This Thing Called Catholicism

There are two sides to the congregation, and I mean that literally.

When I walk in, I sit on the far side, but the whole time we face each other like two sides of a broken mirror, too busy focused on the other to realize something is happening in the middle.

It’s hard not to be a writer for an hour. To be silent yet engaged, alone yet together. It’s hard to sit and stand and not at least cut a glance to the girl three feet away, coughing under her blanket. The preteen three rows up, her whole body bobbing with the music. The two elderly couples in the front, turning to each other and grinning as if to say, “I have waited all week to see you again.”

I am getting better at it, but it is hard. Most of the time, it feels like I am sitting knee deep in a community that sees me as temporary.

When I was a child, and well into my preteen years, I used to keep my jacket on in church. Not because I was ready to scoot at a second’s notice, but because I was small, so small, and always cold.

Now, though, I don’t even wear a jacket. I set my purse down on the seat next to me, hoping someone might notice this gesture. See? I am staying.

When instructed, I turn to the man behind me, middle aged and Asian, and shake his hand.

“Kaleigh,” I say.

He doesn’t offer his name. None of them do.

And so I stop repeating mine, wondering if you have to earn names like Girl Scout badges, or if mine is just too Irish, too unfamiliar, too softly spoken over the din of chatter encircling our miniature introductions.

I wonder if he even knows I introduced myself.

When I leave, I go to slide the Cather into a shelf, but it doesn’t quite fit and a teenaged boy wordlessly grabs it from me, clutches it to his chest, and fits it neatly into another row. My cheeks burn with irresponsibility.

I start to remark that there is no room, I can see that, desperate to explain to someone that I am capable, but he doesn’t listen.

I wonder, then, if this is about books on shelves.

Sometimes, I’ll admit, it feels a bit like entering the high school cafeteria and watching the automatic reflex of others stretching themselves over the benches, ensuring that there is no room left for you.

There is no room for you.

I can’t see myself in the broken mirror of the congregation. I don’t know how I fit. Just that it feels less earned, more forced, than it has in my entire life. Just that every other time I entered a church not as an outside so much as a good friend, girlfriend, sister, relative of an actively-involved, regularly-committed churchgoer.

This time, I am on my own.

And I wonder if it has anything to do with books or jackets or leaving. If it’s all in my head.

Maybe, I wonder, they know I’m walking on this thing called Catholicism like a frozen lake in the middle of winter. Maybe I am nearly transparent, saying the wrong responses and singing out of tune.

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9 responses to “This Thing Called Catholicism

  1. This breaks my heart. 1) Because you’re feeling this way. 2) Because SO MANY people feel this way, and not just in the Catholic Church. 3) Because a lot of times I feel like this too sometimes, and I work at the church I attend. It’s sad because we have the Church (the body of Christ) for a reason. God doesn’t want us to do this alone. Yet so many times we feel like we are.

  2. Those small, small missteps are nothing compared to the Giant Step of being present, and, by pocketbook at least, intending to stay. That boy was probably trying to make you feel less awkward by helping. And if no one in your local church will say it, I will say it on behalf of the whole Church – Welcome! We are so glad to see you!

  3. You are not the only person who feels this way. I have felt this way being in my parents’ church. Technically I am still a member, but it is not the same. You do feel like you are walking into a high school cafeteria. People from the church are all over my hometown. I never fit in when I was a teen, and I don’t now. I relate completely.

    Your writing is beautiful and heartbreaking. So many can relate. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Thanks, Emmy. I know it’s not just me, and I know I’m not alone in the Church, but this is a transition for me, going to a church where I don’t know a single person.

  5. Thanks, Autumn. I’m sure he was trying to help. I wish I hadn’t been already feeling so unwelcome, or at least unnoticed, or I would’ve appreciated it more. It was just the sort of mindset I had at the time.

  6. Thanks for reassuring me, Rebecca. It’s such a universal feeling, that high school cafeteria one. I hope that changes for you, someday. I hope you feel like you’re a part of it. I’m sure you are. But it’s hard, when we are ourselves, to see that.

  7. I know what you mean. I remember when I was going to Mass under duress from my family during a period of unbelief. I was not saying all the prayers, and was sure that everyone was staring at me. I realized much later that they probably didn’t even notice, and my own personal level of discomfort was magnifying all my fears. Again, I just wish someone had welcomed you!

  8. Kaleigh: very interesting. As you may know, Kathi and I left the Catholic church years ago, initially for a Baptist church. We now attend an evangelical Christian church. The number of former Catholics in both churches is astounding–probably more than half of the congregation. There has always been a part of me that has been bothered by this–after all, nearly all of the people we love most in this world are Catholic. I am adamantly not anti-Catholic!! [I just impressed myself with the use of that double negative in the last sentence.] The hair on the back of my neck stands up when conversations or remarks veer towards Catholic-bashing (which, sad to say, exists in the evangelical world). Indeed, we are sending Alanna to a Catholic all-girls’ school!!
    We were motivated to seek out a different church experience exactly for the disconnected feeling you describe in your post. We were looking for a connection to God, and to people. We found both.
    I’m not suggesting that you abandon Catholicism. I’m sure there are parishes near you where you can find these connections. Like anything, it takes a little digging and work, to which I know you have no aversion.
    At any rate, thanks for the thoughtful, honest blog post.

  9. Churches are their own worst enemies! That’s why shrinking churches are shrinking. Usually you can break into the community if you stick with it long enough. Unfortunately, many people are not that persistent. You strike me as being persistent. 😉

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