It's Both for This Catholic "Thing"

Last year, I discovered The Bitter Southerner, a literary magazine on-line.   They publish a new story every Tuesday morning to share stories of people, places, and activities which represent the new south, the south that seeks to right wrongs and look to the future.   I've looked forward to my Bitter Tuesday mornings.
Today's feature, the beautifully written "Feed," by author Susan Rebecca White, has been on my mind all day, through the breakfast dishes, the fitting for a temporary crown (always the dental patient, never the Queen), and the afternoon routines of school pick-up, homework, and dinner.   I scribbled a bit on my notepad and now I sit to try to write about all those thoughts so I can figure out what I think of "Feed."
As a Born-and-Raised Anti-Catholic
I've written before of my un-churched upbringing.   My dear mama was raised in the Church of Christ, a denomination where each congregation is autonomous.   The only beliefs of which she was more suspicious than the Baptist's creed was that of the Catholic Church.   It wasn't until I was an adult that I learned why her feelings were so very strong.


Twenty-three years old, the baby sibling who baby-sat nieces and nephews and longed for children of her own, my mama sat alone in an Oklahoma hospital room during the summer of 1960.   Greg, my brother, Mama's first child, was in another room with doctors and nurses.   He had been born that day and instead of hearty congratulations, Mama had been greeted with uncomfortable silence as the doctors tried to figure out exactly what was wrong with him.   Something was seriously wrong and Mama had very few answers beyond doctor's grave predictions that Greg would probably not survive the night.
So there the daughter of a Church of Christ elder sat, tired and frightened, when a nun walked into her room.   The nun asked if Greg had been baptized.   Now, in later years, my parents would live in various parts of the country as my dad completed further degrees and taught at different universities.   Mama would befriend people from different places and religions, but in 1960, her experiences were still limited, so I doubt she had even heard of a baby being baptized.   In the Church of Christ, baptism is a decision made by a person considered to be of an age of reason.    The nun started to "help" Mama so Greg could be baptized.   She was shocked when Mama told her she was not going to have Greg baptized.
"Do you want him to go to Hell?!" the nun told Mama.   When Mama relayed the incident to me, she spoke those words with a combination of irritation and incredulity, in imitation of the nun.
Suspicion became outright distrust and dislike probably often bordered on hatred.   By the time I came along, my parents were settled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.   They had lived there three years, but Mama still had not adjusted to all the Catholics who surrounded her, with their "mess (mass), playing with their beads, and all that standing and sitting."   And heaven help us, they drank.    There were plenty of lesser examples of those who belonged to the Catholic Church and she considered the "good ones" to be so in spite of being Catholic.
When I moved deeper into Catholic country for my first teaching job in New Iberia, Louisiana during the fall of 1995, I complained about all the statues of Mary in the front yard.   "They bless everything.   I saw them blessing sugarcane crops with holy water on the news the other night...Know how you make holy water?   Put tap water in a pot on the stove and boil the hell out of it..."  
As a Convert to the Catholic Church
I'd always searched for God, longed for Him, but I never expected to find myself in the pew of a Catholic parish during  Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend in 1996.   Only God knows how it happened and even more, how I would begin the process of conversion eight months later.  
On March 29, 1997, I was baptized, confirmed and received the Blessed Eucharist for the first time at the Easter Vigil Mass.   You can hear the gasp from the crowd on the videotape as Father Steve poured water over my head three times.   Like my mama who had no idea you could baptize babies, the packed house was struck by the novelty of an adult baptism.   Mama did not attend, but years later she would buy a special blanket for my daughter's baptism.
I had little idea of what I'd gotten into.   I'd taken classes as part of the official RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) at our parish, but, well, it was run by a former nun and we spent a lot of time reading scriptures and talking about how they made us feel.   We were spared making collages.   Lest I lay blame at others' feet, though, I was twenty-three years old and should have studied on my own.    When I left home and started visiting churches, I tried them on to see which fit me best.   In Catholic parishes, I found the reverence and quiet which I found lacking in all the Protestant denominations I visited.   I guess I would describe my initial attraction to the Church as "aesthetic."   And man does not live by aesthetics alone.
I received the Eucharist a few more times after my baptism, but then I stopped.   I just had this gut feeling, an almost physical force, that held me in the pew.   I did not feel shame; I just felt strongly I should not receive.   I spoke to a priest about it, but he focused on the logistics of it all.   It wasn't his fault entirely; I wasn't offering him much to work with as to why I was abstaining from the Eucharist.   As a child, I only went to services at the local Church of Christ a few times, when my grandparents visited us.   Communion was a very somber part of the service.   The tray of little glasses of grape juice and the plate containing a piece of matzha bread were passed over and around me since I had not been baptized.   It never made me feel left out.   It did reinforce that somehow, it was a really big deal to my child's mind.
Four years passed.   I stopped going to mass.   Then, I happened to catch a program on EWTN, a Catholic cable network that my husband and I had ridiculed in the past for what we considered boring programming.   I listened to the conversation about a Church teaching and realized I had no idea the Church taught that.   I panicked.   What in the world had I done?   The next day, I began to research and learn about the Church: her history, her teachings, warts and all.   I knew that my discoveries could lead me to leave the Church, but I pressed on.   I bought and borrowed books.   I talked to priests, and attended conferences.   I read the Protestant case against and the Catholic apologists' claims for.  

Baptized at age twenty-three, I had been completely ignorant of the Church's teaching on the Eucharist, commonly referred to as Communion.   I truly had no idea that Catholics believed that the words of consecration, spoken by a validly ordained priest, through the power of the Holy Spirit, became the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.   Not just a symbol of His body and blood, as I thought, but the actual body and blood.   See above "What in the world had I done?"

I read the New Testament for every mention of communion, of Jesus's body and blood.   Two books by convert and scholar, Dr. Scott Hahn, "A Father Who Keeps His Promises," and "The Lamb's Supper" were so crucial to my understand of the Church's teaching.   I cannot recommend these two books enough.   Dr. Hahn explains in the first book how God has revealed himself more and more to man with covenants, from Adam and Eve through Christ.   In both books, he details the Jewish sacrifice of Passover and how each part of the mass fulfills the New Covenant, with Jesus, the lamb of God.   I learned through scripture and historical record, the Catholic Church is the church founded by Christ on the Rock (Peter) and the Magesterium (the Pope, united with the bishops) have authority to maintain, interpret and hand on Christ's teachings.   And through the exercise of my mind and the complete unmerited gift of faith, I understood.   And I believed.

I also now understood what was keeping me back from receiving the Eucharist.   It was not shaming or guilt-tripping by the Church.   It wasn't superstition.   It was the protection of the Holy Spirit.   When you approach the priest or Eucharistic minister to receive the Eucharist, he says, "Body of Christ."   And then, you reply, "Amen."   As in "Yes, I attest to that."   Yes, I believe that is the actual Body of Christ.   I do not want to make an oath, an assent to a belief, unless I truly understand it and believe it.   After all, God gave us the gifts of free will and reason.  

Before the reversion after my conversion, I did not believe in the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.   It's no small thing, transubstantiation.   That's the proper name for what happens to the host (wafer) once it is consecrated during mass, even though to our eyes it still has the appearance of a wafer.   Not just the Church, but also, scripture tells us that the Eucharist is not to be taken lightly or without full knowledge:

I Corinthians 11:27
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.
(in context:
26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes. 27Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. 28But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.…)
1 Corinthians 11:29
For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.
Hebrews 10:29
How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?

It's not easy, and not necessarily automatic, to accept such a teaching.   It's not to be taken lightly and while I regret those years without the Eucharist, when I was ignorant of Him in that form, I am grateful, eternally so, that for once, I listened to my "gut," the Holy Spirit, and was protected so I did not receive Jesus in the Eucharist again until I understood what I was really saying when I gave my "Amen."

As a Southerner, As a Catholic, As a Southern Catholic

An excerpt from the "About Us" section on the site (but read the whole piece):
The world knows too little about these people, which is, alas, another reason to be bitter. But it prompted us to create The Bitter Southerner™.
We’re talking here about people whose work embodies what my old buddy Patterson Hood once called, in a song, “the duality of the Southern thing.” The purpose of The Bitter Southerner is to explore, from every angle we can, the duality of the Southern thing.

I share those feelings about a whole region being judged by the negative actions of a few,   entire history being dismissed because of the truly bad parts, and generalizations based on individual encounters.    I've written before about dealing with it.   I think being a southerner makes me especially empathetic to my Church as I  share those same feelings as a Catholic: a whole group of priests being judged by the criminal and immoral actions of a relative few, a total dismissal of the entirety of Church history because of mistakes and sins of the past, and generalizations of the entire faith because of bad encounters with individual Catholics.  

On Facebook, the manager of the page for The Bitter Southerner chose this excerpt to place with the link to the story:

“Are you Catholic?” he asked.
“No,” I said, still not getting it.
And with that he plucked the wafer out of my hand.
The editors' introduction to the story was:
When we began, we promised to “publish pieces that Bitter Southerners like ourselves create as we wrestle with our region.” This is one of those. Ladies and gentlemen, in one corner, Susan Rebecca White. As for who or what is in the other, that’s up to you ...   

White shares that she was attracted to the Catholic Church for many reasons, including the intellectual aspect of the faith, Catholics she saw doing the work of serving the poor and giving credibility to their pro-life beliefs, and nuns who ran counter to all the negative stereotypes.    Catholics like Flannery O' Connor and Doris Day had her respect and piqued her interest in the Church.   A misunderstanding when she attended mass as a visitor takes center stage in the story:   When she misunderstands the words to those who are not Catholic and moves to the altar to receive the Eucharist, a priest spots her awkwardness and calls her over.   After he finds out she is not Catholic, he takes away the Eucharist given to her by another minister, without any explanation.

The mass is Heaven on Earth.

My mama could sure relate to this story.   Both were in such moments of vulnerability and they were left with confusion and hurt.   They were left.   And if I could travel back in time, I'd go to them and hug them.   I'd apologize for the nun's reaction and offer comfort.   I'd pray they didn't base their entire opinion on those events.  Later, I might explain what baptism is and what the Eucharist really is, encourage them to study the actual Church teachings, and how people aren't excommunicated for being divorced, that the Church allows civil divorce.   I'd also explain that the Eucharist can't be quickly explained in a sound bite and the priest had a line of people waiting to receive the Eucharist, but that I wish he could have found Susan after mass and invited her to learn more about the faith, even if he had just made a general announcement of welcome at the end of mass.   I'd say that donuts after mass, concerts, fairs, and children's programs are about welcoming and inviting people, but the mass  is about worship of God, not about how I or anyone else feels.   I'd share how I still sometimes refrain from receiving the Eucharist after prayer and asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit because of my deep belief in and reverence for Christ in the Eucharist.   Unless I traveled back in time as the "pre-conversion-then-reversion" me because then I'd just share in their hurt and probably stir up any anger upon which I could feed.    It would all depend upon when you caught me.

White wasn't an anti-Catholic like me and she was led to volunteer work by what she had learned of the Church.   In addition to being beautifully written, the passage about her experiences as a volunteer was also very moving.    All I know for sure about this women I've never met is she's on a journey.   .She describes casting deep for love and faith, but like me, she's just on the shore's edge of an unfathomable ocean of love and mercy.   I'm also on the edge; I'm also on a journey.   

White ends her piece with this passage:
When my friend and I had left the church that morning, we, along with all of the other first-time visitors, were offered a small loaf of bread. Lovely though the gift was, I felt awkward taking it given what had happened at the altar. But as my friend dropped me off at home, he insisted I take his. After the girls wearied of being kittens, I asked if they would like a slice, maybe toasted. Yes, they would. They wanted it with butter. I texted my friend, “The girls are eating the bread.”
He wrote back, “They are eating Jesus.”
Meaning, despite human effort, God can’t be limited to the confines of a wafer, even one that is sanctioned by the proper authority. Love continues to bubble up and expand, like yeast rising in an ordinary loaf of bread. I am beginning to believe that it is the ordinary bread that is holy — or rather, that is made holy once we break it open, eat from it and share it with those who are hungry. Which is to say, once we share it with all.

It is so well-written and it's hard to write a good ending.   As a Catholic who is still learning, I agree that God is not limited or confined to a wafer.   The Catholic Church has never taught that.   God is not limited to time, space, or history because he is limitless.   The intellectual part of me cringes at the theological error of "They are eating Jesus" but that is only through the grace of faith and a lot of reading.  Yes, ordinary bread can be holy, meaning set apart for God, when it is broken and in the sharing, but that does not make it the same as the Eucharist, which we Catholics believe is the actual body and blood of our savior, Jesus Christ.   

You see, it's the duality of the Catholic thing.   It's not either/or; it's both/and.   Jesus is present in a special, unique way, in His actual body and blood, in His humanity and divinity, in the sacred consecrated host which is the Eucharist.   When I receive him during Holy Communion, I am fed and filled, but not like a cup or a bowl, to be saved or hoarded for myself and only my benefit.   It is more as a sieve, or a colander, that I am filled.   His grace and love are meant to flow through me as I share Him through love and service with all I encounter.   So, he is present in my hands as I serve my children snacks or wash the supper dishes from the night before.   He is present in my words as I comfort a friend in need.   I pray He is present in these words I type and I pray these words are made holy, set apart for God, as they are shared.   The last words of the priest at mass are, "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."   It is a dismissal and a call to action to all assembled there.

It's the duality we see in the graphic that heads White's piece.   In the background, two angels kneel on either side of a monstrance.   A monstrance is a special vessel used to display the Eucharist, the consecrated host that IS Jesus, so believers may adore Jesus.   That's part of the package when I say "Amen" after receiving the Eucharist during mass.   In Mother Teresa's order, the nuns wore simple garments and lived simple lives, but in their chapel, gold vessels were used for the Eucharist because of the special way Jesus is present there.

In the foreground, is the word, FEED, in all-caps and done in a font that resembles a worn stamp.   The heavenly and adored along with the common and mundane.  Kneeling angels behind the mark of the everyday, something that calls to mind a clerk, stamp in hand: thud, squish of the ink, thud onto paper, "Next!"   It's in the all-caps, take-notice font of a directive, while not unlike the mundane action of scooping vegetable onto the plates of the hungry which White describes as part of her service to others.    But it wasn't mundane because God made it holy and He was there, in the duality of the sacred and the ordinary.   Just as God is not confined to the consecrated host, God can't be confined to just the ordinary or to just the hands of those who are not ordained.    We can't put Him, His Church (also the body of Christ, unique from the Body of Christ in the Eucharist) into a neat box.   Or any corner.

And after all that, I should have just started with Flannery O' Connor as she dealt with the duality of being a Catholic and the lack of bitterness in her stories.   She was always dealing with the duality of the southern thing and the Catholic thing:

I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic.   This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement.   However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty.   To possess this within the church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic.   It's to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level.   I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.   It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it, but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time you struggle to endure it.   This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.

For further reading, I also recommend: All of convert Heather King's memoirs and her blog, Shirt of Flame, especially this post as a starting point: 
She in the thick of it dealing with duality and convergences and also a devoted reader of O' Connor and Day.

this post about the difficulty of explaining who may & may not receive the Eucharist, especially at occasions such as funerals or weddings:

Update: Susan Rebecca White posted this essay on her Facebook author page which made me happy because she received the post in the spirit in which it was written, thanks be to God.



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