Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Love & Denial

 When I was nine years old I wanted to be Johnny Bench.
Granted, in 1975 the Cincinnati Reds were all the rage - I had a red cap that I wore every waking hour everywhere I went, and I had my mother spell out "Cincinnati" in felt iron-on letters across the back of my (red) jacket.
But in reality I didn't know much about Johnny Bench or the Cincinnati Reds.
I wanted to be a catcher, and that year Johnny Bench was the best there was.
When I was growing up I loved to play baseball.
My brother and I and a group of neighborhood kids played on one of the empty lots that were still around at that time. Housing developments, a restaurant, and a train station parking lot have since taken those over.
Occasionally we'd play in the street right in front of our house, giving no thought to the fact that we were smacking a very hard ball in the very close vicinity of some very breakable car windows.
When I couldn't find anyone else to play with me I'd stand on the front lawn and bounce a tennis ball off the sloped roof of our cape-cod style house. The ball would spring high in the air and I'd center myself under it with my mitt, pretending that I was shagging flies in the outfield.
I did this so often I wore a hole in the grass on our front lawn.
My mom didn't seem to mind....she was happy I wasn't in the backyard kicking around a soccer ball and using her rose bushes as the goal posts.
I wanted to be a catcher because I loved the equipment they wore.
I had a well worn outfielders mitt, that I lovingly oiled and kept tied with a ball in its pocket to break it in. But I wanted a catcher's mitt. It looked different from all the other baseball mitts. It was round with a deep pocket in the center.
And I wanted a catcher's mask.
With all its straps and padding and metal bars across the eyes. 
Simply putting it on signified that you were a real baseball player....and not just any player, but the catcher. The one who calls the game behind the plate. The one whom all runners must get past to score.
To say I pined over that special catcher's equipment would be an understatement.
I used to stay up at night staring longingly at the pages of the sporting goods section in the JC Penny catalog; looking at pictures of the mitt and the mask that I so wanted...but I knew I would never have.

Catchers equipment was expensive, and it didn't make sense to have it unless you were playing in a real baseball game, on a real baseball team.....and that was something I could never do.
I was a girl...and in the mid-1970's on Long Island girls did not play Little League baseball, only boys had that privilege.
Girls played softball.
I hated softball.
The ball was too big and too difficult to catch.
I liked the feel of the small, hard ball in my hands. I liked the sound it made when it landed solidly in my mitt. I liked the way I could close the mitt around it and run without having it fall out.
Johnny Bench did not play softball.
Baseball was my love....but the only taste I had of it was those sandlot games and my late night day-dreaming over the JC Penny catalog.

I experienced the same dashed hopes sitting in the hard wooden pews at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church, as I watched my brother don a special robe, step up to the altar and assist the priests in serving at the daily and weekly Masses.
I wanted to serve as well.
I wanted to help the wear the special robe, to hold the book that they read from, and to be allowed to touch all the special things that they used.
I wanted to be behind the altar in that special place, close to God.
But that was something I could never do.
I was a girl....and at that time, in that place, girls were not allowed to serve at the altar, only boys had that privilege.
Girls were allowed to sing in the choir.
But I did not want to sing in the choir.
Being present in the place of Word and Sacrament was my love....but the only taste I had of it was viewed from the outer edges, when I walked up to receive Communion every week.

I left the Catholic Church long before I felt a call to the ministry.
Unless you count my longing to be an altar-girl as the first sign of a call.
But I didn't realize how deep the pain of hearing "you're not allowed" ran within me, until I heard a friend of mine who is on the path to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, give voice to that same pain.
The Episcopal Church is her adopted home.
Like me she's in her mid-40's and she was raised a Roman Catholic.
But unlike me, she was very active in the Church right up until the time she felt the call to ministry. Two years ago, after many years of frustration and denial, she made the painful choice to switch allegiances.
I watched the tears flow out of her in heaving sobs as she spoke of her love of her Catholic faith, and the pain she felt when she realized she could not honor her call and that love in the same place.
She is grieving this loss at the same time she is going through seminary and preparing to be an Episcopal Priest.  At the age of 46 she's learning new ways of doing "church"....she's learning new prayers, new litanies, new styles of worship, and a new system of church structure and politics.
But she doesn't love the Episcopal Church.
She still considers herself to be a Catholic...and she shed more tears when she spoke of being denied Communion when she returned to her family's Church for her uncles' funeral.
Her pain is fresh...but in listening to her speak of that pain it reminded me that I too carry the scars of being told I was not capable of serving the Church - of serving God - in the way that I wanted given the gender that God gave me. 

Some things do change.
Girls can now play Little League baseball and serve at the altar.
But some things may never change.
There will always be things that we want to do that others will tell us we cannot do.
There will always be longings that we have that are destined to go unfulfilled. 
There will always be love that we feel that we cannot express or live out in the way that we feel compelled to do.

This is because we live in a broken world.
But we also live in an evolving world. 
A world where the Kingdom is both right now, and not yet.
A world where little girls can play baseball, but women least not in the Major League.
A world where little girls, and women, can serve at the altar....but in most churches they still cannot stand in the pulpit or break bread in Jesus' name.

I don't expect the Catholic Church - or any other church that denies ordination to women - to change its ways anytime soon. At least not in my lifetime.
I'm blessed to serve a church that does ordain women....and just as importantly for me, ordains GLBTQ clergy as well.  I admire women, like my Episcopal seminarian friend, who make the courageous decision to honor God's call even if it means leaving the faith tradition that they love. But I also deeply admire the women who have chosen to stay, even if it means denying their call, and have found other ways in which to serve God while continuing to push for change from within.

We live in a broken world.
A world in which love and denial often walk hand-in-hand.

But with God's help, we have the power to mend the breaks and heal the scars.
We have the power to erase the phrase "you're not allowed" from our vocabularies.
I for one, am tired of hearing it.

Let me grab my catcher's mask and I'll meet you behind home plate....we've got some work to do.