Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Spiritual Exercise

[In a fit of insanity I volunteered to  share my faith journey with the Catholic Medical Association of Nashville tomorrow night.  This--more or less--is that I have in mind to say.   Prayers appreciated.]

Thomas Merton began his biography with these words:

On the last day of January in 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French Mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.

I think mine begins this way:

On a holiday now forgotten, in 1951, under the sign of the Balance, as a minor war came to a stale mate, under the shadow of a crucifix, a baby scientist was delivered of a Methodist mother by  a Jewish doctor in a Catholic hospital.

My birth is a metaphor for my journey—Protestant to Catholic by way of Judaism, always with Holy Mother Church in the background, surrounding me, waiting, watching, guiding me.  It just took me 50 years to figure it out.  Sometimes for a scientist, I am not all that observant….

 God  made me a scientist before He made me anything else.  As long as I can remember I have had the urge to understand even the inexplicable.  But if God  gifted me with the burden of a scientist’s nature, He also gifted me with an understanding that whatever I could explain was necessarily insufficient.  For example, I understand all manner of things about chemistry.  I can explain the chemical reaction that produces water.  I can to regurgitate the formulas that explain chemical bonding and draw diagrams that make it visible.  But  I also know instinctively  that understanding the material concepts of how water comes to be doesn't explain water.  If doesn't explain rain, or soft Irish mist , or ponds, or the ocean, or the incredible relief  a cold, wet cloth or cold drink on a hot day brings.  I suppose God  gifted me within innate understanding of the difference between substance and accidents and He gifted me with a sense of Mystery, and with that can sometimes be a great frustration …

The good sisters at Holy Name of Jesus Hospital soly Name of Jesus ent the crucifix that hung over my crib home with my mother.  It hung over my bed throughout my growing up and I managed to hold onto it even during the turbulent years of college.  It now hangs at the apex of the family oratory, a reminder that even when I didn't see where I was going God did.

  My parents were sporadic in church attendance but looking back I realize that they taught me something perhaps more valuable:  that religion starts in the home and informs one’s  very life.  Religion to them was a way of living, not a Sunday exercise.  It is telling that all three of us children have strong—though wildly different—faiths even to this day: A Methodist-turned Lutheran, now Pentecostal, a Methodist, turned Episcopalian now Baptist and a Methodist Jew now relatively newly-minted Catholic. 

I would show up in our little church  for the first day of Sunday school, and Easter, and promotion day, and a few days in between.  I would learn vast quantities of Scripture (though in a foreshadowing of my Catholic destiny I never managed to learn citations along with it).  But mostly in my early and Methodist  years, I was formed by two things: music and mystery.  But perhaps they are the same thing.

My two older brothers—13 and 15 years older-- would take me to hymn sings on Sunday evenings and   if we did not go to church on Sunday, I would spend Sunday mornings with my dad watching Gospel music programs on television.  There is a lot of theology in music and I internalized it largely in silence because in my family the more important something is the less likely we were to talk about it.  While that sometimes causes problems it also gave me the gift of interiority that has served me well as a Catholic.  I learned without ever talking about it that God was present and unseen in even the most mundane things I did.  If I did not learn to worship Him every week in church, I least came to know that He is, is real, and is not some distant figure but part of the very fabric of life.  My own personal life, not random, generic, life-in-general.

Every once in a while, we would wander into church on something other than the appointed days and sometimes it would be the last Sunday of the month, communion Sunday.  In our church, we would kneel at the altar railing, in which was carved Do This in Remembrance of Me.  We would pass a tray filled with little cups of grape juice and cubes of Wonder Bread and we would take and we would eat.  It was entirely symbolic.  But there was something inexplicably special about kneeling there with my family on either side of me, doing something that I knew had been done from the very first days of the very first Christians. 

When I was in high school, I once wandered into the Catholic Church for a noon mass, mostly just out of curiosity.  I was surprised by the fact that even though the mass was in a language I did not understand-it was in the last days before the English mass would be introduced in our area--I knew the rhythms and when I looked at the translation in the Missal,  I knew the words, both from the Bible and from our communion services.  And when, as a quick study with no idea that I was not to come forward, I followed along with the crowd, and knelt at the altar, said the Amen, tipped back my head and opened my mouth and received our Eucharistic Lord for the first time, I knew this was as different from the communion service in my church as night was from day even though I was not sure how.  I just knew that I had been a presence overwhelming and very special.  But that is where it ended, at least for the time being.

 I mentioned that Holy Mother Church was always present.  My next door neighbors were Catholic and I was great friends with the second son who was a few years older than I.  Catholics were somehow exotic : Ray got to wear  a cool uniform to school, he rode the city bus to and from, the school he went to was so much better than mine and besides, he got days off I didn't.  And in his family, like mine, religion was something you lived not something you just  believed.  I saw it in the way they went to church,  in the way they did not eat meat on Friday, in the Sisters and priests who dressed and lived differently from everyone else.  

Somewhere along the line, my dad brought it home to me a rosary someone had left behind where he worked —I have no idea why and, true to form, I never asked.  It was enough it was a gift from my father.  It was pink glass beads, and it came in a little box that had “my rosary”  on the top of it.  Ray took it to his parish and had it blessed and told me how to pray it.

            When he explained the Hail, Mary, I remember asking him why he called Mary the Mother of God when she was Jesus’ mother.    He is explanation was simple: Jesus is God, right?  If Jesus is God and Mary is His mother, Mary is the Mother of God. 

Even my still developing scientific nature got that on the first try.  If A=B  and B=C, then A=C. I eventually lost those physical beads, but when I would pick up another set some forty years later, they were inexplicably familiar, like reconnecting with an old friend.  Mary was never an obstacle in my journey.

In college, I drifted away from my Methodist roots but I was still surrounded by Holy Mother Church.  I went to school in Arizona and I started my college career as an anthropologist.  The scientist in me chose physical anthropology before the practical side of me switched to chemistry upon realizing that people with Ph.Ds in anthro were driving cabs for aliving…..   Anthro course work required studies in cultural anthropology as well as bones and digging.  I learned the skill of looking at a culture at least in part through its own  lens.  And what a culture I was surrounded by   Tucson was steeped in the Catholic way of life, very much in the Hispanic mold.  It is home to one of the most beautiful churches ever established by any missionary in the Southwest:  San Xavier del Bac, the White Dove of the Desert, fruit of Fr. Eusebio Kino’s faith and fortitude.  When I got involved social justice issues in college—it was all the rage--they were colored by the presence of the Catholic Church.  I worked in the barrios among the poor, cleaning houses and community buildings and sharing tortillas and beans with those who lived there.   I got to know how the Yaqui Indians  celebrated Easter and how the Hispanics celebrated Christmas and assorted feast days in wonderful, public and ways that stirred up something more than just my intellectual appreciation of them.

When I finished college, I went to medical school because it was oddly enough the path of least resistance.  There  I met and married husband.  Reflective of where we were at the time, it was a secular ceremony and we wrote our own vows.  Later,  I would learn what a gift my marriage really was;  how I would learn the meaning of love and sacrifice; how God would communicate the mystery of His love through the very real presence of my husband whom I will never be able to thank enough…marriage: the icon of the interior life of God..who knew?  Intellectually, I never encountered that notion until after I entered the Church, but once I did, it found an immediate home, for I knew the reality before I had the words to explain it.

In the middle of residency,  and for reasons that are lost in the mist of time, I began to have religious stirrings again.  And for reasons that are likewise lost, I was not attracted to the “Me and Jesus” Protestantism that surrounded me.  Like a good scientist, I suppose, I decided to go back to basics and so I studied and entered the Jewish faith.  I'm pretty sure my husband thought I had taken leave of my senses but he supported me because I suppose at some level he trusted me not to be completely crazy.

I don't know that I was ever a particularly good Jew, but I entered into it as fully as I could.  I read about it (because that's what scientists do) but more importantly I lived it: I made Shabbos, celebrated Passover, went for the festive reading of the Megillah at Purim, attending at shul for Yom Kippur—I did it all, or at least all that presented itself to me for my participation.  For Judaism, as with the religion of my youth, is a way of being more than a way of thinking.  In the few years that I practiced actively,  it inserted itself in my very bones.  For me, Passover is not a concept is a reality.  The story of God caring for the Israelites is not some abstract tale but is family lore.  And the idea that God works through the very stuff of this world is as natural as breathing.  When I look back, I know that learning to be a Jew helped make me a Catholic.

When our son was born, like all pretty much secular couples we were faced with an existential crisis: how to raise this child.  Both of us knew that we would raise our children with faith but the question was which one?  Steve had never been able to embrace the practice of Judaism.   We shook the family tree and a couple of Episcopalians fell out--- and an Episcopal church was just around the corner from where we lived--so that's where went.

We spent 20 years as Episcopalians.  We learned to love the beauty and rhythms of liturgy for there are few things more beautiful than High Anglican worship.  We learned the power of prayer and mystery reentered my life in a new form and quite unexpectedly in something as close to a mystical experience as my clay-footed and scientific nature is ever likely to allow. 

It happened like this: The Holy Week after we entered the Episcopal Church, I walked through a pouring rain in the middle of the night to the chapel of repose to keep vigil on Holy Thursday.  I spent an hour there alone, trying to make sense out of this religious commitment I had made in light of the daily life I was living at the time as a medical examiner hip deep every day in the evil that men do that—I can testify to this—really does live on after with great force. 

Miracles, you see,  have never been a mystery to me; the mystery to me has always been how to make sense of this very broken world when somehow I know a good God exists.  I will not bore you with the details; suffice it to say that night, as I walked back home in the rain in the darkest hours of the night, at some level beyond the edges of my mind, in a space not my intellect, a place where I think my heart lives, I understood that I would never understand but also knew  that if I were quiet and open I would somehow come nearer that good God even through the awful things I worked with every day.

Because we eventually spent so much time in a parish led by a descendant of the Oxford movement, we considered ourselves as fully Catholic as anyone.   If you believe you are already at the destination, it makes it hard to continue to journey.  In my experience, those who consider themselves Anglo-Catholic are at once the closest relatives and the most distant strangers to Catholicism.  I am sure that had we remained in our Anglo-Catholic parish in Florida we would eventually have still swum the Tiber but a constellation of events in God's good time made it happen sooner. 

As we were getting ready to leave our little island of orthodoxy in Florida for parts unknown and parishes untested in Tennessee in 2003,  ECUSA elected Vicki Gene Robinson a bishop.  As this was happening I remember thinking that this was simply impossible, that the ECUSA would never do such an outrageous thing. 

But they did.  As a result, we sat  in Episcopal Church after Episcopal Church in the Chattanooga area listening to the various Episcopal ministers in each church castigate those of us orthodox inclination who could not accept that it was all right for a priest of the Episcopal Church to abandon his sacramental marriage for a gay relationship he then called sacramental and then be ordained bishop in the bargain.  After one particularly memorable moment of which I am not proud—but which is the stuff of legends-- I turned my husband and said, “There is a Catholic church down the street.  I'm going.  Come with me if you want.” 

It was an act very much born out of frustration and anger and in some ways it was a running away from more than a running to.  But much like a child who at the first sight of lightening and  the first peal of thunder knows instinctively to seek her father's lap and her mother's arms, I went to the Church.  When I think about it I am reminded to Peter’s words: To whom else would we go Lord?  You have the words of eternal life.”

All I knew at the time was that the sands had shifted beneath me.  The Episcopal Church that had nourished me for so many years with liturgy and music and communion had suddenly decided to put truth up to a vote.  And the scientist in me knew that that we discover truth, we encounter it, we do not decide it or create it.

The decision to go to the Catholic Church was very easy: I had learned to depend on communion and I could not be without it.  I did not know why but I knew that my very life depended on being at table.  And at table I was going to be.

Of course it took over a year for that to come about.  I would have done quite literally anything Holy Mother Church asked of me in order to be able to receive again.  That time when I could no longer in conscience kneel at the Episcopal altar and was not yet received into the Catholic Church was a period of great dryness and trial. 

It was made worse by the fact that our college-age daughter was in the midst of a deep depression that found its expression in lashing out at me.  I remember telling God that I didn't care whether or not my daughter ever loved me again, I only wanted her whole.  God took advantage of the Desert to teach me in very real terms what redemptive suffering is all about—I would learn the intellectual  concept only after coming into the Church and being there for some time--- and He did it then even though—perhaps because—I was without the usual consolation of communion. 

In my very bones, the same bones that carry the rhythm of Jewish life (and the Jewish understanding of suffering as beyond comprehension but not enough to separate us from God)  even today, I know that had the Eucharist not brought me home, the lessons of redemptive suffering would.  And if not that, the realization that the relationship of Christ to His Church is that of Groom to Bride—in a real and mysterious, not just metaphorical sense would have been the key.  I have found God hedges His bets…

Even so it was not until sometime after we were received that I actually converted.  I was standing in the kitchen, where my best thought and prayer occurs, peeling potatoes for a winter stew.  Suddenly it hit me, the incredible, mysterious, consonant, rational,  senseless, incomprehensible beauty of the Catholic faith.  And  just as suddenly I couldn't stop talking about it.  In contrast to my many years in the Episcopal Church, when I never felt moved to share my faith,  I will tell anyone who will  listen (and some who won't) about what I found when I came home.  And of course the scientist in me has to explain what that is even though I know I can't possibly do that.

What I found is what I had been looking for all along: a path to the fullness of Truth that would lead me encounter the great I AM as He is, where He is. And He is most fully and most gloriously is in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, in the faith passed down whole and entire from the Apostles, and especially, most especially. in the sacraments, and most particularly in the Eucharist. 

I started this with a quotation from Thomas  Merton.   I want to end with something I heard on Downton Abbey.  This is a my best recollection of a conversation between the Lady Mary and her husband Matthew.  Over the three seasons of the show, Lady Mary has established herself as a sometimes mean and unpleasant character.  The conversation begins in the bedroom where her husband has just given her a good night kiss and told her what wonderful woman she is.

Mary: No one else seems to think I'm very good.  Why do you?
Matthew: Because I have seen you naked.  Because I have held you in my arms.  Because I know you better than you know yourself and I love you.

The scene ends there but the conversation really concludes  some weeks later, after the birth of their son.  Mary looks at Matthew and says something like, “I want to be your Mary for all eternity.  Thank  you for loving me."

And that is what this scientist found in the Catholic Church.  I found the place where Jesus, really and substantially, body and blood, soul and divinity, waits to meet me in and through the sacraments He established, surrounded by my family, the Church; family that by its very existence communicates Him to me in ways real and supernatural. I found Jesus, in the way that He intended, in the fullness I sought, the great vastness of mystery laid out for me not to understand but to encounter and live contented within and sit in awe before.  I found Him who has seen me with all my faults.  Who has held me in His arms.  Who knows me better than I know myself.  And yet, Who, loves me.

                  I want to be His Barbara for all eternity.  And I thank him for loving me into and through His Church.

Deo Gratias.


  1. This Tremendous Mystery whom we call God has become incarnate and has revealed Himself to all who seek Him, especially to His Barbara.

  2. Well done; wish I could be there to hear it in person.

    Your thoughts reminded me of a quote I read in an excellent book by Thomas Dubay entitled: The Evidential Power of Beauty. In it, Mr. Dubay writes this quote: "You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity" -- Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate in physics.

    It took me many years to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the Catholic faith.