Spit and Mud


What I remember most about church is all the sitting, standing, and kneeling, the stink of incense, the calm of the priest’s voice, the hard wooden pews, and not really understanding why every Sunday, I found myself, alongside my family, in the same place, mindlessly repeating prayers by rote. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. It was a ritual and I was a part of it even if I felt little connection. I had faith because I was supposed to have faith and then I didn’t but I still went along with the ritual because it was familiar.

I was raised in a devout Catholic home but I wasn’t oppressed by my family’s Catholicism. My parents were religious but they were not evangelical. We were raised to believe God is a God of love—no fire or damnation and they’ve made great strides in embracing things that might have once made them uncomfortable. I am ever grateful for that. The only thing that truly oppressed me about church on Sunday and CCD on Mondays, was boredom. Thankfully, I had an active imagination so I used my time wisely and devoted myself to daydreams and admiring the pomp and circumstance.

There came a time when I stopped going to church. I didn’t see the point in going through the ritual when it held so little meaning for me. I also wanted no part of a church with terrible stances on issues that mean so much to me. I cannot reconcile the Catholic God—one who would turn a blind eye to children sexually abused by priests, to those of us who are gay or bisexual, to those of us who want to have unfettered access to birth control and the right to reproductive freedom—with the God of love I was raised with.  I’d rather have no faith than be part of a faith so rigid and exclusionary. It is hard to rid yourself, though, of years of Catholic doctrine. My body continues to hold the memories of prayer and ritual.

A family member died this fall. He was way too young, killed by a drunk driver. We convened to attend his funeral, held in a beautiful church—gorgeous murals, a soaring cathedral, ornate pews. Catholics know how to create stunning places to worship. The priest was affable and very good at his job. He joked that this was the first funeral mass he had given where there was a skateboard in the church and managed to find the right blend of humor and sorrow and anger at a senseless death. He did what we hope religious leaders can do when they are called upon—he filled the church and the people mourning within its walls, with a bit of faith, whether they were devout or lapsed.

Throughout the mass, I was struck by how I remembered when to sit and stand and kneel. I was able to recite the prayers as if no time had passed between my childhood and that moment. But still, I kept thinking, this beautiful, hallowed place is part of a church that stands against everything I stand for. Any spark of faith I felt was quickly extinguished.

On February 11, Pope Benedict resigned, said he was no longer up to the rigors of the papacy. His resignation was unexpected and it’s odd. It feels like there is more to the story though we may never know. The last pope who resigned did so 598 years ago. People at all levels of the church hierarchy expressed surprise at Pope Benedict’s decision to resign but there was also sympathy from church officials, from everyday people. It is a difficult job to be the spiritual leader for millions, to dedicate your life to constant service, and of course, to be the leader of an institution who holds, among its principles, the oppression of women, the denial of homosexuals, and the protection of pedophiles. Such corrupt leadership is a burden, I imagine, that can make an old man feel more ancient than his years.

When the Pope’s resignation was announced, the Pope jokes and witty barbs were everywhere. This is how we respond to common cultural events. This is a new kind of ritual. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. I personally wondered what Robert Langdon would think about this turn of events. I am very interested in symbology.

Of course, it’s easy to judge the pope and the Catholic Church in the same way it’s easy to have opinions about anything that is so much larger than ourselves. It’s easy to judge when you’re not in the position to be so judged, when you will likely never be in such a position. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pass judgment and Pope Benedict, in particular, has given us many, many reasons to judge.

He is a consummate scholar whose ideology is theologically conservative. Since assuming the papacy, he has dedicated himself to returning the church to its most fundamental, conservative values. Rather than softening the church’s stances, he became more deeply entrenched in his beliefs and practices and, in turn, the church’s beliefs and practices. I do not believe Pope Benedict is an evil man. He is simply… a man, brilliant, deeply flawed in large part because of his faith, and part of a sprawling religious institution whose corruption began before he was the leader and will continue long after his resignation.

I keep trying to have an open mind about the issues that challenge me most. In this instance, it is particularly difficult. I tell myself Pope Benedict is not an evil man. I tell myself the church does more good than evil. But then I think about children who trusted their spiritual leaders and had that trust broken in the most terrible ways and were then shamed or silenced. I think about people who merely want to love who they want to love, who are shunned and shamed. I think about women carrying pregnancies to term because they have no other choice, because their priests tell them it is God’s will. It is really hard to do anything but judge when faced with this painful reality. I judge even though this is so much bigger than me, so beyond me, and still so close.

The Pope announced his resignation. He will be replaced by someone who will be just like him—brilliant, deeply flawed, part of a corrupt system, unwilling to change it. It feels hopeless. It is one more reason why I still struggle to have faith of any kind.

But still, as I said, my body continues to hold certain memories. I always found the Bible interesting. I enjoyed reading it as a book of stories. There was so much beautiful prose and I admired the fragility of the Bible’s pages between my fingers. There is a story about Jesus giving sight to a blind man in the Gospel of John, Chapter 9, Verses 6-11.

When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam. He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing. The neighbours therefore, and theywhich before had seen him that he was blind, said, Is not this he that sat and begged? Some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am he. Therefore said they unto him, How were thine eyes opened? He answered and said, A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight.

There was something about this story, about this miracle of a blind man being given sight, that has always appealed to me. It always makes me think of how we take sight for granted but it also makes me think of how sometimes we incorrectly assume a blind eye is being turned to injustice simply because nothing is said.

When Pope John Paul II died, my mother took it hard. He was a good man, she believed, who had done a great deal of good throughout the world. On the morning Pope Benedict resigned, I called to see how she was taking the news and she said, it was for the best, what with the church’s shameful business of covering up all the raping of children. I was so proud. I wished, in that moment, and in many moments since, that miracles were possible, that all it might take was spit and mud and anointment so the next pope might receive the sight necessary to right so much wrong.


First image by John K. Nakata.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and Hunger forthcoming in 2017. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. Roxane was the founding Essays Editor and is a current Advisory Board member for The Rumpus. You can find her at roxanegay.com. More from this author →