On 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.