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A journey back


Two summers ago, when I was 25 years old and walking across Spain as a pilgrim, I saw a cell for women who had sinned. Sunlight poured through the high narrow window of this tiny room with yellow stone walls and dirt floor, sunlight so bright and hot I noticed the window’s iron bars only when I saw their shadows against the wall.

“Women were walled up in here for weeks at a time as punishment for sexual sins,” the young tour guide who led me to the cell whispered angrily. “They used large stones to cover the opening you are leaning through right now. The people of the town could give a woman food and water through the little window if they felt compassion for her, but if they did not, she died.”

I stiffly backed out of the cell and stared at the young woman, wanting to disbelieve her. This cell, La Celda de las Emparedadas, the cell of the recluses, is not in a jail or abandoned castle. It is in a 14th-century Catholic church. Women were literally walled into the church itself.

“How do you know this?” I managed to squeak.

“Everyone in town knows. It is part of our history. Let me show you something.”

We walked outside to the street where, in letters softened by centuries of weather, an inscription above that little window warned me and all other women, “Acuérdate de mi juicio, porque así será también el tuyo. A mí ayer, a ti hoy.” (Remember my judgment, because yours will be the same. As my yesterday, so your today).

The girl looked at me expectantly, lips quivering with anger. “You would see things like this all over Spain if you knew where to look.” She paused, then asked, “Why are you Catholic? How can you be Catholic?”

I heard myself in her question. Standing in the harsh afternoon sunlight in front of that cell, a symbol and reminder of what women have struggled with in the church for millennia, I could not answer her.

Perhaps there is nothing I can say that would comfort or convince a girl who spends her days with a reminder of the church’s cruelty at her back. What can I say to people who have been hurt or rejected or demeaned by the church? What do I say to myself?

I don’t fear being walled up in a cell, but being a Catholic is a struggle for me. It is a struggle I have been dealing with for at least half my life, since it first dawned on me that my brothers could be altar servers in our church but I could not; since I realized that our campus minister, Sr. Louise, wanted to be a priest and would have been a good one; since it began to confuse me that God was always and only described as a man, even though I was reassured that both men and women were made in the image of God and that God is neither male nor female; since I began to realize that I constantly had to insert my self into the picture of life the church preached.

People who are not Catholic sometimes ask me if the ban on birth control is the crux of the problem, but the trouble goes much deeper than that. Birth control, the value of the life of the mother in a life-endangering pregnancy, women in the priesthood, the interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve that pins pain, suffering and sin on women’s sexuality and perverts the gift of childbearing into some type of cosmic punishment for women’s “naturally” weaker moral state -- these are only symptoms. A 2,000-year church history of considering women deviant by our nature is the cause.

Enormous pain

The rejection and fear of women felt by so many of the young Catholic women I know, and stemming from church leadership, causes an enormous amount of pain. And it angers me because this focus on limiting, controlling, defining women draws energy and attention away from other important problems in our society that the Catholic church could address in a powerful and healing way. Why do most people in the United States, Catholic or not, know about the church’s stance on birth control and yet don’t know much on the church’s stance on just wages, for example?

I do not have an easy religion or a sure and uncritical understanding of myself and church and God. Struggling to understand how I fit into the Catholic church, I struggle everyday to understand God and what it means to try to do God’s will, to understand whether and how I fit into this church. The pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain, was just a slice of a longer journey that began many years ago, one not yet complete.

During a retreat in high school, required by the Catholic girls school I attended, a woman spoke with great passion about some topic or other. I don’t remember a word of her talk, but I remember the question one of us asked, “Why in the world, as an intelligent woman, do you stay in the Catholic church?” We all nodded our heads; we were angry.

“Why should I leave?” she asked. “It is my church as much as anyone else’s, and I am not leaving.”

I thought she was a fool. I had no idea what she could possibly see in the church that could outweigh the obvious flaws.

There were many good things in my high school experience, but I did not recognize them as part of the church. I did not see that church was more than hierarchy and doctrine, that in fact those might be the least of the church.

I was drawn to something in the study of religion, though. I sensed that something was missing for me, something that others had found in their faiths. I wanted to know why people were religious, why they were so passionate about their beliefs. I wanted to experience what they experienced, but I did not think it possible, so instead I read about others’ religions. Not having yet found what I wanted in college, I just kept going, and went on for a master’s degree.

My father died during finals my first year of graduate school. Much to my surprise, the funeral Mass was the only thing that provided any comfort. Not peace, and certainly not joy, but the sense that I was somehow not alone. Sitting, standing, kneeling, sitting, reciting prayer, receiving Communion. For the first time in the many years of my dad’s sickness, I felt that things would be all right and that I could do this, that there was some sort of help out there. That came not through the homily, as kind and thoughtful as it was, nor through the family and friends that gathered around us, but from something else. From the ritual.

Where to find her

On a very windy October day the next fall, I ran into a distant friend on campus. The comfort was gone, and I was confused and sad. God seemed an impossibility, and I had no idea why I was in a divinity school. “I think maybe you should talk with this amazing nun who spoke to one of my classes last year,” the friend said, “but I don’t know where you would find her.” Later that afternoon, another friend suggested I try to find a woman she had spoken with once who did spiritual direction. It was the same nun as the other friend had mentioned, but she, too, had lost touch with her and did not know where to find her.

The same night, when I arrived back at my apartment building, I ran into another student who happened to live in the same building. I did not know her well, but I mentioned to her that two people had suggested I try to find this woman. “Oh! I work for her!” she said with surprise. “Let me write down her phone number for you!”

I stuttered and stammered on the phone, and could not explain to Sr. Jeannette why I was calling her. Though she was very busy, she asked me to come to see her the next day. After that hour-and-a-half meeting, she asked me to come see her the next week, and then the week after that. Those were the first steps I took toward healing.

It was during this time that I first got it into my head to go on a pilgrimage. I couldn’t shake the feeling, so I ended up in Spain. When people asked why I was going, the honest answer was I didn’t know. I was not even sure that I believed in God anymore, and I certainly did not believe in the church. I just knew I should go and walk.

Once there, the physical markers of God were everywhere. A painted statue of Mary, placed by the local shepherds on the top of a mountain in the Pyrenees, gazes out on deep and green valleys speckled with sheep. An enormous, 30-foot-high pile of rocks encircles a wooden pole topped by a tiny iron cross. Each rock is carried by a pilgrim from home, laid down at the foot of the cross along with her sorrows and fears. The altar of an abandoned stone chapel is covered with slips of paper, notes of petition: “My feet are so sore. Please, Jesus, help me get to Santiago … ” The windows of the cathedral of Leon are an explosion of color and light, stretches of flowers, vines and shapes. The windows are not trying to tell Bible stories, the reason for stained glass windows given to me when I was a child. Their function is simply to be beautiful, for in beauty, somehow, one glimpses God.

Ours is a physical and a sensual religion. Though I had done a great deal of reading, I began to sense God in the physical experiences of Catholicism.

On the one-year anniversary of my dad’s death, I sat in the back of a dark church in a small town in Spain, and I could not stop crying. Silently, six or seven old women slowly gathered around me, sitting spread out in the pews in front and behind me. They did not say anything or try to interrupt me. They just sat there and breathed until my own breathing calmed and I was able to stop crying. Silently, they left.

On the last day of the same pilgrimage on which I saw la Celda, I went to the pilgrim’s Mass at the enormous Cathedral of Santiago. Hundreds of people packed the cathedral as tightly as possible, spilling out through the doors and into the wide plazas. Dozens of youth groups sang and shouted chants while others waved huge banners and flags. Pilgrims who had walked hundreds of miles to reach this place, backpacks and dust still clinging to them, cried. People dressed up as St. James in brown burlap robes, rope sandals and floppy hats milled around. A drum corps, 60 people strong, wearing white robes with long red crosses on the front boomed their way through the center aisle to the front of the nave.

Swinging the botafumeiro

At the end of Mass, there was a pause and hush as six burly Franciscans appeared and slowly unraveled a thick rope wound around a pillar in front of the altar.

“They are going to swing the botafumeiro!” I heard whispered and then shouted around me as the largest incense burner I have ever seen slowly descended on the other end of that rope from the rafters high above the crossing.

Shaped like a normal, hand-size incense burner, the shining brass botafumeiro was almost as tall as the priest when lowered to just a few inches off the ground. Holding a fistful of burning incense sticks, the priest opened the little door on the side of the botafumeiro, shoved the already thickly smoking incense inside, slammed the door shut, and gave it a gentle push.

The botafumeiro swayed about six inches in either direction across the front of the altar at first, but when it reached the low point of its arc, the six monks gave the rope a jerk. The botafumeiro swung out another foot or so. The monks kept tugging the rope, ever increasing the height the botafumeiro would swing. Soft clouds of scented smoke poured out of the censer.

Eventually, the vessel climbed all the way up till it was swinging over the entire congregation, to the farthest reaches of the cathedral, 100 feet out in either direction. It swung so high that it caught with a jolt at the top of its arc and orange flames jumped out from the vents before they subsided and the botafumeiro swung back down over our heads with an audible roar and groaning rope.

I was not breathing air but rather scent, pure and inescapable scent with every breath. The sunlight pierced through the stained glass windows, and suddenly the gray billows of smoke were swirling masses of color moving in front of me.

Overwhelmed by smell, surrounded by color, I heard beautiful music -- bells, or French horns or people singing -- a piercing noise that shook me as deeply as the smoke filled me. I had never heard anything like it.

The cantor called out, “Tranquilo!” but it was too late. In an uproar of joy, people were laughing and some crying, and one person fainted. Though jostled and crammed, too many of us standing in this space, no one argued or pushed. Instead, we became one moving, undulating mass, swinging and swaying with the smoke and the colors and the flashing botafumeiro. It felt as though my body had turned to laughter, and for just a moment I felt a burning and surging love for all these people surrounding me. I wanted to kiss each one.

When the botafumeiro finally ran out of smoke, a large young man positioned himself on the altar, ready to tackle. As the botafumeiro swung past him, he lunged forward, grabbed the giant thing and violently spun around, fizzling out the momentum.

The church could take it no more, bursting into frenzied applause. The youth groups started singing again. The cantor yelled “Tranquilo! Tranquilo!”

I walked out of the cathedral into the sun. “That was the most amazing thing I have ever experienced,” I said. My friend nodded. “The smell and the colors and the music … ”

“What music?” he asked.

“The music they played while they swung that thing.”

“There was no music. Don’t you remember the guy yelling at us the be silent?”

I did remember that and now I was confused.

“No one was playing or singing, Kerry.”

Sweetest, clearest sound

Whether or not anyone played or sang in that church, I did hear music, the sweetest and clearest sound I have ever experienced.

I don’t know what the music was, but since its very earliest days, the church has held that the angels sing constantly, praising God for all eternity. Sometimes you can hear this music of the angels. In the midst of swirling colors and fellow pilgrims, heralded by music, there was the presence of God, something I had always hoped for, longed to know was real, undeniable to me finally.

I think about that experience in Santiago sometimes, but not nearly as often as I think about the women in the cell. I think about what it must feel like to bake, thirsty and sunburnt, in the wall of a church while you can hear Mass being said on the other side. I think of that 20-year-old tour guide, and of my many old school friends who would be content never again to hear of the Catholic church.

I want to tell them their anger is justified and I share it. But I also want them to know that the hierarchy, as cold and closed as it can be, is not the whole church. The Catholic church, more than anything else, is the people who gather as a community. It is the ritual and the sense of beauty that shapes our lives and lets us in some way sense God. The community and the ritual shape and give life to each other, and one without the other becomes meaningless.

Being Catholic is a way of thinking of other people, a way of seeking God through beauty and communion, of being in the world. If I accept the church as the community of human beings in whose midst I can approach the unknowable in some way, I must also accept the church as human beings who can make cruel mistakes, but who can learn and change and grow in love. I stay in the church both despite and because of the human beings who run it, I sense God there.

Kerry Egan is a student in the Harvard Divinity School.

National Catholic Reporter, January 26, 2001