say I’m a Catholic Buddhist, and I’m very interested in inter-religious dialogue.
Balthazar asked me if I had managed to reconcile my faith with my sexuality. I am not really sure about this. I did avoid sex for quite a while after I got involved in the Church, even before I officially converted. That ended. I seem to vacillate between two extremes. When I am in my more sexual mode, I am incredibly and quite unconventionally so. I’ve been drawn to the world of BDSM and sexual power exchange for a long time, and I often feel like I am on the brink coming up with a grand synthesis that links my spiritual and sexual orientations toward submission/surrender/suffering-as-liberation.
The English word “passion” (as in desire) comes from the Latin verb patrior, pati, passus sum: to suffer/endure/submit. When I think of Christ I think, always, of the Passion. That image, of the Savior, dying, in terrible pain, asking why God has forsaken him, and yet accepting it and reaching out toward others with saving compassion, is very close to me. My favorite Church holiday is Good Friday.
Last night I went to see a burlesque performance. One of the performers was also my friend’s literary agent. I really enjoyed it. Some people said that this particular show overall was a little more raunchy/dark and less cheeky/flirty than a lot of burlesque, which was probably due in part to the venue (a tiny bar known for its industrial music, $1-2 beer, and having a stripper pole). I felt like a couple of the performers could have done the exact same act in a mainstream strip club and it would have fit right in. The biggest differences were the audience, which was at least half female (the girls were clearly just as into it as the guys) and very supportive/unsleazy, and the fact that the dancers were not taking their clothes off for money. In fact, I found out, they didn’t get paid at all, except in tips that they collected by passing a hat.