On Giants' Shoulders

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Not A Native, Never Will Be

When you grow up in a place you have a sense of things that those who move in from somewhere else never have. Vermonters are notorious for being proud of being native and also for being somewhat skeptical about non-natives and their motivations. Consequently, I understand this native, non-native phenomenon pretty well. However, this entry is not really about Vermonters and "flatlanders". It's about cradle Catholics and converts.

I'm a convert, and I'm a convert who had a fairly winding road to get to the end of the journey. Unlike a lot of cradle Catholics I didn't grow up in one church building where my parents had also grown up. Let me explain a little about the journey and you'll understand better why sometimes some cradle Catholics are an enigma to me.

When I was a little girl my mother, my sister and I attended a tiny (the place would hold no more than 55 people) little church that was actually simply a room in a house. The room had a raised platform at one end with seats crammed in as tight as possible. It would never get past the fire inspector today because it was a genuine fire trap for anyone sitting in the inside seats. This was particularly true since many of the people were elderly and unable to move quickly.The building is now the rectory for the Episcopal church that was always located next door. So going back to the church I was dedicated in is really no longer possible.

Our family moved just as I was beginning high school and so went to a different church. This congregation was meeting in an unused Baptist church, which had actual pews and a lot more room and people. It was, however, a different denomination than the one we'd previously attended. The doctrine was close, but not identical, so that meant some shifts for my mother, particularly. For example, swimming on Sunday was no longer banned since the pastor took the youth group swimming on nice Sunday afternoons in the summer. Halfway through high school the congregation managed to build its own church building. That was the church I was married in. It's not a church anymore either. Now it holds school offices and the congregation has built another building a few miles away. It holds more people, but it looks more like an auditorium than a church. So no going back there either.

After my husband and I got married, although there were a couple of forays to other churches we pretty much settled in the Congregational Church he grew up in. Our kids were baptized there, although interestingly, not in the same parts of the building. Our son was baptized in the basement (where the congregation met during the winter to save heating expenses) and our daughter (a spring baby) was baptized in the main part of the church building. I actually spent more years in that church (about 20) than any other church until then. That building is still there, I even occasionally end up in a pew there for funerals. We've even thrown showers in the church basement because it's a convenient location to rent.You might think I wax nostalgic when I do, but I don't really. Every time I walk in the thing I experience most is absence. The Blessed Sacrament isn't there. The place feels, well, empty.

I love the parish church we attend. I personally think it's one of the prettiest churches in the state. After 13 years there I know a few people and it's as much home as I can imagine a huge church like that being. There are nearly 2000 people on the parish registry I think and it's technically the parish of a lot of lapsed Catholics not on the registry. So it doesn't exactly feel like a family, unlike most of the other churches I attended through the years . My relationship with the Church is not so much a relationship with the particular people as with the institution as a whole. I joined the Church because I embraced the doctrine, not because I felt so welcomed by the congregation. In point of fact, in general, I don't feel welcomed by the congregation. I feel like one of those "flatlanders" who moved into a very tight native Vermont community. People may smile and say hello to you, but you sort of know that on a very essential level you are a stranger in the midst.

This really came home to me a couple of weeks ago at a book group I was attending for the first time. It wasn't that anyone was unkind or anything, it was nothing like that at all. I wasn't even the only stranger in the midst. It was a story someone told about being part of a group that staged a sit in to protest the closing of a parish in Massachusetts. It was realizing the degree to which that person's Catholic faith was wrapped up in a particular building and a particular community. This was the building she was married in, that her husband was baptized in, that her kids were baptized in. This was a community that she had been part of, even though she now lived somewhere else. This for her was her Catholic home, and its continuation as a parish was incredibly important to her Catholic faith. Doctrine was much less central from her point of view, and from the point of view of at least one of the other participants in the group, than this sense of place and community. I came away realizing the gulf that exists between me and at least some cradle Catholics on that particular issue.

It's also the gulf that in part keeps one person in my life from swimming the Tiber. It's not so much the doctrinal issues, it's the loss of the place they grew up and the community among whom they grew up. They are willing to make all kinds of doctrinal compromises in order to "stay native." I grew up living more like an Army brat who never really got to stay connected to one place all that long. Other than living in Vermont my whole life there was nothing that stayed the same. We changed houses, we changed towns (multiple times), we changed schools, we changed churches. I once counted the number of separate places I lived from the time I was 13 until I was 25 and the results were in the double digits. Somehow the lesson I learned was that we have here on earth no permanent dwelling. I've lived in the same house now for 23 years and in the same neighborhood (almost the same plot of land) for nearly 34. I do understand the value of continuity. My kids can actually come back to the family home (even the home of their grandparents), I can't do that. My grandparents' homes have burned down, the homes I grew up in are owned by other people and radically changed.

Now, the fact is there are both two kinds of natives, and two kinds of newcomers. There are those people who move to Vermont because they've heard about the values, the beautiful countryside, the slower pace, and they want to embrace all of it. There are other people who move here because it's a pretty place, or they married someone who lives here, or they just happened to find a job here (although that's becoming rarer), but they don't really want the traditional Vermont lifestyle. They complain about the lack of malls, the lack of delis, the open spaces seem too open, and they're upset if cows, horses, sheep, or pigs escape and get on their lawns. They really want Vermont to be like where they came from, with perhaps a little less crime and cleaner air.

There are also natives who resent the fact that Vermont hasn't gotten more with the times. They think we should have more malls, more entertainment, more interstates, more high tech gadgets. In short, they'd like the whole state to look like Chittenden county, only more so. The grass for them is always greener on the other side of the state line, but it's home so they stay. There are also natives that think change has come too fast, and without a whole lot of thought about what's been sacrificed to the great god Progress, and who wonder whether we wouldn't be far better off if we re-embraced the traditional values. They even wonder if the rest of the country wouldn't be better off to embrace them as well. As our congressman pointed out, Vermont didn't get the banking crisis that some parts of the country got, in large part because they hadn't embraced the same practices as some parts of the country.

I'm sure you see where I'm going. There are cradle Catholics who are Catholic, not just because that's how and where they grew up, but because they've truly embraced the faith. Some of them think change came too fast, and without sufficient reflection and are thankful for a Pope who has recognized that.There are also cradle Catholics who look longingly at their Protestant friends. As one of them told me while I was still Protestant, she could never become Protestant, but she wished she had been born one, she wished the Catholic Church was like that. They are the Catholics who think the Church hasn't gone far enough. They are the Catholics who stay because it's home, even if they don't really like home all that much. They are the Catholics who find converts downright perplexing, or at least my kind of convert.

There are also converts who became Catholic because they married a Catholic, or because the liturgy was attractive, the commitment to philosophy appealing, or the church buildings far more aesthetically pleasing than the other options around. They may have thought that it was a good place to be an agent of change. It certainly had a better educational system than the UCC . Additionally, unlike the mainline Protestant churches, there were actually families here rather than a bunch of old people. However, honestly, other than the ones who married Catholics, I don't understand why they chose to become Catholic. I find those kinds of converts perplexing and they don't understand me either. Why join a Church when you don't really believe what it teaches? Why join a Church just in order to change it? If you don't believe in hierarchy why didn't you become Congregationalist? If you do, well why not become...Episcopalian? Newark is to crime ridden and crowded, well what about the New Jersey countryside where you're still close to the malls. I'm sure you see the parallel.

I will never really be a native. I will never be able to quite be like the cradle Catholic who totally embraces the faith. So much of what is like breathing to him is still relatively new to me. I still have to think about syntax too much. It's like speaking fluent French, but with an English accent. You can be understood, but it''s a rare person who speaks a second language fluently enough to be mistaken for a native. In some ways, even those culture Catholics who don't particularly like the Church are going to look and feel Catholic in a way I never will. Perhaps my grandchildren will feel that way, they, after all will be cradle Catholics, but I suspect it may take more than one generation for the family to actually feel native.

I wish that those cradle Catholics who haven't yet fully embraced their faith would. They'd have so much going for them that I don't. Holy cards, baptismal gowns, the Infant of Prague, how to greet a bishop, what to give for ordination presents, all of those things are part of their native tongue. I will probably always need a bilingual dictionary of some sort. Just as the neighbors across the street from us will never be "real Vermonters" I will never be a cradle Catholic. To the end of my life, I will always be a convert. Thankfully the Church has room for all of us. The doors are open wide and the more faithful kind of Catholic is thrilled to see us arrive. They may not always understand our enthusiasm, and they may be amazed that we seem to have read Catholic authors they've never heard of, but they are often inspired by us (or so they tell me). What I continue to pray for those culture Catholics is that they will one day embrace all the graces that came with their baptisms. I have the same prayer for people who joined the Church without fully embracing who She is and what She teaches. After all I've seen it happen to those kinds of converts before, I've seen it happen to those kinds of natives before. It's called grace.


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