I was a pious child. I loved going to church with my parents: the music and the incense; the crowning of the Statue of the Virgin; the ashes on Ash Wednesday and the palms on Palm Sunday; and staying up till midnight for Mass on Easter and Christmas. When I was three, I saw a nun kneeling in a pool of light, and I knew that was what I wanted to be. I liked the lives of the saints better than fairy tales. While other girls were practicing writing out their married names on napkins—“Mrs. John Smith”—I was writing the name I wanted to adopt when I took the veil: “Sister Perpetua Maria.”
And then, at 12, I fell in love. With a movie star. Richard Chamberlain: Dr. Kildare. Beside my picture of the Sacred Heart I tacked the 8-by-10 glossy his fan club had sent me. Then I moved on to the smartest boy in my class.
Then it was the ’60s. I had assumed I wouldn’t have sex before marriage, but suddenly that seemed absurd. I fell in love, and this love expressed itself in ways that the Catholic Church of my childhood called sinful. I knew that to be true to myself, to free myself from the trappings of shame, I had to be a sexual person. I thought this meant I couldn’t be religious.
I stayed away from the church for more than a decade. I married a man who was a militant atheist. But my imagination kept traveling to the images I had loved when I was young. And I yearned to be in a place where I could pray again.
Three years into my unhappy marriage, I became attracted to a colleague of my husband’s. I learned that he was religious and attended church regularly. I asked if I could accompany him to Good Friday services, which I had always loved, though I hadn’t gone in many years. I now see that this was a very special kind of flirtation, that I must have known I was heading into dangerous waters, because two months later I moved out of my husband’s house and into his. We have been together for 33 years; he is the father of my two wonderful children.
I had to learn that I could be both myself and a person who prayed with others—on Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter and Christmas—and that disagreeing with the church’s positions on some things was no reason to stay away. This realization took time. You might say it took age, the kind of maturity that allows you to know that blind obedience isn’t really the way to a well-lived life. Paradoxically, it was the tradition of Catholicism that allowed me to take this step: the idea of the sacredness of the individual conscience, the Gospels and church history all pointing to the complexity and messiness of this business of being human. Being Catholic means being part of a huge chorus, and I knew I wanted to be in the chorus, not just singing my little solo part. It would never be enough for me to have a private religious life. As I got older, it seemed inadequate to be in rooms only with people who agreed with me, with my same level of education, income, frame of reference. I needed to be in rooms with people both like and unlike me, saying the same words people have been saying for thousands of years, being reminded that if you are a follower of Jesus, you have, like him, a special duty to the poor and the unfortunate. Some people call me a cafeteria Catholic. I prefer to think of it as finding my place at the table.
Mary Gordon’s latest book is Reading Jesus. She teaches at Barnard College.
Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of More.