Saturday, January 31, 2009

There and Back, Part 1

While my journey back into the Catholic Church was a relatively swift one, spurred by a tangible experience of Christ's mercy and forgiveness back in 2002, my journey out of it had been long, slow, and meandering. I was never quite severed from my belief (someone once said that being a Catholic is like being from the South, something that marks you for life and that you can never really shake, no matter how you try); rather, I tried to pile a lot of other, strange beliefs on top of it, mostly in order to make the way I was living seem rational and justify it in my own mind. My trip away started in adolescence, when my parents, who were struggling in their marriage, stopped taking the family to Mass. From that point, I started down a path of a kind of casual, flaky neo-paganism to which I later on made more formal commitments, and which I now see allowed a great deal of evil into my life -- not that the doors to evil had not already been wide open, unfortunately, since my childhood.

There's a certain type of intellectual/artistic woman in New York City (and no doubt elsewhere) who rejects traditional religion and social morality in the quest for freedom and self-realization, but at the same time craves the connection and sense of rightness that those more traditional practices convey. She tends to take up non-western spiritual beliefs, or to accrue an amalgam of eastern and occult practices which she undertakes mostly on her own and sometimes with others. These patchwork belief systems are attractive because they seem non-judgmental; most of the time, this woman is getting her heart broken over and over in her search for love, because that's how it is, and, having abandoned traditional mores, she can avoid being indicted for her sexual behavior; the synthetic and syncretic belief systems instead provide means of explaining the heartbreak and jettisoning the notion of sin. While this woman is almost bound not to admit it, she's really searching and hoping for a real love, one that will last, i.e. a traditional husband, but she's not allowed, by the standards of the company she keeps, to come out and say so. The morality of this company accepts that people will partner up and then drift apart, and that women can't expect commitment from most men, even after they've given all of themselves; though they may try to pretend otherwise, this state of affairs is usually devastating for the women in question.

I think that in many ways the accretion of beliefs that these women profess is meant to soothe their troubled souls from so much heartache, and to give them a sense of power in the face of such powerlessness. I've known many of these women; they've been friends, colleagues, family members, and respected teachers. I can see now what I couldn't see then: that moral relativism is a subtle ploy of the enemy, one that has a particular appeal to intellectuals, and that it leads to sin, excuses sin, and then perpetuates the cycle. The first stirrings I had that it might be a load of crap were when I would hear women of this type say about abortion: "Well, I would never have an abortion myself, but I am committed to other women's right to have them." Being post-abortive, hearing this was always like a kick in the stomach to me. You mean you DIDN'T think abortion was okay? At least not for you? And if it's not okay for you, why would it be okay for me, or for anyone else? I assumed that something that people were organizing about, marching for, professing, and demanding must be something, well, in the interest of the common good, but my pro-choice friends clearly thought abortion was a bad thing that other women (subtext: other, less-fortunate, women) should be able to have without questions or restrictions. Believe it or not, I found this shocking.

The disconnect in logic, morality, and compassion in this paradox began to awaken my sense of horror at my own abortion, as well as my acceptance of the need for real forgiveness, not the kind of self-made forgiveness cobbled together from the ideas encountered in books on meditation or the tarot. The shifting definition of the good -- that what would be repellent to me might be swell for you -- was understood by the women in my circle to be the price we paid for liberation, and heartbreak the price for freedom and the journey to self-realization. This was the real world, was the message: no longer the safe, constricted world of our mothers. The real world, real relationships, real love, were categorically NOT safe, and we were brave women, we told ourselves, for venturing out onto those choppy waters. Because there were so few tangible rewards in any of it, the journey itself, or so all the books claimed, was supposed to be its own reward.

I am one of the lucky ones who got out. This has meant a certain distancing, if not a complete break, from many of my old friends. It's also meant that I am forever, in a certain sense, marked by heartbreak. This is not to say that I don't have joy in my life; I do. Joy, however, does not cancel out heartbreak; in fact, real joy can never really be that distant from heartbreak, as we know from the Gospels. Joy and pleasure are not the same thing. Conversion has made me a different person, and yet I'm also the same foolish, misguided, deluded, and desperate woman I always was. Heartbreak has left a permanent mark on me, and I pray that it may be a sign to others not to go the way I went.

13 comments:

Mac said...

Striking. I could have written this, with appropriate changes for time, place, and gender. I mean, not that I could have written it so well, but the knowledge and sentiments are mine.

Pentimento said...

Well, Mac, you flatter me, but you could probably have written it much better. I'm thinking, for instance, of your essay about your path to conversion, which goes into more detail than this post does, but expresses some of the same ideas.

Mrs. T said...

Beautiful and true. In fact, really spot-on. There's a particular person for whom I'm praying right now, who I wish would read this . . . it's an apt description of her world and her worldview, from both of which I am praying that God in His mercy will deliver her. (actually, it's the world of lots of my old friends, too . . . I didn't live there so much myself, but I was a frequent enough visitor.)

Pentimento said...

Mrs. T, as much as I hope I can be a sign of warning for people like your friend, I also pray really hard that I can be a sign for them of Christ's mercy. I will pray for her too.

Hala O'Keeffe said...

Julia, this is a lovely and wonderful post. Thank you.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Hala!

elena maria vidal said...

What a powerful post!

Paul in the GNW said...

Thank you for a great start on your conversion story. I found you recently though Astonished, Yet at Home, and love what I see. I'm married to a New Yorker and sometimes pretend to be one myself. Great Blog!

@GNW_Paul

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Elena Maria and Paul.

Karinann said...

Great story! While I'm from NJ, the intellectual/artistic New Yorker you describe fits my own story almost word for word. I needed something to get me off the hook for my own abortion-New Age stuff did it. (or so I thought) It took a lot of prayer from a good friend to get me to seek healing (Rachel's Vineyard)and God's mercy. I too returned to my faith in 2002. Thanks for telling your story- I know how dificult that can be.
God Bless!

Pentimento said...

Oh, Karinann, been there! Thank you for your comment and God bless you.

I see that your blog is called "Daugher of the King." Are you in a group, by any chance, of the same name? One of my best friends in NYC is in it.

Dave said...

Bellissima.

I forwarded it to my 20 yr old daughter who liked it too - which tamps down some of the typical worries of her loving parents. 'Principessa' praised your writing - a compliment she uses sparingly. She especially liked the bit about heartache and joy being intimately related while recognizing she's probably too young to really have experienced that.

Pretty cool, huh?

This dad thanks you.

Pentimento said...

Dave, I'm touched!