I called my mother last night and told her that I’m giving serious thought to converting. I didn’t say a whole lot about my reasons; I really don’t see a need to bum her out by talking about how I don’t think the prophecies fit Jesus and that there’s no indication of the Messiah being God incarnate. She already knows, of course, that I’ve always had a weird, inexplicable attraction to Judaism. And she said she thought it was a good thing to explore, and she was supportive of my dietary changes even if I have to move back home again. Apparently for Pesach the little grocery store in my tiny hometown got some brisket in, so there’s always the possibility that they might order things in–it’s the kind of place where the owners know everyone in town.
We also talked a lot about our disappointment with Catholicism. Maybe I should emphasize here that everyone in my family is inclined to traditional attitudes of obedience to the Church. My dad had a lot of disputes in the Anglican church over liturgy, since he was heavily involved in it, and he taught me that you can always have an opinion (and you should be able to back it up with solid sources), but if the priest shuts you down you say “Yes, Father.” My mother taught me that the Church as an institution is full of ordinary human beings, but in the long run it resolves its internal problems and remains morally relevant, and we have to be patient. We’re a liberal, intellectual family, but it would have never occurred to us in the past to say that the Pope is just behaving like a criminal or that the Church is going steadily downhill rather than uphill. And we wouldn’t have said it because we didn’t believe it, not because we were afraid to speak our minds. We gave them the benefit of the doubt.
So it bothers me a lot to let things end this way, even though I feel like my conversion is long overdue. The two things aren’t connected up that much: even when I wasn’t totally out of patience with the RCC I still felt a deep longing and affinity for Judaism. I wanted to be part of that world but felt like there were too many obstacles, that it wasn’t something I could really do. Now my frustration is overcoming my inertia and the fears I have surrounding change (what will my friends think, what if the rabbis all refuse, what if I look stupid, etc.).
Also, at the same time as I’m sorting through this, the American Woman is going through all the stuff one accumulates from a Mormon upbringing. We rant and roar together about structures and hierarchies, getting unsatisfying answers to questions, being told to pray until the unsatisfying becomes satisfying, having no recourse. We drain the swelling, and each time there’s a little less. Have I mentioned she’s amazing? Because yeah. I lucked out.
There’s a Northern Irish proverb that goes, “God kicks with both feet, and keeps His shoes clean.” I’ve adopted it as a sort of motto for the sheer exhaustion one feels sometimes while trying to process all this. It often feels like we’re being punished just for caring, for trying to do the right thing. A wonderful gift I’ve received in reading about Judaism and praying with the siddur is that God’s presence and personality emerge from the texts and I know that it’s not Him who’s kicking. These are strictly human problems. God is bigger.
A night drive to Ein Yahav in the Arava Desert,
a drive in the rain. Yes, in the rain.
There I met people who grow date palms,
there I saw tamarisk trees and risk trees,
there I saw hope barbed as barbed wire.
And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be
like barbed wire to keep out despair,
hope must be a mine field.
– Yehuda Amichai
Going through my old journal, I found this account of a dream I had in 2010 right around Holy Week, a time when the abuse crisis was big news and my own irritation with the Church was threatening to come to a head. Interesting to look back on it now:
I was sitting in a restaurant, having dinner with a person I don’t know. We had nothing in common other than that we were both queer Catholics, and the conversation was extremely awkward–I really wanted to get this person to like me, and he/she (the gender wasn’t obvious) was uninterested.
The waitress came to the table with our food and said, “Now, make sure you eat quickly, because after a few minutes the lice will start releasing poisonous chemicals into the food.”
She wasn’t apologetic at all for serving us food full of vermin, and she didn’t act as though she expected us to complain. Neither of us did. Sure enough, the food was crawling with tiny, tiny insects, more the size of ticks than lice. It smelled delicious, and I actually tried to eat a bite or two, but couldn’t do it. I tried to pick out the individual bugs with my fingers, but there were just too many, and time was going by–if I stayed there picking then the food would get cold and the bugs would release the toxins into it. My dining companion watched with distaste, but said nothing, didn’t commiserate or invite me to go elsewhere with him/her. The waitress never reappeared. I felt discouraged and humiliated. And hungry.
It was obvious to me as soon as I woke up that the dream was a metaphor for how I feel about the Church right now, and a pretty grim one. (As well as some semi-Biblical imagery, a mote in the eye or straining at a gnat, I just realised that it reminds me of the old Kids in the Hall shitty soup sketch.) […] And then I think, “look, it’s not my fault there’s bugs in the food.” That is not my problem, and I shouldn’t be the one who has to bend over backwards to find ways around it.
It hasn’t been easy to confront my anger and disappointment about this, mostly because I’ve felt that I don’t have the right to feel that way: if I break with the Church over this issue, it can only be because I coldly, rationally decided they were wrong, and not because they hurt me or made me angry. If I admit to being hurt, then I’m open to accusations that I’m only trying to justify my actions after making an emotional decision, and that good Catholics would sit there and shovel in the food before beginning the debate about whether there may be poisonous bugs in it. And now that I’m exploring Judaism, again, I feel like I have to cast all my disagreements in the form of “I just don’t believe that’s true” rather than “trying to believe in this really messed with me.” I don’t want a rabbi to think that I’m just going through a rebellious phase, and of course I also want to make sure for my own sake that that’s not the case.
I also really don’t want to be an angry ex-Catholic. What I’d really like, at this point, is to revisit the books and music and art that first made me love the Church, and to see how I feel about those things now. How much of it was aesthetic pleasure, how much was a sense of connection with my roots, how much was genuine love of God? What doesn’t work anymore, and what does?
But when I look back over some of those things, I do find that I’m angry. Mostly at myself for allowing it, but also at the Church for serving the buggy food in the first place. I’m old enough to know that in any religious community you will eventually be served a plate of that stuff. Nobody’s immune. To overcome it is a spiritual challenge that you meet in one form or another over and over again until you learn how to deal with it. What makes it bearable or unbearable are the options you have as a patron of that restaurant: can you complain to the management? Can you get help in picking out the bugs? Will your dining companions be sympathetic, or will they act like it’s your fault? Will anyone anywhere be sorry that your dinner was ruined? Does the sign out front just say “INSECTS ‘N’ QUINOA” and you’re supposed to just deal with it? How many bugs are you willing to eat? In other words, what avenues are there to find sustenance in spite of the problems in the kitchen?