My Religious Promiscuity

At my high school — for the sake of this post, let’s call it Boarding School — students were required to attend a religious service. Options included Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim observances, or there was even “sacred silence” for those who didn’t identify with a particular religion. Sacred Silence occurred once a week and was open to anyone who might be interested in sitting in a dark chapel to think, meditate, or pray.

I’m not Catholic, but if my dad’s religious rebellion was to move from Catholicism to charismatic Christianity in the 1970s, part of my own religious promiscuity has been an interest in Catholicism. I suppose part of my respect for Catholicism stems from their willingness to carry premises out to logical conclusions. That doesn’t mean I always think Catholics are always right, especially given their record of systematically shielding sexually-abusive priests. But scandals aside, I respect that Catholics are often willing to cut against the cultural grain.

I dated a Catholic girl during my senior year at Boarding School and often attended mass with her. At the time, I held a leadership position called “Chaplain’s Aid” for a short time. My duties involved helping the chaplain and Catholic priest set up for their respective services. One of the most memorable tasks of the job was to fill up the bowl of “holy water” from the bathroom tap. Yes, I understand that the Father’s blessing is what made the water holy, but I still found the task a bit ironic.

At the time, I was also involved with a Christian youth group of sorts on Sunday nights. Different adults led the group from time-to-time. I recall one specific week in which the Catholic priest hosted the weekly meeting in his home, and I was the only person who showed up. The group was usually much-better attended than that, so this wasn’t the norm at all. I knew the man a little bit because he co-taught an Introduction to Christianity course with the Protestant chaplain. The course was structured in a scholarly and philosophical fashion, which fit with who the Protestant chaplain was. One of my classmates had, at some point, expressed some frustration that we didn’t ever really open the Bible for the class. The chaplain seemed confused; why would do that?

Oddly, I found myself trusting the Catholic priest, but there was still a feeling of discomfort about being in his home without anyone else around. Nothing inappropriate happened, as I used the time to ask him questions about Catholicism, but with hindsight, I can see how easily it would have been to prey on me, had he been the kind of person to do something like that.

As for my relationship with the Protestant chaplain, it seemed tense, at best. Some of that was about my father’s disagreements with the man’s theological and methodological bents. For example, there was the time that my dad – after a Muslim speaker had filled the pulpit for a Protestant service – asked the Chaplain if a Christian would be speaking at the Muslim service, because, if so, he was a willing candidate. Of the many times when I have been frustrated with my father, this wasn’t really one of them. Even to this day, I believe his argument was pretty logical, though of course the answer was no, no Christian would be speaking at the Muslim gathering.

This leads me to another memory regarding the chaplain. One of my peers approached me with a survey about the campus’s religious services. I remember giving him some feedback that communicated my thoughts that the religious offerings seemed bland, at best a lowest-common-denominator approach. A couple days later, my peer came back to me, and we shared a laugh because the chaplain had seen the feedback and guessed that it came from me. I guess my zealotry was a little predictable.

The women who usually led the youth group was a woman I’ll call Sharon. She was in her mid-to-late twenties at the time and in the process of converting to Catholicism. One night, she sent an e-mail to the group that said she was going to be at Sacred Silence, in a little side chapel, praying the Rosary. Did any of us want to join her? I was, once again, the only on to take up the invitation, and Sharon taught me how to pray the Rosary, though I don’t remember any of it.

What I remember way more than the Rosary was a conversation I had with Joe, one of my childhood friends and a former football teammate. He told me he’d heard a rumor and wanted to talk to me about it. A magazine reporter had been on campus because the Iraq War was just getting under way, and the journalist wanted to compare the political attitudes of our military school with those from a pacifist Quaker school somewhere else. Apparently the reporter had been in Sacred Silence the night I learned to pray the Rosary. Without talking to Sharon or me, or even so much as peaking in the side chapel, he just assumed that a guy and girl were ducking into the room for reasons other than their spiritual development. Joe had heard that the two people were Sharon and me and wanted to know if I had something going on with a faculty member.

I was appalled and of course assured him nothing was going on, that I had been learning to pray the Rosary. Joe had kind of a religious mutt background himself – his father was Catholic, his mother Mormon – so he seemed to understand. But after talking to him, I looked up the article and found that it really did read as amateur and sensationalist as Joe suggested. A total cheap shot. I fired an angry e-mail at the reporter, who offered to run a correction. I let the reporter off the hook, but I probably shouldn’t have.

More than a decade after the incident, that reporter’s cheap journalism is still disturbing, but so is some of my own behavior in these situations. Never mind that I had been at an age where people expected me to be sneaking off to the shadows to explore the female body instead of learning to pray the Rosary. The bigger questions, I think, are: why was I, on more than one occasion, so oblivious, so unaware of boundaries? How easy would it have been for me to get taken advantage of by an abuser? Does any of this say something specific about me, about my own longing for Divine connection, or does it simply suggest that I was out to please adults? What “award” was I trying to win?

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