On Sunday, I finished The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis. A beautifully written novel about a newcomer who moves into a small Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee.
For the most part, I grew up Catholic.
I was baptized in Kindergarten, attended Catholic elementary school by third grade, willfully participated in First Communion, Reconciliation, and Confirmation, wound up earning my undergraduate degree at a Catholic university, and throughout my career have found myself employed by three separate Catholic institutions.
As a kid I’d make Jesus birthday cards to display under our Christmas Trees. When my parents got divorced, I’d beg my Dad to take my sister and me to mass on his weekends. I memorized all of the prayers, and many of the saints. I prayed. I made regular confession, even though I always sobbed my entire way through the sacrament. I could never bring myself to tell the whole truth for fear that the priest would deem me unforgivable. So, I’d double however many Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and Glory Bes the priest would dole out for penance, because I assumed withholding from the priest was the equivalent of hiding from God. I usually left in knots – feeling like I had only made matters worse.
By college, I recognized that Catholic positions on women’s health and civil rights deeply contradicted my own, and stopped practicing all together.
Though, regardless of all the fear and judgment that sullied my relationship with Catholicism, to this day, whenever I walk into a church there is still a peace that immediately and completely washes over me.
The linger of incense. The soft candlelight. The stained glass and welcoming pews. The books of songs and scripture with their soft pages and colorful covers. The altar adorned with the plants of the season – and the quiet. For me, the true gift of church is the permission – the invitation – to be still. To let go and come back.
It took me weeks to finish The Ladies Auxiliary, because each time I opened it, it felt like going to church. The story carries the undeniable beauty and peace of being with God, and a part of a community that is so intentional and connected. And, with it also comes (for me) the unbearable weight of fear and judgement.
Giving myself over to this book and to a culture that I know far too little about, made me realize that (up until now), my entire relationship with religion has been one out of obligation. I’ve done, and said, and practiced out of expectation and dictation – neither of which have anything to do with devotion.
Devotion is rooted in love, loyalty, and enthusiasm. So where (and to whom) am I lovingly, loyally, and (authentically) enthusiastically all in?
The first place that came to mind was our family table – so, that’s where my practice and faith begins again.