Pope and Circumstance
Frankincense and myrrh waft from the glowing, orbital censor swaying from the priest’s outstretched arm. The aromatic pitch of holiness and pomp fill me. Surrounded by other parishioners, looking toward the business center of the church: the altar, I am part of something larger than myself, something benign, spiritual and hopeful.
In a way, it could be 700 AD, China, India, Iraq or Italy. The scene would be almost the same in a forest, or mosque; perhaps the robes would be different colors, but the solemnity, smoke and singing would still ground the ceremony. For me, the ritual itself was one beautiful reason for attending, and later, for not returning.
Strip away the robes, marble, and statues from the Catholic ceremony and it comes down to three things: Virgin birth, resurrection, and transubstantiation.
As a child, I bought the virgin birth, when I grew up, I couldn’t. If Mary and Joseph were married, they were doing it. They were young, in love and married; it was before Facebook, I’m sure they rocked the bed together. I hope so. To crudely paraphrase the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, … you have to have sex to make new virgins, right. It’s the only way. I was willing to suspend doubt, until I thought of the insidiousness. If sex makes women dirty, then in order for our species to continue, all women have to be dirty. I am unwilling to accept that soul crushing rhetoric. Unless it’s dirty with a wink.
Resurrection is a little harder to explain. Somewhere between suffering and zombie Jesus, a few things happened in my life. When I was a young, single mother, I still went to church. I could hear the whispering. I felt more judged in the church than outside of it.
Weekly attendance gave way to sporadic attendance alone. I eventually took my daughter with me when she was about five. We walked forward through the center aisle, I genuflected, entered the pew to the left, and as I held her right hand, she stood transfixed by the crucifix.
I pulled her along, as mom’s do, and sat down.
“Mom, why is that man all bloody?” her voice trembled.
I answered, “It’s Jesus on the cross.”
“Does he have to stay on the cross?”
“No, but Catholics like the cross”
“Yea, but he’s all bloody, that’s really gross.”
From the mouths of babes… It dawned on me that it was unnecessarily gross. The Catholic doctrine focuses on the darkest aspects of suffering, and every Sunday one gets re-infected. It disturbed my child and through her eyes, it became disturbing to me.
After the usual sit, stand, kneel, pray, call and response, peace be with you, it was time for communion. My daughter wanted to know what they were doing.
“The host becomes the body of Christ. We eat it in remembrance of him.”
She looked like she was going to throw up. For a kid who believed in fairies and unicorns, she was really flipped out by that. It dawned on me that it was an odd, cannibalistic ritual. That was twenty-one years ago.
It wasn’t the inquisition, witch-hunts, lack of birth control or rampant child molestation that made me reject the church. It was this constellation of assumptions I would have to swallow if I was ever going to return again:
1. I’d have to accept virgin birth and original sin, ergo guilt, and always being less than my male counterparts.
2. I’d have to swallow Zombie Jesus arose from the dead and that a priest could forgive my sins faster than my Lee Press-on Nails could dry.
3. My own suffering was not enough, I needed a weekly infection of Jesus suffering, along with a reminder of sin, sin, sin, and suffer, suffer, suffer. (It’s the way it elevates suffering, as if abuse was a badge.)
4. I’d have to partake of a symbolic cannibalism ritual of eating his body and drinking his blood.
5. No key roles for women except suffering on the sidelines… see 4 and 3, and 2 and 1.
I was done. I rejected Catholic doctrine.
I do retain a deep love for the New Testament. I know it has been translated and changed, but it is still beautiful. I see the stories as parables and examples of how to live.
I remember my church choir version on Matthew 25:35, “When I was hungry you gave me to eat, when I was thirsty you gave me to drink. When I was a stranger; you invited me in.” Jesus loved without judgment. He forgave and moved on. He didn’t preach hate or persecution, he preached serving the poor and bringing people closer to the spiritual realm. For me, that’s enjoying and respecting nature, helping the young, old and doing whatever I can for others; and especially, standing up for the little guy, the outcast. Whether that means, gay, trans-gendered, poor, struggling, homeless or without insurance, I want to help. I’m not sure if that makes me a Christian.
Strip away the robes, marble, hierarchy and secrecy and it comes down to Pope and circumstance. The Bible teaches in 1John 4:12 “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
If we love one another, without judgment or hubris, God is.