It was lunchtime. I was sitting in the faculty lounge with my department chair and faculty from multiple departments. For the life of me, I can’t remember how it came up. But I remember the second I did, part of me started whispering to the rest of me: Don’t say anything, don’t say anything, don’t say anything.
She looked across at us two from the theology department, expression sharp, and teased, “It’s Eve’s fault, right? That’s what you believe. Eve did it.”
I could see her anger. I could feel my own flaring in response. The voice in my head became more urgent: Don’t. Don’t do it… Don’t. Nope.
She repeated the sentiment. “It’s women’s fault, right? But God could be a woman. Catholics don’t believe that, though.”
The logical part of me yelled desperately for me to stay quiet. Responding to anger is often a useless endeavor, especially when anger is masked as an aggressive intellectual joke. Don’t say anything. Don’t do it… I looked at her and affected my very best confused expression: “I thought God was a dude.”
Oh God dammit, you said something.
My chair smoothly transitioned us to a more mundane topic, as he is much wiser than I am, and I honestly don’t think my soft voice made it over the din. Still, I became upset with myself for responding at all. It meant I had succumbed to my own anger, and so I had done what I often do when I’m furious: worked to provoke the other person even more. It’s like tapping a giant bald guy on the head when he’s already glaring. Sometimes I can’t resist.
I frighten myself when real anger flickers into view. That was real anger. That there, that game of playing stupid. Because I’m so tired of being told that the Church to whom I’ve given my life hates women. It is something of an irony, since I’m a woman. Now, I won’t claim that the Church has always treated women well, or that it isn’t an issue of great importance today. I’m just so tired of conversations that have ended before they’ve begun. They’re my least favorite.
And believe me, my plans for dismantling my “opponent” were already coolly arranged. If I provoked her about the nature of God, I’d be able to step behind her assumption about Eve and eventually bring us back there, back to Eve, to show her what the Church really thinks. I’m good at that. Reaching backward to something much more deeply broken. Cracking it apart to show its pieces.
I hate it. Doing it. Once I loved making those kinds of arguments, especially for the Church. And now I hate it, and I especially hate doing it when I’m angry. I always used to lose my skull in defense of the Church. I was basically infamous for it. But the most frightening element of the experience for me, from the inside, was the very, very cold and heartless anger that made my mind a blank slate of logic. All of my compassion – vanished away. My highly accurate perception of where others hurt and need – now a weapon. Others stared at me when I’d burst into angry tears. I trembled inwardly when there were none.
I don’t like it. I know what it’s like to be taken apart on a table.
Nowadays I’ll perform one of those little judo moves that protect by redirecting the force rather than meeting it head on. Convince the other person by using strength they already have. It’s much less violent, and in my experience others are more receptive to the final conclusion. They think it was their own idea half the time anyway.
Or I will wait. I often draw no conclusions. I only hold it in mind, what someone has said. It stays with me and I contemplate it carefully over time.
I had no idea, when I was young, that I was capable of treating others so gently. Especially about Catholic things. I wasn’t gentle; I was fierce. “Too sensitive” (no: just intelligent and scared). People back home still treat me as if I might lose it, or argue with them, or recite some kind of Church law. Ironically, I also know people who would never associate me with that, can’t even picture it. They’ve never seen it. It’s hilarious sometimes, the way I’m still treated like lit dynamite. Other times it’s frustrating and painful. A kind of penance for all my past sins.
The blood on my hands for defending the Catholic Church.
I used to bicker with my grandmother, my Irish Catholic grandmother. Mostly we disagreed on pastoral matters (matters of practice and care), and mostly we were generationally befuddled with one another. Sometimes we’d get mutually upset. Mostly there was something sweet and perplexing about it. I miss debating with her.
I don’t miss the other debates. The ones where, for example, I’d debate classmates in high school religion class (at Catholic schools, adolescents at least learn that one may discuss religion, even if the content of the education is often overwrought and thin). We’d often argue over women and the priesthood. I, naturally, took up the official stance. Usually I’d lead my opponent along through a series of arguments that appeared to strengthen their case only to corner them and leave them bewildered at how thoroughly stuck they were. Which is just freaking mean to do, by the way. It wasn’t fair: I was much better read in theology than them. I read theology all the damn time.
My mom’s family, especially her parents (my grandparents) and her siblings (my aunts and uncles), was much more willing to get into it with me. I still don’t understand why sometimes. I was twelve and passionate. Why tease the kid who could break into tears over it so easily? I spent family gatherings debating. Once I just about tackled my uncle. I read and read and read. I’ll always give myself this credit: I will read absolutely everything.
Yes, I’m kind of angry about that. I was a wound up adolescent anyway, but it left me even more wound up. Anxious, weary. Yes, grandpa, I’m reading about the bad popes in grad school. Them too. I was also significantly more traditional and conservative than my extended family, even my nuclear family. I don’t mean politically. I mean religiously: the Catholic Church is always perfectly right in absolutely everything, shut up. But my love for my faith was for the most part sincere and thorough, highly educated, and cut on the flint of disagreement.
This last aspect did not serve me well at all as the years went on. It left me without an awareness of certain beautiful aspects of the Church. I was too busy defending her to notice. It left my young theology rather rote and aggressive. Walls but no castle, sort of, though not so severe.
If one reads all of the Church’s documents, one can’t remain arch-conservative. The Church isn’t. She doesn’t even believe she’s always right about absolutely everything. So that helped me.
But I also realized this: I need to look at others as God does. I’m not great at it, but it changed everything about how I acted. Mostly because others loved me as God does: patiently, consistently. They didn’t pick fights and didn’t scold me. All the old aggression turned to useless dust. Anger matched with anger doesn’t change anger. Love may not always change anger – though it can – but it never ceases to be itself. It will always be more generous than disagreement. I only learned that when I was given a chance to experience it.
My disposition isn’t for everyone. Not all bear the same responsibilities. But it turns out I’m a rather gentle and attentive person. Dismantling others just isn’t for me. Unless it’s for someone I care about. Then I am, to quote a friend, “Ferocious.” What can I say? I’m used to defending things.
I’m saying all of this because truth isn’t a will to power. It’s beautiful. Christ is beautiful, and the Church is beautiful in him.
If only I had said to that colleague: “Let me tell you about the New Eve. She’s beautiful.”