Last week, at the bottom of a box of books, I found the 1962 missal that my father gave me when I was about nine years old. On the title page, he’d written me a note so tender that I don’t want to share it all, but one line said, “When your faith is tested, you can find answers to all your questions in this book.”
Oh, Dad, I thought, wistfully, condescendingly. My life is so different from what you imagined for me. I don’t even want answers to my questions anymore.
But of course, I do––just in a different way than I used to.
It’s an understatement to say that my father and I have pretty different approaches to religion. He brought me up in a church that rejected the second Vatican Council—hence the 1962 missal, given to me in 2002—and he made sure my hair was covered in church, and that I went to confession every single week, and that I had a healthy fear of hell, and of Protestants, and of accidentally chewing the Eucharist, and of all things secular. I started breaking away from that when I was about thirteen, as it finally sank in that our church culture's attitude toward women and girls did not have a special exception for me or my friends. That was painful, for Dad and for me. We still argue about religion a lot, and every time, we’re both surprised that we’re disagreeing, that two people with such similar starting points are coming to such different conclusions.
The thing is, it’s easy to talk about my strict, fundamentalist upbringing in a critical way, to focus on the horror stories and frame the years I spent there as nothing but a prelude to a big, beautiful feminist awakening. But that isn’t the full story. There was a lot of joy in those years, too. And although I’m relieved that my life has not played out the way my father or I thought it would when I was a Baltimore-Catechism-reciting child, there is so much about the way he raised me that I still hold on to, and that I hope he knows I’m deeply grateful for.
I am grateful that I was taught to look for God’s presence everywhere. I am grateful that I was introduced to Mary and the saints so sweetly that I've never lost the sense that they're my family. I am grateful to have had all kinds of prayers instilled into me, pulsing along quietly through the years. And although I’ve given up on a lot of the suffocating absolutes that I used to believe in, I am very grateful to have gotten what Mary Gordon calls “the taste for the invisible,” to have learned early on that infinite mystery surrounds us, and at the same time, the truth is still worth pursuing.
It’s hard to break away from the certainty we were raised to have about the universe, isn’t it? It’s hard to stop expecting a firm, clear answer to the baffling. At first, I thought I could intellectualize my way through the questions. (Just one example: between college and seminary, I took no fewer than four semester-long courses on theodicy and the problem of evil, and at the beginning of each term, I would fan the little embers of my hope that this time, there would be a clear-cut solution.) But of course, the questions only persist, only grow bigger the longer you look, as my dad's note to me suggests.
In the last few years, I’ve mostly stopped looking for answers in missals and theology books. Especially in the months that I’ve been spending time with the Benedictine sisters and others who are committed to the spiritual life, I’ve started to find more and more hints about God and about our places in this world by watching them.
I can’t say exactly what it means, but I know that I learn something about this faith when I see an older sister dip her hand into the holy water font, and then silently put some of the extra water on the hand of another older sister who can’t reach the font from her wheelchair, so that they both can cross themselves.
I know I learn something about this faith when Sister Mary Ellen travels for hours to sit at the bedside of a dying friend, to be a loving presence and a steadfast witness to the end of a good life.
I learn something about this faith when Sister Carolyn firmly tells me, “Stop asking for permission to join our group for evening prayer! You’re always welcome,” and pulls me in for a kiss.
I learn something about this faith when a hush falls over the monastery dining room as the sisters reverently watch a family of deer walk through the backyard.
I learn something when people encourage me to write my own psalm translations or to sit down with a priest to discuss why I disagree with his sermon, when we organize vigils for humane immigration policies and summer courses for young female theologians, when Sister Jean patiently adjusts my fingers on the flute for the eighty-eighth time that day, when sisters and oblates and friends ask after my godchildren, when Sister Anne helps me break up a fight that’s broken out in our office parking lot between grade-schoolers who are walking home from the soup kitchen.
None of these are answers to the staggering, complex questions that life presents. None of them offer the certainty or the comfort that I know my dear father wishes that I had. But all of these little moments point in the same direction that the catechism pointed: they assure me that God really is bigger and better than we can imagine. That suffering can be redeemed. That what we do matters.
I do believe all that. And I feel very lucky to.
So this week I'll be thinking about what Mary Oliver had to say in "Mysteries, Yes":
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.