Across coffee and bowls of Rice Krispies, a nun with white hair and an unabashed face asked, “Are you Catholic?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Oh,” she said. My life flashed before my eyes. Lying to a nun! A nun who was hosting me in her own home! I was spending a week at a monastery, praying and eating with the sisters, sleeping in my own little room in the guest house.
“Uh, I mean, no, I’m not. I’m not.” I jumped into save the self I saw drowning. “I just said that because I just took communion, and I was afraid that I shouldn’t, but I really felt like I should, and I really wanted to.”
I was talking too much, wasn’t I? Maybe I should smile, back away, run out to my car, and drive straight home. They would never catch me. Monastics move slowly. It’s part of their thing.
“Oh, it’s fine here,” she said. “We don’t worry about that.” She was the calmest person in the world, with an easy smile, and it just showed that I must be the most agitated person in the world.
“I thought that’s what someone told me last time I was here, but then I couldn’t remember, then I wasn’t sure, so.”
“It’s fine,” she said.
“Half my family is Catholic, and we always went to mass with them,” I chattered on. Always? How often is always? “And my grandpa always used to say, ‘It’s not your fault your dad was a Lutheran.'” This seemed true when I thought it, but as I said it, I decided might be one of my uncles or aunts who said this, or maybe only the Grandpa in my head who had said such a thing.
Am I a Catholic? I knew how the pope felt about it. And the local Roman bishop. Oh, yes.
In the Nicene Creed, the one thing, it is often joked, that western Christians have agreed on, there is a line, “I believe in one holy, catholic church.” Small “c.” I remember asking about that.
It was apparent to me we were not Catholic with a big “C.” We didn’t have statues or think much about Mary, and we didn’t get any saints. To Luther, everyone Christian and dead is a saint. Sometimes I think that’s an inspiring notion. Other times I would prefer a nice statue of St. John at which to pray.
The Nicene Creed is small “c” catholic: the wholeness of the church, regardless of denominational differences. Then we get stuck in the Vatican saying it is not a denomination, exactly….
I am part of the One True Church, though, that I know. And that’s what Catholic means to me. I don’t think the capitalization should mean what it does. I am part of the One True Church by practice, by love. Heritage and experience, too, if they mean anything. I am part of the business, right back to and through Jesus, whoever he was, and the Jewish tradition, going way, way back. The Roman church has changed a lot over the years, and so have other branches of the Christian tree, but we are all still connected to those roots. Their roots are mine, and some places I visited in Rome, I felt that intensely.
How can the pope, or any other human being, decide what church is what and who is what? Well. Now you see that I am definitely not Catholic, although certainly many pope-approved Catholics struggle with that notion.
The same rituals, words, gestures, readings, language. Warm feelings seeing stained glass with our symbols and stories. Love of singing psalms and hymns and kneeling. See? Am I not Catholic, part of the One True Church?
“It’s really fine,” the nun repeated. “I just wondered because we hardly ever have Catholics here as retreatants. We had a Methodist minister last week.”
I moved my Rice Krispies bowl closer and filled my mouth with cereal to stop myself from blabbing any more about how I love Roman Catholicism except for the pope part, the patriarchy, and a couple of other tiny details.
Standing in line for eucharist, I argued with the pope in my own mind, about if I was a Christian, if I believed enough and the right things, to be worthy of their highest holy of holies. Catholic eucharist is the best, you see, because they don’t let everyone have it. It’s the top shelf of eucharist, right?
We Episcopalians will give ours away to anyone. I mean anyone. That’s great, right? The trick is that giving freely might seem impersonal, careless. I know it isn’t. We give eucharist to anyone because everyone is welcome. That “everyone is welcome” is, for us, core to who Jesus was. Everyone isn’t welcome because Jesus doesn’t care who’s there. Everyone is welcome because Jesus liked to have everyone at his parties, and he wanted to talk to each one of them and have a beer and a laugh and hug them hello and goodbye. Even the ugly people and the stupid people. Which is lucky, since we are all ugly and stupid a lot of the time.
Even though I would tell you I think a person’s investment in ritual is what makes it holy, not the object itself, and even though I would tell you holiness can’t be ranked like baseball teams, I still struggle. Even though, the older I get, the less I know what it means to “believe”something, let alone what is the right thing to “believe,” I still struggle.
The larger lesson of the whole incident was that, as I walked back up the dark, spiral staircase, back to my retreat room, I realized it wasn’t the lying that embarrassed me– I would happily lie to a nun for the right reasons. Like, if she asked me if I liked her haircut.
What humiliated me was that everyone saw how deceptive and unsure I was. It was no great revelation to the sisters at the table that I might lie to cover up my sneaky, awkward desires, even desires as wholesome as wanting communion. They knew I was human. It’s no surprise that the issue of non-Catholics taking communion is a difficult one, especially in a retreat setting, when I certainly want to participate fully in the religious ritual of the community, even though I was a visitor. Being embarrassed changed my retreat. Suddenly I was humble, and it was much easier to do the reflecting I needed to do.
I was embarrassed because I wanted them to think I was a good girl, pious and kind. How much I wanted the sisters to repeat, as they did my first night, “You sound like one of us!” When I got up for some butter, I asked if anyone wanted anything. I am such a good girl, you see.
Wanting to please can be so lovely and so ugly. I want Catholics to know I know much of their ritual. I want Jews to know that I know the shema, because I know about their tradition and I love it and I honor it in knowing some of our connections, in knowing that it is a gold mine of spiritual experience and practice and stories. That’s not so bad.
And on the other hand, the pleasing is about how every time I take my eye off my ego, it runs off again. It is a hard dog to train.
The four of us at the breakfast table– me and three nuns– were finishing our coffee. The priest who had just offered communion, walked by wearing only his black underpiece, a black hooded robe that made him look like an evil medieval genius. He was very big, and very tall. He carried his tray, delivering it to the roller line to go back to the kitchen and be washed by the sister on dish duty. He probably wasn’t going to pick up his red phone and report the pope what I had done. More likely, he was going to the bathroom, or to answer some emails. He might even be going to pray.
*Yes, I am aware this is not grammatically correct. Lay like a rug. You’re very smart.