In college I was part of my school’s Multifaith Council, a group of students from different religious and spiritual backgrounds who gathered regularly for discussions, retreats, and to plan campus-wide events. At one of our retreats, we were having a discussion about worship services across various traditions. I was describing the practice of Catholic Mass when a student from another tradition asked, “Doesn’t it get hard to pay attention and stay engaged when most of the Mass is exactly the same every week?”
The question surprised me, not because it was a surprising question but because it had never occurred to me before. I could see where he was coming from—wouldn’t repeating many of the same words, songs, and actions week after week eventually desensitize me to their meaning? However, my immediate reaction, though I struggled to explain it, was that it didn’t. The way I eventually explained it that day was by comparing the Mass to a favorite song: you love to listen to it over and over again. The thoroughness with which you know every word is part of the satisfaction, and each time you listen a different part might stand out to you in a new way.
Another way I have explained this feeling is to liken a particular tradition of liturgical practice to one’s first language. Though it is possible to become familiar with and even fluent in other languages, it is rare that someone fully attains the same level of comfort and ease as in the language with which they were raised. In the Mass, for me, each symbol, each phrase conveys a depth of meaning beyond its face value that I can grasp without any thought or interpretation.
I was explaining this thought about language to one of my college’s chaplains not long after the Multifaith Council retreat, and he asked what I thought about conversion. “Is true conversion possible?” Sure, I said. History is full of stories of people having deep experiences of conversion that dramatically alter their lives’ course. “Do you think conversion is possible for you?” he countered. Oh, no, I answered immediately. I’m too deeply rooted in Catholicism to ever leave it. He didn’t say anything but, as was his particular knack, smiled a smile full of unspoken meaning. I brushed this off with all the self-confidence of a college senior. I knew I was right.
But in the years that followed, as my chaplain may have guessed, I grappled both with disillusionment with my own tradition and curiosity about others. As I got more involved in grassroots community organizing, I began to wonder: What would it be like to align myself with a faith tradition that new acquaintances would immediately identify as supportive of progressive movements? What would it be like to worship in a community that intentionally incorporated social justice principles into its liturgy rather than relegating them to a tradition of “social teaching” that relatively few people know much about?
I tried out services in a variety of traditions—Quaker, Unitarian Universalist, even a secular Society for Ethical Culture—and found things I appreciated about each. But none of them ever felt quite right. The familiar symbols, songs, words, and movements of the Mass were missing, and with them some level of deeper meaning that I couldn’t fully articulate. Though I had poked my head through the door of conversion, I wavered on the threshold, trapped between what I felt unwilling to give up to stay in my home tradition and what I felt unwilling to give up to leave it.
At the opening retreat of this year’s Re/Generation cohort, I met so many others who also found themselves on that threshold. They helped me see that it does not have to be a temporary pass-through on the way to one side of the doorway or the other; the threshold itself can be a sacred space.
In particular, I saw that being on the threshold was allowing some of these people to adapt Catholic tradition in generative new ways. I learned about Catholic communities that do identify themselves with progressive movements and do explicitly incorporate social justice principles into their liturgies. Like a theme and variations, they take the familiar “song” of the Catholic Mass and change certain parts of it to make them more inclusive and affirming. I realized that I found these changes to be particularly meaningful because they used the liturgical “language” I was most familiar with to introduce new practices and ideas.
I decided that these practices—everyday Catholics’ creative adaptations of traditional Catholic liturgy—were something I wanted to explore more deeply in the project I will complete during my time in ReGeneration. By exploring and documenting some of these liturgical variations, I hope to gain a deeper understanding for myself of what it is about Catholic ritual practices that holds me here, and to be able to share some insights about this with others who find themselves at the threshold.
Based on the liturgies I have participated in and conversations I have had so far, I am wondering whether it might be useful to think of conversion less as a one-time, life-altering moment of throwing out the old and bringing in the new. Perhaps for me, and maybe for others, it will look more like the gradual evolution that a language goes through over time, as some words cease to be useful, some change their meaning, and new ones are introduced. Maybe it looks more like setting the familiar lyrics of a favorite song to a new melody.