Moth to a Flame

September 6, 2011

I look back on my teenage years as a time filled with excitement, possibility and a sense of wonder. There was nowhere that I couldn’t expect to go, no one that I couldn’t hope to become; all my dreams and desires were at my fingertips. I graduated from high school in 2001 – the first year of the new millennium – and the four years leading up to that date were nothing less than magical. I was fortunate to attend an excellent Catholic school with a strong bond of community among the teachers and students, and while the workload was demanding (I had about five hours of homework each day), there was plenty of fun involved as well. At that time everything felt magical, and various points along the journey were filled with ritual significance, from the school musicals I eagerly participated in to the day when we received our class rings. I even remember feeling excited about the SAT’s (a metric of “intelligence” which I now consider to be as arbitrary as it would be to ask students to memorize Latin names of flowers and regurgitate them onto the page) as they represented the life event that I was most eagerly anticipating: the transition from high school to college.

At first, I didn’t have many criteria in mind for choosing a college, particularly because I didn’t know what I wanted to study. The most important criterion was that my future school had to be outside of my hometown. I wanted a change in my life; I wanted out of my parents’ house and into the pseudo-adult world of undergraduate education (even if not the *real* adult world) as quickly as possible. Another criterion was intellectual rigor – I wanted to learn a lot and learn well, on a wide variety of topics. I watched in excitement as the college recruitment material began flooding in.

One of the many universities that initially attracted my attention was the Franciscan University of Steubenville, which advertises itself as “academically excellent, passionately Catholic.” Since I had thrived in the warm, supportive atmosphere of my Catholic high school, the idea of continuing in a religious school was certainly appealing. Some people I knew, including my church youth minister, had degrees from Franciscan and raved about it. With that in mind, I decided to go and check it out for myself. I attended one of the college’s summer youth conferences – a weeklong programme for teenagers filled with praise and worship, music, speakers, and social events aimed at enlivening the faith of Catholic youth.

And, enliven my faith it did. I remember the joy I experienced as I sat with thousands of other teenagers in a crowded statium, laughing and singing and whooping it up in what was essentially a big rock concert for God.

There was only one problem.

Looking around the stadium, I noticed that most of the people around me – at least 70% of them – were female.

Looking down toward the stadium floor, where an altar had been set up for Mass, I noticed that everyone on that altar – at least thirty priests from all over the country, deacons, altar servers – everyone was male.

For me, this was a visual demonstration of what is a commonly known fact: throughout the world, the true backbone of the Catholic Church is women, who continue to make up the larger number of practicing Catholics. And yet, these women continue to have a limited role in the sacramental and ecclesiastical leadership of the Church that they continue to support.

Even at the age of sixteen, I knew that as much as I loved Catholicism, I couldn’t swallow the pill whole.

Ultimately, I did not choose to attend Franciscan University; instead, I opted for an extremely liberal liberal arts college, where I knew that I would come into contact with people of diverse attitudes toward spirituality. Almost immediately, my faith was challenged, and I discovered more ingredients of the pill that had to be extracted before I could swallow it: the Church’s stance on same sex relationships and sexuality in general, for example. While I could have reacted to this disconnect by converting to the more liberal Church of England or perhaps the Quakers, I chose to stay with the beautiful religion I’d known and loved since my childhood. Like an insect flitting around a streetlight I approach Catholicism tentatively, simultaneously drawn to it and repulsed, flitting away only to be drawn back again. This is the relationship I’ve had with my religion for the past ten years. This is the relationship I’ve chosen.

But, have I really chosen this stance toward religion, or did my environment/circumstances choose it for me? This remains the central question.

Sometimes I imagine that for every decision we make, there exists a parallel universe which is home to the person we would have become had we made a different decision. Because our lives consists of many such decisions, there must be many universes where we are living out all sorts of alternative unrealized possibilities. And so, I can imagine a universe where I dedicated myself seriously to the piano and practiced daily and became a virtuoso musician, and another in which I became a struggling musician. I can imagine one where I became a pharmacist and devoted my life to finding a cure for cancer, and another in which I dropped out of pharmacy school and became a social worker. And, I can imagine a universe in which I attended Franciscan University and, one way or another, finally managed to swallow that strange pill of Catholicism whole.

A week and a half ago, I attended a wedding where I had the chance to meet lots of young adults who have managed to take in the entire faith. The bride (my former roommate whom I met three years after college graduation) was herself a Franciscan grad, as were most of her friends. As I listened to their conversations about faith and religion, I couldn’t help but feel a bit envious. These people weren’t mired in doubt, struggling to maintain what little faith they have as they make their way through the secular world. They are filled with faith and the joy of the Lord, in the world but not of it, certain of God’s plan for their lives, and trusting in the institution of the Church to offer them structure and guidance. They are committed, passionate and devoted to their faith. I remain a moth flitting about the flame.

However, I don’t by any means intend to suggest that these people have life any easier than I do. They don’t. It’s hard to be 100% committed to Catholic Christianity, as following the path in its entirety requires a kind of sacrifice and self-renunciation that are foreign to most of us in our secular, morally relativistic, overly commercialized society. It’s not easy to be a good Catholic, or a good Muslim, or perhaps even a good liberal atheist, simply because it’s not easy to be a good person (if by being a good person we mean renouncing our self-interest in favour of something greater, which all religions, and many nonreligious philosophies, call each of us to do). It’s hard, perhaps even impossible. And yet, it is what we are all asked to do in some way or another.

I’ve learned that if I’m going to be a moth, the least I can do is try to be a committed moth, perhaps skirting the periphery but always acknowledging the importance of the centre. I’m such a long way off, but every day I’m struggling to make my way back to the place where I belong.

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