I Can’t Believe I’m Going Through With This

(I felt it at Chartres.)

My sophomore year of college, I went with a good friend to Catholic mass on Easter Sunday.  I wasn’t looking for some great spiritual experience–just a bit of culture and that solid feeling one gets by doing something traditional with someone you deeply care about.

But this mass–it was completely unlike any service I had ever been to before–whether Lutheran, “non-denominational”, or even another Catholic mass, of which I had experienced more than a few.  Just entering the building, I felt physically different.  Unlike the “spiritually charged” services of my youth, the energy at this mass wasn’t frenzied or jubilant or exciting.  Instead of a raucous, burning zeal running laps around the room, forcing me to be social and continuously overjoyed, it was, rather, a sort of transcendent happiness that smouldered in the air.   It was just so quiet, so intimate and respectful and, above all else, peaceful.  The air was thick with peace.

The people were different, too–so quiet, so unthreatened and unthreatening at once, and their body language so humble–grateful, modest, and calm.  They all seemed to be silently luxuriating in some mysterious understanding together, warming themselves on some unfathomable fire.  I realized immediately that this wasn’t about coming together to raise our spirits, or about singing praises as a group, or about loudly reaffirming one indelible, unchanging Truth we all emphatically understood.  We were there to simply appreciate, as deeply as we could, something holy that we couldn’t possibly understand–basking in the beautiful, ancient incomprehension together.

All the anger and rage I felt toward the Christianity of my youth just didn’t seem to apply to this gentle, temperate place.  And all that defensive eye-rolling humor I was armed with, that I knew was necessary for keeping myself a distinct outsider in the face of that familiarly ridiculous, sociologically obvious, presumptive and fallacious confidence of “Christianity”–it just kind of went out of me all at once, deflated, snuffed like a candle.

I was, in a word, humbled.

About a year later, I took a course on medieval monasticism at the university.  The first day of class, Professor Courtenay shared with us his story of when the monastic life began to fascinate him.  He was a college student when he and a friend decided to take a road trip down to a famous monastery in Kentucky.  His friend wanted to stay in the town, so he dropped my future professor off at the door of the monastery at 10pm.  Not realizing that monks go to sleep well before that hour, he knocked on the door, and a brother woke to welcome him.  The monk fed him and showed him to an empty cell, where my future professor then fell asleep.

Just before dawn, he woke to the sound of the monks shuffling, and so he got up and followed them into the sanctuary.  There, in the darkness, he heard them chant until the sun began to come up.   Day by day we magnify Thee, and we worship Thy Name, ever world without end… O Lord, have mercy upon us.  Have mercy upon us!  O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us, as our trust is in thee.

From that day forward, he said, he was hooked.  And so was I, though I didn’t understand it.  I just recognized that smouldering feeling he felt at the monastery, a feeling he imparted to us forty years later, in the basement of the Humanities building.  I remembered I had felt it that one time at mass, and a few times when I sojourned up to Holy Hill, or when I read certain psalms during fits of insomnia.  I felt it doing my homework even, when I read sermons on the Canticle of Canticles by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, or the visions of St. Hildegard, or certain Anglo-Saxon verses, written over a thousand years ago:

Now [we] must honour

The guardian of heaven,

The might of the architect,

And his purpose…

He, the holy creator,

first created heaven as a roof

for the children of men.

When I got to Europe, that feeling was everywhere.  I couldn’t sneeze without snotting on something ancient and venerable.  Standing in a cathedral was like standing on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral mid-liftoff when it came to that smouldering, peaceful transcendence.  By the time I got home from Spain, I could feel it all the time. No matter where I was, I could stop and feel grateful and humbled.   It wasn’t something I believed or understood or even began to understand.  It wasn’t a conversion or centered on a particular belief.  It was completely boggling, a totally incomprehensible, consuming phenomenon.  But it was there.

I am getting confirmed in less than two weeks because even though I still have no idea what I believe for certain and will never, ever be able to take this religion entirely at face value, my confidence in that peaceful humility in the face of the “holy mysteries” has done nothing but grow and is entirely unwavering.   For every fifteen things I find to despise about this most organized of religions, I find another thirty that break my heart they are so lovely.  To quote a completely unrelated author, “I’m afraid it’s all a balance of what you find yourself questioning and what you find yourself unable to question.”

Even as I grow more certain, a small part of me still feels this whole thing is entirely ridiculous.  A whole big ceremony built on a series of gut feelings, surrounded by confusion and a loathing for half of it? But I am going to do it, I really am.  It will mark a permanent change.  It means that despite feeling like a pathetic, opiate-of-the-masses smoking troglodyte one in a while, I will never again be able to succumb entirely to scepticism or to give up once and for all on the spiritual journey, nor on the well-being of the Roman Catholic Church–my new, entirely messed up, completely incomprehensible, loving and open and beautiful family.  The whole of it will become my responsibility.

Remembering what got me here, I have no doubt I’m doing the right thing.  But still, after nine months of preparation, I still can’t believe I’m actually going through with this.


~ by Rachael on December 2, 2010.

2 Responses to “I Can’t Believe I’m Going Through With This”

  1. Perhaps it’s like having children–you have to forgive yourself for hating the little wretches because they are so blessedly cute sometimes.

  2. […] my blogtasmagorical blatherings, I often reference monastic spirituality (like here and here and here).  Friends are always posting medieval this-and-that on my Facebook wall for all to see, […]

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