Yesterday, in a discussion with the TWYH online community in which I am a member, we were sharing the deep sorrow we had all been feeling before hearing the news of Notre Dame burning. Before the event even took place, many of us were feeling a deep sorrow and the need to weep tears that were not specifically our own. We were feeling the collective sorrow over the destruction of a centuries old icon while wondering, “what could this possibly mean?” As I have ceased from trying to give meaning to world events, I could only ponder that question and yet in the sharing, one of the women said the following words related to her own sense of grief and these words hit me between the eyes:
There was good in the old.
Not only did these words hit me between the eyes, they hit me in the “feels.” Oh yes! Oh yes! There was good in the old and there continues to be good in the Church I once called my home and from which I have been in exile for the past eleven years.
In a similar conversation the day prior with a friend who is “spiritual but not religious” and scientific in her leanings, I tried, and failed, to express what it is like to be raised Catholic and the indelible imprint Catholicism leaves on one’s soul. From a rational perspective, I left the Church because I had to. I left because the container of the Institutional Church had become too small. I was no longer free to do the work I know in my Soul I have been called to do and I had to make a choice – be obedient to God or obedient to the Church. I chose God. While this choice has given me more freedom to pursue my Soul’s calling and has allowed me to minister to those the Church has turned away, the consequence of this choice is a loss that I will likely grieve for the rest of my days.
Why? A rational person would think this grief silly and unnecessary. It is easy for those raised outside the Church to scratch their heads in disbelief over what seems to be a clinging to nostalgia or an unwillingness to let go of what has been. Not so. Not so. There is something profound that happens in those of us that were raised Catholic and no matter how distant we become from the Church, there is always something that will remain. I believe the words spoken by my online friend perfectly describes that which remains:
There was good in the old.
There is a mystery and a magic in Catholicism that is unmatched by other belief systems (at least in my experience). Where else is bread and wine turned into the “Body and Blood” of Christ? Even if we only believe the magic of the Eucharist as symbolic, this is pure magic – transformational magic at that. In the Eucharist – the central sacrament of the Catholic tradition, we are participating in the transformational act of becoming Christ. When eating the bread and drinking the cup, we are saying “YES” to being the Body of Christ. This is not meant to be lip service or an empty ritual of eating bread and drinking wine. Eucharist is meant to be taken literally – we are accepting the invitation to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, to live as he lived, to do as he did – clothe the naked, heal the sick, give food to the hungry, free those imprisoned, pray for our enemies, love our neighbor, etc. etc. etc. And in living as Jesus lived, we are meant to become him – to embody all he represented – purity, humility, generosity, mercy, compassion, love, all while living and working for justice. For those who are paying attention, living in and among this ritual alone changes you.
There is wisdom in Catholicism. I discovered this wisdom in the rich tradition of contemplative prayer – a tradition previously reserved for those in religious orders – the Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Jesuits, etc. etc. etc. Women and men who for thousands of years have dedicated their lives to the study of the scripture and praying with that scripture so they could know God and in the process, growing in love. When I was in my ministry studies and learned these practices, they LITERALLY changed my life. I began a daily practice and for 25 years (minus a couple when I was having babies), I did not miss a day.
In Catholicism every passage in life is treated (or has the potential for being treated) as sacred. Birth. Entering adulthood. Marriage. Vocational decisions. Death. Every passage in life is met with a sacrament. Both life and death are treated as sacred and given their proper honor, along with the appropriate communal ritual for honoring that passage. These are the rites of the ancients – a wisdom that has not been lost in the Church.
There is a Goddess in the Church. Mother Mary. Mary Magdalene. Eve. Sarah. Teresa of Avila. Bernadette Soubirous. Joan of Arc. The one thing that Catholicism has that is lacking in all other expressions of the Christian faith – a Mother we can go to for comfort. Women we can turn to for inspiration and support. The idea of the Communion of Saints gives us not only women but also men who were Superheroes – people who dedicated their lives for the purpose of Love. St. Francis of Assisi. John of the Cross. Meister Eckhart. Ignatius of Loyola. The list goes on.
There is beauty in the Church. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is the perfect example. The first things rescued from the church were works of priceless art and religious relics. Why is the whole world grieving the destruction of Notre Dame? It is certainly not because they were raised Catholic – it is because they see the loss of beauty – the art and architecture of the middle ages which inspire awe and wonder by symbolically making visible the magic and mystery of life – that which some call “God.”
This is the old that is good. This is the good that remains. Even if Notre Dame had burned to the ground (which reports assure us it has not), this good would still remain. This is the good that has held the Catholic Church together all these years in spite of the reign of terror that has co-existed with all that is good.
There is good in the old. My hope has always been and will continue to be that as that which is no longer life-giving is burned away; it is the good that will remain. Perhaps this is why Notre Dame allowed herself to be burned – to prove to the world that sometimes death is necessary to reveal the good that has always been there and to make a way for something new.