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THE CHURCH IS PART OF ME

maura hanrahan

by Maura Hanrahan

It's always been there, the Catholic Church, through my four decades of life. It nurtures me, annoys me, enlightens me, angers me, saddens me, heals me. It comes and goes, or rather I come to it and leave again, wandering away, occasionally storming away.

     This is --I am sure self-help gurus would say-- the picture of a dysfunctional relationship. The push-pull, the waves of disparate, conflicting emotions, the apparent instability of what we have together, the Church and I. Given the Church's track record on women, some feminists (and I belong to that club as well) might liken me to an abused woman who cannot shut the door on her tormentor.

     Perhaps.

     But it is more complex than that (and you can call that statement rationalization if you want). For the most part, the pain has been worth the joy. In fact, the pain has even been worth the nuisance factors and boredom that are intrinsic to every relationship.

     At age 10 I entered a convent school run by the Sisters of Mercy (whom we kids cheekily called the Sisters of No Mercy). I joined the Legion of Mary and every Wednesday we girls knelt down in a classroom and said the rosary, led by an old sister who was built like a tank. She had a man's name, Alphonsus --a remnant of the pre-Vatican era-- and a simple faith in Mary, the mother of the Nazarene.

     Once in the 150-year-old school chapel I glimpsed Sr. Dolorosa, a nun who came to our shores from Ireland. Though ancient, she was still tall and stately. I didn't dare approach her. My father had told me that she was the last of the missionary sisters and, though I didn't quite understand what he meant, I sensed this was something important.

     In Grade 9 the nuns hauled us off to confession, as the sacrament of reconciliation was called then. In the confessional box the priest made a highly inappropriate sexual remark to me. I corrected the confession box power imbalance by never going back. Ever since when I've transgressed, I've made peace with God my own way.

     After that disturbing incident I still went to Mass and sang in the choir. And I longed for Our Lady to appear to me. I read William Walsh's Our Lady of Fatima over and over. Alone in my bedroom I implored Mary to appear to me --me, pick me, I begged her, let me be the next Lucia! She didn't come, of course, and gradually she drifted out of my thoughts.

     Around the same time I finally decided that I didn't want to be a nun. I had discovered another species --boys-- and I knew they were off limits to anyone who entered the convent. Like a just-released zoo animal I was attracted to university and the exciting promise of the secular world.

     But the Church never truly left me as I investigated the Eastern religions, Indigenous spirituality, and even went to chant under the moon with Wicca devotees. I saw the value in all these things (well, most of them), but for the most part I was not drawn to them. They lacked the familiarity of the Church of my childhood and adolescence and, deep down, I don't really believe conversion is truly possible.

     Eventually I embarked on a solitary voyage through the literature of the Christian mystics. I felt the love of Julian of Norwich, voluntarily holed away in her damp little cell. I found fellow traveller Thomas Merton and heard him speak to my brokenness: My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself. . . One spring I stood on the porch of Merton's Kentucky hermitage, a Trappist writer friend by my side. Merton speaks to me still.

     The pull of the Church on Good Friday never left me, not even through the driest years of my relationship with Catholicism. The sobriety, the sorrow, the anticipation, the hopeful waiting for the risen Christ --annually these combine to draw me in and envelope me. Even after I learned of the great crimes of some of our priests-- indeed, the great crime of our Church-- I could not leave the Church door undarkened on Good Friday.

     Somewhere along the lines the knowledge that spiritual practice is not whole without communion with others sank in. So my husband and I occupy a pew most Sundays. The essentially unchanging ritual of the Mass, which I've enjoyed in the United States, Portugal, Mexico, England, Austria, Ireland, Canada and beyond soothes that ever-present troubled place in my soul, just as music does.

     Practicing the religion of my birth regularly brings the spirit of Jesus into my thoughts, challenging me as well as validating me, through his love of the bent-over woman, the lepers, and the most flawed of his apostles.

     Mary, too, is there when I need her: The mother of us all, the incarnation of the often forgotten feminine aspects of the divine. I no longer implore her to appear, but I feel her presence and I experience it as a vehicle to become closer to God.

     As I write this I am reminded of what Wuthering Heights' Cathy said about Heathcliff: "He's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same." That's the thing, I guess; I was baptized into this Church, it made an appearance in or had an influence on virtually every important moment in my life. Good and bad and everything that was both good and bad. So it's part of me, intractably, forever --and while I don't always like myself, I strive to always love myself. To ignore this is to struggle hopelessly against the universe.

Maura Hanrahan is an anthropologist and award-winning author.

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