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Good Letters

red-pews-by-charles-clegg-on-flickrChurch Ladies. Most of them are pretty darn good souls. They’re at the church every day, bent over pews, cleaning the sanctuary, baking pies, and keeping all the committees peopled. They’re also gorgeously individual souls with their own private concerns, loves, and extracurricular interests.

But everyone’s probably known at least one church lady like the iconic Church Lady rendered by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live: easily scandalized and convinced that even benign things are the property of Satan.

I’ve been that Church Lady.

To protect my own privacy, I’ll put it this way: when you wake up Catholic one morning, and you are a woman, and you want to get it right and be pleasing to the Lord; and let’s say, for kicks, that you also have a reckless past with a history of sin that includes all the supreme Biblical no-no’s—like having been a gossip, drunkard, or fornicator—the very explicit categories of people who shall not inherit the Kingdom of God; you might look for a fail-safe way to live justly and uprightly in the Lord, a way that is approved by your co-religionists, and even offered as a good option in nearly every religious text you consult.

You might start having babies. You might have quite a few in a short amount of time. You spend the entirety of Mass in the cry room, or outside if you oppose cry rooms, as many mothers do, being that they are places of anarchy and noise. You wake up in the morning and begin taking care of people, until you fall asleep, too tired to pray. And if you have any spare time at all, you will probably start a blog in order to justify your choices to an unfriendly world, and seek co-conspirators who will remind you of the goodness of what you have chosen.

If your personality rebels, you suppress it, probably by doing something even more uncharacteristic of yourself, like taking up the wearing of long skirts. If you once enjoyed music, you will cease to enjoy it on principle. If you enjoyed reading, you will whittle down your readable options to books written prior to Vatican II that have obtained an Imprimatur.

And so you will have confidence that you are doing the unimpeachable will of God, though it’s been eons since you’ve consulted God with any uncertainty and really begged of him an opinion, sitting in quiet and patience until The Answer answers.

In short, you will have gritted your teeth to a human concept of holiness while running your body into physical exhaustion, and your soul into a position supreme spiritual laziness.

This is Dana Carvey church lady territory. You’re capable of avoiding certain sins by the power of your own will. Therefore, anyone who commits those sins is suspect. You’ve changed your life and suppressed your desires, therefore, those who cannot are suspect. Even God is suspect, because given a hearing, he might reveal that you’ve made your own life far more difficult than he ever asked you to, or that your fear and suspicion has built a wall between you and his creation.

I don’t think I ever truly meditated or prayed until after I had my fifth child. I had arrived, finally, to a point at which I could grit my teeth no longer. My children were old enough to have developed some issues I couldn’t fix with breast-milk and a nap.

Change was imminent, but options were few. And the only things I hadn’t tried were the options of the unwashed: public schools, athletics, therapy.

I kept looking for signposts, a path that was sure to meet our new concerns and would also assure a safe passage for my children, straight from the womb to heaven. Nothing presented.

I was stuck, but my children were barreling forward. I couldn’t see what was ahead, so I looked up and begged God to be our advocate and guide. And for the first time in my life, it felt good to have no confidence in myself, and to have no knowledge of a clear path.

I think these must be the conditions necessary for true transformation in God to take place. The Bible speaks of the necessity of becoming a new man in Christ, and I thought I had done that. I’d become a new me, for sure.

When I turned to God empty handed, with no more preconceived ideas about my own life, I began to see myself, and my relationships, as he might see them. My marriage was not in a happy place. I was antagonistic and intolerant towards my children. I had very few friends locally. I had succeeded in having a number of babies, but there was otherwise very little fruitfulness in any of my relationships.

I began to look at the things I had worked so hard to suppress over the years. The items ranged from my own sense of humor and joie de vivre to the very personalities of my children. I’d spent a large portion of my youth invested in playing music, but hadn’t touched an instrument in a decade. And I asked myself, what exactly is so terrifying about having a gift? Why would God give me certain strengths and then ask me to never use them? How can I foster the unique gifts God has given to my children, if I consistently deny my own?

During this time, the Holy Spirit began speaking to me in an undeniable fashion, and it worried me. I felt a compulsion, not only to pick up my old instrument, but to try a few new ones.

After ten years in my town, I became open to the possibility of making new friends here. God provided a handful of women who were on a similar page spiritually. That camaraderie and sense of goodwill expanded to envelop their spouses and children, until it began to foment the development of a community.

It’s a scary thing living in reality, in relationship with other real humans who bring their own baggage, their own sin, their own personalities and lived experience into the community—it allows the possibility of unfamiliar sins and temptations to enter your life.

I think we flee from relationships for this very reason, because we like to control the flow of every energy. We want to permit only what is familiar and manageable into our lives, only those influences that allow us to remain within our own preconceived concept of righteousness.

But “the other” (other people, other souls, other ideas) by nature is unfamiliar and unmanageable, and relationships often force us to confront new manifestations of our ancient sinful nature. Within the context of real relationships though, I am not beyond reproach. I can address others in friendship only as a fellow sinner.

“You stiff necked people!” Stephen says to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7. I always presumed that he wanted them to see their own evil more clearly, and to self-correct. But he goes on, “You always resist the Holy Spirit!”

The only way we are capable of allowing other people to be whole in our presence—with their own history and their own unique tendency to err—is by remaining, ourselves, wholly united with God and the Holy Spirit.

There is no life choice that can take the place of a relationship with Jesus. There is no Christian identity that can take the place of a relationship with God. There is no approved list of behaviors that alleviates me from the necessity of sitting in the presence of God with the uncertainty and tension of who I am and what he created me to be.

We don’t get to have confidence in ourselves. We don’t get to have knowledge of a clear path forward, only the particular doors that have opened for us, the first steps. After that, it’s Jesus, only Jesus, until another step is illuminated.

Herein we discover the “glorious freedom of being children of God.” In Christ, nothing and no one can harm us. We are free to become, little by little, who we are in God’s design. The people we have claimed to love—our spouses, children and friends—are also permitted to make these discoveries in their own time, and in accordance with God’s plan.

The Church Lady who sits in judgment of creation is an isolated and lonely human being. She objectifies others, seeing only their limited potential to become a creature like herself—herself being a creature of her own design.

I’ve always been drawn to church, and my lady credentials were pretty fully realized at birth, but I want to be the real deal, a soul who is fully myself, as God made me, no matter with whom I interact. In that sense, I will never be a perfect being who descends into sinful humanity in order to seek partial relationships to add as jewels in my crown.

I will be a sinner who looks up from my community of fellow sinners and believers, a creature drawn into the grace and all-seeing eye of God, and pray with confidence that my spouse, my children, my friends, and relatives will be borne by the love of the Father into this grace as well.

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

Written by: Elizabeth Duffy

Elizabeth Duffy writes at Patheos: Elizabeth Duffy: Perspectives on Catholic Life, Family, and Culture and at She is a contributor to Living Faith/ Daily Catholic Devotions, and has work published or forthcoming from OSV, On Faith, The Catholic Educator, and Image.

The above image is by Charles Clegg, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

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