A few weeks back, Steve (the boyfriend/partner/collaborator) and I went to Mark’s Feed Store. I love Mark’s. What Louisville carnivore doesn’t? I usually get the chicken, but occasionally I’ll go for the pork. And the sauce – oh, the sauce. I can drain a quarter of a bottle in one sitting. This particular day, though, I opted for the fish. It was fried and lemony. Not bad.
I wasn’t planning on ordering fish, but it was Friday – Good Friday – and despite not having followed any of the Lenten regulations in the weeks or even years prior, it felt important that I perform this one act of religious servitude. I use the word perform here intentionally, because that’s what it felt like: performing Catholicism, playing the part, doing the thing I was taught to do.
To chalk up my meal choice to residual Catholic guilt, though, would be too simple. It wasn’t just guilt. It might not have been guilt at all. It was more of a yearning for structure. When everything – life, job, money, artistic identity – is in flux, it feels nice to have one decision made for you.
“Have the fish,” says centuries of doctrine.
“OK, great. I’ll have the fish.”
I have 11 years of Catholic school under my belt, but I wouldn’t say I’m Catholic. Not exactly. To claim that label feels disingenuous at best and shameful at worst. The institutional church is so obviously terrible that I’m not going to waste any words chronicling why. All right, I’ll waste a few: misogyny, homophobia, colonialism, racism, rape, the list goes on. But once I set the institutional church aside, once I consider Catholicism not as a top-down, capital-E Establishment, but as a collection of 1.2 billion human beings whose beliefs roughly align with one another’s, I can’t dismiss the church so easily. It is a great force of unity. And I do feel, on some level, that I’m a part of it.
There’s also the matter of my chosen field: theater. My affinity for rigor and ritual began long before I started making plays. It began with stand during this part, kneel during that; you sing the verse, I’ll sing the refrain; first come the readings, then come the gifts. The Catholic mass was my first master class in dramatic structure. It taught me how to build an event. It demonstrated how to turn dialogue into scenes, scenes into acts, acts into plays. I’m grateful for the accidental education.
When I used to serve as a cantor, the accompanist would assuage my nerves by reminding me, “You could do this in your sleep.” I probably still could. Like riding a bike or shuffling cards, the mass lives in my body. I know the Nicene Creed by heart and the sign of the cross is as effortless as breathing. I don’t want the church anywhere near my reproductive system, but it made its way into my muscles before I could tell it not to.
In 2005, I went with a group to the El Paso/Juárez border. Our guide was John, a white man from the United States who had spent his entire career serving as an ally to Mexicans and Central Americans trying to cross into the U.S. I remember John talking about faith. He told us that he had been raised Catholic, then had become a devout atheist, then wandered back into Catholicism, and was now flirting with atheism again. I was baffled. At the time, I had completely disassociated myself from all things spiritual and couldn’t believe that an atheist would ever stop being an atheist. Not believing in God felt noble and just – the ultimate expression of human empowerment. This was before I spent two and a half years living in Mexico. This was before I learned about liberation theology, before I met Licha and Juanita and Doña Nati and Doña Tere, women who would never leave the Catholic church. Because why should they? The church belonged to them. To be clear, there are plenty of conservative, by-the-book Christians in Mexico. I just didn’t hang out with them all that much.
Even though living abroad gave me an enormous amount of respect for radical Catholics and their work, that respect was political. I didn’t give much thought to personal religious conviction until I moved back to Louisville. When I meet a fellow Catholic school graduate, we quickly fall into a comfortable shorthand. “What neighborhood did you grow up in?” “Do you know so-and-so?” “Wait, did we meet at an Ascension mixer in 1997?” We grew up measuring time in increments of fish fries and summer picnics. We played each other in volleyball and quick recall. We pored through books of saints to find the perfect confirmation name. We believed in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church.
Or I did, anyway. I couldn’t fall asleep without saying a nightly prayer. I was afraid of hell. I adored St. Bernadette. I wonder if intense nostalgia for past belief is the same as actual belief. Is it possible to trick your brain back into religion?
I’ve been spending a lot of time with my grandmother lately. She is the most devout person I know. Her townhome is a mausoleum of Catholic ephemera. Pictures of John Paul II smile down from the walls and anti-choice pamphlets crowd the mailbox. The other day I found a game (at least I think it’s a game) called “Catholic Trivia: Pre-Vatican II Version,” which includes questions like: “What are 3 optional forms of head gear for women to wear in a Catholic Church?” Possible answers, incidentally, are chapel, veil, handkerchief, scarf, hat, turban, hair curlers, and beanie.
The gulf between my grandmother’s Catholicism and my own is vast. But that gulf, I think, is where most Catholics – and most people of any faith – live. Instead of standing on the shore, I’m treading water. My legs are strong and my breath is steady. I could keep going for hours.