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The Same Instructions

This essay appeared in Broad Magazine in December 2012.

At the end of the Apostles’ Creed as recited every Sunday in church during my childhood, there are the following lines:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and life everlasting.

This piece of the liturgy was easy for me to grasp – even as a child I knew I believed in all of these things.  I would recite along confidently until I came to one small detail: the word “catholic.”  As I stood between my mother and grandmother each week, I knew that I would stumble there as two different words reached my ears, as my mother said “catholic” and my grandmother said “Christian.”  My grandmother was louder than my mother and each week I would become confused, losing the rhythm of the Creed as I tried to assimilate the difference.  Finally I asked my grandmother about it.

My grandmother was the first relative on the maternal side of my family to convert from Catholicism in order to join the Lutheran church.  Defecting in her late teens, she began to attend church with her Lutheran friends.  In doing so, she found that she preferred the simplicity of Lutheran practice, the direct access to God through prayer rather than only by way of intercession.  She also observed the comparative lack of politics in the Lutheran Church, in opposition to the Catholic Church; politics not in the specific sense of positions and social policy but rather the apparent belief of the Catholic hierarchy that people were worthy to judge the choices of others.  In light of this long history, when I asked about her rhetorical choice in the Creed, she replied passionately that she simply could not bring herself to say ‘catholic.’  She was too deeply alienated by her upbringing to utter the word in her new church home.

I objected to this immediately – I had learned quite young that the term “catholic” in the Creed was a term meaning universal; it bore no relationship to the faith of my paternal family, or earlier generations of maternal relatives.  Why, I wanted to know, if she understood this distinction, could she not bring herself to say the Creed correctly?  Her other answer seemed to reflect a lack of understanding that I knew to be false.  This second inquiry never received a satisfactory answer, but instead, week after week, my grandmother would pronounce her belief in “the holy Christian church” as the rest of the assembled declared our belonging amongst the general catholic masses.  I tried a number of other times to press my grandmother into the switch, but she would have none of it.  The vehemence of her response, in fact, led me to refer to elaborate Catholic rituals at “the Catholic terror,” a term applicable to everything from incense to Hail Marys.  I joined my grandmother in rejecting the majority of such practices, but we continued to speak our profession of faith differently.

* * *

If my grandmother has caused me some confusion in regards to the appropriate phrasing of the Apostles’ Creed, or some frustration at her adamant stance about saying “holy Christian church,” the strength of her beliefs has taught me an important lesson.  That strength does not make itself known in bull-headed refusal to engage in conversation or to respect other people’s beliefs.  No, she is more than willing to explain her thoughts, and will adapt her beliefs if some new light is shed upon them, as she notably did in regards to creationism after a particularly good sermon about evolution.  Rather, my grandmother’s strong faith causes any note of outside challenge to fall away, to vacate its hostility or tendency towards oppression at the moment of encounter.  Her faith contains a kind of certainty, placed entirely in God.

To my grandmother then, phone calls from politicians trying to lobby her Republican vote against gay marriage and abortion rights are the perfect sites for the exercise of faith.  Answering the phone, she listens as the person on the other end constructs a leading question, one meant to draw her further into the cause.  After all, a person in her seventies, a registered Republican, she seems like an excellent target for conservative politics and pandering.  Instead, she pauses before answering, “I don’t think that’s up to me.  Only God can decide that.”

In those moments, my grandmother becomes a surprising breed of feminist in the eyes of these poll workers.  Unwilling to enact her will in the place of God’s, my grandmother’s answer echoes her profession of faith, her belief in “God, the Father, the Almighty” and in the forgiveness of sins upon the day of judgment.  Her feminism is centered on her faith, on her belief that she has the same right to speak to God as a male priest, that she has no more knowledge and no less than those priests of what God desires of us because we are all working from the same set of instructions.  Until further notice, then, she will not be the barrier to any one else’s autonomy or decision-making.

In the wake of such phone calls, my grandmother has told me she is retracting her Republican Party membership in favor of the status of Independent, but that is not the whole truth.  Rather, instead of independence from party-line values, my grandmother’s political shift is towards a location that doesn’t believe itself to be the arbiter of sin.  She doesn’t need someone else’s values to tell her what she believes, but only the word of God and the patient belief that it will all be decided in time.

My grandmother’s God may or may not be a feminist, but I will just have to wait in order to find out.  I suppose I can say no more and no less about my own God at this juncture.  While politically I may hold more points of contention than my grandmother around social policy, her answer is ultimately the only accurate one for our shared eternal lives: only God can decide.  Until then, in both religious and political community we can only protect each other’s autonomy, hold each other’s choices up to the light of respect and be still.  So that when my grandmother says she believes in the holy Christian church, what she believes in is this respect, and when I say I believe in the holy catholic church, I extend a hand with that same meaning.

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