Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Jewish Agnostic’s Discovery of Her God

She was an incredibly bright young copy writer for a leading Ad Agency with responsibility for the Ford account but writhing under an agony of spiritual emptiness. Though Jewish by ethnicity, she was totally lacking any kind of religious anchor. Written over 40 years ago, her self report, which follows, illustrates a fascinating journey from the darkness of “not knowing” to the joy of “arriving.”



I began this journey unprepared. I had no chance to consider, let alone inquire, what the standard things to take along might be, it is probably just as well, because they’re not the sort of thing you can readily lay your hands on. And although I have not reached my destination yet—or know for certain that I shall get there—I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world. Besides, truly experienced travelers may be right when they say that all you really need to take along is the right spirit, particularly when it’s an unplanned trip. When I set out, that November Tuesday not three months ago, I had no idea I was going anywhere.
Indeed, I was well on my way before I realized just where I might be headed. So far as I knew, the only place I was going that first evening was to “sit in on” a class in Catholic Instruction.

I never would have gone alone. A friend of mine was taking the course as a "refresher" before being baptized into the Church she had accepted four years earlier. Since she had every intention of going alone, this doesn’t say anything about why I went. Except that if she had not, I would not have. But she also went to California last year, and it never occurred to me to tag along. Chalk it up, if you like, to a mind uncomfortably atrophied from disuse, or to idle curiosity, or to the finger of Grace delivering an almost imperceptible nudge to an unsuspecting shoulder. Does it matter much now how I came to that first night? I do know I meant to go only that once, or perhaps twice. I certainly didn’t mean to register for the course. But the woman behind the reception desk assumed—with ample justification, to be sure—that anyone who was there was there for precisely that purpose. So I filled out the card she handed me, feeling the same dull edge of guilt one feels when one accepts an indefinite invitation to visit someone one has no intention of seeing again. I knew I felt uncomfortable; I had no idea how uncomfortable until my sub-conscious acted up and I couldn’t remember of telephone number, which was one of the harmless-seeming bits of information the card called for. I had to ask my friend, adding with a laugh of sorts, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

The class was quite large; there were twenty-five, perhaps thirty people there. Bent upon doing the greatest good for the greatest number, I expect, the priest translated Catholicism into everyday terms for us. In this way, the miracles became God’s Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval of Christ. Similarly, rejecting the validity of the Church’s authority and teachings because individual clerics happened to be notably fallible amounted to “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” My knowledge of theology was pathetically meager; yet I sensed that Catholicism was losing something in the translation. At times, I felt that what we were getting was not only freely translated, but was also an incomplete and perhaps even expurgated version of the “story.” We were told a good many facts about the Church, but the priest, I became increasingly convinced, was not about to go into its essence; he was, I felt, beating about the Burning bush, so to speak.

This life-size church could not be the giant that had captured the allegiance of John Henry Newman? Would Gerard Manley Hopkins have subjugated his rare gift to so down-to-earth a Church? Would its resurgence through the Oxford Movement have terrified Anthony Froude? Would, indeed, so matter-of-fact a Faith arouse the intellectuals of that generation—and others, including her own—to such fierce partisanship’ There had to be more to Catholicism than this! We were, I felt, circling the core. Its essence was not being communicated to us. Any more than “not seeing” communicates the essence of blindness. You don’t have to be blind to see that. Nor did I have to have the Catholic Faith to know that its essence transcended literal definition. Surely, I felt—as must the youngster who, having often heard it said that Moby Dick is the great American novel, finds himself with the Classic Comics version—surely, this isn’t the real thing, surely there must be another version.

During the third week of the course, we heard about “another version”. A friend of Janet knew of another course in Instruction, about which she had heard good things. It was given by the Paulist Fathers. Feeling we had little to lose, we changed courses at that point along the road.

Even before we turned up for the first lecture there, I found out one thing about the Paulist with whom we were to study that put me on my guard, father like a bold-face sign in a language you can’t read, but which you have a vague feeling says “STOP!” His name was Father James B. Lloyd. Which doesn’t hint at what e told Janet when she called to arrange our transfer into his class. Janet told him that she would be coming with a Jewish friend who was interested—but not in converting. That, Father Lloyd replied, was fine. Did she, incidentally, he asked Janet, know that he was Jewish?

We had both known only that I was Jewish; and only I had known how Jewish. Not that my family were religious Jews. They never took me to a synagogue. But I was at home with Jewishness as my parents knew it and instilled it in me. In accordance with their view, they taught me Yiddish and Jewish history and introduced me to Yiddish literature. Cultural identification—propagation of their culture—was their way of expressing their conviction that, in a world where Jews, even the most assimilated who conscientiously wanted no part of their Jewish heritage, might die because in the eyes of Gentiles they remained, then and forever, Jews—in such a world, my parents felt, one must live as a Jew? Then, if one were to die at Gentile hands, it would be because one had more of Jewishness than “Jewish blood.”

My father died when I was nine/ my mother when I was eighteen. After her death, I sought a new center. Because I no longer had some one to belong it, I sought some thing. And I sought it first in the observance of Judaism. But I was only made to feel my aloneness more severely; perhaps because there is so much of Jewish ritual a woman cannot perform. I did not find the sense of community, the comfort—the direction—I was
looking for. My sense of cultural identification did not increase; neither did it lessen. It seemed unrelated to the religious observance that I continued to “walk through.”

Thus I came to the first class with the priest who said he was Jewish. This man in the clerical collar was not devoted to the popularization of his Faith. He was, in his mid-thirties, and often looked younger for enthusiasm. This enthusiasm he offered without modification, but, one sensed, also without working at it, to his class. He offered them, as well, precision, succinctness, directness. He laughed easily. He often gestured broadly, not always consciously one felt, to indicate the enormity of the Universal Church—flashing rather extravagant cuff-links in the process. He conveyed a distinct sense of strength, reinforced but not based upon his physical bearing. Above all, although not oppressively apparent, was his contentedness. And, of course, there was the Jewishness. This last poked at the forefront of my mind again and again. I had for many years been self-conscious about my being Jewish; now I began to be self-conscious about his being Jewish.

I found myself making asides to Janet. When the Father made a particularly erudite point, I remarked that it was his Jewish half speaking. We speculated on his name: It was so blatantly not a Jewish name. Might the middle initial “B” stand for Bernie? My somewhat tasteless comments paled—but persisted—before my increasing suspicion that this man might be a threat to my position in that class—to my “observer” status. Surely one of the major obstacles to a Jew’s conversion to Catholicism is a fear of cultural betrayal—of forsaking his people, of negating their oftimes bare survival. This fear did not up and leave me; but it was quelled by the very fact of this man’s vocation. That he was a Jewish priest did not refute the notion of betrayal—but it did refute its inevitability. I was not on the verge of an instant conversion—I was a million light years or so away—but I knew then that if anyone could bring about my conversion this priest was that man. I was dismayed—but not enough to turn back lest I be confronted with the rightness of his Faith.

In the midst of this turmoil, a thousand questions unanswered, a hundred new doubts and self-doubts vying for my attention—and his help—Christmas came. We had come into Father Lloyd’s class toward the end of a course, I knew, and the fact that it didn’t coincide with the other course we had begun presented no great difficulty to my mind. But the fact that the course was now over—did. A new course wouldn’t begin until mid-January. I wondered whether or not I’d come back then. But what I really wondered about was the they didn’t see how foolhardy it was to give me this month in which to reconsider the wisdom of prolonging this journey into unknown country. I had not counted on Midnight Mass. My going there was not, of itself, unusual. I had been going to Midnight Service for more than ten years. And I had almost always chosen a Catholic Church to go to on Christmas Eve, because of the music, because of the pomp, because the worshippers seemed so much more—well, involved than in a Protestant Church.

I had, I recalled, envied them their involvement. But I had not begrudged it. Any more than I begrudge their voices to the children in grade school who could sing, who didn’t have to be a “listener” like me. It didn’t lessen the attraction music had for me. But it did make me feel an outsider, it did make me feel inadequate. It did make me feel keenly that I was ungifted. At Mass, too, I had always felt ungifted; as if God’s gift of faith were, like singing, a talent I didn’t have.

From the beginning this Midnight Mass was special. I had heard the Paulist Choir before; but never had their song seemed to transcend the star-embellished roof of the Church and reach for the real stars beyond. We had excellent seats; before, I had always kept to the side and toward the back, reluctant to displace those who really belonged. I felt no such reservations this night; and used by vantage point wholeheartedly. I took in everything, the festive altar, the flock of nuns, the priests of the order who, not participating in the Mass, came in singing and in pairs and took seats in the front pews. It was some time before I began to get jittery. Father Lloyd was not among the non-participating priests. Nor did he appear in front of the altar with the Fathers who were about to begin Mass. I felt loss grip me: my precarious tie with this place was fast slipping apart. Mass began. I tried to concentrate, in vain. It was full fifteen minutes after Mass began that Father Lloyd slipped down a side aisle and back toward the Sacristy. When he emerged, it was to pass in front of the altar, genuflect, then continue past the front of the Church and up the other side aisle. Only then did it dawn on me: he was to give the talk!

It was a sober talk, long for a Midnight Mass sermon. It was also cautionary. Father Lloyd talked about the tangents on which we stray from the central theme of Christmas—from its only real point. Then he extended his arm and wrist and hand and forefinger toward the crèche at the front of the church, until he seemed to touch the Infant in the cradle, and he said: “That Baby is God.” He had said it slowly. And then he said it once more. “That Baby is God.” And then there He was—for a second I would have sworn He was there.

The moment of recognition was fleeting. But I knew I had felt it. The way you know you have felt pain, even after it has gone and you cannot recapture its intensity: A shadow of its quality remains. Outside the Church, Mass over, I teased my friends: Did they know that it was my “beginner’s luck” that accounted for the fact that Father Lloyd, out of the some forty priests in that home base of the Paulists, had been chosen to give the talk? I did not mention my moment of recognition to them: what could I have charged that up to? And the other things. Little things. Like the time Father Lloyd said, “Do you know what we would say today if someone made the claims Christ did? We’d say: “who does He think He is, Almighty God?”

I thought it was a genuinely witty point and repeated it around. In a day or two I noticed that people’s laughter was great in proportion as was their devoutness: my avowed atheist and agnostic friends laughed little more then politely. Then I realized: it was really an
“inside joke”. And since when was I inside—even enough to “get” Father Lloyd’s joke? A little thing, to be sure, but then how does one size up a growing comfort in Church? Does one credit the quiet in an empty church with my sense of peace there? With my inclination to pause for breath there? I live alone; my apartment is as quiet as I like, and I generally keep either the phonograph or radio on when I am not watching TV. A little thing? Not in my eyes. Not now. And especially not during those weeks between classes when the peace was bright shining new—and sustained me.

For the first time, I could glimpse Faith, even though it wasn’t right in front of my eyes. For the first time, I felt, rather than knew, what these two lines by George Herbert are all about:
Methought I heard One calling, Childe;
And I reply’d, My Lord.

No, Faith had not burst forth full blown within me. But I felt the stirrings, like a half-grown fetus in the womb makes itself felt, declares its intention to be born—and to live.

My disinterest had vanished. My interest had not only grown, it had altered. I knew now that I had a real stake in the classes. Not quite like Saint Joan’s, I joshed myself, but of half the same shape. Without being able to pin down a moment in time, I had become committed. Not to the Church. But to the course of Instruction—to following the road, upon which I was still and repeatedly surprised to find myself, until the end. To see what might be there for me. When classes began again, I went with more enthusiasm than equilibrium. My faith was shakier than a newborn colt: it clearly could not stand on its own two feet. It wavered; it collapsed. But my faith in my self-sufficiency, in my ability to go on without faith, was shakier still.

That first class wass the hardest—it still is. The lecture was about the existence of God. I was not about to deny God’s existence at this juncture. But I wasn’t interested in not denying Him: I wanted to affirm him: And it was a strange God whom Father Lloyd confronted us with. A God of Justice—A God of Justice cum mercy even—that I could comprehend. But a loving God—or, to pin down the problem precisely, a God who loved me? If this were the God of Abraham—let alone the God of Job—He must have undergone a successful analysis, to have become so much less exacting, so much more giving. What Father Lloyd—what the Church—faced me with was a God who seemed too good to be true.

That week I went out and bought a medal of St. Jude. Which seems to me to say more about possibility than impossibility.

I had been going to Mass, but not regularly. The only thing I had been doing consistently—religiously, so to speak—were attending class and listening to the Sunday morning interview broadcasts Father Lloyd mediated. And then, the last Sunday of the
current series, I found myself with a choice to make. There was a special Mass that morning, in celebration of the conversion of St. Paul. In order to attend, I would have to miss half the broadcast, half the last broadcast for months.

I went to the Mass. It was a Pontifical Mass and quite exciting to see. But I think I was excited as much by my decision as by the ceremony. I had to recognize the milestone? The Mass meant more to me than the program. And I could see beyond: I was not, irrevocably bound to celebration about Catholicism; Father Lloyd was not longer my sole tie with St. Paul’s.

That evening I was at the movies. During the second feature I became restless. I wanted to be off: I wanted to be in church. I left the movie theatre and hurried to Blessed Sacrament, our parish church. That evening, for the first time, I touched my right knee to the floor.

That was a week ago, I go nearly every day to church now. But, how often I go to church is less relevant, it seems to me, than how far I must yet go—to the Church. Damascus is still beyond my horizon. When I go to bed, the Agnostic’s Prayer is still the one I say. When I kneel then, it is to tell God that, I cannot yet imagine His loving me, I am willing to try. And I am more than willing to know and love Him. God willing.


Ultimately, she was baptized into the Catholic Faith and became the prototype of the ideal lay Catholic. She was a daily communicant, deep into parish activities and generally the kind of Catholic the Church hope to see in this world. However, she met a famous Theologian from a prestigious religious order and fell deeply in love with him. They married with the intent to show, by leadership and example, what the ideal Catholic couple should be . In time, the gloss dissipated and their marriage broke up. Her interest in and quest for the spiritual life continued, however, and she found ethnic and spiritual rest in Judaism. She sees her quest as going from agnosticism to Catholicism which helped her to find God and finally to Judaism. Her affection and respect for Catholicism continues even to this day. I, as her instructor who baptized her a Christian, can understand her journey. Being half Jewish I know the great pull to the People, we call Jews, God’s chosen ones. She even now believes in Transubstantiation as an insight to the Holy Eucharist but feels truly at home at last. Is there any other response than wishing her God’s blessing and peace now that she is 70 years old?

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