The Sun in Winter
Catholics and anti-Catholics alike are heaping scorn on the head of Kaya Oakes, the author of a pathetic little piece that was reprinted in Salon this week. In "My Torment as a Catholic Woman," she laments the fact that she can't be a priest. She doesn't especially want or feel called to be a priest herself, mind you; but she suffers on behalf of her "hungry" sisters who have been denied.
The commenters on Salon dish out the almost absendminded contempt they routinely lavish on Catholics:
"You choose to belong to a Church that hates you just because you're female."
"I have also run out of patience for people who willingly allow themselves to be tormented by the Catholic Church."
"You belong to a hate group. Either get on board or join another group - it is really not that big of a deal."
In other words, your Church sucks. Why stay?
And faithful Catholics are just as irritated with her, for the opposite reason:
She's thinking only in terms of her rights, of what she deserves, of what she has coming to her. This attitude is the antithesis of the priesthood, or of any other kind of vocation: we are called to serve in various ways, according to our abilities and our nature. Demanding the right to serve is like demanding that all paratroopers have the right to carry anvils. Doesn't sound like you understand what we're trying to achieve!
In other words, you are completely clueless how great our Church is. Why stay?
Two things strike me about this woman's lament: one is her poor grasp on theology. She refers to the Eucharist as "bread," or sometimes "transformed bread." (She even refers to the "yeast" in the Host, which suggests that she not only misses the symbolic significance of unleavened bread, she also missed Home Ec 101 in junior high.) She appears, in short, to think that the Eucharist is mostly about inclusiveness, and that a lack of female priests demonstrates a failure of inclusiveness. Does she believe that the consecrated Host is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, offered up for any man, woman, or child who dares to receive Him? She doesn't say.
And her lack of understanding makes my second observation all the more striking: she stays anyway. Even though she doesn't like what she's experienced -- even though she apparently doesn't have the first clue about what she's experienced -- she stays. She furtively tries out other churches, with female priests; but she keeps coming back, and she keeps identifying herself as Catholic.
What does this tell us?
There is a reason why people stay. There is a reason why even former Catholics keep on identifying themselves as "lapsed Catholics" or "recovering Catholics," and it's not about brainwashing our emotional scars. People stay because God, in the most holy sacrament of the altar, is there. Unmistakably there. God is appealing. God is attractive, in the least superficial way possible. Once you receive God you will never stop wanting Him, even if that want is transformed by sin or ignorance into something bitter or resentful.
I recently got a letter from a woman who was suffering terribly for her faith. She faced a choice that would cause her great pain, whether she decided to be faithful or not. She didn't want advice, exactly -- and that was a good thing, because I had none to offer. All I did was offer up Mass for her -- Mass where I might as well have been the clueless author of the Salon piece, for all the faith and reverence and understanding I could muster up.
I sent her an answer, telling her that I was sorry for her suffering. I offered up Mass feeling useless and hopeless and hypocritical, because God is God and I am useless, so what else can I do? I offered up Mass three times, and I told her so.
Weeks later, I got another letter. Things had shifted. The impossible had happened, a crack had appeared, and grace poured in. When things had seemed hopeless, there was now hope. God is good, she said. Which I already knew. But I had forgotten that He's good when we don't expect Him to be; good when we don't even want Him to be good. Good when we're not thinking of Him at all, but only wandering around with our hands out, whining and stumbling, suffering and feeling useless. Being useless.
It's good to seek understanding. It's good to look for the light. Who wants to wander in darkness, especially when everyone around us makes fun of us for wasting our time doing it?
But it's also true that the light doesn't lose any of its power when we're momentarily blind. Even when we're voluntarily drawing away from Christ, even when we willfully close our eyes to the truth, we can feel His light beating on our faces. Even blind people can feel the warmth of the sun, and are drawn to it. Even when we're heading into winter and the whole hemisphere is tilting away from the sun, the sun blazes on, waiting for our orbit to take us back again, back into the light.
We want Him, and He wants us. This does not change.