Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mothers and Daughters

My daughter and I have had some animated conversations about life, values and the world in general over the years. Like all young, 20-something professionals, she is sometimes certain that her world and mine have very little in common. She sees the mother she’s always seen, old-fashioned, stodgy, unchanging, if at the same time reliable, comforting, loving and still unchanging in the bargain. Of course, she didn’t know me when…..

I grew up a thorough-going flower-child of the 60s. I can still identify the scents of both tear gas and high-grade weed with a mere sniff. I have walked past armed guards to get to my chemistry classes during the worst of the Vietnam War protests. I’ve had police helicopters buzz my dorm, wrested myself from the avenging grasp of riot police, and done my time in protest marches. As a result, somewhere, enshrined in some folder in the FBI, is a study in black and white of my fingerprints. (I found this out when, as a thirty-something lawyer covering a presidential town hall meeting, I was greeted by the security guys with wires in their ears saying. “We know all about you,” and waving said fingerprints at me when I checked in. The fact that there wasn’t too much damaging information accompanying them is witnessed by the fact that they still let me pass…)

I’ll leave it to the imagination what that sort of pedigree means in terms of my previous moral fortitude, but most of it had to do with the catch-phrase of the day: Question Authority!

That era and its wholesale abandonment of authority in any form eventually brought me up short, as time passed, issues sorted themselves out and crises much more personal than a war half a world away arose in my life. I realized that I wasn’t really very capable of making it all up on my own as I went along. I needed some answers, something reliable, something dependable, something to anchor me.

Perhaps it’s what makes me, some forty years later, value the Church. Perhaps it’s what makes me restless for certainty and truth. Even the best of human intentions manage to make quite a mess of things, and all I have to do is look at the state of modern society to know that. Separating liberty from license, putting boundaries on the limitless selfishness of human endeavors didn’t seem like such a bad idea once I got past my college years.

My spiritual quest, at least once I looked past the end of my own nose, has been not so much to question authority as to find its legitimate source. Of course, I hadn’t really counted on the fact that once I found it, it would necessarily mean obedience to something other than the rule of my own mind and will.

Obedience doesn’t come easily to any of us. It is perhaps a lot harder for someone like me who has spent so much of her life being the authority for others: in classrooms, in operating rooms, in courtrooms. When much of one’s identity is tied up in being, giving and having the last word, ceding that influence to anyone or anything else is difficult.

Before I came into the Catholic faith, I didn’t find much conflict between my own sense of right and wrong, or even my own desires, and the demands of my own personal brand of Christianity. Miraculously, whatever I believed as a person coincided almost entirely with what I held in faith. It never occurred to me that if my faith was not edging me towards change, it wasn’t faith at all—I was resting on reason, and my own reason at that. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t really follow Jesus without letting Him change me in fundamental and sometimes uncomfortable ways.

The Catholic Church didn’t give me the luxury of being my own boss any longer. I had committed to believing all that the Church teaches, and a lot of what she teaches involves what I am to do with my life. There’s a whole Catechism (which I had more or less read by the time I made my profession of faith) explaining some of the finer points of what the Church expected me to believe and to practice if I wanted to take the name Catholic for myself. It wasn’t long before I found myself having to shave off some much loved parts of my self in conforming to what I had pledged to be.

The first time I remember being conscious of having to do things differently because of my Catholic faith was during a visit to my old hometown. It suddenly occurred to me that, although I could certainly visit my former Episcopal parish, it would be in addition to, not instead of, going to Mass. It also meant I couldn’t receive communion there, even though it was the church that had nourished me, formed the basis of my Catholic beliefs and then sent me lovingly on my way to Rome. Lawyer that I am, I came up with all sorts of rationalizations why I ought to be able to kneel at that altar and take communion as I once had, but when it came right down to it, I had to decide: was I an obedient daughter of the Church, or not? I decided I was, that I had to be. Sometimes, obedience is an act of will.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself in a conversation about capital punishment. My experiences as a medical examiner have left me with little compunction about legal execution; I’ve seen too much brutality face to face to have much sympathy for murderers. I realized with a start in the midst of the discussion that my former way of thinking simply wasn’t an option any more. I might still feel the desire to pull the switch on the electric chair, but in faith, I could no longer do so. I found myself asking for the grace to get my feelings in line with my beliefs. Sometimes obedience is an act of intellect.

I heard a sermon that touched on the plight of illegal immigrants whose families had been disrupted by a raid on a local packing plant. My reflexive political response suddenly felt much less comfortable in light of the Church’s social teaching. Sometimes, obedience springs almost unbidden from the heart.

Over the course of several months, a dozen or so such instances followed, some major some minor, and I realized that not only had my way of worshipping changed, so had my way of thinking. I found myself, when confronting a problem, asking myself not what I thought but what the Church had to teach me about it. My Catechism became well thumbed as a result. Prayers became less about “I want” and more about “Teach me.” I began to ask myself: What did I do differently today because I am Catholic?

From the outside, to my children, I seem to be the same old Mom, and in most ways, I suppose I am. From the outside, to my Protestant friends, I seem to be the servant of a complex set of rules and regulations that they do not understand, submitting to what they see as mere earthly authority in matters that rightly belong to Christ.

From my vantage-point, I have discovered the liberation of obedience to the real, legitimate, loving authority of the Church, the authority that will to guide me confidently and correctly in faith. Every step I take in accordance with the Church’s tender discipline brings me greater freedom and joy than I could have imagined when I was trying to make the journey all on my own.

The Church is truly my Mother, and she is as she has always been: reliable, comforting, loving and unchanging, and she has so much yet to teach me. How glad I am that I have brought my world into hers.


  1. Very well written and nice tie in at the end. Back in my protestant days I remember that I was the ultimate authority. It was my interpretations of the scripture that decide what was right or wrong. Even in my Presbyterian ways if I didn't like the way the "elders" were leading there was always another Presbyterian Church close by. Thank God now that I have crossed the Tiber I know long spend my day trying to reinvent the wheel. In some ways it's like the greyhound bus commercial when the say "Leave the driving for us". I am enjoying being a passenger in this holy families and no longer want to be the driver. Lindsay

  2. Wonderful post. I crossed the Tiber from the high Episcopal Church 23 years ago and am constantly amazed at how caring, nurturing and all-encompassing She is. I'm happy, like you, not to have to make all my own decisions about moral and ethical issues. But, also I know where I can go to get THE RIGHT ANSWER, not just somebody's opinion today.
    I love your blog especially since we share a lot of common history, including parts of the 60's and 70's my kids will never know about. AnneG in NC

  3. Well written expression of those, who I thought were a decade older than I - from your bio. I saw you were 1 year older than I ;-)
    I never believed the 'don't trust anyone over 30' since I listened to my grandparents ... and my parents were the age of others' grandparents. Therefore I grew up living in 3 generations - strange yet sad since I looked forward to things which no longer existed by the time it was my turn.
    My quest for knowledge led me to be an historian; seeing so much hatred paired with jealousy gave me the feel for the true friendships especially those built upon His love; observing the lack of listening - even lying - made me feel sorrow for those lost souls who wished to die rather than stand up and fight for right; sensing the hypocrits who spoke one way yet acted another or those who acted without first thinking fired me to help these lost souls find His whole Truth.
    And I agree with Anne G - would be so honored to shake the hands of both of you some day.