Are We There Yet?

Sarah Cavanaugh

Sarah Cavanaugh
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA
August 01
My poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Nimrod, and Southern Poetry Review. Currently, I am trying to reclaim my life after being blacklisted. Don't mess with the Federal Government or defense contractors. Wish me luck.


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FEBRUARY 27, 2012 1:21PM

When I Was a Sinner - Being Catholic

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    When I was a small child I asked the nun who was teaching our Sunday School class if my cat, who had been hit by a car, was in Heaven. She told me that Heaven was only for human souls. I was crushed.

    As  students at a Catholic high school we were told by the nun who was teaching a class on religion that a woman giving birth must accept  sacrificing her life if it meant saving the baby. I don't remember the rationale. Perhaps it was because the baby needed to be baptised. I can remember only that I found it to be very disturbing.

    I ran into more serious conflict with my Catholic faith after the birth of my third child. I had intended to have just two children, but now with three I knew that for me that was enough. I had been told that practicing birth control, other than the rhythm system, was a sin. I was desparate. My Ob/Gyn reassured me that I would not burn in everlasting hellfire and damnation for taking the pill. So I took it - for years and years.

    But my Catholic teaching told me that I could not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion as long as I was taking the pill. For a believer like myself, the dilemma was huge.

    I heard a priest say to my father one time that the Catholic Church had never been fair to women. I had come to the conclusion that the Catholic hierarchy viewed women as baby factories and that the more Catholic babies brought into the world, the more power the Church had. There is strength in numbers.

    I have been thinking about all of this lately because of some of the comments being made by Rick Santorum. I recognize his brand of Catholicism very well. I was raised  by its teachings.

    My sins had been piling up for years. I practiced birth control. I had a brief extra-marital affair, much to my everlasting shame, when I was in my twenties. Eventually I stopped going to Mass, took my children out of Sunday School, and finally, after nineteen years, divorced my husband. You may notice that I am still inclined to confess my sins.

    But I still feel the loss. There is much comfort to be derived from faith. It can get you through the tough times. But, by the teachings of the Church, I am a sinner. Redemption is possible, but I find that the road back is just too long and steep. There is also a feeling of peace that comes with following the dictates of your own conscience apart from the pronouncements of cloistered old men.

    Occasionally, though, I will wander into a Catholic service just to experience the sensory delights, the scent of incense, the chanting, the candles and tinkling bells, and especially the way the sunlight piercing stained glass casts a rainbow of colors across the congregation. 

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There are countless "recovering Catholics" out here who share your experience. When I was just age 6 & in preparation for Confession and Communion, I began with a child's mind, to wonder what I did to have to "confess"....I saw even at that age the inequity that women, the Sisters, suffered compared to the ceremonial preferance the Priests were given....even as a child I realized that girls and women 2nd class status status! not much if anything has change. good luck and much Spirituality to us all. Amen
Deep, clear reflections on faith are so necessary in light of what's going on on the political stage.

And you captured the essence of faith beautifully right here: "and especially the way the sunlight piercing stained glass casts a rainbow of colors across the congregation."

You wandering in and seeing that is the point. The mystery. The stuff that's larger than we are.

I come from a Protestant tradition---but Chicago being a Catholic city--I know what your are saying---especially since you say it so well.
One tradition isn't better or worse---it's just different.

And the way I've come to see sin is not as a list of rules. It's rather as my distance from God. A church community can help me figure that out---or it can do grave harm as I figure it out. But no mortal can tell me that. I gotta figure it out for myself.
Sarah, this is an exquisite piece that touches smack on my understanding of how Catholicism and the church have played a big number on women. In the eyes of my god you are not a sinner at all, but a decent, good person. And I too sometimes go, sit on a church bench and pray to my god (in Turkish). But I can never tell if I'm in a Catholic, Protestant or whatever kind of church.
I hope you get an EP for this.
It makes me sad that there is so much damage done by religious communities since my own faith is a source of nourishment and joy for me. This was beautifully written! I love the rainbow colors pouring over the congregation at the end, God's promise is right there in the beauty and mystery of that rainbow, if only more people would look up and SEE...
I think it's the courage to tell our stories that is the most telling and important thing we can do rather than wonder around in abstractions and intellectualizations that have nothing to do with who we are. It takes a poet.
i was never a Catholic but an Anglican and still considered one. You just cannot win so you do your best
The Twilight Zone did a show about your experience only they used a dog and an old man to correct the misconseption that the guy at the wrong placve was presenting.

The dog wouldn't have been fooled so they told the old man that he would have to stay behind.

The old man was smart enough to trust his dog more than the scam artist at that other place and it all worked out quite well.

If they don't welcome your cat you and the cat can find a better place!

At the funeral for a friend's father recently, his son mentioned that his dad loved his church even though he didn't think it was for any profound belief but rather for the music.

I think that's fine. Embrace the parts that bring solace to you.
This whole original sin thing with the church is something I have never been able to accept. We are not born sinners. If God made us flawed how dare He condemn us for it!
Sarah, I really love this. Having deep faith and belief, and being a convert to Catholicism,years ago, and not being active in the church, brings all these same sins to my mind, also. Getting hung up in doctrine is a quick way to abandon ALL spirituality. I love our church, the Cathedral in St Paul, Min. and I do not go much, and I do get"something" out of every Mass I do attend. I do devotions cause my Father always did, and when he died I got his "Devotions for men" book and it is so amazing. This way I am not leaving the church, I am reading the Bible which I believe to be God's word, and I am reading some random persons view of scripture and how to take that into daily living.( I just recently started the devotions.)
Having been raised Protestant, I believe in confession without a priest, and asking for forgiveness of God. I believe God to be merciful and understanding and I do believe He likes women as much as men.
Except for songbirds, squirrels, fish, dogs and cats and very young children, we're all sinners and that's the nature of what we are. Confession is good for the soul and I've found that a walk in the woods in solitude is the best way to come to terms with our transgressions. The mountains and rivers don't care what you've done to who, when, how or why - in the presence of nature you can often find some peace with yourself and with peace there is redemption. I love Jesus but I have a hard time dealing with his "Old Man," much less Cathedrals and the minions of any religion that values dogma, ritual and real estate over people.

Sarah, I started questioning as a child. We were super-uber-Catholics. My mom could still get the SNL part as The Church Lady. In elementary school, my mom sang in the choir, my brother was an altar boy, and my dad was a lector. Week after week, I didn't have a part in the show. There was no part for girls. I sat in the choir loft with my mother, an extra, not even a bit part. It took me a long time to figure out that the world spoke to me out of both sides of its mouth. "You're really smart, you should go to college!" And so I did. I learned to think, to reason, to support an argument. And yet, I was supposed to go to church on Sundays and have "faith," to turn off all that enlightening and expensive education, to listen to what the fat man in the robe said, because I was still a girl with no part in this production.

I left.

I wish you well in your journey, and I understand your dilemma. I still miss the music, the smell, the sounds. I don't miss the words.
You hit it square on the head twice.

first: best: "to experience the sensory delights, the scent of incense, the chanting, the candles and tinkling bells, and especially the way the sunlight piercing stained glass casts a rainbow of colors across the congregation. " There you go! that is beauty. And beauty is truth.
And truth is Good.

Also, alas...

"the Catholic hierarchy viewed women as baby factories and that the more Catholic babies brought into the world, the more power the Church had. There is strength in numbers. "

i have never heard it put that way before, but it is the truth,
isnt it?

i was raised as a spiritual vacuum.
no church of any kind, ever. yet all my life, especially lately everyone in my life
is a catholic.

"Sin " is, literally , "missing the mark", i read once.
To me, here is a sin:
you are busy at your work. lots of things on your mind.
a co worker comes to you in utter distress,
but you cannot deal with their drama
at the moment. you have missed an opportunity to provide
comfort and relief.
Eminently forgiveable, for you must tend your own soul
in order to make it useful
for tending to others.
know thyself.
and forgive all these supposed infractions of an institution
you have seen through . Cloistered old men, of all ages.
The Lutherans soured me on organized religion as a youth. Since then I have wandered pretty much alone in the desert seeking a voice or a burning bush or something to tell me what the hell to do. Perhaps I've somehow pissed off the Big Guy and am getting the silent treatment.
Elegant and eloquent.

roscoe, The grip of the Church is powerful.
CG, I feel closer to God in nature than in church.
Fusie, I believe that God is the diety of all sects. There is a certain arrogance to Catholicism.
jersey, Well said.
Ben. Thanks for those insightful reflections.
Linda, Or die trying.
zach, I thought I had seen all the TZs. I guess I missed one.
j, Sounds like good advice to me.
Miguela, How wise you are. They have a way of taking over the way one thinks, though.
cindy, Mom was a Methodist, and I always though her church seemed more user friendly.
jm, I also find peace in nature - and empty churches feel more sacred than crowded ones.
froggy, I'm glad you survived your indoctrination.
James, I think the Golden Rule is the heart and soul of all of the major religions.
v, Thank you kindly.
chicken, I have a feeling the desert is pretty crowded.
Thanks to all for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I enjoyed reading them.
Yes those stained glass windows and the smell of incense was something wasn't it? I grew up a Catholic girl as well. I believe in God and am spiritual but don't believe so much in all the practices of the Catholic church. To each his own though. Interesting article, because I could certainly relate.
The child abuse blew it for me for good. I just can't bring myself to respect anything "the church" has to say anymore. A friend who is still a believer told me I was throwing the baby out with the bath water, but, the older I get, the more it all seems like hocus pocus -- beautiful hocus pocus -- but hocus pocus nonetheless. Rated.
Sarah, this is a deep and beautiful piece of writing. I am not Catholic, yet I have always been in awe of the ceremony, the incense, the holy water... I can't explain the reverence I have. " There is much comfort to be derived from faith."
And this: "There is also a feeling of peace that comes with following the dictates of your own conscience apart from the pronouncements of cloistered old men." I understand that too.
One of my favorite pieces of yours. ~r
I relate to this so much, especially the last paragraph! I still do go into churches sometimes, for the beauty of them, or to say a quiet prayer. But like you, I can't follow all of the Catholic church's teachings. I wasn't raised with as strict a form of Catholicism as you were, but a lot of that same injustice was there. I found it interesting to learn that in the early days of the religion, priests could marry. That taught me that, as you point out, so much of Catholicism (and many other religions) is "the pronouncements of cloistered old men." I'm glad you got free, and I admire you for your courage in doing so, even though I know how conflicted you must feel sometimes.
Wonderful piece of writing, I agree with FusunA this deserves an EP.
Until the Church gets its house in order it’s occupying the front of the queue for sinners folks like you and I are way, way back.
Brianna, I went through hell trying to sort it all out in my twenties.
Deborah, Exactly.
Joan, Thanks so much. I value your opinion.
Alysa, You are very perceptive for one so young. I can imagine the experience of entering a cathedral in Paris. I think I would feel inclined to worship the architecture.
I am an old man and a lifetime Catholic, and I thank God I never had any Catholic education. I hate to see the things kids get thumped into them in Catholic schools. Don't worry, once we get rid of the Nazi pope, opposition to birth control will go the way of Latin Mass, Fish on Fridays and Limbo,
And I never saw the beauty in oft-repeated ritual, either. "Use not vain repetitions as the heathen do."
Well told, Sarah. There is something about the ceremony and sense of place and history religion offers that appeals to me...but when you take the philosophy out of the solemn cathedral, they turn silly. I don't know of many Catholic women who are fully on board these days. I imagine most of them are doing what you're doing -- a drive-by for nostalgia's sake.
I think we may be on the same page, Catholic-wise, Sarah. I was very devout for years, went to Catholic school through high school and now go once a week during my lunch hour to pray to my favorite saint. Therese.
You were right to leave. It is not the church for you if you disagree with so many of its teachings. Please note the Santorum does not want to IMPOSE its teachings on us, does agree with them, and so is, in my view, right to stay.

What's YOUR beef in having a man (or woman) run for office that believes in what this church says?

BTW, the idea that the church's view on BC is only to keep women as baby machines is a bit narrow, don't ya think? I would suggest a real reading of the catechism for a philosophical discussion of this matter - if you really want the rationale - and you might want to spend some time with the brilliant "The Human Life Review".
BTW, the nun was wrong on the mother/child who should live question. Check it out.
Your last paragraph is beautiful and sums up my feelings toward going to church. I used to feel guilty about being a "cafeteria Catholic" but no more. It's nice to have rituals, some kind of foundation, the routine of attending services and the feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself. But most religions are too anti-female; most are anti- too many things. And then there's all the rules made by - men, not God.
It makes me sad that so many good people have been made to feel so ashamed for pretty human sins.
Perhaps you need to find a place that has faith in you. I understand that the Catholic church also preaches compassion and not judging others for their mistakes, even if they are considered sins. Please, use this compassion on yourself, you made the best decisions that you could.
I'm not impressed by Catholic beliefs or the sin and guilt attitude it inflicts on the members of iys congregation. But then I'm not an expert either.

Faith of any sort has to be forgiving, loving and realistic enough to allow us to live and learn from our mistakes, while accentuating the positives.

As a Spiritualist I'm quite content with the beliefs and upbeat services which are uplifting and comforting with no belief in hell or damnation. Our faith should make us feel good not scared.
I’m still a practicing Catholic but I am also a sinner in the same sense you described. I believe that my efforts to be the best human being I can be is what will be looked at when I die not how obedient I was.
It has always been a strange thing, to me, that people so desperately want to believe in a man who will make everything better, instead of just making things better themelves.
Ahhh, sin . . . because God is obsessed, absolutely obsessed, with the sexual habits of people.
Within the past couple of years I have moved away from the church, and I love how you speak of "the loss." I can't imagine returning, as the thought of a god in general no longer makes sense to me, but sometimes I miss the experience. The hymns, the stained glass, the joy at Easter, the utter wonder at Christmas. I miss the warm fuzzies, but I just can't force myself to believe something I don't.
Thanks to all who commenteed. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the matter.
I found myself so saddened by reading this...does the Catholic church not ever teach about the grace of God or of God's mercy?
I have a friend here that I confess I rarely see as she is such a devout Catholic, so filled with guilt and shame about every 'sin'....I struggle with her browbeating of herself, she struggles with my daily discipline of joy...and it is a discipline.
I can't help but feel that Christ's message of "Love one another as I have loved you" has been completely squelched.
I, for one, choose Love and Mercy.
Thanks for writing about this, Sarah.
Come on over to the Protestants. We don't have all the excess baggage, but we do have "sensory delights, the scent of incense, the chanting, the candles and tinkling bells, and especially the way the sunlight piercing stained glass casts a rainbow of colors across the congregation". Well, maybe not incense.
You have touched on a nerve I have lived with since childhood. My mother and grandparents on her side were Lutheran and my father and grandparents on his side were devoted Catholics. My Catholic grandmother told me that my mother and my other grandparents would never go to heaven and that if I set foot in my grandmother's
Lutheran church I would be committing a mortal sin and damning my soul to hell. I went to a mothers and daughters banquet with my Lutheran grandmother, held in the basement of her church. I did it proudly and yet I never confessed it, I accepted the consequences of my love. Yet, I wanted to be a nun and went through the preparatory discussions to enter a convent when I was 19, I was told I was not a good prospect. These memories never leave, even when you don't believe them any more.
rated with love
I can relate to the perceived sinning (in the church's eyes) , the guilt, the confessing, the whole bit... I've come to turns with God in my own personal way and I'm living a much more healthy and spiritual life.

A fellow recovering Catholic
I've caught the nuns in several doctrinal errors in my life--your cat is happy in heaven.
My conscience is clear in all reproductive matters. I decided that the almighty Church put not even conceived children before my life-and would have deprived my husband a wife and three children a mother. Misogyny at it's best, and slowly losing it's grip. Those who are losing their power grasp onto even more desperately! R
Beautifully written and very deserving of the E.P. Congratulations.

I'm saddened to learn that you have gone without the sacrament and comfort of your faith simply over the sin of family planning. I have always been so perplexed over the Catholic Church's determination to come between the faithful and God. They need to be knocked down a peg and realize that they are meant to be teachers not rulers.
I wonder if the Church is just too insular.
"But, by the teachings of the Church, I am a sinner." Wow, me too. I left the Catholic Church when I moved to a different community 500 miles away. It became easy then when I didn't run into fellow parishioners. And, you know what? I have never looked back. I need a solid structure so I don't become faith-lazy. So I am a member of the Lutheran Church where I get my fill of hymns, candles, and stained glass. When a Catholic, I, too, stopped going to communion knowing I was breaking church rules on birth control. I remember Catholic Church Mother's Day when we applauded Moms with the most kids. Interestingly we never did this Father's Day. Hmmmm.
Wow. I have felt oppessed at times because of the church I attended and the religious beliefs of the men in charge who congregate there.

Word to the wise, it isn't any easier for women to be Southern Baptists. Great post.
Sarah: I'm late to the whole religion thing, having been brought up 100% secular agnostic/atheist. However, I've always felt internally connected to a greater sense of order, and eventually, I came to believe that it was most likely conscious. We're participating in Catholic worship and education now because it's my husband's background, although he's not at all conventional about it. It's all totally new to me, and I'm actually reading the new Catechism cover to cover, like a piece of theory or literature like I read in grad school. Clearly, it's different than the one my husband had to learn growing up. No one is going to hell for eating meat on Friday, and what nuns or priests say aren't always accurate to what's printed in that book. There is much room for debate. For me, the idea of sin isn't all tied up in guilt for not being perfect: in fact, worship is a way of getting over the guilt I've beaten myself up with for years, by not being more successful in the secular world. And, I keep hearing in the Church that a good Catholic is supposed to follow his or her own conscience. If your conscience says that being on birth control is more respectful of your own life and the life of your children than not being, then, how can it truly be a sin? Isn't God truly the only authority who can judge such things? The Church can and should teach, and I do think that birth control may be approached too lightly in our culture for the long term good of humanity. They clearly value family and life, and I do, too. But you've got three kids. You're on your own. You're trying to do the right thing. I think the right spiritual path is the one that works for you to feel happy and healthy and whole. I'm walking with the Catholics right now, and learning and experiencing many helpful and profound things. But I don't know if I can go all the way with them, either. But I hear you saying you want to go back, at least some time...and make some peace...I think you can, if you want to. Just make sure it's a rather liberal parish. There does appear to be all different kinds of Catholics out there.
As another "recovering Catholic" I also want to chime in and extend my best wishes to the author. One book that anyone like us should read is, "God is not Great" by Christopher Hitchens. Despite his reputation as an atheist and the nominal title of his book to the same effect, I don't think that his thesis is really atheism. He's really just preaching that all organized religions do an awful job of interpreting God to believers. So, a Catholic will learn that their feelings are not anti-Catholic. They'd probably be the same in any religion that he or she might have been brought up in. So, anyone who isn't going to the cafeteria in whatever church he or she is in has really got things wrong. Go to the cafeteria and use your God-given intelligence to figure out what's right.
How ironic that Barbara Joanne professes to be a good Catholic but has no problem throwing you over the side because of your very human doubts and stumbles ("if that's how you feel you were right to leave"). I had the opposite reaction. You sound like a wonderful person and the kind of loving, caring, thinking person that the true Church embraces. The Church is far more inclusive than BJ knows, and BJ's views about Catholicism really sell the Church short.
Plenty of priests would say that BJ's comments to you were a more serious blot on her soul than your use of contraception was on yours, too.
The baptism thing was the official rationale for the life of the new baby being more important than that of the mother. The mother could be, if she hadn't already been, baptised. The baby would have to come out first in order to undergo the procedure. What a lot of ridiculous suppositions this requires. Hey, I know, if you don't think abortion is right, then don't HAVE one!