Clearly, during my freshman year I had become quite Catholic again. True it was a different kind of Catholicism than the uninformed one I had practiced in childhood, but it felt just as, if not more, meaningful. I feel like I should have received the sacrament of Confirmation during my freshman year of college, rather then in my freshman year of high school, as I had. I could truly say with conviction that I wanted to be Catholic.
You can see then why I was frustrated when I was asked multiple times during my second semester if I was converting to Islam. A few questions were verbalized and others weren’t, but I knew people were wondering. I had recently joined the board Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association, in order to increase my own knowledge of Islam and help others learn more about Islam through outreach. I also decided to live in the Muslim Interest Living Community during my sophomore year, a community for Muslims and those interested in the faith and culture. I felt it was important to learn about Islam not just from my classes and textbooks, but also from my interactions with those Muslims on campus who were and would become my friends.
Still, I knew kids wondered if I was a potential convert; no one knew my story about my recent rededication to Catholicism or why I was so interested in Islam.
I felt a bit misunderstood by the Muslim community at Georgetown, but I quickly realized that I should feel that way. All of my Muslim friends are deeply misunderstood because of their faith or the way they look or dress; they often are the minorities among a Christian majority. If I wanted to truly learn about the Muslim experience, I needed to face what it was like to be a minority and feel misunderstood about my religion. I tried to embrace this situation, realizing that it would help me to better understand my Muslim friends.
I went on the Muslim Students Association retreat in the spring, still feeling a bit out of place. Much of the time was spent praying, which is done very differently in Islam that in Christianity. I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Islamic prayer–I had attended Jumu’ah prayer (the weekly Muslim service on Friday afternoons) with my friend in the winter time–but the protocol was still new to me. My friend helped me wrap up my hair in a scarf and I took off my shoes, walking onto the prayer rug. As the minutes went on, I began feeling distracted as the prayer leader was saying the long ayat (verses) in Arabic–beautiful as they were–and I felt hurried when I had to stand, kneel, and bend continuously. Parts of it were even painful to me, like when I had to sit back on my legs, with my bottom against my feet, or when my head was pressed to the floor. My body wasn’t used to those movements. Funnily enough, when my Muslim friend came to Mass with me a few times, she mentioned how uncomfortable kneeling on the kneeler was to her. While that still hurts my back a little, it’s not that painful for me anymore. We both were not used to these new prayer positions.
Throughout the standing portions of prayer, when Muslims place their hands against their stomachs, I kept having this desire to fold my hands. I have only prayed before with folded hands, so doing anything else just didn’t seem right. I didn’t want to break protocol and fold my hands, but after a while, I realized that I should fold my hands, even if the rest of the congregation wasn’t praying that way. Prayer is a time to connect to God, and I realized that I should engage in whatever prayer practices helped me to do that, as long as they weren’t offending anyone or disturbing the prayer atmosphere.
I closed my eyes and thought “Yes, this is right for me.” That moment gave me another reaffirmation that I was and wanted to be Catholic. During the rest of the standing portions, I folded my hands and began to feel my mind focusing on God more easily.
I think a lot of the reason why I returned to Catholicism was because it was comfortable and familiar. And I think that’s ok. It’s ok because I took my time to explore new beliefs and practices; I didn’t just stay stuck in a passive rut and continue to be Catholic without trying new things. If I had been complacent, my reasoning for remaining Catholic–that it was comfortable–wouldn’t have been ok. Without learning new things and challenging oneself, faith becomes meaningless, even if it is comfortable.
I didn’t return to Catholicism because I believed it held the monopoly on correct beliefs or had the most accurate view of God. I don’t think Catholicism is any better than any other religion. All religions hold religious Truth–they just express it in different ways. I see great beauty in Islam and Hinduism particularly, and it is in learning about those religions that I was able to finally appreciate the good things in Catholicism. I have taken important things away from these faiths. From Islam, the call to pray often and always have God on one’s mind, and from Hinduism, the view that all things are fragmented expressions of God’s grandeur. Of course there are many other things I admire, too.
I returned to Catholicism because it was right for me. I feel that I can best reach a close relationship God by being Catholic. Just because it’s right for me, doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. After religious exploration, some people might feel the need to convert; they might have found a new tradition that suits them more than the one of their youth. Fortunately for me, I felt a call to stay Catholic. I’ve also realized that even though my Catholicism is different from many other Catholics’, it doesn’t make my “version” any less right or true.
Now, when I’m at the 9:30pm Mass at Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown, and when I see the incense–the way it curls out of the swinging, golden bulb and floats up into the dark wood rafters–I’ll think of a reflection written Bonnie Amesquita, a woman who fell away from the Church despite her deep appreciation for it. Her experience with the Church greatly mirrors my own, but luckily, unlike her, I found a way to stay.
“My Catholicism is a part of who I am. It is my childhood, my mother, my father, my way of seeing the world, my way of seeing myself, and my way of responding to those I love. It’s even my secret belief that a rosary that’s been blessed feels different, that once blessed it allows me to hold it and the hand of God at the same time. And [my Catholicism] is responsible for be believing that I am brother’s keeper.
“The Church has given me so much and it has disappointed me in equal measure…but I will always love what my mother told me the Church was about: justice and love and compassion and tolerance and ecumenism–and the courage of intelligence and conscience in the face of conventional wisdom. …And I will always wonder why I cried whenever the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, was recited.”
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. –T.S. Eliot
Special thanks must go to my mother, father, and brother; the Carmelite Sisters who formerly lived in Indianapolis; the Jesuits at Brebeuf and Georgetown; my high school religion teacher; my freshman dorm chaplain; and my current roommate. Thank you for responding to my questions with more questions–it was only because of them that I was able to reach some answers.