Catholicism


Today I went to my Parish Credit Union to cash a check. It’s a tiny credit union, tucked away in a corner of the basement of what used to be my parish grade school (now the common grade school for three inner-city Catholic parishes, of which my parish is one). It’s only open three afternoons a week, and is accessed by going through an unmarked door at the bottom of a flight of concrete steps on the back of the school. There is no sign, no posted hours, no advertising. You only know that it is open because when you try the doorknob it is unlocked. I’ve been a member of this credit union since I was in third grade. The ladies who run it, a gang of almost-geriatric matriarchs who could run the world if they ever cared to try, have known me since my family moved to the area when I was five. When I went in, I didn’t bother to bring my bag or wallet in with me. I presented the check I wanted cashed, the woman behind the counter asked me my account number, had me sign on the dotted line, and handed over the money. Just like that, with inquiries after my family’s health, and telling me how good it is to see me again.

On the way out, I passed another Matriarch of the Parish, Mrs. Richardson. She smiled and asked how I was. I replied politely, and it seemed that was it. Then she stopped and asked me how was Lisa, where was she now? I said that she had made it safely to Nairobi, where hopefully she would be able to make arrangements to come home soon. She smiled and nodded, and said she was praying. We parted, but as I walked away, I was shaken. You see, Mrs. Richardson’s sister is Sr. Dorothy Stang, the Sister of Notre Dame who was martyred in Brazil in 2005. She was gunned down on a forest road by hired killers in the pay of rich landowners who didn’t like her work with poor farmers. Her death stunned her family, and our parish. Mrs. Richardson’s sister went into a dangerous situation and never came back. Now she was asking me about my sister, who is in a dangerous situation. Hopefully, however, my sister will come back.

Most of the time I take for granted the kind of community I live in. Even though I usually attend Mass elsewhere, I’m still part of the parish I grew up in. My family is embedded deep in the web of relationships. Because of the strength of that community, I can walk into the credit union and cash a check without ever having to produce any ID, a situation most people haven’t experienced since the 1950s. Every person I encountered knew who I was, knew who my family is, and cared about us. This is partly because we’re an unusual family, but it’s because they’re unusual too. We are a parish that gives birth to martyrs and missionaries and free spirits. We are a parish that cares about God and about each other. We are a parish that trusts and prays for one another.

This is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.

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There’s this prayer they say at the end of every Catholic funeral. Well, actually the congregation usually sings it. It’s when Mass is over, the coffin and the body inside it has been blessed and incensed, and they’re about to turn it around to take it back out of church for its last journey to the cemetery. It goes like this:

Saints of God, come to her aid!
Come to meet her, angels of the Lord.
Receive her soul and present her to God, to God the Most High.
May Christ who called you take you to Himself;
May angels lead you to Abraham’s side.
Receive her soul and present her to God, to God the Most High.
Give her eternal rest, O Lord,
and may your light shine on her forever.
Receiver her soul and present her to God, to God the Most High.

That’s the part that gets me every single time. Even if I was dry eyed all the way up to that point, I’ll be crying before the song is done. I hate crying in public (though it wouldn’t be so bad if my nose wouldn’t run), so usually this aggravates me. However, today, at Shelly’s funeral, the song was a comfort.

You see, I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days about her, about the person she was. I’ve been going over my memories, pondering things in my heart. When you live with someone you get to know them on a completely different level. Strengths and weaknesses, the ways they’re awesome and the ways they’re difficult – it’s all there. While a person’s alive, it’s like their story is still being told, still being written. Anything could happen on the last page. Some surprising plot twist, an unexpected turn, who knows? Death puts the final period of the final sentence, and there are no sequels. You close the book and you think, so, what was this story I just read? Who was this person I thought I knew? There are no easy answers. Today in church, as we sang that song, I thought in my mind of the saints coming to greet Shelly, and presenting her to God, saying, “Here is this person in all of her strengths and all of her weaknesses. She belongs to You.”

I hope I may have that mercy too when my time comes.

Hugh with babyLast night at Tuesday Night Bal, one of the guys was talking about his experiences as an attractive young man substitute teaching for middle school kids. In the midst of various comments about little girls in the midst of their first crush, I said that the hottest guy I know is teaching 6th graders this year in A Large City Nearby. As I said this, I got a reaction from Trey that let me know that, until that moment, he had assumed he was the hottest guy I know. And, um, no. Trey is plenty cute and all, but Hugh is in a class all by himself. I had thought that there was no way he could get more attractive, and then he posted photos of himself with his new niece and goddaughter, whom he adores. How can one guy really be that hot? It boggles the mind.

The cool thing is that, beyond his looks, Hugh’s a great guy. He’s Catholic, and he takes his faith seriously. He has a social conscience. His dream in life (since a messed up shoulder destroyed his hopes of a pro-baseball career) is to run a soup kitchen. I’m not kidding. He’s respectful towards women. He’s funny. He extemporaneously quotes Walt Whitman while being completely heterosexual.

And, of course, he’s discerning the priesthood.

Remind me again – why do I have that policy against dating guys who are discerning the priesthood?  Oh, yeah.  Joe.

So last night I had this, “Damn, I’m good!” moment (I was going to write “Dang” but then I decided that the moment was fully worth the swear word). This is what happened: This semester I’m taking a class on Thomas Aquinas (the Big Bad Boy of Catholic theology), and on Tuesday I gave a presentation on part of the Summa (Aquinas’s master work). It went rather well, and I was excited about it. Last night while I was dancing with Pierce he asked me how my week had been. I told him about my presentation. He asked more. I told him more. By the time we were done I had explained all of Part I, Question 105, Article 4 of the Summa Theologica (“Whether God can move the created will?”), complete with Objections, Respondeo, and Answers to the Objections. All of this while doing Lindy and neither missing a step nor failing to follow a single move. Also wrapping it up before the song was done. And I’m pretty sure Pierce understood it.

I can’t believe I did that.

Damn, I’m good!

Of course, having done something like this, I then had to find someone who could fully appreciate my Mighty Deed. This would require a fellow theologian who can dance. There are none that I know of, but I couldn’t wait until I saw Justin tonight so I could tell him all about it.

Also last night, for the first time my dancing was praised by another dancer. I don’t mean that I haven’t gotten compliments before. There’s always the cute little old people who come out for the live swing bands in the summer and just love watching the swing dancers, or beginners who don’t know what good dancing looks like yet. It has been fun watching the number of leads who want to dance with me increase, and I’ve gotten admiring looks or words of praise for individual cool moves. Dancers whose opinions I trust have told me that I’ve improved a lot in different areas. Still, I’ve never felt like my dancing was of a quality that another dancer would get pleasure from watching me. Last night I danced some Westie with Trey, and later Lyle couldn’t get over how amazing the two of us had been. He was in awe at our musicality, the moves we had done, and the way we had mirrored one another: “There was this move right at the beginning that was like a sugar push, but not! And then you both kicked your foot out to the side at exactly the same moment! It was so awesome! I just love watching you two!” It was a little humbling, especially since I didn’t remember doing some of the moves that so impressed him. I’m sure I did them, but, well, for me it had been just another dance with a better than average lead.

Maybe I’m better at this than I think I am.

My social life tends to be a little schizophrenic.  There’s the swing dancing part, and the Catholic young adult part.  Historically, the Catholic young adult part was the biggest and the deepest, where my good friends were, where I drew my emotional support, the people that I hung out with on the weekends, the people I took care of.  Swing dancing was that odd thing I went off on my own to do.  I wasn’t very close to the other swing dancers, and I was happy with that.  There were already too many people who felt they had a right to my time and attention.  Swing dancing was the place I could go and just be, the place where I could be selfish.  All I wanted was to dance, and so I did.

Then I started getting closer to people at swing.  First Mark and Jenn, then Chiara, then Trey and Anna and others.  I started dancing a lot more, and spending most of my free time (and a lot of time that wasn’t really free) dancing.  Little by little I began to pull away from the Catholic part of my life.  Being Catholic is still one of the foundational facts of my existence and my friendships with my Catholic friends go way deeper, but my social life is now focused on swing.

Last weekend I had a party.  I called it Big Party @ Bernadette’s, and I invited my whole life.  I told everyone that this September marks my 2nd year of swing dancing, plus I’d moved into a new house that I wanted to show off, and I wanted to see all of them.  And they came.  I had maybe 60 or 70 people there, although they came and went, so I think the most we had at one time was maybe 50.  We had beer, and chicken on the grill, and a dance floor in the basement that everyone was having too much fun to use.  It was a great party.  People are still telling me what an awesome time they had.  It was a huge success.

Except my worlds didn’t mix.  My Catholic friends and my swing friends pretty much stayed in their own groups, warily acknowledging each other’s existence at a distance.  I think each group intimidated the other, but for different reasons.  And while my Catholic friends are well aware that my life has a cast of thousands, I think my swing friends didn’t really realize what a large circle of acquaintance I have.  I can’t make people talk to each other, but I guess I’d hoped that there might be a little cross-over.  And… no.  I’m still stuck in the middle.