Sunday, March 7, 2010

There and Back, Part 10: Four-Armed Gods and One-Eared Rabbits

Some readers have asked me to elaborate on my reversion to the Catholic faith, and I've always demurred, because the story is long, complicated, both mystical and prosaic, and, actually, probably kind of boring.  What is more, while most conversions share certain narrative elements -- I was going along one way, when something set me on a wholly different path; I was one man, and now I am another --  the thread that we follow in that transformation seems to be woven by God out of the material unique to the convert's psyche, so, while conversion is a potentially universal experience, it is also a highly individualistic one.  For these reasons -- the boredom factor, and the fact that my conversion was specific to me in all my neuroses and failures -- for a long time I thought it best not to discuss mine too extensively.  But it's been on my mind lately, and I have never written it out, so I will begin to do so here.

Because God uses us in all our weakness to accomplish His will, it should not be surprising that my conversion was set againt the backdrop of a romantic relationship.  Shortly after 9/11 and the end of my relationship with the Stoner-Carpenter Guy, I got a call from an old friend whom I hadn't seen for years; he wanted to take me out to lunch.  I began seeing more of him, and, though we'd never been romantically involved in the past, we slowly began dating.  This was, logically, too soon after the end of a previous relationship -- in fact, if I'm remembering it correctly, he phoned me within a day or two after Stoner-Carpenter was out of the picture.  But, as an inveterate non-planner, I've always been a take-what-comes kind of person, and I supposed that dating C. was the next thing on my agenda.

Besides that, I was extremely fond of him.  Although I was a non-planner, I secretly hoped that that our relationship would grow, and would end in marriage (secretly, because those in my set labored under Bohemian values, or at least under their aftermath, and feared that any talk of traditional things would send the men we loved packing; it usually did).  One night, however, C. seemed to dash my hopes, when he told me that he "didn't think" he wanted marriage and children, but he begged me not to end our relationship, suggesting that he might change his mind.

So I went on, non-planning but hoping, until one night when he phoned me from Las Vegas (I realize this sounds like a punchline), where he had gone for a bachelor party.  Suddenly his tone had changed.  We wanted different things, he asserted.  This should not have been very surprising to me; after all, if I were a man in Las Vegas for a bachelor party, I would probably find myself wanting things entirely different from a non-planning but hoping Bohemian girl in a shabby apartment in Washington Heights.  But he went further, and sought to explain himself by revealing that he was an alcoholic in early recovery.  I had already guessed this, since, in our earlier friendship, he had been a regular drinker, and now he no longer drank, and he now used language that was familiar to me as an alumna of Al-Anon.  Still, he told me, in the years that we were out of touch, he had been such a low-bottom alcoholic, and he was now so new in his recovery (about a year at that time) -- and, after all, though he didn't emphasize this point he was in LAS VEGAS at a BACHELOR PARTY -- that he apparently felt completely unequipped to continue in our relationship.

As someone used to crushing disappointment, I remained calm and collected, and suggested a moratorium on our relationship that we could revisit and re-examine after about six weeks' time.  But when I hung up the phone, I was fell apart.  By revealing his brokenness, C. had become a full-fledged one-eared rabbit to me.  I imagined that he needed me, a lover and defender of one-eared rabbits, to stand by his side; and, besides, by this time, I loved him quite deeply.

But it wasn't just the expected breakup desolation I was feeling after the phone call.  Many post-abortive women talk about "abortion triggers," events, symbols, or sensory phenomena that bring the traumatic memories of their abortions flooding back.  Someone wise once told me that, while a man's greatest fear is that his wife (or his Bohemian girl, or whoever else happens to be nearby) will wake up one day and realize that he's the fraud he secretly believes himself to be, a woman's greatest fear is abandonment.  For some reason, the abandonment by C., undertaken long-distance via phone call from Vegas, brought the horror and grief of my abortion flooding back.  I sat in the chair in my bedroom and cried for two hours.  Then I called my mother, to whom I had almost never turned for emotional support, even during my divorce, and told her that, in spite of the fact that I'd been to confession and been absolved for the sin of abortion, I didn't feel absolved.  She told me simply to ask God to forgive me in Jesus' name.  So, when I got off the phone, I knelt down on the floor in tears and did.  And I felt as though the weight of that sin were being lifted from me in a physical, tangible way; I could almost see this process happening.  That was it.  That was the moment of my conversion.

I'd spent the previous few years hammering together my own syncretic religion out of various elements that were in vogue around me -- mantras, gurus, tarot cards, meditation -- and I had a long, narrow table I'd gotten at an apartment sale that I used as a meditation altar of sorts.  I had set all kinds of little statues and images upon it -- not only the Sacred Heart and Our Lady, but also statuettes of the Hindu gods Shiva and Kali; my mother used to come over and say, accusingly, "I see a lot of strange gods here."  In the moments after my conversion, it occurred to me that, because Christ had given me the gift of forgiveness, it was up to me to meet him halfway by pledging my allegiance to Him.  So I gathered up all my pagan paraphernalia and dumped it in Fort Tryon Park (I did not yet have the faith or the discipline to just toss it in the garbage chute, and I felt a little sentimental about those little statues).  I went to see a priest in my parish for absolution -- it had been years since my last confession -- and told him, among many other things, about the "strange gods."  He was a saintly Franciscan missionary, and he said, in his gentle way, "The eastern religions have much in the way of beauty to offer, and even some truth; but they don't" -- indicating the crucifix on the wall -- "have this."  I enrolled in RCIA classes to prepare for Confirmation (a sacrament I hadn't received in adolescence, because a priest in my family's parish had said it was "a sacrament in search of a meaning," and my parents went with that).

Ironically, C. and I resumed our relationship after the self-imposed post-Vegas moratorium had expired.  I started in my doctoral program that fall, and would spend my days walking from work to the university and back again, then going home on the subway in the evenings and buying a solitary lamb chop or chicken breast at the neighborhood market for my supper.  On Wednesday nights, I would walk in the dark to the church in a particularly drug-scarred section of my neighborhood where Confirmation preparation classes took place.  They were taught by a nun, who informed us, among other things, that the miracle of the loaves and fishes had been brought about by everyone having something in his pocket and sharing all around, which was the "real" miracle.  My classmates were all young Dominicans in their teens and twenties, most of whom spent the class texting on their cell phones or with their heads down on their desks -- a blessing when you think of it, because their ears were closed to heresy.  Then I would see C. on the weekends.  We would go to Mass together.  I went to an A.A. meeting with him on the anniversary of his sobriety.  I loved him more and more.

It was not to last, however.  He moved across the country to take a new job, and didn't think he had it in him to pursue a long-distance relationship.  As a non-planner but an inveterate hoper, I was devastated afresh.  I'd been knitting him a sweater that was half-finished, and now I worked on it furiously, thinking on the one hand that I needed to complete it and get it out of my life, and on the other that in those thousands of stitches, there might be a mystical knot that would tie him to me (the real absurdity lay in the fact that he had moved to a warm climate where he would never need to wear it, but perhaps that was a metaphor for our whole relationship).  In my graduate seminars, I would keep my head bent over my notebooks so that no one else sitting around the table would see that I was crying.  I would go to the little Adoration chapel at my parish church and cry, praying that C. would come back, or that at least God would show me what He wanted me to do and where He wanted me to go.  At the same time, I was busier than I'd ever been as a performer, and my scholarly work was also starting to attract some attention; I'd begun giving papers and lecture-recitals at important international conferences.   I was a non-planner but a hoper, and I knew that, in the face of bitter failure and cruel disappointment, there was nothing else to do but to keep going.

I was confirmed that fall, taking the name Cecilia, and I met my husband the following week.

In the beginning of my conversion, I received a great deal of consolation.  God is generous to those who come running -- or, more accurately, crawling -- back to Him, and gives them many graces.  Now, however, I'm just like anyone else -- lazy, proud, grumbling, prone to discouragement and despair, slogging through the trenches of faith and mostly falling.

When I think of my conversion, it seems to me that it could only have happened in New York, in that shabby apartment in Washington Heights; so imbued was it with the ethos of the life that I'd cobbled together there.  But then, it could probably have happened in Vegas, too, or anywhere else, since God shows us His love for us, in all our falling and failing, wherever we are, and in fact is doing it all the time, even if we can't see it in places that have none of the beauty and charm of my old home town.  But we can't live forever in the beautiful moment of conversion.  We have to keep going, wherever we are.  As Richard Wilbur wrote, love calls us to the things of this world, and that holds true wherever in our exile we might be -- even in Vegas.


Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin said...

On the strength of this post, and the one to which the Western Confucian linked last Friday, I am adding you to both the blogs I follow, and the blogs to which I link.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Arkanabar, and welcome here.

Rodak said...

Interesting. My experience has been more that women demand that you be the fraud you're afraid of becoming and refuse to be.
Maybe, if I'd remained in a Bohemian setting, rather than taking on bourgeois responsibilities...? I ended up losing everything I'd tried to preserve by "selling out," anyway.

Enbrethiliel said...


This is a beautiful story, Pentimento. You make me want to write about my own process of conversion--just so I get it all straight for myself, because I don't think I ever have.

Pentimento said...

I'd like to read your story, Enbrethiliel.

I don't know about the relative virtues of bourgeois vs. bohemian love, Rodak. I suppose it's case by case. But my friend was point out what he believed was the primal male fear.

Bill White said...

"As someone used to crushing disappointment, I remained calm and collected." You just explained to me how my parents' divorce and subsequent nonsense shaped me decades ago. Thank you.

Pentimento said...

Well, isn't it true, Bill? Not that you'd wish anyone to become inured to suffering and chaos, but it helps to have a compensatory technique when the sh*t hits the fan.

Bill White said...

Exactly. And that preternatural calm in the face of anything became a constant characteristic (at least until I got married and we had a bunch of kids :-)

Craig said...

Thank you, Pentimento, for this. It is among the best things that I have read in a long time. Thanks be to God for His graces to us.

Rodak said...

I don't know about the relative virtues of bourgeois vs. bohemian love

I don't mean to suggest that love is, or can be, either "bourgeois" or "bohemian" in its nature. But the person looking for, or trying to share, or desperately trying to nurture love is very much up against it when love (as attached to a specific object) reveals itself to be an obstacle to otherwise living an authentic existence.
There is a Joni Mitchell lyric that I find particularly penetrating:
"Go to him, stay with him if you can, but be prepared to bleed."
[It has occurred to me that she could have been talking about Jesus there. But she wasn't.]

Pentimento said...

I love that song (and that album).

But I'm not sure that real love, which is nothing like what I ever thought it was (and I thought I knew all about love) is incompatible with an authentic existence. In fact, I'm fairly sure that an authentic existence is all about love, though not necessarily romantic or partnered love.

Rodak said...

Yes, I think that you're quite right. But the reality of this is that often the "love" that we are struggling to maintain is exposed as something else, altogether. Those who find that True love, the love that makes no demands against the authentic existence of the love object, are blessed, indeed. Many (if not most) of us are not so "lucky." Alas.

Pentimento said...

I don't believe there is any such love, i.e. one that makes no demands against the authentic existence, as you say, of its object. Love makes demands of us constantly, and that's what makes it so hard.

Enbrethiliel said...


And I'd like to write it, too, but you set a high standard for all of us! (I may end up writing about writing it . . .)

Pentimento said...

E, not for nothing, but I am going to quote your own (very accurate) words about Betty Duffy back atcha: you're a freaking amazing writer. I hope you do it.

Rodak said...

I don't believe there is any such love

You may be right. But that may also be why Jesus apparently ranked family life so low, and why St. Paul considered marriage to be the lesser of (at least) two poor alternatives (not to say "evils").
It is not easy (as you say) to allow one's partner to be as one wants her to be, in the mode of her being as she wants to be. And this difficulty must, of course, be worked out equitably in both directions.
And when courage finally fails, the escape clause is so often some variation on the theme: "I have come to realize that I will never be able to make you happy."
Yes. Well, that's true enough.

Pentimento said...

It never occurred to me that Jesus had a low opinion of family life, though it's clear that St. Paul did have a rather low opinion of marriage. I believe that Jesus wished to emphasize beyond a doubt that God is more important than anything else on which we place any importance. It has certainly been tradition for millennia in Judaism and in both Eastern and Western Christianity that the soul is tempered in the fire of family life. Since consecrated celibacy is a tenable path for so few, we sort of have to take what comes and work with it or around it towards God. The peace and consolation that are possible in single life consecrated to God are just not when you live in a family, except for at rare moments.

But most of all, it's God's love that makes demands of us.

Jim Janknegt said...

When I was an episcopalian we used to get the "the real miracle was sharing" preached at us and it always made me kind of sick. I ended up doing a painting of these little bird demons flying out of the mouth of the wolf in wolf's clothing (hey, who needs a disguise anymore) saying all of the crazy things I heard preached all those years.

Rodak said...

I guess that I don't want to sidetrack this thread onto a discussion of the family life of Jesus. Suffice it to mention that, beginning with his staying behind in Jerusalem without prior notice to his parents when he was just a boy (and then showing no contrition when they had to come back for him), and going right on through the time he left his mother and his brothers standing outside the hall, and asked those who informed him of their presence without "Who are my mother and my brothers?", that the family was not of great importance to him.
At least some of his disciples were family men, with responsibilities that he bade them simply walk away from to follow him. I can think of no instance in the Gospels where Jesus stresses the importance of the family in any way that would balance these things out.

Otepoti said...

Hi, Rodak, Pentimento,

Er, why are we talking of Christ in the past tense?

He is Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.

We proddies, and especially we Reformed christians, are fond of saying, of the Old and New Testaments, "The New is in the Old contained, the Old is in the New explained."

I think in separating out Christ's words and deeds during His incarnation, you may be making the same sort of the mistake that we proddies do when we print Red Letter Bibles, with the words Christ spoke on earth in red.

Christ the Creator speaks throughout the Bible, and throughout His creation, and He says, emphatically, "Families are good. I thought of them."

If He seems sometimes to say otherwise, it's only because He wants the goldfish to get out of their bowls and into the ocean.

This analogy goes far enough, I think, but please don't lean on it!

Jim Janknegt, I just had a look at your wonderful paintings. You are very gifted, praise God.

Nga mihi i te Ingoa o to tatou Ariki, ko Ihu Karaiti, ki a koutou katoa,


Pentimento said...

Thank you, Otepoti. I love the goldfish analogy.

And Jim, I love your paintings too.

Rodak said...

Yes, we must never make the mistake of taking the words to mean what they say.

Pentimento said...

You run the risk of sola scriptura fundamentalism, Rodak. Christ Himself had to explain repeatedly that He spoke in parables.

Rodak said...

Yes, he sometimes spoke in parables. But on those occasions when we are granted direct participation in his own explication of a parable, we have no trouble at all understanding his meaning.
That said, I wasn't alluding to any of his sayings or parables above, but rather to his doings--his acts: the Way and the Truth and the Life.
I am, btw, more a sola scriptura Protestant, than not. I say this in the sense that no interpretation of sacred scripture can possibly be valid that is not ultimately founded in the words of the scripture. Interpretation must never be allowed to make "black" mean "white." (cf. Orwell, George)

Rodak said...

A parable is not a riddle. A parable is a little story, the meaning of which is founded upon an analogy. It is not meant to confound the listener, but to explain something to him. A parable confounds only he who refuses to hear its truth because he is attached to an opposing falsehood that he cannot let go of.