e-mail us


A faith you can’t get out of your bones


Marilyn Sewell, editor
Beacon Press, 309 pages, $23


Holden Caulfield got it right, you know, when, in Catcher in the Rye, he remarked, “Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re Catholic.” We had a family joke when I was growing up that rated an individual this way: Were they Catholic, were they Democrat and did they smoke? This litmus test was in jest only in part.

What is it about the cult of growing up Catholic that marks us more indelibly than original sin? Marilyn Sewell, now a Unitarian minister and editor of this volume, reflects in her own essay, “Like other people who were raised Catholic, I’ve never been able to get it out of my bones. I don’t even want to anymore.”

For Resurrecting Grace, Sewell has collected 30-some essays, several excerpted from existing works, others written expressly for this volume, and grouped them into three main categories: “The Gift of Faith,” “Sin and Salvation” and “Redeeming Grace.” Her introduction stipulates that the writers she included were those who had been willing to work through the “confounding complexities” of their childhood faith.

It dawned on me as I was reading through them how frequently nuns were part of those “confounding complexities,” especially in the section “Gift of Faith.” One of Richard Meibers’ most salient recollections is that sisters gave off no smell other than laundry and starch. I, too, wondered through 16 years of Catholic education and four orders of nuns how it was they all smelled alike. Mary Daly writes of her dalliance with the notion of entering the convent herself, and Pat Mora asked the most provocative question when she wondered: “Where did they hide their doubts, these confident women in black folds?”

As you would suspect, the feelings evoked by encounters with nuns ranged from anger to hilarity to pathos. The account that most touched my heart was Meibers’, whose early experience with nuns was rewarded, even redeemed, by one singular later one. At the age of 3, Meibers was temporarily placed in an orphanage under the care of nuns after the death of his mother, and even though he continued to be taught by nuns well into adolescence he recalled, “Except for a few notable standouts, all those nuns in all those years merge together into one. Like all nuns, it seemed to me, their interactions with their charges were nothing more than merely professional. They may have administered to you, but they were not truly with you. And they did not take you into their hearts, they did not cherish you, they did not love you.” He added, even the loss of Santa Claus was no big deal “compared to being in this home with all these nuns whose embrace I longed for but could not have.”

Years later, in graduate school, he shared a class with a Sr. Catherine of Siena, whose very proximity reminded him that he had never lost that desire for specialness in the eyes of a nun. Late in the term he and Sr. Catherine were studying in the library and became engaged in a deep philosophical discussion that spilled out onto the library steps after closing. All of a sudden Meibers was overcome with a sensation, a deeply religious insight that left him shaken. Concerned, Sr. Catherine reached for his hand. “Everything stopped for us there in that pool of light. I say us because for the first time in my life I experienced being part of something with another person. We were together.” And he concludes his essay, “A new vision of God was small change compared to Sr. Catherine of Sienna reaching from behind her habit to take my hand.”

If memories of nuns permeated the “Finding Faith” portion, what do you suspect pervades “Sin and Salvation”? Hint: Eight of the 11 essays were written by women. Yup! Sex and sexuality! Writers as disparate as Mary McCarthy and Elton John have tried to sort out Catholic hang-ups with virginity and female sexuality, so this is no surprise. In fact, Mary McCarthy contributes to this section with an excerpt from her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, only this one centered on the salvation of her Protestant grandfather’s immortal soul.

But back to the sexuality motif, Sandra Cisneros had both her religion and her ethnicity working against her when it came to discovering the mysteries of womanhood. “Discovering sex,” she writes, “was like discovering writing. It was powerful in a way I couldn’t describe. Like writing, you had to go beyond the guilt to get to anything good.”

Both Anna Quindlen and Joanne Mulcahy recognize the contribution of reading to their growing up. Quindlen acknowledges a debt to Mary McCarthy from whom “I learned about sex and other things I was not supposed to know about.” Reading was a seditious activity for Mulcahy as well, only for her it was the vicariousness of literature, of “characters built on paradox, every dark pursuit” repelling and fascinating. “Just like the mysteries of religion.”

The third collection of essays under the heading “Redeeming Grace” seems the most eclectic of all. If there is a thematic motif, it would be the power of the human psyche to adapt, adjust or rise above circumstances that threaten to kill the spirit. Kathryn Harrison writes of her bout with anorexia as part of an attempt to win her mother’s approval and, failing that, to achieve the spiritual perfection of her namesake, Catherine of Siena. Louise DeSalvo recalls the burden of being the standard bearer for her extended family of cousins, while Rosemary Bray writes a powerful essay about her growing self-awareness of her African-American heritage, especially after her parents enrolled her in an affluent, all-white Catholic school. And in a line I am fond of, Carol Kapaun Ratchenski who counts Native-American in her ethnic mix, calls herself a “mystical pagan Catholic.”

Far be it from me to suggest that the essays I have singled out are superior to the rest. If I were to begin this review anew, I would no doubt comment on a whole different set, maybe Thomas Merton, Frank McCourt, James Carroll and Simone de Beauvoir.

What I do want to be clear on is this: 1) If you were raised Catholic, you will see yourself in one or more of these essays, and 2) If you were not, you will gain some insight into those of us who were and maybe cut us some slack.

Patricia Hampl describes growing up Catholic as having an extra set of parents (or, in my case, if your whole neighborhood was Catholic, an extra dozen or so.) But that is not all bad, because one of the most precious memories of her youth is of an elderly woman of her parish who fingered her rosary beads as she walked and whose smile was a “flood of light. She loved me, I was sure.” There is also comfort in being Catholic.

Holden Caulfield’s three-day odyssey, though he could not have named it so, was in fact a faith journey, one we are all on together, Catholic or otherwise. Marilyn Sewell, finding herself in a Catholic church after many years, came to the same conclusion as the fictional Holden. Overcome with a flood of powerful feelings, she came to the realization that hell is no more than separation, fear separating us from the love of God and others. “I have come to believe that I am somehow held in the Everlasting Arms, no matter what. … Like in the cathedral that evening, I believe. How the circle does come round.”

Judith Bromberg grew up Catholic in South Dakota and now, still a Catholic, lives and writes in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001