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Just a couple days ago, I sat for a few precious hours on the front porch with my mother. I was back in St. Louis, my hometown, and I had the evening free on a long weekend of speaking events.
I don’t get that many chances to sit with Mom these days. Not knowing how much longer I will have her with us, and never taking a moment like this for granted, I savored every second of it.
Among the things we talked about is why I left the Catholic seminary after eight years of preparing for ordination to the priesthood. Mom and Dad were so proud that I was going to become a priest. When we got to the point when I reminded her of the day that I called her and Dad to meet me at the seminary to tell them I was not continuing my studies, she sat up quickly and laughed out loud – remembering what a confusing and painful day that was for both of them.
I realized I had never told her why I had left.
I sat and explained to her that over the last three or four years, I started to question matters of the faith, teachings that the church held dear, and that when I took my vow of obedience I would also not only have to accept but teach my parishioners to accept. Among the questions I had were: why couldn’t women be ordained; why do we teach there is no salvation outside the church; and why is the Communion table not open to all.
As I was sharing this with my mom, with every question she just nodded her head as if to say she has always wondered the same thing. I told her that every time I asked the questions I was told the same thing: “These are the teachings of the church and have been for 2,000 years. Who are you to question them?”
I shared with her I didn’t leave angry at the church or their answers. I left with a broken heart, knowing I would have to abandon my call because I could not take that vow of obedience and then spend the rest of my life asking people to believe something I didn’t yet. I kept waiting for someone to explain the reasoning behind and the defense of these matters in a way that made sense to me. I figured it would happen some day – and then I could, with integrity and in good conscience, take my vows.
That moment never came for me.
I reminded Mom that it was she who brought that out in me.
She was a questioner. At first it was hard for her to face the questions, because she, too, had been taught not to ask such things. But I would come home over a weekend and she and I would sit at the kitchen table and talk. I would bring up something I was questioning, and while at first she would be uncomfortable before long she was listening, shifting, engaging me in dialogue, debate and acceptance – not of any new truth but just of the need to ask the question.
I told her that the first day I showed up at Eden Seminary to discern if my call would lead me in a different direction, the dean there, upon learning I was a former Catholic who had spent eight years in the seminary with them, said to me: “John, if you come here you have to learn to question everything.”
Mom smiled. She knew – I had found my spiritual home.
Someone said to me yesterday something I’m going to leave you with: Ask the question; answer the question; question the answer. Now that’s wisdom I can live with and walk with on this, our journey Into the Mystic.
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