I’m a huge fan of Flannery O’Connor. I read and re-read her short stories, letters, and spiritual diary. The truth is, I find in her something I want and want deeply.
Yes, I am Catholic. But I’m not a Flannery O’Connor Catholic. I don’t know that my first reaction to a banal observation of the Eucharist as a symbol would result in a “very shaky voice” exclaiming, “well, if it’s a symbol, to Hell with it!” In fact, I know this isn’t what my reaction would be.
I came into the Church Easter 2001 in a church whose outward appearance still proclaims the glory of God. The Church itself is old and beautiful, built at the pinnacle of the Irish Catholic influence on that old steel town. You can almost hear the church spires cry out as they point toward heaven, lit up and easily seen from the highway, “God is alive! Jesus dwells here!” Beautiful chapels and ornately carved grottos grace the inside and speak solemnly to the glory of God. At one point, the church boasted of several simultaneous masses occurring at the same time: one in the main sanctuary and another in the impressive basement level. It had been built for the worship of God. How the stone must be cracking now!
It was me and maybe seven other people assembled to practice for our upcoming Easter Vigil. “So,” said the priest raising his hands in the air behind the altar, “this is where I consecrate the gifts and transubstantiation occurs.” He turned his head and gave us a sly grin, “Not that anyone actually believes that that happens.”
I am not exaggerating when I say that a shutter ran through me. I was confused and bewildered. I, who had only been vaguely introduced to that Southern spitfire, Catholic writer in an American Literature class knew this: I most certainly did believe it happened. Else why was I here?
Why spend every Wednesday evening attending a class where I was to be initiated with the beliefs and practices of Mother Church? Why spend my free time reading books about Catholicism and Catholics? Why exhaust myself turning Catholicism over in my head and in my heart, arguing against the Protestant ideology that was lodged within?
Yet, I remained silent. I neither had the tools nor the inclination to argue with a priest. And I was fearful that if I said anything he wouldn’t let me come into the Church. I told myself he was joking and that it was meant to be a funny comment, a joke about those who really didn’t believe. Wink wink.
I let myself believe that lie for a very long time. I let myself believe that there was no way a priest could not believe in transubstantiation. I wanted to believe this. What about the indelible mark on his soul? Or, what about the chrism oil traced with a cross across my forehead? What if the priest performing the act didn’t believe in that cross? Was I Catholic? It was too much for me to consider, and so I didn’t.
Sadly, priests do fall away. Joyfully, I am Catholic.
But I am a Catholic on the search. The thoughts of my childhood weren’t Catholic in nature. The Protestant Work Ethic traces through my bones, not the peace of Catholic rest. Health and Wealth serve as the background to the Gospel I grew up with, not Charity. I was a sinner in the hand of an angry God, not a wounded creation of a loving God.
I must pray daily that I would be granted the eyes and heart of a Catholic, that my worldview matches my faith-view.
Cradle Catholics are often quick to commend the fervor of converts to the faith. They are inspired by all that a convert – or revert – has learned about the faith on the path to their coming home. But it’s the converts to the faith who are indebted to you “cradle Catholics.” You see with they eyes of a faith that has formed you from the beginning. Your view of the faith world is settled and comfortable, having being reassured by several thousand years of an unchanging Magisterium.
May in the Catholic church is a prime example of the loss I feel at having not been raised Catholic. May 1st and my Instagram feed fills with beautiful photos of May altars. Spring flowers of all colors are placed into vases of all sizes and shapes and set up near Mary. Marian statues in front of local parishes are adorned with crowns of woven flowers. Most recently, online friends discussed their fondness and familiarity with the beautiful hymn “Bring Flowers to the Rarest.” For those raised Catholic, May is more than that most beautiful month of May, a precursor to a hot and lazy summer. It is a month filled with the beauty and devotion to our most blessed mother.
I feel the loss of this tradition keenly. Where you have a memory of the heart, I have a heart without a memory. My habit is formed lately while yours was established from the beginning.
You’ve been formed the heart of the Church, cradled in the arms of Mary.
Me? I was formed by the search for my mother, and struggle to rest in her arms.
You have the shaky anger of certainty that the Eucharist can only be one thing. I have the silence of certainty, wondering that anyone could believe something different.
Thank God it the center of existence for both of us.