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Good Letters

20100322-what-keeps-me-here-by-jessica-griffithTwo nights a week, I tutor students in the college’s writing center. Inevitably we have nights with no appointments, and the other tutors, also students, do their homework and monitor Texts from Last Night and Facebook. And we talk.

We talk a lot about my pregnancy, probably too much, as they’ve come to refer to me as the human birth control pill. Two of them are philosophy majors and members of a small group of campus pagans, and we share an interest in religious practice and ritual, so we also talk theology.

They tease me about being Catholic. I make plenty of jokes about it too.

I often feel I shouldn’t be so easy with them, that I should be more guarded. At 33, with a husband and child and another on the way soon, I find it alarming how easily I summon my inner 21 year old, and become engaged in their personal struggles and gossip.

But lately the conversations have taken a more serious turn.

I got an email from one of them this week, asking, all jokes aside, why I am Catholic. What brought me to the church? What keeps me there?

It’s a question I feel like I’ve been trying to answer in writing for at least six years now. Providing any sort of satisfactory response in an email seemed laughable. I was tempted to dismiss the question, or tell her, let’s go have coffee and talk about it. But then I became intrigued by the challenge. Why, in the simplest terms, am I Catholic? What keeps me in the Church?

I was baptized Catholic as a baby and grew up going to church. But this doesn’t explain why I’m still there. My dad left the church after my mom died and found his life’s purpose as a worship leader in a non-denominational church. I turned back to Catholicism in graduate school, when secular humanism threatened to disenchant me to the point of despair. In some ways it was easy to return to the church of childhood. At least in theory, from afar, through the works of others: O’Connor and Merton, texts of theology and philosophy.

But I found it difficult to commit to the actual practice of Catholicism—to slogging it out in the typical parish. Until I met Dave.

Dave, though also raised Catholic, wasn’t a churchgoer when we met, and it was probably my idea that we go start going to Mass together. But I probably would’ve given it up as capriciously as I did so many other times. I found myself disappointed that I didn’t seem to feel anything during Mass.

After years of my dad’s preferred style of worship, which includes Marshall stack amplifiers and the occasional random bugle call from the tongues-speaking congregation (it is pretty exciting), I was convinced that just showing up wasn’t good enough; you had to emote, fall on your knees, weep, shout, run laps around the sanctuary.

Sitting in the churches of Pittsburgh, I’d find myself critiquing everything from the homilies and cantors to the kneelers, finding fault in all of it. If it wasn’t for Dave, I’m not sure I would have continued to go. I probably would have kept wandering in and out of churches of all persuasions, and leaving dissatisfied.

But Dave is not a quitter. So we kept going. Slogging. Showing up. Standing, sitting, kneeling. Gesturing. Thinking about anything else. And there came a point when suddenly I was no longer slogging, or just showing up.

I began to desire it for myself, for the same reason I had resisted it. Because it wasn’t up to me, or the choir, or the kneeler, or how I felt on a certain day, how much emotion I could gin up. Neither did it depend on the rhetorical savvy of the priest. It wasn’t up to any of us. Slowly, the self receded, and I found, to my great surprise, God.

What keeps me in? Even that’s not enough, I fear, hungry as I am for smells and bells, grand pageantry, and ecstatic experience. I pine for high liturgical stylings, and our little country parish keeps the holy water in an economy size Gatorade bottle. Dave isn’t troubled by that sort of thing, though as a musician he may cringe when the choir has to start over in the middle of the hymn because the organist has gotten lost in the sheet music.

We talk a lot about truth and beauty in our house, but he helps me to see that holiness isn’t always dependent on beauty, on how authentic I think something looks or feels, and that to God, my dad’s hot guitar licks and the Requiem in D might not be so far apart on the continuum of human achievement.

Before I married Dave I had a long talk with a friend—the only practicing Catholic I knew at that time—about whether or not he was the right one. The friend said, there’s only one question you need to answer: Will he lead you to heaven? And I remember thinking, what kind of ridiculous bygone piety is this?

But it haunted me. Would he lead me to heaven? Would I be able to lead him?

We’ll see. For now, he at least keeps me in church.

This is not the answer I want to give my college-age friend. It’s not intellectual, or arty, or sexy, or even particularly convincing, especially for a young single woman. Maybe it’s even a bad answer. But I know it’s true. My commitment to him keeps me from bending too quickly to any number of my own impulsive whims. When I falter, I lean into him.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jessica Griffith

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