Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Special: Secrets of the Catholic Church Revealed! Plus the Story of my Religious Conversion

Here are a few things that I, as an insider, know about the Catholic church that you infidels may not be hip to: 

1) Not only does the One True Church offer you exclusive access to everlasting life up in heaven with Little Baby Jesus as long as you repent and get baptized like one millisecond before you buy the farm; it also allows you to park for free in any lot owned by The Pope as long as you have a rosary hanging from your rear view mirror.  It's true!  It's not just church parking lots either--you can also park with impunity in Catholic schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, thrift shops, and some Subway franchises.  Generally you're safe anywhere there's a sign that says "St.____of____ ", or "Our Lady of_____".

2) Regardless of your feelings about transubstantiation, if you have ever taken Communion, you have to admit that  the Jesus biscuits are magical insofar as they seem to be made of styrofoam, and yet they dissolve right in your mouth.  Also, they have less flavor than styrofoam, which is quite miraculous in itself.    

So there you have it.  Pretty much blows the doors off of The DaVinci Code, right?

***

The reason I know all this is that today, Easter Sunday 2011, is the tenth anniversary of my baptism and confirmation as a member of the Catholic church.

Not coincidentally, my tenth wedding anniversary is just a couple months away.

When my wife--at the time just a platonic friend I had known for nine years and who, at age 27, had never been on a date with a boy before and who would certainly never have considered living with a man out of wedlock--and I approached her parents with the idea of the two of us getting married, we assumed we would encounter some resistance.  My wife is the oldest of six kids in a fiercely traditional (at the time anyway) Catholic Vietnamese family.

I place "Catholic" ahead of "Vietnamese" because, as it turned out, the cultural differences were less important to her family than the religious ones.  In fact, after a four-hour summit during which I smiled and nodded as all the other players spoke passionately in a language in which I only knew the words for "egg roll" and "soup," the verdict was that we would be allowed to get married, on the condition that I convert to Catholicism.

That summit happened right before we moved from Virginia to Northern California, the way platonic friends often do: simultaneously, but not together, if you know what I mean (Hi, Father-in-law!).

One of our first orders of business therefore, after getting our California drivers' licenses and medicinal marijuana permits (kidding!), was to shop around for a house of worship.

So we went on a little tasting tour of the churches of Sonoma County.   

There was the picturesque pink stucco cathedral in Petaluma, where the Spanish service was just incomprehensible enough to be palatable.  There was the stately concrete church in Santa Rosa where the priest admonished and joked with a brogue that lent him both clerical credibility and charm that softened the dogmatic edges of his homily.  There were others that ranged from unbearably boring to surprisingly brimstone-y.   

But it was finally the modest cinder block building between the strip mall and the best taqueria in town where we found our church home.

The priest was funny, engaging, and a bit fey; and his homilies were--dare I say it?--inspiring, and never offensive to our liberal sensibilities.  Aside from the priest, the church seemed to be run by a handful of kindly, no-nonsense lesbians in their fifties and sixties.  I felt immediately comfortable.

I was almost disappointed that I would be doing my year of adult catechism in a place where I didn't have instant disdain for the authority figures.  I had agreed to convert to Catholicism assuming that I would be the Bart Simpson of the class, challenging the instructor with questions about inconsistencies in the Bible and theological stumpers like "What age are you when you go to heaven?" and "If you lose a limb, will you be reunited with it in the heareafter?"

Alas, our guide on the spiritual journey avoided the politically incorrect sections of the Good Book, even going so far as to tell us that the apocalyptic bummer Book of Revelation wasn't really part of the Gospel as far as our church was concerned.  In fact, it was nigh-impossible to catch our new-agey Sunday school teacher in any act of hypocrisy whatsoever.

As I should have been able to predict by then, Adult Catechism turned out to be yet another thing that, like going to wine tastings, I would quickly learn to enjoy despite my initial disinterest and even dread.

Up to that point, I had never been remotely "spiritual," whatever that means.  I had studied the Bible in college as a cultural artifact and piece of literature, and I felt like I understood at least the scope of its complex influence on civilization.  But I never believed that any of it was true.  I mean, not the good parts, anyway--people rising from the dead, angels chatting with humans, immaculate conception, epic battles between good and evil.  I'm sure some of the boring parts about who begat whom were historically accurate, but, really, who cares?  My faith was in science, which I knew as little about as the average evangelical Christian knows about literary criticism.*  To me, science was mysterious and magical, and mythology was pretty transparent.

Catechism classes were about as different from my day-to-day grind as they could be.  I was working as a framer in those days, building massive custom homes and sometimes wine production facilities in Sonoma and Napa Counties.  The business end of the work I was doing (with which I was not involved, except to the extent that I was always pushed to do everything faster so that my boss and his clients could make more money) was all about trophy houses and shiny status symbols and accruing huge piles of cash.  The atmosphere among my co-workers was one of nihilistic machismo--a lot of "friendly" insulting of the you're-a-pussy variety, yarn-spinning about sexual prowess and ingestion of toxins, plus plenty of misogynistic and homophobic banter.

Sunday school, on the other hand, involved discussing passages from the New Testament at great length, which reminded me of nothing so much as being an undergrad in a poetry seminar.  And the passages we focused on were the ones that to me always represented the gist of Christianity: Jesus as a socialist hippie who wants us to abandon our worldly wealth, minister to the poor, and love one another unconditionally. Then we would "pray" a lot, which was really more like an exercise in guided meditation.

The troubling aspects of Catholic dogma and institutional abuse were brushed off as unimportant (for our purposes, anyway) and transitory, while the larger ideas were discussed in terms of humanity's interconnectedness, with Jesus as a teacher and archetype for how to treat one another.

I could dig that.  I was living in a brave new world where I could molt the cynical exoskeleton I had been building since adolescence, and I found it suitably ironic that I would have my California spirit vision courtesy of one of the squarest religious traditions in the Western world. 

It was also during this time that my wife and I got pretty seriously involved with the cult of Bikram Yoga.  If you're not familiar with Bikram, it's 90 minute sessions of aggro yoga performed in a studio heated to 106 degrees.  It's not at all unusual for practitioners to pass out or vomit in class.  But, if you make it through the session, you are rewarded with a level of bliss that almost allows you to levitate.

So every Sunday, I would go to my catechism class, my wife would go to the regular Mass, and then we would dart over to the Bikram studio to purge ourselves of impurities by wringing gallons of sweat from our pores.  I was turning into one of those insufferable California guys who thinks everything is beautiful, man; and Jesus is totally rad.

The culmination of my spiritual journey was my baptism on Easter Day.  Well, to be truthful, it was actually a few hours before my baptism.

A couple weeks prior to B-day, our instructor had given us an assignment.  We were to make "baptismal stoles" that we would drape over our shoulders on the day of our official conversion.  Some suggestions for adornment included favorite biblical quotes, names and birthdays of children (if we had any), or pictures of family: essentially any words or images that had significance in our lives.

In addition to never having had any interest in spirituality, I had never cared much for craftsy stuff (building houses notwithstanding).  But my spiritual awakening had apparently also stirred my inner fourth grader.

I made a trip to Michael's Crafts and collected glitter glue, felt, markers, beads, and spangles, and set to creating a baptismal stole that would make Jesus proud.

I started at the bottom of the stole, creating a landscape of the mountain range that surrounded the Bavarian town I lived in as a little kid, because my fondest childhood memories occurred in that setting.  I put felt pine trees in the foreground, and then threw in a little iron-on rainbow patch as a shout-out to my disenfranchised gay brothers and sisters, and also because I thought it looked nice peeking over the ridge of the Alpspitze.

Above the landscape I drew stylized hot-rod flames and glued felt branches with spangly leaves to create a burning bush.  On the other side of the stole, I copied a print of a Celtic crucifix that a friend had made from a woodcut in a college art class.

We all brought our stoles into Sunday school the week before baptism, and I suddenly felt a twinge of regret when I saw what the others had produced.  My co-converters had not taken the task as seriously as I had, and had stoles that were, quite frankly, lame.  But my classmates didn't resent my inspired work; they only offered compliments and encouragement.         


I have that whole wide-eyed zealot thing going on in this photo.  Also, a patriotic t-shirt they were giving away at the lumberyard after 9/11



As awesome as my stole was, however; on the morning of the Easter Day I was to be baptized, I felt there was something missing.  There was a bare spot above the burning bush that called out for something to create aesthetic balance.  I thought about why the story of the burning bush appealed to me, and I remembered a particular passage where God tells Moses to take off his sandals because he's standing on holy ground.

"Sandals!" I thought.  "That's what this pastiche needs!"

But what could I make sandals out of on such short notice, with no time to make a run for Michael's?

Like a bolt out of the blue, it appeared before me.  A tiny burlap bag sitting on the window sill that had once held a couple ounces of coffee that some friend had given to us as a souvenir from a trip to  Guatemala.

And for the sandal straps?  Lo!  There did appear before me a small gift basket with jams and crackers cradled in a bed of Excelsior brand shredded packaging material that, when separated strand from strand, formed perfect tiny laces for the favored footwear of biblical characters.

"Take your sandals off your feet, for the place you are standing is hallowed ground." Exodus 3:5


That evening, in a candlelight service, I approached the baptismal font.  As I joined my brothers and sisters in front of the altar, Father Will whispered, "Wow.  That stole is fabulous!"  I was proud, perhaps overweeningly so.

The service proceeded.  I renounced the Devil and all his works, which was, naturally, bittersweet.  I got dunked, I lit a candle, and I took my first communion.

***

After our huge Catholic wedding back in Virginia, I became progressively less enthusiastic about my new religion.  I no longer had the fire of the newly converted.  A lot of that had to do with the sad fact that insightful homilies at our church had been truncated to make way for "special collections" for legal funds to fight all the lawsuits our diocese was embroiled in.  And some of it had to do with the realization that my spiritual journey was mostly another instance of me making the best of a situation I would never have chosen to be in, given my druthers.

But overall, I'm glad I did it.  Sure it was thrust upon me; but my brief dabbling in spirituality finally gave me empathy for people for whom it's a way of life.  And even now, as an almost simultaneously confirmed and lapsed Catholic, I feel a bit of a connection to a religious tradition that, despite its grave historical blunders, has had a profound role in shaping Western Civilization.   



 




*I'm not bashing evangelicals for not knowing about literary criticism (although I would bash them for other reasons).  I just always found it ironic that most Christian fundamentalists I have met (with exceptions, for sure) are not big readers.  Or not critical readers, at least, especially when it comes to the Bible.  This strikes me as paradoxical for a group so identified with words written down in a book.       

      

    



     

13 comments:

  1. Good for you!. You look so proud... Love the sandals, dude, u are resourceful...

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  2. Happy Easter, lasped man of faith. I was a sponsor forna friend in adult Catechism. There I learned, after 20-some years if living Catholic, that the bit about priests not marrying was political maneuvering on the part of the church sometime in the 10th century or so. The priests up til then had been marrying and on their deaths their wives inherited their property. As you note, how could the church support all those special collections and second offerings if they were letting the priests have contractual obligations to give their land and wealth to women? And thus, years later, pedophiles are allowed to live and abused safely from within the confines of the confessional.

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  3. I can't tell for sure if you're down with JC now or not, but I assume the answer is "yes." And I think that's good. While some of his followers leave much to be desired, JC certainly does not. Hey, we don't judge bloggers by their crazier, on-the-fringe readers, do we?

    And yes, that stole IS fabulous! Although saying "fabulous" in a religious setting can get you a one way ticket to "gay camp," so be careful where you quote me on that.

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  4. Wow. This is eerily similar to my own "faith journey." Minus the fabulous stole which is totally the way everyone should do it.

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  5. Great to see you posting a whole post here and not a teaser and link!!

    Loved the stole and your insights to as you put it a dominating factor to Western "culture" and it's continuing influence/meddling (depends on your view) in our society

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  6. Oh my gosh! Did I ever enjoy this post! I too am a lapsed Catholic and a lapsed Confirmation teacher. I enjoyed reading someone who could take the Catholic Church with a grain of salt and humor. That's what I tried to teach the high school kids I taught. Take the good and what fits in your life to make you a decent human being and leave the rest.

    I love the story of your conversion and the stole.

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  7. See? As they say, it's always the converted ones that are more passionate than the ones "born" into it. ^_^ That stole is rad indeed and yes the burlap sandals added the final perfect touch to it.

    Now I am quite jealous of your California liberal Catholic church. If I could find something like that around here, I would not have been having so much conflict in my role as an agnostic bringing up Catholic children...

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  8. My husband would like me to do adult catechism because while I was baptized Catholic, I was never confirmed. Now that I know it involves a stole...rethinking.

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  9. The PERFECT morning companion to my blueberry pancakes and black tea. You have helped me to start off my day right :)

    I think it is, in part, your ability to maintain a healthy critical stance laced with humor and generosity that makes you such a delightful person and writer. The sight of you in a flag T-shirt about to get baptized in your own craft project pretty much says it all.

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  10. There are so many things I want to comment on here, but instead I'll just say that this is a great story. Religion is interesting and I know it's not for everyone, but at least you gave it a shot. Even if it was at the twisting of an arm.

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  11. That stole is badass, it's like the Catholic equivalent of hair metal. Were the other stoles as 'radical' with flames and whatnot? I went to a Catholic school and every once in a while a particularly zealous relgion teacher would attempt to have me agree to being baptised, but I was too busy listening to Marilyn Manson and reading Ayn Rand. Nowadays, if I thought it would help me find a date, I'd sign up for the most fringe, misaligned and dangerous cult possible.

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  12. @KBF--I still get chills when I think of how the sandal material was right there when I needed it most.

    @Nicole--Yeah, a lot of the church policy that people think is based on Scripture is totally economically and politically motivated. And it takes hundreds of years for reform to take place.

    @Muskrat--Down philosophically, but not really interested in going to church, or believing literally in the Bible, or any book for that matter.

    @dbs--You didn't get to do crafts? Lame!

    @Alicia--Most of the adult Catholics I know take the church's teachings with a grain of salt. I think that kind of cognitive dissonance makes you better able to handle all of life's ironies.

    @Crystal--I wish I could post more here. Maybe some day I'll get fired from all my other gigs and come back to my blog home.

    @Absence--We felt pretty lucky to have found that church. Made it a lot easier. Our pre-Caana counselor went to the same church my wife's family went to back east, and she was all, "Oh--it's very different here."

    @Steph--It wasn't the worst thing in the world, and in our case, it made for smooth family relations, so it was totally worth it.

    @Anisa--Your comment was the perfect companion to my scattered day of chasing kids and trying to write stuff that somehow hangs together.

    @Karen--Thanks. Yeah--religion was one thing I had never really tried. It was fun for a while, like a lot of stuff I've experimented with, but I never became dependent on it.

    @Mr. Dines--Not that it was a competition or anything...but my stole totally kicked the asses of all the other stoles. Dates are far more important than religious convictions.

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  13. Damn good post Beta Dad - as usual my friend. I wouldn't take a spiritual journey with anyone else but you. Oh and I suggest you continue giving us insightful secrets from behind the closed doors of Catholicism - that was fun! You can call it The Beta Dad-Data Code, or something completely different.

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