Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Eve with Mama and Papa Cat

Every time winter weather occurs, I have to call Mama Cat both when I arrive at work and when I come home from work.

Tonight, following my dentist's appointment, I called her to let her know I got home OK. As the conversation progressed, talk turned to Christmas Eve:

ME: Are we going to Mass Christmas Eve?
MAMA CAT: I dunno. I don't know if Dad's church has Mass on Christmas Eve?
ME: What's the point of going? Dad's the only practicing Catholic in our family.
MAMA CAT: I don't get it either. When you were kids Dad was always asking "Do I have to go to church today?" whenever we got ready on Sundays.
ME: Now it's the reverse. What happened?
MAMA CAT: I don't know.

My parents wanted to give both me and my sister a spiritual foundation. We were both baptized and raised Catholic, received our First Communion when we were eight, and were confirmed when we were 14.

I went to a Catholic high school, a Jesuit university, and earned my Master's from another local Catholic institution. During those years, I was Super Catholic Girl. My faith was of the utmost importance to me. I became a Eucharistic Minister, went to Mass as often as possible, and engaged in all sorts of service projects. Catholicism was such an important fiber of my being, some of my friends wondered if I was going to become a nun.

Sister Kitten went through a similar spiritual phase. She went to a public high school, but started going on Emmaus retreats with her best friend, who was a member of the Episcopal church. Her faith, while it differed from mine, became an important fiber of her being.

In spite of our spiritual journeys, we had trouble discussing our experiences at the time. I argued that Catholicism was the one true religion, while she accused me of being closed-minded and not open to any other perspectives. I told her about how the Jesuits valued education, and how they encouraged people to question things and to learn, as well as their commitment to service. She would hear none of it.

The subject of religion and faith has not come up recently between me and Sister Kitten, although I would like to talk about it with her someday.

But I digress.

I especially loved my faith journey during my undergrad days. Fairfield had a 10:00 Mass on Monday nights, and I loved to go because it was so informal, and Father Carrier, our chaplain, knew how to talk to college kids. He made scripture real to us, and never failed to relate it to what was going on both on campus and in the outside world.

Upon graduation, that was one of the hardest things for me to part with.

Post-graduation, I started falling out of love with the Catholic church.

For about a year, I alternated between two churches: my parents', and the Catholic church the next town over. I had so much difficulty relating to the sermons and the scripture. For one, I was the youngest person attending Mass. Everyone else was either elderly or had young families. There was nothing for young, twentysomething single people like me. There were also very few service opportunities available. I didn't feel the same magical connection that I did when I attended Mass in college, and a part of me started dying.

I stopped attending church after that.

September 11th occurred two months after I moved out of my parents' house. I went to the local Catholic church, seeking some guidance. I had the same question that many Americans did that weekend: "How could God let this happen?"

It was the same question that the priest asked at the beginning of his sermon.

When he compared 9/11 to abortion, I walked out.

I thought it was incredibly tasteless, tactless--I'm still pissed at that memory.

I still didn't give up, though. I still sought a spiritual home. I felt obligated that it be a Catholic house of worship, because of my long history with Catholicism, and that I would feel guilty if I ever gave it up. After all, I reasoned, I spent so much time studying it, being absorbed in it, really immersing myself in it.

I thought I had found a home, and joined the choir. I felt that music helped me strengthen my relationship with God. However, I had trouble making connections with the other members of the parish. Again, I was the youngest person there, a single twentysomething in a pool of older congregants.

I left that church.

I moved up to Middletown and heard a lot of good things about another Catholic church. I joined because I heard there were a lot of service opportunities there. However, there was that same problem of not bonding with my fellow parishioners.

But this time, things were different.

I started to notice, during Mass, that I would take a seat in the last available pew and pray that no one would talk to me. I had never felt that way before. I also noticed two things: one, nobody talked to each other, save for the Kiss of Peace. Two, those who did talk to each other were old friends, and didn't bother to welcome the newcomers.

Not only that, but I was having some major issues with some of the positions that the Catholic church took with respect to women, abortion, and gay rights. I was tired of the conservative doctrine, the "one true faith" perspective that the Vatican had. I was tired of being told what to believe, and tired of not being allowed to ask questions.

In other words, I finally knew what Sister Kitten was trying to tell me all those years ago.

For about three or four years, I didn't go to church of any kind, save for Christmas with my family and the occasional Easter service. I didn't realize it then, but my spiritual side was shriveled up and grey, or, as Dr. Seuss would say, my "heart was two sizes too small."

In 2006, my mentor passed away, and her funeral was held at her church, a small, non-denominational Christian church. The service was absolutely beautiful, personal, and full of love. There was some ritual, but it was planned in a way that honored my mentor's favorite music, poems, and memories.

Although it was a funeral, you could really feel the sense of community that was there. So many members of the church had come together to help plan the service and the reception afterwards.

That was what I missed the most.


I knew I needed a new spiritual home, but where would I find one?

Last June, I was at a party at my best friend's house when another friend of mine told me that she and her husband had just joined a Unitarian Universalist church. She raved about it. She told me about how she and her husband were both of different faiths, and how they both agreed that their son should be raised with a spiritual education. She liked how the UU religious program taught about religions and faiths of all backgrounds--Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism--you name it, the kids learned about it. They weren't pigeonholed to believe one thing, but were encouraged to explore different traditions and make it their own.

I was intrigued. I decided to investigate.

That night, I found the website for the Unitarian Universalist Association, typed in my city, state, and zip code, and found a church within a reasonable driving distance. I attended the service the second week of July. It was a small church, but the people there were super-friendly and welcomed me with open arms.

"What's your name?"

"Where are you from?"

"What brings you here?"

"Do you have any questions for us?"

It was not the type of service that I was used to. There was a chalice lighting, but nothing from the Bible, Torah, or any kind of scripture. There was a lot of yoga in that service, with some expressive art thrown in. I liked it, and decided to return the next week.

When I did return the next week, I was amazed that people remembered my name. I'm not being sarcastic here; when you attend a Catholic church for years and you don't know anyone's name, this is something you take for granted.

"Welcome back!"

"Glad you're here!"

"Our minister's here! You'll get to meet her!"

I became a full-fledged member of that church last January. After I had been going to services there for a few months, I started to realize something: my depression, that I had battled on and off for years, was lifting. I started to feel happier, more whole.

My heart grew three sizes.

I like being a UU because I can now "live the questions." I'm still learning a lot about my faith and my religious beliefs. I believe in Jesus, and in God, but I also enjoy the pagan rituals such as Samhain and Yule. I believe in the Big Bang, but I also believe in Adam and Eve. How do I connect the two?

I attend church with humanists, atheists, pagans, and agnostics. We have discussion after each service. I love hearing the different perspectives, and I love how I can contribute to discussion without fear of judgment or being judged.

Catholicism, though, will always remain a part of my life. I still have issues with the Catholic church, but it gave me a strong foundation, and helped make me who I am. I treasure the opportunites that it brought me, such as going to Washington, DC to assist with Habitat for Humanity, and working with underprivileged youth in urban areas.

However, I still feel like a hypocrite attending Mass on Christmas Eve. I've become part of the "once a year people" that I once despised in my youth.

That's not the kind of feeling I want to experience on Christmas Eve.

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