Once upon a time, like a lot of idealistic young people, I lived and died by the bumper-sticker creed “If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention”. After a little time and a lot of experience, my bumper sticker is more likely to read “if you’re not outraged, you’ve probably developed a good self-preservation mechanism”. It’s not to say that there isn’t still plenty in this world worthy of lament, but that most of it is not the result of nefarious individuals but of huge systems impervious to our outrage. As I discovered the first time I was crossed by Bank of America, sometimes there is no one responsible, and no one to be mad at, and the anger only hurts ourselves.
Even with individuals I find it hard to maintain anger. Like a goldfish fooled each time by the tapping on the glass, I can easily be won over by a pleasant exchange with someone, even if previous exchanges have been less than pleasant, and even if I am convinced that they are one of those rare nefarious individuals mentioned above. Perhaps it’s because I am so frequently in need of mercy and forgiveness myself, but I am usually pretty willing to start over again with someone even if they’ve irked me in the past.
A lot of people mention Jesus’ anger when they are trying to justify their own. That’s a nice idea, but come on, this is Jesus we’re talking about. Yes, he went recognizably bonkers over the money changers in the temple, but he was also the Son of God. I better be sure my motivations are as pure and my anger as righteous when I start flipping tables.
Is it called growing up? Is it called settling? Is it called getting over it, whatever it may be? I’m not sure. But because I am more willing to let things go now, I give even more attention to the handful of things I am not willing to let go. There are a few incidents in my history that I refuse to forgive or forget, the claws and barbs of which I refuse to release from my gut and my psyche. I have made a conscious decision to keep being angry about these, so they must matter.
One was being told in elementary school that I couldn’t be an altar server because I was a girl, and the other was being told in high school that I should quit singing because my voice wasn’t worth listening to. They involve such wildly different things, but to me they are so similar that I have almost conflated the two incidents into some epic thwarting, an unidentifiable outside voice telling me something about me that I knew was false.
The comment in high school was really crushing. Not only had I shaped a fair amount of my identity around my vocal talent, I also had the intuition to know that this was what I should be doing. Singing was who I was, and had been since long before I had any outside feedback that my voice was “good” or “pretty” or “sweet” or any of the other adjectives that get thrown around. Singing was something I had always done, and part of how I expressed myself. Whether my voice was pretty or sweet had nothing to do with the most important fact which was that my voice was mine.
The issue with altar serving raises whole issues of gender that I’m not sure I am ready to get into here. What I am willing to get into, and what should embarrass me more than it does, is that even as a child I had a strong and bizarre devotion to the liturgy and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. The same way that I will now read any book, attend any lecture, or take any class that has to do with liturgy, when I was a child I would take any opportunity to be involved. It was bad luck that I was in a parish (and perhaps a diocese? I’m not sure) that still prohibited “altar girls”, and I remember being so astounded that I couldn’t even be angry or upset.
One of my earliest memories is of someone at day care telling me that blue was “a boys’ color” and having my now-typical reaction of “that’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard”. I never believed there was anything ontologically different about me because of my gender. There was nothing I deserved or didn’t deserve, nothing I was capable or incapable of, simply because I was a girl. So to be told that this element of my identity that I truly believed to be inconsequential was going to affect another person’s decision about what I could do was an absurdity that passeth all understanding.
In retrospect, neither of these things was truly enraging, more dumbfounding: somebody thought they knew better than me about me, and that somebody was wrong. Everyone has things that they are wired for, and to have those natural inclinations denied or disparaged truly violates the natural order of things. I suppose I hang on to these insults and slights because I don’t want to forget what it is that makes me who I am. I don’t want to forget that no one can tell me what I am capable of or what my aspirations should be. It’s good to let things go, but equally good to know what we should hold onto, what’s worth being mad about.
I have avoided putting a “gender” tag up on the blog for a while, because I don’t want to get into something so controversial. But maybe it’s time.
I wish more parishes used adults for altar servers like mine in SEattle did. I miss it.
What a great post! I'm in a parish with a new priest who just decided no more female altar servers, and no more lay Eucharistic Ministers. *sigh* I wanted to write to the bishop, write to the church saying I didn't want to be a member there anymore … but I think I feel a lot like you on the whole thing. My husband and I will probably just attend Mass somewhere else and let it go.
I can relate to wanting to be a part of the Liturgy. It’s one of the reasons I have valued congregational singing so much. When the Liturgy enters into my heart through exercise of my lungs and vocal chords, something truly marvellous occurs. A big part of me gets outraged by the perception that only people with robes matter in divine services. If the plainclothes Christians don’t outnumber the robed, then I think we’re in trouble [or we’re in a monastery]. But I stand with the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom when he refused to bless men who had completed a Readers’ Course if he couldn’t also bless the women who completed the course in exactly the same way. We need an empowered laity who know how to declare the nature of our Triune God with strength.
As usual, your perspective is great. And I always admire your huge restraint (or is it just grace?) when dancing around gender issues in the Church. (And don’t read that as a passive-aggressive way of telling you to continue avoiding the gender tag, I’m quite sure that I’d love all that you had to say).
I am so very thankful not only that you can sing (and wear blue while singing, if you liked), but that we live in a time where no one would think of saying that you shouldn’t sing in Church because you are a woman.
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