The water cooler crowd literally took a step back from me after my mentioning I had been to Mass over the weekend. In unison, they declared, in disbelief, You’re CATH-o-lic? I felt like I had two noses or something. Upon regaining my composure, I recall thinking to myself – “Oh, so THAT’s what that feels like.” I grew up in the northeast, attended Catholic schools grades one through twelve, and even completed one year at a Catholic college for women. Marriage however did not only move me to the south, but also into a religious minority.
Over the years I have had a string of similar experiences. A single woman from one circle of friends became pregnant, but asked others not to tell me, as she feared my reaction – “Susan is a practicing Catholic, you know.” One fall, I joined a book discussion group that gathered on Wednesday evenings. When I arrived for the meeting in February, I had ashes on my forehead, as it was Ash Wednesday. The greeting that evening was “You mean some people still really DO that?” I was deeply humiliated that evening as I was asked to hold up my bangs so they could all have a good look.
Recently, I was shocked again while attending in a meeting of a professional organization a frustrated member complained that frequently she was unable to reach anyone by phone at their office. The meeting chairman responsed with an apology for this inconvenience, at which time the complaining party interrupted her to say “Now, it is not your fault: you don’t have to say you’re sorry. You’re not Catholic.” This, I believe, was a reference to the holy sacrament of confession where if one has sincere sorrow for one’s sins, one can be forgiven.
A couple of weeks ago, one of my students came into my office on a quiet afternoon. She is a practicing Muslim who is not completely robed, but she does cover her head. She explained that one of her teachers had used her prophet’s name, Mohammed, in a way that made her uneasy. She told me what a great teacher this professor was and that she had much respect for him. She explained, as best she could in her second language, that she knew in her heart that he would want to know if he had offended her, and he would also not want to offend any one else.
As I sat beside her and helped her edit the letter she had composed to this professor explaining her unease, I realized that this covered woman wears her ashes every day. Most certainly, this is not an easy task for a young woman in today’s world – and so far away from her own home. I understood then that the experiences I have had over the years regarding my faith had served me quite well. I knew where my student was coming from, and because of this, I was able to help her.
And so I have come to realize that it is not necessarily a bad thing to be in the minority and get bashed around for it once in a while. It is important to know what that feels like, for it helps one to avoid –as best one can – the awful temptation to bash back. For it only needs to happen to you once to know that you wouldn’t want to put your worst enemy where that basher put you – and your faith – for that miserable moment.
Note to my readers: Since writing this piece, I have left the Catholic Church. But the lesson remains intact!
Photo courtesy of Rosebud Baker