Way back in the day, I was a Third-Order Carmelite, with my heart set on the nunnery. Third Order means you practice the Carmelite way of life while still being a layperson: chastity, obedience, poverty. I joined an Order that met up in Omaha, NE and I’m sure by now you’re thinking: wow, she must have purt near died from the excitement of it all.
Needless to say, in the long run, it didn’t take. Turns out I’m not cut out to be obedient or chaste. Poverty wasn’t a problem, however, because I was in gradual school at the time, and had a lot of experience eating generic ramen and pirating cable. So, I had that going for me.
And as far as the style of prayer favored by the Carmelites, I was a total washout at that too. I was searching at the time for a unitive and personal experience with the Divine, something that brought me into direct contact with God (I wasn’t really into the sacred feminine at that point, obvs), without all the bells and whistles normally associated with most Catholic prayer traditions. I’d been practicing something called Centering Prayer, which is remarkably similar to the Zen Buddhist meditation style I learned years later, only my hips and booty hurt a lot less. It’s what I’d call a heart-centered way of being in the direct presence of God. I found it refreshing mentally as well as emotionally; for the first time, I was developing a felt, embodied relationship with God, rather than a relationship based on mental prayer alone.
The biggest block for me within the Order was all the red tape, plus the fact that despite its early mystic origins, they weren’t really much into said mysticism, save for maybe a moment of silent prayer during our meetings. Instead it was basically here, read these dry-ass prayers with the group. Here, pray to Mary even though humility and subservience is like the last thing you need right now. Go to this meeting. Learn this lineage of prophets and martyrs. Sit in a room with people who believe having way more children than they can support is the way to God. Suppress your oh-so radical views on seeing women and minorities treated equally, or for gays to marry, or for the priesthood to include women. And so forth. Eventually, over many months, the cognitive dissonance grew from being merely annoyingly familiar to completely unbearable; certainly I’d experienced it many times before, growing up Catholic with a wonderfully hippie-dippy liberal arts education, but never at this intensity.
The turning point was the day I went to what was supposed to be a quick Saturday evening Mass with a gay friend; the priest deviated from a discussion of the gospel readings and instead railed against homosexuality and abortion and birth control. That was the moment. I’d absolutely had it. The world was burning and rather than remind us of the quenching refreshment and peace of God’s love, this fool wanted to rail against the very normal human functions of attraction and sexual activity. And then he hit us all up for money. Fuck that, I was outtie. Done. We left the Mass before communion started, and that was that. I returned my various Our Lady of Mount Carmel tchotchkes and quit. I quit the Order and I quit The Church altogether. Done.
I didn’t give up on trying to develop a more intentional relationship to the things that gave my life meaning, purpose, identity, comfort, connection, or joy, aka spirituality. But I did give up on the Catholic Church. Centering Prayer allowed me to experience this kind of all-encompassing, tidal oneness with all of creation. But the overwhelming feelings of safety, of love, of the light of heaven interpenetrating this plane of reality and lighting it up from the inside out just didn’t jive with what was going on with the Church and with my Order. I won’t supply the entire litany of complaints here, as I’m sure most of you are familiar with them. I just had reached my breaking point.
Giving up my dysfunctional relationship with Catholicism kinda screwed up my spiritual practice for a good long while. But mostly I felt relief that I no longer had to contort my soul into an unrecognizable shape, just to fit into the Order or to pursue a relationship with a higher power. And relief again that I didn’t have to continuously ignore the uptight collective of psychosexually fucked up* individuals preaching at me anymore. I could simply choose to listen to myself.
Unless you’ve been raised with organized religion and had its roots grow into you, these struggles and their solution may all seem very obvious. But to me it felt like victory. Breaking up with a bad boyfriend, even if it is your own church, is a gift you give yourself. And if you find yourself relapsing and returning, you may have to give that gift more than once.
At the age of 47, it’s almost embarrassing to remember that young, impressionable shrinkling who thought she could somehow outwit or outwait the tyranny of The Church. It’s still painful to think about how deeply dysfunctional and inherently misogynistic the religion of my ancestors is, and about how deeply its tendrils curled themselves into my soul, my psyche, even after I’d developed the ability to say no to it. Complicated shit here, people.
One thing that intrigues me still, is how people, women especially, can learn to somehow adapt. It seems to begin with un-tethering yourself from bullshit paradigms, which entails facing the fear that you’re doing some Cosmic Fuckup to End All Fuckups by saying naaahhhhhh, this ain’t me. I no longer am afraid that I’m going to smolder forever in the flames of hell, like some sacrelicious Raquel Welch who is on fire.
Or maybe I’m a little afraid, but the fear of not being true to myself outweighs this.
What I find reassuring is that as human beings, we can learn. We can learn to walk away from the things that hurt us, even if we’re simultaneously drawn to them, over and over. We can learn to say no. We can learn to more quickly discern what brightens and enlivens and nourishes the soul from what dims and dulls and ultimately starves it out. For example, it’s far easier for me nowadays to walk into a group, a circle, a store, a workshop, whatever, and suss this stuff out. Often the only way to learn to fully appreciate what is helpful for us is to know what is harmful for us.
What a fucking paradox. My belief is that we must take the risk to experience, to truly inhabit the deep Self, to not just rotely barf up prayers or platitudes, but to enter into a real relationship with life. With real people. With our real selves, bodies included. And there are many many days when I think: this mortal existence fucking BLOWS. It blows intergalactic weenie at like 2000psi. So many days, I want to just sit back kind of check myself out of this world and into the world of meditation, deep trance, myth, metaphor and dreams, full-time.
And I should probably say here that I think that for some people, this is a legitimate path, like the folks that live in monasteries and cloistered convents, or certain shamanic traditions that involve lengthy separations from the day-to-day world. In fact, I think most of us could benefit from relatively more time spent in things like reflection, meditation, introspection, contemplation.
But for me, I’ve also got to live in whatever this thing is we call everyday life. The world where you get up, pee, shower, drink a little coffee, and Get Some Shit Done. Not necessarily Epic Shit, but like boring and really unsexy shit; going to work, redoing laundry I left in the washer for five days, cleaning up dog puke, paying bills, grading papers, haggling with the dude at the tire store. As much as I love to enter into mysticism and meditative mindfulness, baby look, I got Shit To Do, and sometimes practicing mindfulness at every turn just isn’t realistic for an everyday diva like myself.
Sometimes I encounter people who are very busy excoriating themselves for not living up to their stated goal of being in a permanent state of gratitude or compassion or heightened consciousness. And I usually ask them to look down and see if they have feet or if they’re floating around in gilded archangel sandals or some shit. And we share a laugh to hopefully dissipate what someone (who wasn’t me) once called “Zen tenseness” and get back to working on balancing their spiritual objectives with their day-to-day life.
My feet? Are decidedly NOT wearing sensible nun’s brogues. I checked earlier and they’re definitely in some orthopedic glamazon clogs. With glitter. Duh.
* Did you know, for example, that in order to enter a seminary, candidates must take a battery of psychological tests and sit for at least one clinical interview? And that most of them have really immature relationships with other humans and especially FUBAR relationships with women or anyone they see as less powerful (e.g. kids, teens)? And that even though these results get reported to the seminaries, they are summarily dismissed and viewed with contempt? Yep. Gotta keep the money machine rollin, keep the masses cowering. I’ve met some truly humble, wonderful priests over the years, but sadly they have been the exception.