This Sunday I went to the MET Museum with Philippa and L. I'd spent Saturday drafting a post on religion, namely my personal relationship with Catholicism. There was so much to be said that I kept starting, and stopping and giving up. Writing about religion is hard, every word on the page has the potential to offend. I decided that I need to let my ideas "cook" more until I got the right approach, but talking to Philippa helped. We waited for L together at the permitter of the Temple of Dendur. She asked me about my upcoming trip to Philadelphia for the Papal mass and the World Meeting of Families. I was hesitant to talk about it.
"I think it's really great. Do you know any other Catholics in New York?" She asked.
"I don't," I said. "Which makes it much harder to maintain. Back home being Catholic feels like being in a real community, here, I feel so alone in my--"
"Do you keep it hidden?" She asked.
"Yes, I do," I said.
"New York has a way of making you into something you don't want to be," she said. I nodded.
This, was exactly what I wanted to write about in my post. The lede on a platter. Philippa with her foresight, was able to get it out of me in just a few sentences. I knew I wanted to write about few things that stand out when I think about my personal faith: growing up in an interfaith household, my consideration of holy life, and the spring of 2008. Let's go to my childhood, first.
When we were kids, my sister and I used to peek our heads into the living room and giggle at sundown. My father would be standing on his green prayer rug, his hands open to the sky.
"Can we watch you?" we used to ask him.
"Only if you are quiet," he'd remark. We creep to the couch and sit, silently, watching our father do his Muslim prayers at the end of the day. Sometimes we'd ask him to teach us, but the Arabic was too hard to remember. During Ramadan, we watched him furiously race through the kitchen making a four course breakfast before sunrise. We admired his restraint during the day as we gorged on large lunches. Then at sundown, we watched him eat slowly, pacing himself. As if he'd eaten all day.
My mother is Roman Catholic, and raised my sister and I as Roman Catholics. An interfaith family seemed very normal to me until elementary school. People asked why they never saw my father at our masses.
"He's Muslim," I'd say. Their jaws would drop.
"How do they possibly get along?" they would ask.
"Respect," I'd say.
Growing up in an interfaith household was the best part of my childhood. I learned a lot about diplomacy, I learned a lot about religions outside of Islam and Christianity. I had a very open mind, and my parents allowed me to put whatever opinions I wanted into it. We had healthy philosophical dinnertime debates, my father was excellent at playing devils advocate just for the sake of listening to me reason. (I often play devil's advocate with Bo, but I don't think it amuses him as much.)
In high school World Religions class, I listened to the other students give their blanket opinions of the other denominations, and I realized how lucky I was. Growing up I learned that each faith was far more nuanced than its major differences. It's unfortunate that most people don't see the similarities always focus on the differences. I learned from my own family that a peaceful coexistence is in reach.
In high school I considered joining a holy order and becoming a nun. I was highly influenced by Therese of Liseaux's "Story of a Soul". I wanted to devote every second of my life to doing good, to being simple. That feeling didn't last long, but I spent the following three years of my life to daily rosary (before college classes, in the car, 20 minutes every day without fail).
I moved to New York City in 2008. I met loads of people, I went on loads of dates. I enjoy (and still do enjoy) the diversity of the New York. However, I learned, just from general observation (and lots of rejected dates) that theism isn't always favored. I get it, I do. There's a lot negative things about organized religion, a lot of positive things too. I just wished that the same acceptance and respect I grew up learning and gave to others would have been returned. Out of fear of being annoying, fear of being looked down upon, I hid being Catholic unless I was asked. If ever I made a disparate comment about attending mass or a religious holiday online, I did so somewhat fearfully. [I was not surprised to read the Times' essay by Lily Burana, where she mentions that her religion elicited puzzled responses from her friends. "I understand their occasional blank stares, uncomfortable assumptions or uneasy questions" she wrote, much like my experience.]
April 2008 stands out for me as my happiest and saddest moment in regards to my faith. I'd only been in the city a couple of months when Pope Benedict made a trip to New York. One afternoon I went to a Starbucks on the Upper East side to write. A small crowd grew on the corner of 87th and Lexington.
"The Papal motorcade," I overheard someone say. "It's coming by in 15 minutes." I stood on the street waiting. A nun in pale blue had been talking to a small group of nuns. She turned to me, in the middle of a story, taking my hand excitedly and inviting me into the conversation. I felt comfortable instantly. For me, belonging isn't everything and isolation can be mitigated. But "fitting in" for just a second, made me realize what I had been missing in New York.
"They say that St. Peter's shadow healed people when he passed," she said. She had wild, bright blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair peeking out of her habit.
"Oh?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "Will you come out with us tonight? We're doing a prayer walk. We're going around the block where he's sleeping tonight, with candles. Like a vigil," she said.
"I'll think about it," I said. She handed me a flier. The Papal motorcade went by and through a tinted window I tried to see Pope Benedict's face. He was waving.
I went home that night and I cried for hours. It was a pure, "Alice is down the rabbit hole" culture shock moment. I wondered if I'd ever feel like I belonged in a big city full of really progressive people. I had been so sheltered up to that point -- I didn't have my first drink nor my first kiss till I moved there at 24-years-old. For a late bloomer like me, New York felt wild and improper at times. I felt so different from everyone else my age.
I skipped the vigil. I woke up the next day feeling better. At sunrise, I went down to Fifth Avenue, where yet another Papal Parade was set to take place. I met a Jamaican woman at the barricades, who was also alone. We spent four hours standing and talking and waiting. She told me stories about going to Carnival in Rio, ("The men, they don't wear nothin' they just hang there!") and her job as a nurse, and how she feels when patients die, ("I had one tell me he went to the other side...a white light..."). Some protestors showed up and she started an opposing chant of her own to silence them, she had such a outgoing, assertive nature I wished I had. She made my day.
When we parted, wishing each other well, I left and bought a Papal Flag off a street seller. I waved it all the way home. I still have it. The whole experience left me feeling so good. For this reason, when I heard Pope Francis was making a stop in Philadelphia, I decided to volunteer as a Digital Diplomat, and will spend next weekend documenting his trip to Philly. I'm beyond excited, it's been the only thing I can talk about for weeks.
Back to this weekend, at the MET Museum, I explained to Philippa my reservations about writing about it. I was worried about losing readers and friends, sparking conversations that I didn't feel like having (the second time around). But I decided, (after some agony and pacing), that I'll be sharing my experiences here (and elsewhere!). I've decided that being my open is worth trying on for size. There is more to come.