Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
July 27th, 2009

A Radical Leaps

An indie writer drops her ironic distance and finds her faith


radical_leaps-insideOn a chilly April night, I’m standing on the stone altar of my childhood church, forehead dripping with chrism, when the guy next to me leans over and whispers, “It’s burning!” In spite of the solemnity of the occasion and the fact that we’re standing with a group of fifteen people in front of an audience of hundreds along with three priests and a deacon, I let out a very inappropriate burst of giggles.

How did I get here? How did a thirty-eight-year-old university lecturer, radical aging punk rocker with eight tattoos (and counting), author of a book about indie culture, married to an agnostic, pragmatic intellectual, and critic of all things group think wind up going through the sacrament of confirmation decades after she thought she’d left the church behind for good? And why does this stuff burn so much?

This spring, I was at the tail end of writing what seemed to be to be a very non-Catholic kind of book about the evolution of indie culture — groups of people who had thrown out accepted methods for making and distributing music, writing and art, and had instead reinvented their creative lives to be free of corporations and institutions.

Having been a part of that culture for most of my adult life, I knew that what held indie together was a sense of community. But my own community had mostly slipped away in the last few years. The magazine I’d labored over for five years had gone out of business when our distributor went bankrupt, and the friends I’d worked on it with scattered to have babies, go to grad school, and write books. Life was quickly filled with the latter for me — I plunged into the two-year project of researching, interviewing, writing and editing that is par for the course for creating a nonfiction book. But there was something lonely about it, and it wasn’t just the fact that I was often alone. There was a big gaping hole in my life, and I realized it was a spiritual one.

I grew up Catholic in the tumultuous years of the mid-’70s. My father worked at a Catholic college, and many of his friends were brothers who came over and drank wine and engaged in debates about books, music, politics and culture. But I left Catholic school in fourth grade, and at some point Mass became a less regular activity for my family. After my father’s Catholic funeral, I didn’t set foot in a church again for more than a decade.

By the ’90s, the rise of the Christian Right as the face of American faith made the social justice Catholicism and Liberation Theology I’d grown up with seem like a thing of the past. Plus, I was busy writing zines, hosting a college radio show, playing in bands, and running a magazine. At some point in my twenties, however, I started missing Mass. Whether it was because I still felt my father’s absence, or because I still prayed to the same God, or because I loved the poetry of the Catholic mystics, I missed the kind of intellectual engagement with religion I’d grown up with. But something kept me from jumping back in. It was what I now call the “ironic distance.”

Ironic distance

One thing I learned about from the dozens of artists I interviewed over the course of writing the book was the nature of DIY as a long-term commitment. Indie is a vocation for the people who pioneered it and are still in it: in a conversation with them, you can hear the same energetic engagement that you get talking to someone who’s involved with social justice work.

Independent artists question authority, work with their communities and support one another; hipsters shrug their shoulders and go have another beer. Unfortunately, I was like the latter group during my first attempts to go back to church.

Yet many of the hipsters who’ve latched onto indie culture treat it with an ironic distance. They’ll go to a show, but they’ll stand in the back making fun of people the whole time. Independent artists question authority, work with their communities and support one another; hipsters shrug their shoulders and go have another beer. Unfortunately, I was like the latter group during my first attempts to go back to church. I’d listen to the readings and homilies and feel inspired, but then I’d go home and read something about the church I disliked and stay away.

Over time, however, I began to hear from Catholics who struggled for change from within the church instead of bailing on it, who came to Mass bringing their doubts and questions. And when I started attending church regularly, I liked the rigorous intellectual engagement of the sermons. This wasn’t the evangelical message that you alone had a personal relationship with God — this was the message that you had to work with others to gain that relationship. And that was enough to finally get me to RCIA.

Which brings me back to that burning chrism. I’d plunged in and really done Lent: fasted, donated, prayed, confessed and decided on the saint whose name I would take. So when I walked up to the altar and took on the name of Mary Magdalene, I felt a wash of faith come over me — until the oil started burning.

Plunging in

As it turned out, it probably only happened because I have sensitive skin, but the months after Easter were a bit like being on a boat without oars. You know you probably won’t drown, but you can’t really steer because someone else is ultimately in control. I still wasn’t close to any Catholics who could understand the challenges of trying to hold onto a faith that is still very new and raw. So I signed up for spiritual direction, not knowing what to expect.

I realized that I was not, in fact, alone. That I could talk about faith and not be embarrassed; that I could have it and not turn into a different person; that like Mary Magdalene, God would see all my imperfections and fears and still accept me as I am.

At my first meeting with the young Jesuit who was giving me direction, I rambled on about all the challenges of being Catholic all over again: the occasional loneliness of it, the gaping holes in my theological education, my puzzlement over how to pray, my wandering mind, the way my belief seemed to slip away when I wasn’t in church. I told him about taking on the name of Mary Magdalene and what she meant to me, and he listened and sent me home to re-read the passage from John about her panic at finding Christ’s body missing from the tomb. She was afraid. I was afraid. And when I went back the next time, we talked about what that fear meant for Mary and what it meant for me, and something cracked open at last. I burst into tears — something I don’t do very often, especially in front of strangers — and realized that I was not, in fact, alone. That I could talk about faith and not be embarrassed; that I could have it and not turn into a different person; that like Mary Magdalene, God would see all my imperfections and fears and still accept me as I am.

The following Sunday, our priest read from Mark about Jesus’ being judged in his own home town, and talked in the homily about the “leap of faith” — the moment we stop judging ourselves and others and start really believing. I sat there and tried not to start blubbering all over again; all these connections were starting to happen that thickened and deepened my faith, yet here it was months after Easter, decades after I thought I’d left religion behind for good.

Faith is not a bolt of lightning, I realized. It’s a gradual thing. Like writing a book, making an album or building a community, it’s a commitment. It takes time — ordinary time. It takes practice and talking and writing. It takes radical rethinking and self-examination. It takes grappling with contradictions. It takes being committed to a community whose beliefs and politics and ideals don’t always square with your own. It takes work. And wasn’t that what I’d been witnessing and doing in my years of writing, playing music and publishing, and helping others learn to do the same? I’d been trying. And sometimes trying is enough.

The Author : Kaya Oakes
Kaya Oakes is the author of Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture (Henry Holt, 2009), and a poetry collection, Telegraph (Pavement Saw Press, 2007). She was the co-founder and editor of Kitchen Sink Magazine from 2002 to 2007 and is also a freelance journalist.
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  • Kat

    Beautiful article. I plan to show it to my hubby who was born Lutheran into a largely atheist family, but who has attended mass with me regularly and goes to a church just to sit and meditate in times of real trouble. He is considering doing rcia but has some reservations. I feel also a little more hope that my girls, a toddler n preschooler, will benefit long term from the masses we attend and teaching we have even if they stray for a bit.

  • Rad Catholic Lady

    Your article really resonated with my own personal faith experience. It’s not an easy place to be, but it’s certainly a blessed one!

    I’m also on the fringes of metro indie culture and a grad student, so most of my peers give me slide-long glances when I mention that I’m (still) Catholic. I also like to point out that leaving the Church will never solve anything and will only lead to a moral unraveling of both the people and the institution. I also mention that I’m constantly questioning and do struggle with many of the “hot topics”. And that we wouldn’t call faith if it was easy or explainable or fit neatly with our own world views.

  • RE RE

    Welcome homekaya!the monthly prayer book with meditations “MAGNIFICAT” has helped me plenty in the “daily” journey. Peace.

  • cynthia belotti

    the previous year’s palms from Palm Sunday are burned and those ashes are used for the ashes on Ash Wednesday.

  • amiehartnett

    Yeah, its that balsam that is so strong; next Easter, I plan to see WHO is using chrism and then get in a communion line from someone ELSE! ;)

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Don’t think the ash thing is true. It should be olive oil and balsam resin. (Not from a balsam fir, but from a Middle Eastern plant closely related to the source of myrrh, as in Balm of Gilead.) But I’m sure it’s the balsam resin that tasted nasty.

  • Kaya Oakes

    Perhaps there should be a warning around Easter: Please Don’t Eat the Chrism!

  • Max Lindenman

    Kaya: Right you are. Chrism has got to be one of the world’s great natural perfumes. If the Holy See were to authorize it for use in a special Catholic aftershave, I’d be all over it.

    amie: I’m not surprised it tastes nasty, though. If I’m not mistaken, it’s made by burning the fronds from the previous Palm Sunday. Palm, pine — bleagh.

  • amiehartnett

    Kaya & Max:
    I have a slightly off-topic chrism story for you. This year @ Easter Vigil Mass, I went up in the communion line, and after taking the host, I was horrified that the bread was somehow POISONED because it tasted strongly of Pine-sol! I mentally debated whether or not to fully consume it, did, and then prayed like crazy that I would be ok.
    After Mass, I approached the pastor and said, *Um Father, I think there was something wrong with the hosts; it tasted like pine! *

    He gasped and then held his hand up to my nose and said, *Did it smell like this?* Apparently the chrism from the confirmations was still on his fingers as he said Mass and distributed communion! It may be great for hair & skin but it tastes TERRIBLE!

  • Kaya Oakes

    Max, you forgot to mention how good chrism smells in addition to being a nifty hair tonic. I actually asked several people to smell my head on Easter, a request I will probably never repeat. But you’re right about preserving a certain degree of ironic distance — I think those who totally lose it lose the ability to ask questions, which is the root of critical inquiry. Sheesh, I sound like an English teacher! And Amie, you’re right; the diversity of the congregation at my church is one of my favorite things about it. Young, old, skeptical, devout, you name it. Indie can sometimes be a homogeneous subculture, which can make it a bit limiting, but whatever faith community one belongs too, you’re going to encounter things you didn’t expect. Which makes it all the more interesting.

  • amiehartnett

    I made this same journey into a recommitment to the faith in which I was raised about 4 years ago. Like the author, I also spent much of my teens and twenties steeped in *indie* culture – dj/mrg in college radio, wrote for a zine, attended grad school …and during all of this, never wholly *left* but kept that ironic detachment she mentions. I am so glad to be back and have found an incredible parish community that continues to surprise me with the diversity of people I meet and the lessons I learn from the experiences of others.

  • Max Lindenman

    Good article. Certainly hit home for me. I’m finding that a sense of ironic distance — a quality for which a BH editor recently took me to task, though gently — can be good or bad, depending on how you use it. If you let it run on auto pilot, it can amount to nothing more than a kind of intellectual dandyism. But if you really own it and really work with it, it can be an engine, driving serious critical inquiry.

    Oh, and nothing holds your hair in place like chrism.

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