Tuesday, April 26, 2011

athena, saint therese, and the question of faith

i was raised catholic, as a result of which i deeply dislike the church.  i don't like its distortions of the ideas of its founder, i don't like its expression in the petty rules that attempt to define, contain, possess, and warp that infinitely malleable business of sexuality; i don't like its institutional effort to control people's lives and choices; i don't like either of its gods--the old-testament petty tyrant or the more textured, compassionate but smug hero of the new testament.  the third party, the blessedly invisible holy ghost, has some possibility, and if he'd detach himself from the trio he might be closer to the always incomprehensible Truth than the rest of the band.

for years after defying the church in a double act of rebellion [in the same weekend i ate meat on friday and got rid of my virginity, knowing i wasn't ever going to confession  again] i refused to go into a church.  i hated the Church, so i hated the church.  eventually i drifted back.  never, never into the Church, but into an occasional church.  i stopped being repelled by the buildings, inside or out, and began reclaiming the parts that had been healthy for me.  it began with saint therese--'little' therese, not 'big teresa.'  rebel though i had inherently been in my  catholic schoolgirl life, i shared that odd passion that so many catholic schoolgirls have for the Saint of the Little Way.  she was a pretty dull creature, but i suppose we all knew we could be as dreary as she was, while few of us were able to embrace that flamboyant rebel Teresa of Avila, with her erotic visions of christ and her hearty defiance of every authority.  or maybe it's that the nuns wouldn't teach us about big teresa, who, canonized or not, was a role model for defiance, as her namesake was a role model for perfect submission.

a digression--or maybe not.  but here are 2 archetypal stories of the t's that i learned in adulthood:


Big T--she was eating with someone while trying to get her new convent approved. her guest was appalled at the zest with which she stuffed her mouth and licked her lips, and he reproved her for her open enjoyment of physical appetite.  She looked at him as she tore off another hunk of meat, and replied: 'when i pray, i pray. when i partridge, i partridge!'


Little t--she was washing clothes outside the convent with a group of other nuns.  one nun, unknowingly, repeatedly splashed soapy water in therese's eye.  instead of pointing it out to the nun, therese remained quiet,  preferring to risk blindness over making the other nun feel bad.


when i thought about it at all, i regretted that i had put my energy into the quiet masochist rather than the demanding and self-rejoicing visionary.  today, of course, if i were picking a patron saint, Big T would be way up on the list and little t wouldn't make the list at all.

but history is history, one's own as well as the world's.  it was to little therese i had  turned in all the agonies of my young life, throwing myself on my knees in front of the little altar i'd made for her, sobbing, begging her to help me.

and she did.  the solace those prayers brought me was real, and had nothing to do with the rote prayers we had rammed down our minds in school.  for a long time, i didn't want to acknowledge this.  if it was true, it might have made the nuns right.  i was very proud of having grown into a young woman the nuns, and therese herself, would be appalled by.

but after i'd had other mystical experiences, and no longer needed the nuns' disapproval, i found myself going into a church once in a while, to see if there was a statue of therese.  i no longer knelt to her, and no longer expected her help.  but she was a dear old friend, who had never betrayed me, even if i'd grown apart from her.  i became able to see the holiness within her, even some of the holiness within the church itself.  for therese, i reclaimed the custom of lighting candles to a saint--and as time went by and i began traveling to europe [try to avoid churches in europe!] i would sometimes light candles to her in absentia.  if there was no statue to therese, i found another saint--joan of arc was obvious, but if need required it, i could turn to joseph or mary or whoever else was around.  it was harder to turn to jesus, but if he was the only one there, even that was okay.  in each case, i'd greet the saint, explain that the candle was for therese, and request that my greetings be passed on to their comrade.  and i'd ask them all to please help my folks here, and bring my love to those who had died.  more often than not, i'd feel the holiness and helpfulness of the saint--not, i am convinced, because the pope had canonized them, but because they were there and i had turned to them.

my own 'theology' , meanwhile, had developed  beyond the fervent attempt to be a perfect agnostic [atheism even then felt too absolute for me, and as the victim of one form of absolutist belief, i was never attracted to another].  new age ideas appealed to me, but they quickly seemed too facile, and very often seemed to be linked to capitalism.  shirley maclaine's first new-agey memoir turned me off as much as the old baltimore catechism had.  and yet some of their ideas, often watered-down buddhism, made sense.  i embraced the feminist spirituality movement, but it had its own pitfalls, one of which was a too-frequent rejection of activism.  and how different was the great mother goddess, after all, from the blessed virgin, or even from the great father god?

not an unusual odyssey for a woman of my generation and my inclinations.  add a few spiritual/psychic experiences with dead but uncanonized figures from history, as i threw myself into whatever i could find of the minds and souls of the women in tudor england, and i was able to understand more deeply [or maybe more psychotically] my attachment to saint therese.  i no longer saw her help as a purely self-created response to my own needs.  i began to think that therese, like 'bloody' mary and some others, had indeed come to me, because i had asked her to, had opened my own mind/heart/soul to hers.  very duh, i suppose.  but it took me awhile to get there.

END OF PART ONE. CLASS, YOU MAY TAKE A TEN-MINUTE BREAK. THIS HAS BEEN A LONG LECTURE.

1 comment:

Baysage said...

Hmmm. A narrative that touches me indeed. I was more than raised Catholic, I served the Church as an ordained deacon until less than a year ago, when just one too many a-hole priests crossed my path and I boogied out of the Church. It was a catalyst that sooner or later would have resulted in the same thing because I had had for many years a raft of what is quaintly called "faith problems" with Catholicism. I.e., virtually everything in the canon of required beliefs to one degree or another, mostly 90-100 degrees.

I think you may be being a little harsh on Jesus. He's been given way too much luster by the evangelists. "Smug" is certainly not a description I'd apply to him. Strip away all the fanfare, all the magic, and you have a guy who is not a bad model of how to live. My old spiritual director--a perfect guy for me since he was a priest who had long left the Church--used to describe himself as a "follower of Jesus." I like that description, and I pretty much embrace it myself.

Anyway, you've convinced me I should read the latter two installments of this mini-series, so I will. Thanks.