Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Theologically Incorrect

Growing up in a rumble tumble household , Catholic school was both blessing and curse.

While the cacophony of family life flew over my little eight year old head, I would escape into the 1960’s institution known as parochial school.

It was my salvation. I ate it up big time. I was a little parochial school girl extraordinaire.

I dressed the part. It was required, of course: plaid jumper, peter pan collar blouse, saddle shoes and chapel veil.

Middle child and peacemaker at home, I was quite the expert at disappearing into the woodwork, keeping my head down, not rocking the boat. (I could go on but I am running out of metaphors.)

But in Sister Regina Clare’s third grade class, I was a star in the movie of my own making.

I raised my hand every chance I got.

“Call on me, Sister. Call on me!”

 And call on me, Sister did. Teacher’s pet and smartest kid in the class, I would do just about anything to delay going home after school.

“Who can clean the blackboards and clap the erasers?”

“Me, Sister, me!”

“Who can alphabetize all these test papers for me?”

“Me, Sister, me!”

 I would even volunteer to stay after school and clean the convent. Yes, CLEAN THE CONVENT! That is how desperate I was to stay out of the cross hairs of chaos called home.

(But I did get a scandalous eyeful of the nuns’ underwear hanging on the clothesline! BONUS!)

Catholic school was my salvation but it was not free. No cheap grace here.

There was the ever present threat of eternal damnation, everlasting hell fire: pretty f*ing scary to an eight year old.

So I memorized the hell out of my Baltimore Catechism.

“Who made me?”

“God made me?

 “Why did God make me?

“God made me to love and serve him for all eternity.”

 I rattled my rosary beads like there was no tomorrow. (Well, maybe there was NO tomorrow!!)

Scarier than Hell was getting stuck in the eternally boring feedback loop of Purgatory – not just for myself but for all of my dead relatives, as well. Whose full names I wrote in the back of my Saint Joseph Missal:

Bernard Francis Peacock, Sr.

Benjamin Joseph Cady

 I wrote their full names, I guess, so God would not get my grandfathers mixed up with anybody else’s grandfathers.

One loop of the rosary, could buy them a thirty-day get out of Purgatory early card. Two loops could lessen their sentence by sixty.

Eight years old, I was responsible for their immortal souls! Scary, scary stuff.

And God forbid, I commit my own grammar school mortal sin. MORTAL – meaning just that – that I would go straight to Hell if I forgot to confess it – if I should die before I wake.

(And whoever came up with that crappy, crappy prayer for a little child to pray as their parents terrifyingly tucked them into bed? To Purgatory they should go.)

So at Holy Family School, every Friday, I was first in line for morning confession.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. Father, I have (FILL IN THE BLANK).”

 Thoroughly prepped on Thursday by Sister Whoever, having examined my conscience and run through the Ten Commandments, I went into the booth fully armed with “THE LIST”.

Which I would pad with a few extra sins, here and there, just to be on the safe side.

  1. No false gods? No problem. I did not worship Baal this week.
  2. No idols? No problem. I did not carve any graven images this week, whatever that means.
  3. The Lord’s name in vain? Put me down for two “God Damns” and three “Jesus, Mary, and Josephs.”
  4. Sabbath holy? Holy Day of obligation? No problem. Stars in my crown. I get my butt to Mass every Sunday.
  5. Honoring mom and dad? Truth be told. I have been disobedient all over the place. Put me down for ten.
  6. Adultery? Sister says that’s “impure thoughts.” The lust of an eight-year old. Put me down once for Michael Spillane and twice for Jimmy Sinkieweiz.
  7. False witness? Well, not in a court of law but fibs, white lies abundant. Put me down for six.
  8. Coveting? What the hell is that? O, wanting other people’s stuff. Veronica’s red patent leather sparkly shoes. I confess to one.
  9. Stealing? Well, a cookie or two, out of the cookie jar. Purely, grade school stuff.
  10. Murder? Murder? I did think about bashing my little brother’s brains in but I managed to avoid the temptation.

And this is just for one week. Saving my soul was exhausting. And by the fourth grade, the system started breaking down. Little cracks were beginning to splinter my little Catholic psyche.

My little hand kept shooting up in the air, of course. I knew my catechism, just about better than other little RC kid in my class. But having reached the ripe old “age of reason”, I started thinking on my own.

Catechism answers turned into questions. Lots of questions.

“Hmmm. ‘transubstantiation’. Sister, why would Jesus want us to eat him and to drink him? That makes no sense.”

 “Hmmm, one true church? True? According to who?”

 “Hmmm, limbo? Poor little, unbaptized babies sitting in the dark for all eternity? What kind of f*ing God is that?

(I did not really say the “F word” but I do enjoy writing it that way.)

By seventh grade, my questions grew bolder.

“Hmmm, French kissing? Tongues touching is a mortal sin? A kiss on the lips is a venial sin? A kiss on the cheek is okay? Where is that in the bible, Sister?”

 And in my sophomore year, at Immaculata Preparatory School, I took on the Pope himself – and Humanae Vitae – Pope Paul VI’s crazy encyclical banning birth control.

Star of the debating team, I gave a speech taking on the persona of an unfertilized egg – yes, an unfertilized egg — which I followed all the way through the menstrual cycle and the reproductive system in great detail.

The egg triumphs!

 Legions of sperm go down in defeat!

 And not a single life is lost!

 Yes, I said these things.

Brilliant, right?

Well, to me, yes, but not so much to Sister Mary Clare, the principal at my prep school.

She called me into her office.

“Joani,” she said. “You have to stop. You have to stop asking questions in religion class.”

 “Why?” I shoot back. “That’s what school is for, right? Learning? Asking questions?”

 “Not for you, Joani. You have to stop. You are confusing the other girls.”

 “Really?” And  thenI risk one more “why?”.

 “Yes, my child, you have to stop.”

And then Sister says, and I quote, these words which have forever hence changed my life.

“Joani, you are intellectually gifted but spiritually retarded. You are risking your immortal soul – and theirs too.”

 Yes, Catholic school saved me. This conversation with Sister Mary Clare saved me.

So, I skipped my senior year at Immaculata Prep and got early admission to Catholic University. (Yes, Catholic University). There, at CUA, I became a philosophy major, where I could ask all the GD, F*ing questions I wanted.

Sorry, Sister Mary Clare. You might be right. I might be about to lose my immortal soul. But I will truly be damned, if I am going to lose my mind.

A mind, you know, is a terrible thing to waste.

And I am very fond of mine.

(And truth be told, this is how I grew up to become an Anglican.)

JoaniSign

 

 


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I fear and tremble…therefore I am…

Kierkegaard cartoon question

“The existential question & the Dane’s answer.”

I had a bad case of Kierkegaard in college.

My diagnosis was directly attributable to Sister Mary Clare, my high school principal at Immaculata Prep.

You see — from my Jesuit educated dad, I inherited an insatiable curiosity and an inquiring mind. Virtually all my sentences ended in question marks – especially in religion class.

“Transubstantiation makes no sense, Sister. Why would Jesus want us to eat him?”

“The atonement? Why does God kill his only son to save us? What kind of God is that?”

“Bad Catholics go to heaven? Loving Buddhists go to hell? What’s up with that?”

And the deepest and most disturbing question: “Why is French kissing a mortal sin?”

Called into the principal’s office, Sister Mary Clare sat me down to set me straight.

“Joani, you have to stop asking questions in religion class. You are confusing the other girls.”

“Joani, you are intellectually gifted but you are spiritually retarded.”

Yes, “spiritually retarded”. That’s a direct quote.

So I skipped my senior year at Immaculata to start Catholic University early as a philosophy major — a philosophy major who could ask all the f*ing questions she wanted.

I loved my three years at Catholic U. Historically we read the greatest thinkers of all times: ancient, medieval, modern, existentialist and more.

We didn’t read about philosophy, we read the philosophers themselves: Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Boethius, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hume, Heidegger, Hegel, Spinoza, Levinas, Wittgenstein, Sartre – and of course Kierkegaard. (Achoo!)

And because I left in my final year without finishing, I missed out on a generation or two of 20th century thinkers: Foucault, Derrida, etc.

But what I did not miss out on was a first class education. Philosophy not only exercises the brain and challenges the mind –philosophy is therapy for the soul.

I aced logic and excelled at metaphysics. I ached with existential angst. I entered Catholic U a parochial school girl and by the time I left I was a Platonic, Hegelian, Enlightened, phenomenological agnostic.

(What does this exactly mean? I don’t exactly know.)

I loved it and my grades proved it. I was invited by my professors to enter the prestigious School of Philosophy.

All of my professors were men. All of the School’s students were seminarians. Need I state the obvious? All men.

Even though I would have been the only woman –I declined. Because I would have been the only woman, I decided to stay behind in the more diverse and down to earth Department of Philosophy.

Women’s numbers in philosophy departments have dramatically improved since my college days – approximately 20% now in the US and higher the UK. But these are still low ball numbers compared to the numbers of women scholars in other halls of the humanities.

A book review in the July 17th issue of The Times Literary Supplement suggests the gender gap is not just a matter of bias – but women like myself – self-selecting out.

I studied philosophy to learn how to think clearly and creatively. I studied philosophy so I could ask Life’s most profound questions. I wanted to be in conversation with other seekers – in a community that mattered. I studied philosophy to expand my soul.

But philosophy – as does theology – gets carried away with itself for the sake of itself – tripping over technical jargon and getting lost in mind numbing minutia.

So lots of brilliant women just say “NO!”.

David Papineau’s TLS piece on “Women in Philosophy: What needs to change?” proposes that “pointlessness, pugilism, nitpicking, pin-dancing” are “all possibilities of why women avoid philosophy.”

 Hysterically he uses the example of professional snooker – a limited but very illuminating analogy.

“Even though women are eligible to compete as professionals, none is ranked in the top hundred. The six-times world champion, Steve Davis, has no doubt about the reason. It’s not that women are incapable of the highest levels of skill. It is rather that as a group they are disinclined to devote obsessive effort to ‘something that must be said is a complete waste of time – trying to put snooker balls into pockets with a pointed stick.’”

 “As Davis sees it, ‘practicing eight hours a day to get to world championship level’ ranks high among the ‘most stupid things to do with your life.’”

 In other words, women philosophers, might ask more truly meaningful questions – and then choose to explore them in life affirming ways – not wasting their time contemplating “how many angels dance on the head of a pin.”

After marriage and children, I meandered back to school and matriculated in philosophy once again – but this time with an interdisciplinary flair. My undergraduate thesis was on comparative Christology according to George William Friedrich Hegel, Carl Gustav Jung, and John A.T. Robinson.(Don’t you love all those names?)

I remember virtually nothing of what I wrote (the manuscript is lost to time, thanks be to God). I do remember though that it mattered a great deal to me at the time.

A matter of vital importance, I did the best I could to answer Christ’s question:

Who do you say that I am?

 “I” here is reflexive pronoun, plural and not just singular. For Christ and me. “I and Thou”.

I continue to ask this question as an Anglican, as a woman, a priest and a bipolar crazy person. I ask this question every day when I get I up and every night when I lay me down to sleep. I ask it every time I look in the mirror. I ask it every time I preach a sermon or teach a class.

“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s a very bipolar question – this philosophical and theological question. And better than 100 milligrams of Seroquel – it keeps me focused. Trying to answer it sharpens my mind. It clarifies my thoughts. It keeps me grounded and tethered to the ground – the “ground of my being”. It keeps me honest. It keeps me whole.

A dose of philosophy can be good therapy – exercise for the mind, medicine for the psyche, a balm for a fevered brain.

 And regardless of the answers – as a seminary professor once famously said — “learn to love the questions.”

Learn to lean into the questions.

It might just save your sanity.

It might just save your soul.

JoaniSign


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The Pentecostal Episcopalian

pentecost latin modern art

My Jesuit educated father, Dr. Peacock was big on comparative languages. Apparently up at Worcester, Mass at Holy Cross College when you learned one romance language you learned them all. So when any of my brothers or sisters dared approach the good doctor for a word’s definition or proper pronunciation— he would direct us to the dictionary collection on his library shelf. Then he would ask us:

“Quick, quick, quick, what is the same word in French, Spanish, Italian?”

Stumped by my dad’s linguistic brilliance, I barely managed to stutter at best some incomplete response.

So during my three years at Immaculata Preparatory School, I set out to prove myself equal to my dad — and just as gifted with the gift of tongues. I took three years of Latin with Sister Petra — Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Cicero’s De Re Publica — so fascinating to a teenager! I took three years of French — just enough to catch a third of the words in a foreign film playing at the Circle Theater.

And I took two years of Spanish. My most memorable phrase from high school Spanish class is, “Me aprietan mis zapatos.” – which means “My feet hurt.” or quite literally “My shoes are squeezing me”!

I leapfrogged over my last year of high school – to start Catholic University early (I do not have a high school diploma!) To help pay my rent on my tiny Connecticut Avenue apartment, I had a part time job in Adams Morgan at a bi-lingual preschool – The Spanish Education Development Center.

I was a teacher’s aid in a classroom full of three year olds – none of whom spoke a word of English. My very first afternoon on duty during naptime, one little boy was extremely restless on his cot. So I broke out my high school Spanish to try and settle him down.

“Com se llama?” I asked him.

Pepe”, he said.

“Mucho gusto, Pepe”, I said, “Siente se en su cama. Es hora de dormir.”

“Pepe, Pepe, Pepe!” he kept repeating.

“Si, yo entiendo. Te llamas Pepe. Es hora de dormir.” I said.

Pepe, Pepe, Pepe!”

He was inconsolable until the teacher came in.

“Guillermo, necisitas el bano?” she said.

And little Guillermo ran off to the bathroom.

Over the course of three years, I learned colloquial and conversational Spanish – which I spoke all day long – and these folks became my neighbors and my friends…so many friends from south of the border — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Costa Rica. And my little Latino charges – they gradually learned English – and were fairly fluent by the time they entered kindergarten.

We were gifted with speaking one another’s tongues, but even better than learning to speak a foreign language — the Spirit had gifted us with the gift of understanding.

Many years later, 2001 to be exact, on a mission trip to the DR, I lost a bet with Bishop Gray (such a wonderful pastor and person Frank Gray is!). So instead of the “episcopos” in the pulpit on our last Sunday there was this “sacerdote” – me!

And I preached my one and only sermon in Spanish ever.

And it went something like this:

“Dios es amor. Dios te ama. Yo amo Dios. Dios ama todo el mundo. Jesu Cristo es el Corazon de Dios. Amor vive en el Corazon de Dios. Amor vive en los corazones de su gente.

Dios es amor.”

The Day of Pentecost, this day, the Holy Spirit translates God’s love into every possible human language.

“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, the asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own language?

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” — God’s mighty deeds of Love.

Pentecost is the Tower of Babel redeemed. But more than that one scholar says, Pentecost is Christmas come again.

“All wrapped up in human form, God comes to us in our very own bodies; God speaks to us our very own language(s). In an age of increasing cultural diversity, religious pluralism, and the perpetual rubbing of shoulders across lines of nation, race, and class, God offers authentic human communion. Through ordinary human speech, the Holy Spirit establishes unity in the midst of diversity, the fulfillment of a promise…” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 5, G. Lee Ramsey, Jr.)

Good, good news for a broken and divided world.

So Pentecost is to be practiced. Pentecost — the gift of the Holy Spirit –is a gift to be exercised at home and at work, in our neighborhoods and in our communities, with family, friends, and stranger, and right here in our own backyards — (especially in my bipolar backyard!)

So with the Spirit’s help this week…let us each find a way to practice Pentecost, very specific and concrete ways to practice Pentecost. And let us all give thanks for the Holy, Holy, life giving, Holy Spirit…for God’s great gift of understanding.

 

JoaniSign