Going to Church as the Romans Do

Entering a church in Rome, I step out of time into stillness and peace between moments of ordinary life.  A few tourists pause in front of the frescoes.  Someone puts coins in a slot to illuminate the apse for photographs, and then the light is dusk again.  Romans from the neighborhood pray silently in the pews.  A priest is busy at the altar with some preparation.  Time stays suspended until I step back out into the street.

St. Peter’s Square/Piazza San Pietro, by I, Dfmalan, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

The first Swiss Guards my friend Dora and I saw stood in their costumes in front of the gate to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica.  We had just entered Piazza San Pietro through the middle of the embracing colonnade, and I was feeling unequal to branding into my memory the details of the piazza, Bernini’s colossal columns, and the basilica itself.  In guidebooks, the scene looked untouchable and remote.  In life, the scope, flamboyance, and magnificence were just as extreme, but when I was standing inside the scene, it also felt welcoming.

Within the Basilica di San Pietro, with its shimmering splendor, I found a living church, not merely a museum, in spite of the treasures.  I was a Quaker then, not yet a Catholic, but I’d always felt at home in a Catholic church.  I felt so even there in St. Peter’s, the grandest in the world.  Perhaps a reason was that Catholicism had woven through my life.  For a time in college, I had played the guitar for the local folk Mass—that was the late 1960s.  I remember strumming along as we sang, “And we’ll sing a song of love / Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleluia.”[1]  I’d studied medieval Church history fairly extensively in college and had later dated a former priest for a few months.

After Dora and I entered St. Peter’s, Michelangelo’s Pietà was just to our right; Bernini’s swirlingly ornate ninety-foot altar canopy, the Baldacchino (Balachin), was straight ahead.  Bernini remains one of my favorite sculptors because his captivating, often graceful saints, angels, and other figures have strong personalities.  Restraint was not Bernini’s watchword.

Interior of the Basilica di San Pietro/St. Peter’s Basilica, by I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons

I couldn’t absorb more than a little of the rich vision the basilica offered, and so I did such things as look up into Michelangelo’s dome; stare at Bernini’s Monumento a papa Alessandro VII, with its skeleton hand holding up an hourglass from under marble draperies; touch both of St. Peter’s feet, not just the right one as was expected; meditate by the tomb of Pope John XXIII; and sooth my sense of inadequacy in grasping it all by resolving to come back many times over the years.

Our map showed the Vatican Museums (the plural is correct) to be located right next to the basilica, and they were, but the entrance was a ten-minute walk around the Vatican walls, past the wagons selling souvenirs and bibite (soft drinks).  Because it was by then about two o’clock, to enter the museums, we didn’t have to wait in a line like the two-blocks-long throng we passed one morning later in the week.  It had drizzled a little as we’d left St. Peter’s, but the only real rain fell while we were inside the museums, climbing up and down stairs, walking from room to room, from masterpiece to masterpiece.

Visiting the Vatican Museums was a succession of, “Wow, this is here!” and “I wish I could assimilate all these wonderful things”: the Hellenistic Period sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, a Roman emperor’s mosaics and stone bowl the size of a small swimming pool, Raphael’s School of Athens, and the grand prize at the end, the Sistine Chapel.  I thought, “Popes are chosen in this room.  Michelangelo himself painted these scenes.  Now I’m standing here.  I’m numbed by the responsibility.”  I willed myself to see, really to see, the images I had looked at so many times in reproductions—above all, God giving life to Adam and the Delphic Sibyl, my favorite.  From time to time, an official hissed, “Ssh!” to the milling crowd.

Vatican Museums spiral staircase, by © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

We reached the bottom of the museums’ dramatic, wide spiral staircase and stopped into a small snack bar to rest and drink mineral water.  Dora was ready to return for a nap in the convent guest room where we were staying, and I set off for Castel Sant’Angelo.  Loving opera as well as churches, I wanted to see the setting for Puccini’s Tosca.

Castel Sant’Angelo with the dome of St. Peter’s visible to the left

The next day, after exploring the Pantheon—where I felt the stones hadn’t yet absorbed the overlay of Christianity—we were ready to find the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.  This church is almost adjacent to the back of the Pantheon, but we took a circuitous route down the wrong street and around the block, so that I decided to ask directions from a woman of perhaps sixty who was talking with two men.  I liked her appearance and manner, which were typical of the self-confident, friendly, and efficient middle-aged and older Roman women I saw throughout the week—the kind of woman I want to be.

Following the woman’s instructions, we walked around another corner and were then in front of Bernini’s statue of an elephant carrying an Egyptian obelisk on its back.  I love elephants for their wisdom and personality, as Bernini apparently did, too, and I had admired pictures of this statue.  So rounding the corner was one of my many gratifying Roman moments of desire opening up into reality.

Bernini’s elephant with Santa Maria sopra Minerva behind

There behind the elephant was Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with its plain exterior that leads into interior color and light—Gothic, but with its own Roman character, so that the church is not just a small transplanted cathedral from the North.  Santa Maria sopra Minerva is beautiful, with its celestial blue-and-gold vaulted ceiling.  At one time, a Roman temple to Minerva was on the site—hence sopra Minerva, meaning above Minerva—and when I sat in that church, I was with those ancient Romans, as well as with centuries of Christians.  The great religious buildings of the world reach across time.

Interior of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, by Livioandronico2013 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Every church I visited in Rome was filled with works of profound beauty inspired by the artists’ devotion.  I could not hold information about all of the art in my mind.  Because of the vast magnificence, I could barely even see each fresco and statue clearly and consciously.  All I could do was store the most outstanding impressions, buy books for later study from the small gift shops, and carry with me the feelings I found in the air as I sat and walked in each church, absorbing its aura formed by the centuries.

I had seen pictures of the inside of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and Andrea Bocelli’s Aria video was filmed there, so I wanted to wander through the basilica, turning pictures into experience.  There was Michelangelo’s sculpture The Risen Christ, and I found St. Catherine of Siena, co-patron saint of Italy (along with St. Francis), interred beneath the altar—but without her head, which is in Siena.  Wandering beyond the altar to the left, I came across the tomb of the 15th century painter Fra Angelico, important to me because my father and I took an art-appreciation course together when I was a senior in high school, and I first heard about Fra Angelico then.

When I joined her, Dora was sitting in front of the Cappella di San Dominico, also to the left of the altar, and meditating on a statue of the Madonna with three children—Jesus and two St. Johns.  Dora had lighted a candle, and I lighted one, too, for the people meaning the most to me.  I wish it had not been the only candle I lighted in Rome, because a prayer for the wellbeing of another is not an empty gesture.

The churches of Rome carry a sense of permanence and meaningful tradition.  Traditions have the potential either to support or to bind, depending both on the traditions themselves and on the way they are used or misused.  Some are excuses for continuing injustices—for example, the traditions that subjugate women and those in whose name violence is committed.  Other traditions, the kind that deserve nurturing, link us to other people without pushing away or diminishing those who do not share our traditions.

By the time I visited Rome, I was not finding a sense of permanence and tradition in my own spiritual experience.  While I thought my religious views meant I would not make a good Catholic, I felt more spiritual satisfaction from sitting in a hundreds-of-years-old Catholic basilica than I did from meditating in my own Quaker meetinghouse, where, by then, all but the barest traditions seemed to be kept assiduously scraped away.

Meetinghouse window, sketch by Mason Hayek

When I was a little girl, vibrant Quaker traditions were maintained and nurtured, and in those days the Meeting felt welcoming and so comforted my parents and me as a place where we belonged.  Then we were a part of something worthwhile that had been built up over time, even though Quakerism’s centuries are many fewer than those of Catholicism.

For the first few years after my parents and I joined Friends Meeting,[2] when I was five, every Sunday morning before meeting for worship, a lively woman played the piano for us children to sing songs and hymns.  I loved to sing.  Then for many years, after meeting, adults and children sang together, always ending with the same hymn:

As we leave this friendly place,
Love gives light to every face;
May the kindness which we learn,
Light our hearts till we return.”[3]

Meeting was a friendly place, with older Quakers who still used “thee” and “thou” and were looked up to and respected for their ministry, with younger adults who took an active role in the life of the Meeting, and with children of all ages.  At Christmastime, we children decorated a mitten tree for needy people, acted out the Nativity story, and made gifts to sell at the Meeting’s annual fair.

By the time I visited Rome, nobody sang hymns in the meetinghouse anymore, most of the “weighty Friends” were gone, and those of us who were left sat scattered around the meetingroom on Sunday morning, often, it felt to me, without much intimacy and shared spiritual energy.

Vatican at dusk

When I was in Italy, I wasn’t yet ready to turn Catholic, but I did want to take my Quaker heart into St. Peter’s and Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the other churches I especially loved in Rome—Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santa Maria della Vittoria—gaze at the art that appealed to me and up into the ornate ceilings, and think about all the people of the world to whom I was linked through this art and architecture: those who created it and those whom it has helped to make their way in the world and understand life’s mysteries.


[1] James Thiem, “Sons of God.”

[2] Quakers are more formally known as Friends, as members of the Religious Society of Friends.

[3] Vincent B. Silliman, “As We Leave This Friendly Place,” 1935.

Evening Mass, All Saints’ Day

Meeting view
Sunday Window, quick sketch by Mason Hayek

The church tonight was and was not my church;
I am making my home there,
Even as corners and entire rooms
Remain unknown,
Not yet my dwelling place.
A kind acquaintance greeted me
In my now-familiar pew
Before the organ told of time for quiet
And the small procession gathered.
I knew the crucifix rose
In the dark beyond the window;
Jesus as he lived inspires me,
As failingly as I follow,
More than Jesus as he died.
The priest spoke to us of speaking up
For right as we understand,
Of nurturing the saint within.
I loved singing the hymns:
Hymns and a sermon, a homily,
These are church enough for me,
Along with friends,
Who are my sanctuary.

Dear Deacon

Update: I shared the letter in this blog post with the deacon who is leading the RCIA sessions for me.  In spite of my views, he has responded very kindly, telling me that I am welcome in the Church.  I’m grateful to him for easing my mind about a great source of worry and fear.

———-

My letter below represents the next stage in the thinking shared in “Church Bells and a Riptide,” which describes my struggles with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process through which I am possibly converting to Catholicism.  I feel great affinity with some groups within the Church but have deep reservations about many of the attitudes and teachings of the more traditional, conservative Church powers.
“Dear Deacon” restates a few of the points in the longer essay posted earlier, but it also reflects new self-understanding: The key to my converting is the Church’s acceptance of me as I am and as someone who can add my own gifts, however limited, to the Church’s wisdom, insight, and understanding.  Equality and mutual respect are the basis of all healthy relationships, whether within an individual friendship or family or within a vast country or religion.

Vatican Silhouette

Dear Deacon,

You have been very kind to me and have listened to my opinions with great courtesy.  I nevertheless am uncertain about the answer to this important question: Are you able to welcome me into the Catholic Church as I am, with my 69 years’ experience, spiritual reflection, education, strengths, and weaknesses?  In other words, are you able to feel that through joining the Church, I will, in my small way, bring gifts as well as receive them?

Or do you, in contrast, believe that the Church’s formal teachings are the sole and complete answers?  Do you see the RCIA process as one of pouring the Truth into me as if I were an empty vessel?

I cannot accept having any human being set out to change me through the conviction that he or she comprehends the Truth and I don’t.

As a member of the Church, I would have the opportunity to gain immensely from the examples and insights of countless Catholics.  For instance, many Franciscans will be—and already are—mentors to me.  Certainly as a Catholic—or as I am—I would/will change over the coming years, evolving through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation.

At the same time, if I join the Church, I will bring with me my lifetime of wisdom, mistakes, and understanding.  I want and expect all of me to be welcomed.  I have much to gain, and I also have something to give.

Here is what I would like to ask of you: I hope you believe and will explain that through the RCIA sessions, you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views.  I am eager to learn more about the Church, and I value hearing your perspective.  But I also hope you acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding of the Gospel and God.  I ask you to recognize that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect.

Forio at Sunset 2

No one, and no human religion, grasps all the answers.  There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered perspectives.  And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings.  I want to be a part of that process.  I want to give to the Church, as well as to receive.

So I’ll rephrase my opening question: Is there room in your Church for me as I am, or only as the strictly conceived RCIA teachings would like for me to be?  If there is room for me as I am, I am eager to continue with the RCIA process.

Thank you for your contributions during our sessions and for your thoughts on my concerns.

All the best,

Winnie

Church Bells and a Riptide

To my friends and readers who are Catholic: Please forgive me for sharing my disagreements with the Church.  I am struggling with the question of whether or not I should become Catholic.  To all my friends and readers: I would value your perspective.

On Thursday morning as I sat in church with a dear friend, the bells calling worshipers to weekday Mass took me back to hearing other church bells a few miles away.  On warm evenings, my parents and I ate dinner on our screened porch, and daily at 6 p.m., the carillon at the Methodist church out on the main road played hymns.  If we sat down early to supper, we might say, “Well, we beat the Methodists tonight.”

img261
The back porch on our “little white house”

As I listened to the Catholic bells this week, I could see in my mind the three of us on our porch at the back of our little white house.  I saw the scene from above; I was a ghost revisiting a place and time of joy from a life now past.  I wondered, “In some dimension, are the three of us still together, sharing evenings on our porch, listening to ‘the Methodists’?”

So much has changed—is changing—at least that is how existence feels to me.  In my spiritual life, too, the past seems to be a distant shore from which I am cut off on this ocean of being.  I had thought I was now among those whom the bells call to Mass.  I thought I’d found a new spiritual shore toward which to sail.  But I fear I am steering toward the edge of my world, of my understanding of God’s world.

The Riptide

I am distressed to find myself caught in a riptide in my spiritual ocean as I meet with the deacon who is dealing with me in the RCIA[1] process by which I am, perhaps, turning from Quaker[2] to Catholic.  The deacon is a kind man who does not abruptly reject my views that conflict with his; he even appears to give my opinions some consideration, at least out of courtesy.  So ours is not an adversarial relationship, but he and I are spiritually oil and water.  Engaging in a process that causes me to focus squarely on the swirling chasm between the deacon’s perspective and mine causes me to question the wisdom of the voyage I have begun.

My Reasons for Setting Sail

I was raised a Quaker and continue to resonate with the Quaker peace testimony, conviction that all people—and that includes men and women—are equal, belief that no ministers or priests are required to intercede between the laity and God, and rejection of rituals as a necessary part of worship.  But in the past decade, I have lost the sense of a Quaker home.  Like our porch at our family home, the Wilmington Meetinghouse filled with Quakers I knew and with whom I felt kinship has disappeared from my everyday reality.

Wilmington Meetinghouse
Wilmington Meetinghouse, drawing by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

The Meetinghouse is now frequented by new generations of Quakers, generations with whom I share the tenets of a spiritual philosophy but not the spiritual temperament and enthusiasm I used to feel in our Meeting.  When I lived in other places, I never found a Meeting that came up—in my mind—to our Wilmington Meeting.  And now the Wilmington Meeting I loved—and the inspired ministry of my parents, others of their generation, and the elders still with us then—lives in timeless eternity.  It has joined our little family listening to the Methodist hymns and the katydids as we sit together on our porch.

But through a dear friend, I have come to know the Franciscans.  Franciscans and Quakers share a similar social testimony and belief in the value and dignity of every human being.  Franciscans are warm and welcoming, as Wilmington Quakers once more vigorously seemed to me.  Franciscans love and care for the Earth and its creatures and growing things.  Franciscans notably live Christ’s teachings of love and kindness with devotion and sincerity.

And Franciscans sing hymns with a joy I haven’t known in congregational singing since my childhood, when the Wilmington Quakers sang with gusto, too.  Music is not part of a Quaker meeting for worship, but we sang enthusiastically beforehand, when Evelyn Young, of my grandparents’ generation, played for us children, and afterwards, when everyone, old and young, gathered to sing hymns.  We closed each week with “As We Leave This Friendly Place”:[3]

As we leave this friendly place,
Love give light to every face;
May the kindness which we learn
Light our hearts till we return.

Music no longer lights the hearts of the Wilmington Meeting, in spite of the kindness there.  And to me, music is the most thrilling and perfected way of praising God and creation, of expressing joy, gratitude, and the unity of us all.

I crave regaining a spiritual home.  I crave a spiritual community in which I find mentors and partners for trying to live the essence of Christ’s teachings: be kind to one another; love one another; act always through kindness and love.  I find such a community among the Franciscans, especially the Sisters of St. Francis and their Companions in Faith.

But to join them as more than a welcomed visitor, I need to work through a parish church—thus the deacon.  The Church has a need and a right, of course, to ensure that those joining are committed to Christ’s teachings and to being active members of the Church community.

I try to bridge the gulf between the deacon’s religion and my own by telling myself that rather than joining the Catholic Church per se, I am joining the Franciscans.  Within the Franciscans, the pieces of my spiritual faith and desires fall into place.  I also love the profound contributions of numerous other Catholic groups and individuals on behalf of suffering people around the world and on behalf of peace.  And I love the magnificent architecture, art, and music growing out of the Church’s two millennia of devotion to Christ.  There is much to love.  And the terrible actions of a few do not erase the good of multitudes.  But I would be a hypocrite to pretend that I am a fit within the religious picture the deacon is drawing for me.

Melrose Abbey, Melrose, Scotland
Melrose Abbey (12th century), Melrose, Scotland; drawing by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

Manageable Waves or Tsunamis?

I don’t expect a perfect Church.  Of course I know that like each human being, no human institution is perfect.  Nevertheless I am struggling to decide: Can I in good conscience join a church with which I have significant disagreements?  If I had been raised Catholic, I believe I would stay Catholic, revel in the Church’s great attributes and contributions, and work from within for necessary change.  Whether or not to sign on at this stage of my life feels like a different sort of decision, however, one that should be made based on a strong concurrence between the Church’s teachings and my own values.

I do not love the Catholic Church’s—and society’s—continued denigration of women.  Keeping women out of the priesthood is purely a continuation of many men’s ongoing desire and determination to retain power.  Those who don’t realize how much is being lost by barring the door to women priests should come listen to the homilies that our local Franciscan sisters sometimes deliver in their convent chapel.

And I do not love the Church’s placing priests above the rest of humanity, men and women.  Priests are not singled out by God, by Christ; they do not stand above us mere mortals.  Priests (and ministers and other religious leaders) contribute enormously to their congregations and the world when they are filled with love and wisdom conveyed through their ministry and lives.  But priests are not uniquely the descendants of Jesus’s Apostles and keepers of their responsibility to preach Christ’s message.  We all are.

I do not need a priest to intervene between God and me.  Every human being can commune directly with God.  Similarly, priests have no right to believe they alone among people can absolve me of my sins, and I do not intend to ask a priest to do so.

It bothers me deeply to see a priest sitting on a throne-like chair, holding himself physically and symbolically above all others present.  At Mass yesterday afternoon, we heard James 2:1, “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”  And Philippians 2:3 tells us, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” Verses 5-7 continue, “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

Yet within the hierarchy of the Church, the concepts of equality and humility are too often given mere lip service.  The position of conservative Church officials concerning LGBT members is another example of Church hypocrisy about equality within the Church and in God’s eyes.  In an additional example, the elaborate church vestments worn by priests and higher church officials, while perhaps aesthetically appealing, are certainly not symbols of humility and equality.  And, of course, as with any population feeling holier- or higher-than-thou, the sense of entitlement and superiority that some priests nurture within themselves helps to allow them to rationalize abhorrent behavior.

Friend deacon, among the other disagreements I have with you, I reject your message that deep knowledge and insight are infused in the individual through baptism in the Church.  Baptism can be a beautiful way of committing oneself to striving to live according to Christ’s example.  Through baptism, one symbolically becomes a part of the local and worldwide community of those who have made the same commitment.  God does not, however, dump knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding onto the person along with the baptismal water.  Knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and understanding can develop only in the course of living one’s life with the guidance of the Inner Light, God’s blessings, and the example—not dogmatism—of others.

God loves each person infinitely regardless of his or her baptismal status.  Quakers, who do not believe in baptism, can be as wise and good as any Catholic—and so can Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, agnostics, and so on.  And in determining our afterlife status, God doesn’t care one bit about whether we have been baptized.  Deacon, you are not wiser—or possessed of greater insight into Jesus—than I am simply because you have been baptized and I have not.  By seeming to believe that you are wiser, you inspire me to form a shell to protect myself from your message.

The position of the deacon’s Church on who can take communion is another source of distress for me.  (Some Franciscans, such as Father Richard Rohr in his insightful books, also disagree with the deacon’s version of the Church on this point.)  I believe Jesus likewise would have disagreed with the mainstream Church’s requirements for taking communion.  Jesus said, “. . . I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).  Jesus’s teachings and example emphasize inclusivity.  But the deacon’s Catholic communion is too much about saying, “I’m in the club and you’re not.”

No One True Humanly Charted Course

I believe we are all seekers who can learn from each other, and some individuals are outstandingly wise, but I have never been able to accept the notion that anyone has a corner on the truth.  When I was a senior in high school, a member of the Meeting decided that in our Sunday school—which Quakers call “First-day school”—he would teach us young people exactly what we “ought” to know and believe.  In response, I immediately stopped going to First-day school.  I have not (at least as yet) decided to stop going to meet with the deacon because I still want to be among the Franciscans as more than a welcomed visitor.  But how can I join them without having to pretend to be in agreement with the deacon and the vast elements of the Church that he represents?

Deacon, here is what I would like to ask of you: Tell me that you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views.  But then acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding.  Acknowledge that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect as the next person’s.  No one, and no religion, has all the answers.  There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered understanding.  And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings.

Assisi_San_Francesco_BW_2
Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi, Italy, by Berthold Werner – Own work, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

The Wrong Direction Altogether?

When I am with the Franciscans, I feel as though I have found a spiritual home.  It is not the home of my earlier years, the home I will miss forever in this life, but it is a beautiful home, filled with love and deep satisfaction.  The bells and music of the Catholic faith are not the bells and katydids accompanying long-ago family suppers on the porch, not hymn-sings in the old Quaker Meetinghouse at 4th and West Streets, but I thought they could be welcoming and meaningful to me.

Am I going to have to turn back into the emptiness of living without a spiritual port, a spiritual home that counts me fully among its family?  Do I have to turn away because I am having profound difficulty accepting the lessons I am supposed to be learning in the RCIA sessions–conforming enough for the deacon and those he represents to let me in?  Should I join the Church feeling as I feel?  I want to be a Franciscan, but for now I am not sure I am suited to be a Catholic.

[1] Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (even the name bothers me: I am already Christian).

[2] The formal name for the Quakers is the Religious Society of Friends.

[3] Vincent B. Silliman, 1935.