Last week, over our Wednesday morning cup of coffee, a conservative Christian friend smiled as she told me I am the most conservative liberal she has ever met! There was a time when this would have brought anything but a smile to my face. But that day, I laughed out loud. I thanked her for recognizing in me a hard-fought battle that has landed me smack dab in the middle of the road.
In my younger years, the phrase middle of the road made my skin crawl. I was not going to be wishy-washy about the things in life that really mattered. No, I was going to be a strong, feminist Catholic woman who fought for the right causes. And the right causes seemed to me to be the liberal ones.
The parish I chose was liberal down to its toes. We used inclusive language at every turn and explored new ways to imagine God. We incorporated aspects of Eastern religions and Native American thought into parish life, and we turned up our noses at anything that smacked of old Catholicism. We were forging a new path that the American church desperately needed, and it felt good.
That lasted until I began to see cracks in the sidewalk along the way. A few parishioners wanted to start a prayer group based on the Rosary. You would have thought they wanted to turn the priest around and bring back the altar rail, for all the support they got. Then there was the new employee who came through the library in her first week and systematically removed any literature that could be construed as conservative. Wait a minute, something inside me tugged; isn’t that censorship? How is that a liberal stance?
The last straw for me was a run-in with the parish director of adult initiation. She told me in passing that she didn’t really believe in Jesus Christ. What was I to do with that? The rest of the staff was fine with her belief that Jesus was a good guy, an important prophet and man of history. I was not. I was all in favor of new ways and ideas, of change and progress, but unless I had missed something big, Jesus Christ was still the centerpiece of our Catholic faith. If being a liberal Catholic meant throwing out the baby with the bathwater, I was no longer interested.
So I found myself a new spiritual home - the conservative parish on the other side of town. Ah, it was like coming home to the Catholic Church of my childhood. I loved the reverence and passion for the faith, the incense and ritual. The old Irish pastor’s jokes were balm to my spirit after the intense intellectual homilies in my other parish. I sat back and let the smells and sights and sounds of Catholicism wash over me and heal some of the wounds I was nursing - for a while anyway.
Then, slowly, I noticed some things that concerned me. I loved stopping by the adoration chapel at any time of night or day, but it bothered me to hear folks citing statistics that nothing bad happened within a five-mile radius of the parish because of it. I believe in miracles, not magic. And the huge God Is Pro-Life banner displayed next to the altar left me wondering why we never heard anything from the pulpit about the death penalty or root causes of poverty. I began to feel tired watching the energy poured into dress-up Sunday and listening to homilies extolling the virtues of former times and the dangers of today’s corrupt world.
So I did something I had never done before: I became an uninvolved Catholic. I still went to Mass, sometimes the 9 a.m. weekday Mass with the dear old folks of the parish whom I loved from afar. But I found there was nothing in this place to throw myself behind. So I didn’t.
On long walks in the countryside I pondered all of this. I asked God to help me make sense of it. I gradually realized the pressure from both extremes to do it their way had me feeling bruised.
Then I came upon a few words of the Rev. Henri Nouwen. They were nothing new or earth-shattering, but profound nonetheless. In commenting on the plight of the poor in Latin America, Nouwen explains that the spiritual journey for this people of God (and for all of us) is not a journey from nothing to something. Rather, it is a journey on which they (and we) have already met the one for whom we are all searching. In other words, Jesus encounters us first! Discipleship, he writes, is first and foremost the response to an invitation. The saving work has been done; the victory over death has been won. The world’s salvation does not depend upon our actions. Jesus is the savior of the world, and we are free to respond to that good news without fear.
I felt as if my eyes were being opened. God’s love is at the center of everything. It is an invitation, setting us free to serve God’s kingdom. I had felt that I had to hold on tightly to a carefully crafted set of nuanced beliefs so that the other side would not gain too much ground and destroy the truth. But it is not up to us to put our spin on the truth. We don’t have to be afraid that we might get it wrong, that we might lose ground if we set foot outside our chosen camp. It is only up to us to respond to the same invitation Jesus gave the disciples when they asked where he was staying: Come and see.
From the middle of the road I can see in all directions. I can reflect on my personal encounters with the God of love and the Christ of the Gospels and not feel compelled to jump to one side or the other. I don’t have to carry the burden of saving the world. I can be free to respond in my life at each moment to God’s invitation. Hallelujah! This is, indeed, good news!
This is not to say it’s easy. In the middle of the road, sometimes the traffic can get downright scary. Maybe it is this challenge that has led to such strong polarization today in our church and country. It seems that both the left and the right are vying for air time, for our allegiance and for our votes. The attitude you’re either for us or against us leaves little room for authentic response.
Few things get under my skin as much as assumptions made about my beliefs based on where I live, attend church, vote or play. I do not fit into a box based on demographics or education or income. The only box I am willing to climb into is that of my faith. Sometimes that means a vote for the right, other times a vote for the left. Always it is a response to an invitation.
I am grateful that there are others who have modeled this for me. After the death of Pope John Paul II, the conservative network held him up as a champion of conservatism; the more liberal reports focused on his unwavering fight against oppression worldwide. No one could put him in a box. He was a servant of God, responding always to the call of Christ.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, a vocal champion for the poor in his native El Salvador, remained true to his traditional Catholic roots while at the same time becoming a strong social critic. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, whom many feared and labeled a Communist because of her radical stance on poverty and possessions, was at the same time a spokesperson for deeply held traditional Catholic values. The liberation spirituality and theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez has made many American Catholics (and our late pope himself) suspicious of his liberal leanings; yet his ideas are founded strictly on Catholic and biblical principles and fed by the experiences of the great saints.
These people inspire me to sit comfortably in the middle of the road and not be afraid to respond however I must to each passing issue. I can have coffee with my conservative Christian friend and listen to her views without feeling threatened. I may disagree with some and agree with others. From my vantage point it does not matter. I am free to respond to Jesus’ invitation to come and see where he lives.