I am what many people call a “cradle Catholic.” I was born into the Roman Rite and have never departed. Which is not to say that I’ve always approached religion with a consistent duty of care!
Lord, make me holy — but not yet.
+ St. Augustine of Hippo
As a child, I went through the same motions as the other kids; apart from a half-year stint at a public school in the first grade, I spent K-12 in the Catholic school system. That education prepared me well for college and beyond.
For a few years, in my heady early days as a philosophy undergrad at Western Michigan University, I fell away from religion. This trail-off resulted mostly from the confluence of a few competing pressures:
- The strongly secular (but, importantly, not explicitly anti-religious) approach of my philosophy faculty and fellow students
- Lack of a rich place of worship (the “student parish,” St. Tom’s, was very much a wonderbread-and-sandals kind of place, and the closest alternative was the cathedral, which featured dry services attended by the desiccated elderly)
- A radical disruption of my ordinary routine
In my early 20s, a series of negative life experiences brought me back into the fold. Indeed, I even pursued seminary studies for a few years, including living for a semester at the diocesan minor seminary in Grand Rapids and branching into service including supporting the bishop as master of ceremonies for confirmation Masses and serving in the diocesan prison ministry. In addition, I led the liturgy committee at my home parish for several years.
Although seminary didn’t pan out — for reasons I detail in my essay “A Moment of Clarity,” published in Eve Tushnet’s Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church (Cascade Press, 2018) — my faith didn’t diminish at the time. I remained a volunteer in my parish and my diocese.
By 2008, however, yet another mishmash of happenstance set things awry:
- Burnout from liturgical service — it wasn’t unusual for me to cover all four weekend Masses as sacristan once or twice per month, in addition to covering almost every Saturday
- Transition at the cathedral from diocesan priests to the Paulists, which circumscribed lay volunteerism with the bishop
- A sense of weariness, bordering on acedia, with the superficiality of Catholic preaching — it felt like the same generic pablum every weekend, offering mild and nonspecific exhortations devoid of any spiritual depth
- A frustration with being the “religious” one at family events randomly tasked spur-of-the-moment with leading a prayer
- Exploration of different aspects of my personality and sexual identity
- Catch-up, physiologically, with a period of rapid and significant weight loss that led to a different hormonal balance
- New scheduling pressures that affected my weekend availability and routines
… so I took several years away, wandering in the proverbial desert.
A few years ago, I was approached by a friend to sponsor him into the Catholic Church through the RCIA process. I agreed. It was a pleasant return to organized religion. My challenge at the time, however, was finding a home parish. I’ve traveled to several parishes, but each underwhelms in its own special way.
More recently, the tugs have tightened and I’ve been thinking more and more about re-locating a church home. Maybe with my “ancestral” parish, maybe at the cathedral, maybe somewhere else. And I’ve turned recently to reading books (e.g., Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option) that offer inspiration in their own way. I’ve even found myself grabbing my breviary every now and then to pray the Divine Office.
Funny thing, though. I have faith I’ll make a full return, someday. Perhaps soon.
About My Religious Identity
- I tend to be conservative with regard to liturgy and translations. I’m a fan of smells and bells and organ music. And Latin!
- I tend to be not-conservative with regard to lifestyle choices. Not because I don’t believe the doctrines of the Church, but because I understand the intellectual foundation of those doctrines better than most self-appointed censors in the lay Christian community.
- My disposition, I think, is really more “Medieval Contemplative.” In other words: I’m more of an academic about religion than an emotivist. You’ll sooner find me engrossed in the books of, say, Benedict XVI than you will see me going to fellowship groups to discuss some random alleged Marian apparition. I am not the sort of guy who says “God and I talk to each other all the time.” I don’t think it works that way. The “personal relationship to Christ” language so prized by my Calvinist friends has always struck me as a bit adolescent — it significantly limits and anthropomorphizes God.
- I am not much of an evangelical. In other words, I am not inclined to wield the norms of Catholicism as a sword that strikes the breasts of my fellow citizens. Religion is private in the United States. If you’re interested in Catholicism, I’ll happily help lead you home to Rome, but otherwise, I’m not going to alienate you. Nevertheless, a public polity that coheres with the norms of Christianity is a worthy goal. I’m less a “separation of Church and state” kind of guy than I am a “non-overlapping magesteria” kind of guy (viz., Stephen Jay Gould).