My First Semester at Seminary

As the new year begins, I hope to use this site more regularly. I’m terrible with WordPress, but I’m going to try to make it into something functional. Let’s see. 

Well. The fall of 2017… happened. It was my first semester in seminary and my first four-odd months living in New York City. It started out so, so hot, unseasonably hot, I mean, with the heat lingering well into November, but at the end, it was suddenly bitter cold. I gave my first eulogy. I mourned relationships with mentors whom I loved (and still love) very much. I got so angry. I also petted cats on the streets in Harlem close to midnight, fell in love with a sweet little chapel slated for demolition (they want to put luxury condos there, where we sit in a circle on the cold stone floor on Thursday nights and watch the candle wax run down), administered exams to undergraduates, ran through a sunny corn maze in northern New Jersey, sobbed in a coffee shop in Princeton, realized how beautiful and radical the Magnificat really is, went to my college homecoming for less than 24 hours, said a goodbye, hung out a lot in an apartment above an Episcopal church, took part in an exorcism, ranted with my housemates, got disillusioned (again and again and again), prayed the rosary, read a few books and a few brilliant theologians (Mary Daly, Delores Williams, Ivone Gebara, Rosemary Ruether…), finally started to read the Bible (Intro to Old Testament!) went to group therapy, cried from loneliness some more, hung out with some more cats (and the friends who own those cats), ate lots of rice and beans, drank lots of rose black tea, took the train home and back and home again, got angry again and again and again…

It was one of the worst semesters I’ve ever had, but it was also vivid and brilliant and perfect, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  • Intergenerational relationships are critical. In my pastoral care class, we met weekly with “listening practicum” groups. At 23, I was the youngest in my randomly-assigned group of four. The oldest in the group was probably in her sixties and the other three women were all mothers. Every week, we sat together for an hour and talked about school, children, adoption, homework, loving, in-laws, mental illness, our professor’s slip-ups, whatever. I learned things from that class, sure, but I learned the most from being in that group. If given the choice, I likely would’ve gravitated toward a group with people my own age, and I’m so grateful that I wasn’t given that choice. The group helped me understand that intergenerational relationships, which are somehow so countercultural, are critical in all sorts of ways: politically, emotionally, spiritually, etc. I’m so grateful that these wonderful women are my peers.
  • It’s hard to be a Catholic at a Protestant seminary. I’ll probably write about this in greater depth at some point. It’s a challenge that I anticipated; I’d been warned by a mentor. It’s a challenge that I embrace, but it’s an itch, an irritant, whatever. Mainline Protestant condescension is such a thing (…in very specific contexts in which I spend a lot of time); I resent your patronization, your sympathy, your self-righteousness! I’m grateful for the relationships that I developed with my (few) Catholic classmates and hope to strengthen those relationships next semester. This recent article beautifully articulated many of my feelings. While I’m a staunch supporter of women’s ordination, ordination won’t solve the fundamental problems with the priesthood as we currently conceive of it. This writer’s perspective on ministry is something I hope to emulate.
  • People in seminary are just like people anywhere else. I’ve known enough immature clergypeople to anticipate this one, but honestly, it feels like high school sometimes. There’s plenty of self-righteousness, immaturity, and drama here – and it’s some ways it’s worse, because everyone thinks they have God on their side. (And I don’t exempt myself from that, either.)
  • On a similar note, institutions are… institutions. Again, this isn’t a shocker, but that knowledge is different from the experience. $eminarie$ need money. You can’t be an institution with an (endangered) multi-million dollar endowment and truly act morally. Institutions don’t have souls.
  • Living in the city makes you aware of your complicity. I went to an elite liberal arts college in rural New England. I was more aware of rural poverty than most of my peers, since I was basically a local and knew the surrounding towns quite well, but it was something relatively easy to forget about. In the city, there are literally homeless people sleeping outside my ivory tower. How can I live on the rapidly-gentrifying edge of Harlem? What is my net impact on the community in which I live? Honestly, I know it’s not good: I give money to an institution that’s planning to build luxury condos on the edge of Harlem, for God’s sake. What should I do? My complicity in racist, capitalist logics is disgusting. Should I leave school, then? But then I would be less equipped to dismantle systems of oppression, wouldn’t I? Basically, I don’t know, no one really knows what to do, and this horrible, sick indecision follows me around. That said, I’m grateful to be in community with people who also experience the ambivalence of what we’re doing  – and scour the corners of its contradictions with me.
  • Writing is complicated. I read Walking on Lava over the summer, a beautiful book that I’d absolutely recommend to anyone. Finding The Dark Mountain Project was such a breath of fresh air to me. I’d “fallen out of love” with the literary world in college because it felt dead, hopelessly commoditized, self-referential, self-serving, etc etc etc. In its own words, “the Project grew out of a feeling that contemporary literature and art were failing to respond honestly or adequately to the scale of our entwined ecological, economic and social crises. We believe that writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality, and in questioning the foundations of the world in which we find ourselves.” This is good stuff. I want to make real, good stuff. Giving a eulogy, speaking in chapel, writing articles and emails and angry Facebook messages and papers about feminist theologians… all of that made me think so much about why I write and who I write for. Basically, I don’t want to write aesthetically pleasing stuff; I want to write real stuff, because we need real stuff, I need real stuff, and this earth needs real stuff, urgently.
  • You can survive losing people. Something we all have to learn, again and again and again, as awful as it is.

There’s more, of course, but that’s a sample. Oh, and I finally found a church! I have to take the bus there, but I love it.

Here’s to 2018.

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New York in October

Yes, it’s been a while since I posted, and there are a whole host of reasons – midterms, the adjustment to life in the magically singular city that is New York, personal drama/trauma/shenanigans, and my ongoing obligations to write about religion in so many other settings. But here I am.

I still haven’t found a permanent church yet, which is sad, but I’ve found pockets of holy calm. I’ve gone to a few masses at a Jesuit church downtown (Saint Francis Xavier), which I loved – at one mass, a woman from the church’s Catholic Lesbians group spoke about how her community celebrates marriages and adoptions and other life events, about how they hope that they can be married in the church one day, about how they support women’s ordination… and everyone clapped, including the priest. It wasn’t like they were clapping because this was an exceptional event, though – it was the normal friendly clapping of a congregation, which somehow made it even better.

There’s another Catholic church closer to me that I hope to check out soon – I’d love to be able to walk to mass. I didn’t realize until moving here that distance actually matters in New York – and long subway rides really take it out of me.

But in the meantime, I actually attended a Roman Catholic Womanpriest eucharist the other day! The community meets monthly down at Judson Memorial. There were fifteen people in attendance. We sat in a half-circle in a basement. And it was so good. The priest brought such good energy to the space. Even one argumentative attendee who raised eyebrows during the “group homily” (essentially a text discussion) didn’t make me uncomfortable for long. The liturgical words were mostly lovely (mostly written by Sr. Joan Chittister, I think), radically altered in the best ways. I did question the choice to replace all references to “sin” with words like “failing,” though – I believe that the concept of sin is often used to abuse, but God, I believe in sin. But like – a community that’s actively trying new stuff? What a concept!

It’s getting colder now, and I’m trying to settle in – to the long search for a spiritual community, to the process of learning where I’m going, to the long, lively island where I am now. I hope I can be more present, that despite the messiness of my life right now (seriously, I had a friend in a crisis come over at 11 last night, then had a Skype argument at midnight, then a second Skype conversation until 2:30 am, all about gender and religion and how they break us apart), I can be better at being.

Visiting Riverside, looking for a church

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The tower of the Riverside Church

I went to a service today. Not a mass, mind you – a service. This is noteworthy because I don’t typically go to church except when I’m at home with my family. I just haven’t found a church in which I felt comfortable. I’ve moved to a new city for school, though, and I’m church hopping/church shopping/whatever. I want to find a place where I fit.

The Riverside Church is quite famous – major theologians, “public intellectuals” (I hate that phrase), writers, etc. have spoken there. (They’re having Hillary Clinton come to speak in a few weeks, though, which made me raise an eyebrow.) It’s “interdenominational,” which fascinates me; it’s affiliated with both the UCC and the American Baptist Churches USA.

The service was quite nice. The congregation is majority white with a sizable minority of black folks. The emphasis on social justice is front and center; they’re collecting donations to support Hurricane Harvey relief. The minister, an ABCUSA woman, gave a nice sermon. It seems to be an altogether nice, liberal, mainline church, albeit in a gentrified part of town.

But.

Oh, God, there always has to be a “but,” doesn’t there?

I just didn’t love it. I’m so picky, but I didn’t. I’m not UCC. I’m not Baptist. I’m Catholic. And I wish I weren’t so grumpy about all of this, but when a church uses a different translation of the Our Father than the one that rolls off my tongue, I just don’t feel at home.

The Riverside Church didn’t grip me. Bits of the service made me uncomfortable: a bit more “Jesus talk” than I’m used to, objectively good music that just didn’t feel holy in the way that the hymns I know feel holy, etc. I’d expected that. I wanted to go to the church anyway, to experience something different and visit a beautiful place in my neighborhood, and I’m glad I did – but I think a little part of me wanted it to feel right. But it didn’t.

I want a church that feels right. I want it so badly. I want to step into a home that I don’t have to make for myself. I want to step into a place and have it feel right.

I think I’ll check out some progressive Catholic churches in the city in coming weeks. Internet research has turned up a few ideas – and a lot of virulent, awful troll threads. I found an old Yelp thread in which a woman looking for a progressive Catholic church was berated by jerks telling her that there’s no such thing and making all kinds of gross “jokes.” It made me sad.

And no, I’m not Episcopal, either. I’m not Lutheran. I hate when people joke (again and again) that I should just become Protestant. It’s not as simple as walking into a Protestant church because it aligns with my politics. I am Catholic in my heart and in my blood. My home is Catholic, but Catholicism often fails to be my home. These contradictions are no fun, but religion is a contradiction, and I live with that because the alternative falls flat.

 

Note: My lectionary posts have sadly fallen by the wayside. Such is life. I hope to keep writing them, but my goal to write on the readings every week hasn’t worked out. Yet.

 

Catholic Silence.

I often go to mass on the Sunday after a tragedy. I’m not alone in this, probably: it makes sense that peoples’ search for meaning would tick up after violence rips through their reality and unsettles their sense of “normal.” It makes sense that people seek a community with which to process trauma and a guide to help them learn to live with it.

I’ve yet to find either.

In the summer of 2015, I’d received a fellowship from my college to research and write about women and Marian apparition shrines. The fellowship brought me to Lourdes, France and Fatima, Portugal – where I was miserable. I’d just been through a trauma that would alter the course of my life. My heart and head were breaking. My heart wasn’t in my work, but I tried to understand the places where I found myself. What did they mean? How did they represent alignment or dissent from traditional Catholicism? How did they allow people (women) to voice pain and heal? How did they restate old trauma?

After the Charleston shooting, I went to a mass led by an American priest for English-speaking pilgrims in Lourdes. The mass was in an ugly, modern, sterile chapel, but where better to process tragedy and oppression than a church, right? White supremacy had been breaking the hearts and heads and backs of Black people for centuries on centuries. I benefited from that violent system. Where better to learn about how to live with that truth? Churches are spaces of individual and communal healing. Churches are spaces for us to repent and remake ourselves. Churches are spaces for societies to repent and remake themselves.

The priest opened his remarks by saying that he wanted to talk about the persecution of Christians. I expected him to mourn the murder of nine Black Christians at the AME church in Charleston. He didn’t. He spoke on an arson at a church from the first millennia in Israel. The church’s bookshop (but not the ancient part of the building) was destroyed. He reflected on that tragedy.

In the summer of 2016, I was in my small, predominantly white, wealthy college town. After the kind of year that tears you apart and makes you reconsider everything, I’d stopped going to mass every week for the first time in my life. I was learning to put myself back together. But the Sunday after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which targeted LGBT POC, primarily Latinx folks, I went to mass at the church I’d attended on and off for the past three years. Churches are spaces of individual and communal healing. Churches are spaces for us to repent and remake ourselves. Churches are spaces for societies to repent and remake themselves.

The priest read a statement from the bishop. The statement mourned the loss of life in Orlando. It made no mention of sexuality or race. An institution that perpetuates homophobia didn’t mention that homophobia had killed 49 people.

Last Sunday, I went to mass with my parents at my home church in rural New England. It was the day after a massive white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Neo-Nazis and the KKK took to the streets with torches. The priest, smiling, gave a sweet, apolitical sermon about how we should look for God in the little things.

The Catholic Church upholds white supremacy when priests fail to see dismantling white supremacy as their work. This isn’t the religion of liberation anymore – this is the religion of power and empire. As such, it is complicit in the abuse of power.

Churches are spaces of individual and communal healing. Churches are spaces for us to repent and remake ourselves. Churches are spaces for societies to repent and remake themselves. The Catholic Church has a lot of repenting to do.

And you will find rest for yourselves

July 9, 2017

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 100

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Weston Priory

Do you know the hymn based on today’s Gospel? I’m sure there are many settings of it, but the one that I learned growing up is the folksy post-Vatican II-type hymn that really speaks to me. My mom plays hymns like this on her acoustic guitar. Some people are purists for Latin chants, but this is the music that I associate with real, pure faith.

On July 9th, I actually went to Weston Priory, the community that composed this setting. The Benedictine community was celebrating the feast of Saint Benedict, so the mass was full. Aside from a few kids with their parents, my friends (another prospective div school student and her religious studies boyfriend) and I were by far the youngest people at the service.

Weston Priory is nestled in the woods of Weston, Vermont, a town on the edge of the Green Mountain National Forest. I’d driven past it as a child but never visited. Monks? I’d imagined stodgy bald men in long black robes who never smiled and only sang in Latin.

Times have changed, though, and now I’m a weird theology feminist Catholic nerd who absolutely adored the Priory – because it turns out that these monks aren’t exactly the somber grumps I’d imagined. The community is quite radical, actually, and the service actually reminded me of base communities that I’ve visited in Nicaragua, where I almost cried at a service co-led by an elderly woman.

The service is not a traditional mass. The language is switched up, adapted in beautiful ways (like the misa campesina, much of it is sung). Instead of a typical homily, a handful of monks offered reflections, popcorn-style. The Eucharist was perhaps my favorite part: the monks officiated all together, speaking in unison and performing the sacrament as a call and response with the congregation. That felt like real communion. (I’m pretty sure it was open communion, though I’m not positive.) And at the end of the service, the monks danced. It was a gentle dance, as most of them are elderly: they held hands in a circle. They had an acoustic guitar. It just made me happy.

(What made me almost as happy: the bookshop. Feminist theology, ecology, anti-apartheid stuff… I bought The Inclusive New Testament, a translation of the NT, and a book called Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel, which looks super cool.)

I’ve had the hymn (and through it, the day’s Gospel) stuck in my head:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

It makes me happy. Yes, I could talk about how these words can be used to tell people that they must accept their oppression, but I don’t want to – because all I can think about is the hymn and the dancing monks.

Last spring, I was talking to my mentor about my critical engagement with religion, how I’m always wrestling with God and the Church. Most people don’t want this from religion, I said. He agreed right away. I know that many people find comfort in faith. I usually don’t. I often wish I did, but I usually don’t.

But in hymns – hymns like this – for me, there’s an unmitigated glimpse of holiness there. And when I think of the monks dancing and smiling and using feminine language to describe God, I feel comforted. I feel like God is reminding me of all that is beautiful about faith. She’s reminding me that yes, I will find rest for myself – I am not the only one in the world looking for holiness between the lines – and beyond the Church’s walls.

What is love? (Probably not nationalism)

July 2, 2017

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 97

 

Okay, so I opened the reading for July 2, saw that it was this Gospel, and said, oh, God, why the hell am I doing this before I get a theological education? (Then I had to go reread the blurb in my “About” page that basically exists so that I can reassure myself.)

Because this – this Gospel – is one of the hardest ones for know what to say about! It makes me so uncomfortable! It makes me sad and frustrated and it seems to defy everything that I understand about Christianity and radical love and all that good shit.

Jesus said to his apostles:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me.[1]
Whoever finds his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

I just want to yell, what is love? My initial (scattered) thoughts:

  • I hate it when people today claim to love Jesus more than anyone else, because that love for Jesus is so abstract, spiritual, insubstantial, one-sided. Unless you believe that you have a mystical relationship with Jesus in which he appears to you or speaks to you (which I certainly don’t have), how does that work?
  • If you believe that you encounter God through other human beings (which I do believe), how can you separate God from that human form which embodies/images her? Like… how? We can’t know God except through her creation. Besides, the whole point is that Christians are supposed to love people in their brokenness. We have to love their God-parts and their not-God-parts.
  • Finally, if God is love, how the hell can you rank love? Isn’t that just straight-up blasphemy? Not all love is the same, but how can there be better love? Maybe you can have more or less love, sure, but… I don’t know, I feel weird about the implication that some love is more important than others.

It does help, though, that this reading fell right before the 4th of July. Thinking about this in the context of nationalism helped a bit. It might be a bit ridiculous, but I started thinking about the Founding Fathers. Jesus is likely calling on us to reject the social structures that we accept as given. He’s saying, hey, you need to question the very foundation of who you are. You need to think about why you automatically love your mom more than you love that beggar on the side of the road – or the random rabbi from Nazareth. You need to think about why you automatically love the white American dude in an American flag tank top in that parade more than you love the undocumented worker on the local dairy farm. I don’t think he’s saying that you shouldn’t love your mom. He’s saying that you need to be critical of a world that has socialized you to believe that you must love certain people and not others. Before you worship (God and) country, take a step back to think about who you’re not worshipping.

Because sometimes fathers are not good people. Sometimes (well, always), nation-states are not so great. But even if your parents are the most wonderful people, they alone cannot embody God. That’s why we have to love God the most – we have to love God as imaged in everyone, even the most unexpected people. We have to love God in the stranger (in Jesus). If we will only ever practice comfortable love that society approves (familial love), how can we call ourselves Christians?

I think that if we try to love despite a society that teaches us how love ought to be properly distributed (assigned by race and sex, chopped up by political borders…), we’ll then become worthy[2] of Jesus. That’s my answer for now.

 

[1] I’m not even going to go into this. I recently read Proverbs of Ashes, a feminist critique of atonement theologies, and I feel profoundly unsettled and unable to articulate my own theology of the cross.

[2] Seriously considering what this word even means will have to be a project for another day…

Writing Routines and Forgiving Myself

I read an article today in which a writer talked about how she only writes for half an hour a day. Half an hour a day! That’s so… easy. I could do that. Why aren’t I doing that?

Ever since I started “taking writing seriously” (whatever that means) in high school, I’ve wanted to create some sort of routine for myself. I set goals to write for an hour each day or block out a specific time so that I get into a habit, but I never follow through. And it makes me feel terrible about myself. It makes me anxious, this failure to follow through. So I don’t write.

In those odd, manic moments when I do sit down to write, though, it feels so natural and good, like I’m doing exactly what I need to do. I remember what it felt like to write novels in middle and high school just for the hell of it. I wasn’t paralyzed by the thought of my own failure. I didn’t overanalyze or tear myself to pieces over every sentence or think about which publications would consider my work. I just wrote. And it was in writing those melodramatic novels that I learned (or truly began to learn) how to write.

It’s complicated, of course. College doesn’t nurture creativity. It drains the juices out of you. You end up like a squeezed lemon. Endless writing, reading, social angst, and wrestling with God (okay, not everyone does the last one) don’t give you a lot of mental breathing room.

More to the point, I’ve dealt with untreated mental illness on and off throughout my life, but it wasn’t until college that a traumatic experience sent me absolutely spiraling. After it happened, I couldn’t create, I couldn’t feed myself, I couldn’t get through the day without sobbing. It happened during this one awful summer in which I was alone in the French Pyrenees on a fellowship. I was supposed to be writing. I told myself that tomorrow I would make myself a schedule. Tomorrow I would write for two hours. Tomorrow I would start over. I wanted to pull myself up by my bootstraps and save myself with a writing routine, as silly as it sounds. And of course I didn’t.

Now that I’m recovering (as much as one can recover from depression, of course – I will have to live with this for as long as I live), I hope that I can find joy in writing again. Joy – and meaning. Political meaning, I mean. I want to save the world, right? How can I do that with the limited skills I’m given?

But it’s still too hard to write. It’s too hard to sit down and do it, because I’m still afraid of failure (I’ve internalized all these nasty rules – and these limited definitions of success!), I compare myself to other writers (why don’t I have a major book deal already, dammit? I’m almost 23!), I can’t focus (yes, I’m addicted to the internet – it’s truly awful and I hate how it’s changed my brain), etc. I don’t want to be brutal with myself, because God knows I’m too hard on myself already, but I need to find a little bit of discipline. Somewhere. Or maybe learning to write again would actually be going easy on myself.

What if I could write for half an hour a day? Just half an hour. It took me about fifteen minutes to write this post. That was easy enough. What if my anxiety abated enough that I could write for fifteen minutes plus fifteen minutes every day? And what if I stopped hating myself for all these days and months and years when I haven’t written? That would be so good.