During Minnesota winters the world becomes hard. The earth is shrouded in snow; the lakes are covered in a pall of ice. There is a crispness to the light, a biting edge to the wind. Death and desolation appear to be the only realities.
Such hardness characterizes my brokenness. I spent my undergraduate career in a little town in Kansas, where winter is mild in comparison to Minnesota. The temperature generally remains above zero; snow comes and then melts within a few days; it is not safe to walk on lakes that appear to be frozen.
But this isn’t a story of comparative winters.
It’s a story of forgiveness.
When I went to college I expected an atmosphere of academic openness where ideas would be sown, tended, reaped, and sown again. In some places they were. Where I need them to be—in the realm of theology—they weren’t.
My introductory theology class was taught by one of the most celebrated professors on campus. Students loved him, respected him, and admired him. I expected to feel the same way. Until I arrived at the first class meeting.
Professor Thomas lectured passionately. He commanded the room, his voice as authoritative and definite as church doctrine itself. His eyes flared with excitement. The lesson: Adam and Eve, of course. And with that came original sin and, therefore, purgatory. My hand went up. Professor Thomas stopped short, looked at me, and asked if I had something to say.
“Yes, Professor,” I began.
“Please wait until after class or come see me during office hours.” And then he proceeded with the lecture.
The next class period, another question, the same response.
After that I dropped the class. In order to do so I had to contact Professor Thomas so he could sign my drop slip. When I went to see him he asked why I was getting out of his class.
“I’ve been raised to ask questions,” I replied. “I don’t doubt my religion, but I certainly need to question it. You won’t let me do that.”
“Really?” he asked, baffled.
But Professor Thomas wasn’t the only one who discouraged questions. The student body was equally dismissive of theological conversation. They took in Professor Thomas’s certainty about church teaching and let it define them. They defended themselves with the Catechism, prayed for an end to abortion and the beginning of the Iraq war, and scorned religious women who did not wear the traditional habit.
I did not fit in. And I didn’t want to. I read Joan Chittister’s books openly, talked about women’s ordination and homosexuality in the church, wrote about interreligious dialogue, refused to attend liturgies on campus, preferring to worship at the women’s community across town. I stopped saying the Creed during Mass, the foundational statement of who we as Catholic Christians are. I was no longer sure I believed any of it: the virgin birth; the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church; the one baptism. My questioning had been cause for people to say I wasn’t a true Catholic, that I didn’t really believe. So rather than profess faith I would stand silently and listen to others proclaim the faith that was taken from me, that I had allowed to be taken from me.
It was not until I moved to Minnesota that I realized how much I had allowed my religion to be tainted by woundedness. My anger at the lack of compassion of my peers made me shut down. My frustration about Professor Thomas’s celebrity and his unwillingness, as I experienced it, to entertain alternate interpretations of what it means to be Catholic hardened me. I came to graduate school to study theology uncertain of why I had chosen this field other than that, as a sophomore in high school, I had said that I wanted to be a religion teacher. I stayed Catholic out of stubbornness, not necessarily out of faith.
It was here that the ice began to melt. Questions were met, not with scorn or certainty, but with questions. As a woman, my experiences were validated and appreciated. Respectful debate among students and faculty was accepted and encouraged. I found home.
Sometimes I wish to see Professor Thomas again, to see if we could perhaps converse, both out of love, about this church we call home. Sometimes the thought of running into him again turns my stomach.
As winter comes and goes, the lakes freeze and thaw, so too my own forgiveness.