The Other I

September 18, 2010

Coming home again

As I have said several times before in this blog, it was my husband who first suggested to me more than 35 years ago that “not being a Catholic anymore” involved a lot more than just not believing in the various doctrines of Catholicism or not going to Mass on Sundays.

My insights into just how broadly and deeply and profoundly my early religious upbringing shaped the whole structure of my world and the depths of my personality have never stopped.  I reached what I thought was a culmination several months ago with the huge liberation I felt when I realized I’d rejected absolutely the existence of another world of spirits, of heaven or hell, that somehow is supposed to transcend this universe.  I belong here, not somewhere else, I evolved within this universe, when I die all what is me will remain a part of this universe.  I’m not going anywhere else.  I’m already home.

I’ve just come to understand, though, in another way just how alienating the metaphysics underlying Catholic teaching has been for me.  To some extent this is probably true for all Catholics, but it has been especially so for me, I think, because I was quicker than most to grasp the theological and philosophical issues to which I was exposed even as a child listening to the erudite discussions that took place around our dinner table.

What Catholic doctrine did for me was far more than teach me some critical  dogmas like the teaching that Jesus was both God and man, that he physically rose from the dead after his crucifixion, and that his disciples watched him ascend to heaven some time after that.  Those beliefs I gave up long ago.

The much longer struggle has been for me first to recognize and then to change my tendency to ignore my personal experiences as inferior to reasoning.  Far too often, I have looked first for the “right” answer.  If my own intuitions or experiences don’t match that right answer, then it was my feelings that were wrong.  In fact, my feelings were completely unimportant, were irrelevant to assessing the situation.

Now there is nothing wrong with not trusting one’s intuitions without reservation.  In fact, it is an extremely important thing to do.  But there is something terribly askew if one never questions the “right” answers either, if one never really says to oneself “what do I think?  what do I want?  how do I feel about this?”  And that is what I have done far more often than I would had I not been such an accomplished Catholic thinker.

For example, when I decided to enter the convent, I never asked myself if I wanted to be a nun.  I asked myself if God had called me to be a nun.  The decision, in other words, was not mine but God’s.  Once I decided God had called me, I had to answer it whether or not I wanted to.  I do not remember ever once asking myself what I wanted to do with my life.  The “right” answer to that question lay somewhere else:  what did God want me to do with the life he’d given me?

In the same way, after I entered the convent, we were each asked by our superiors when they were considering whether we should be accepted to take our vows, if we’d been happy since we had come there.  A good friend of mine answered “no.”  I was appalled.  “No” was absolutely the wrong answer!  If you said no, you wouldn’t be accepted.  And she wasn’t.

But my own error was even greater.  I said yes, I had been happy.  But I said it because I knew it was the right answer.  I wasn’t aware of this.  But I did not even ask myself if I’d been happy.  Referring to my own feelings was irrelevant.  If I was going to stay in the convent, I was supposed to be happy, and so the right answer was that I was.

Yesterday I was reading Tony Equale’s newest book The Mystery of Matter in which he discusses the difference in Greek philosophy of existence and essence.  Essence, he points out, is what really matters;  existence is somehow secondary.  And I suddenly realized how profoundly this apparently esoteric distinction going back 4,000 years has influenced my own thinking processes all my life.

And in a matter of minutes, I understood something about myself I have been puzzling about for decades.  Why do I like modern art and feel so constricted by renaissance artists?  Why do I find such delight in discovering that even the strongest scientific theories have cracks in them?  Why do I feel so constrained by rigidly laid out gardens and so liberated by naturalistic plantings?  Or why do I remember so vividly the student who did not have the capacity to analyze the problem but who looked at me and said stubbornly “The data is wrong:  blacks aren’t less smart than white people.  It’s just wrong.  I can’t explain it.  But it’s wrong.”  And why did I know she was right, and why did I spend the next decade of my career analyzing that data which looked so convincing but which somehow I too knew was wrong?

It’s as if something in me has always been saying “smash the damn right answers;  right answers are never absolute;  right answers aren’t everything.”  But I never knew before what it was that I wanted to put in the place of those right answers.

And I realized as I was reading a the recent post on Equale’s blogthat what I want to put in place of those right answers is myself, is the validity of my own experience.  I feel as if until now part of me hasn’t ever let the other part of me actually live.

I’m an old woman now.  But I’m dancing.

I’ve come home again.

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