Last night I finished Kaya Oakes’ book Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (link goes to my Amazon affiliate page). In this post I want talk about the book as well as what it brought up for me.
First off, this book is awesome. It’s funny, thoughtful, irreverent, and profound. It reminds me a bit of Anne Lamott’s best stuff; the dry humor, the cussing. I should say that if cussing offends you this might be a book to skip (or at least know she swears a lot). I am someone who loves well placed (and even better well strung together) profanity and so I loved that portion of the book. One of the parts in the book that first had me laughing out loud (and there were many) was when she first gets her packet for adult confirmation. In the packet she reads a testimony from a woman who says that the class helped her stop cursing. Oakes’ response? “Fuck that shit” followed by a quick apology. How can you not love that?
Oakes talks about how she grew up Catholic but drifted away from the church only to find herself stumbling back as an adult. I always get slightly nervous when I read memoirs of people who found faith as adults. Like the time I read Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles and panicked the whole time that she would renounce her lesbianism at the end (she didn’t). I always worry that I’m going to get some kind of bait and switch and end up feeling preached to. Oakes’ book, like Miles’ before it, didn’t do that. In fact it was the best kind of spiritual memoir: One that is deeply personal but also incredibly accessible.
Oakes returns to the Roman Catholic church with skepticism. This isn’t a glossy, rose colored view of the church. She understands the problems. She is fully in support of queer acceptance and equality, opposed to the Vatican’s view of birth control, believes in women’s priesthood, and more. There is no pretending the child abuse scandals didn’t happen (she even refuses to give money to the church until they start to prosecute). But there is also a deep longing to return to the ritual and community that feels life giving. She finds herself being led in spiritual direction by priests who support women, speaking in churches with congregations of gay families, meeting nuns who care for the poor and work for reform, women who have been ordained by Bishops acting against the Vatican; and it is in these people that she finds her way back to the faith of her youth and transforms it into a faith for the future.
I appreciate the frank acknowledgement of the trouble within the Roman Catholic church. That’s been one of the hard things for me in joining the NAOCC. Even though the NAOCC isn’t in communion with Rome, they ordain women and queer folks, they don’t require celibacy, just the name evokes the shadow of the Roman Catholic church. I have also struggled to continue to unpack the anti-Catholic teaching I received growing up in the fundamentalist evangelical church. Even at my ordination I had those voices in the back of my head telling me that “the Catholics” are wrong. And even though I totally don’t believe that it’s amazing how hard it is to deprogram yourself sometimes. Acknowledging the baggage that the name carries is important. We must name it so we can heal it and heal from it.
One of the lines in the book really struck me: Oakes is talking to her spiritual director and he says to her, “You like to read about it [meaning faith] but you don’t like to feel it.” (pg 104) And I thought yes. That’s my problem, too. Even when I was in the evangelical church, a church which prizes emotion in worship, I always held myself at a distance. Even when I was emotionally engaged it was always like there was this voice in the back of my head that was narrating the events. I can only recall a couple of times when I was totally invested in the moment in worship (and at least one of those times I’m pretty sure the audience was being emotionally manipulated by the speaker). One of the drawbacks of seminary training is that it makes it hard to worship. One is critiquing; I would have done that different, I wouldn’t have said that, I would have…. So I get this intellectualizing. I love to read about religious folks, religious thought, theology, practice, but I have a hard time feeling it. But that it was of the things that I find myself being drawn to in the Mass. At my ordination, even as the Priest was quietly explaining to me how to prepare the elements, I was deeply invested in the mystery of this sacrament. The care and preparation of the bread and the wine, the way the remnants are taken care of; this is a deep mystery and I can feel it.
Maybe the beauty of not understanding all of the intricacies of the Mass at this point is that it allows me to enter in to the mystery without critiquing. I am realizing that some of my discomfort, some of the reasons that I feel like an imposter is that for pretty much the first time in my life I am in a religious setting that is completely unfamiliar. I have grown up in the church; pretty much grown up in some kind of leadership in the church. I am used to knowing how things go. Even when I left the evangelical church and found myself in the mainline (with it’s own peculiarities) it still felt mostly familiar. But this, this is new. And I don’t like not being in control. I don’t like not knowing what comes next or not being able to explain the history of the church or all of the intricacies of polity. But this is where I have the opportunity to grow and to feel.
Oakes seems to find her moment of feeling at the tomb of Saint Francis. In a place she doesn’t expect and in a way she can’t explain. But that’s the joy of feeling; it comes from somewhere deeper than intellect. You can’t hem it in and quantify it. It just is.
I highly recommend this book. Both for the joy of spiritual discovery and for the hope of faithful people who are out to make the church more just. And all of us I think, Catholic or Protestant, can get on board with a church that is more just. Oakes is a funny and moving guide in this struggle.