Catholics and Jesus Freaks

This post started out as my second post about Aunt Emma, but it got hijacked and I’ll return to Aunt Emma soon. For now, here’s more than you ever wanted or needed to know about my high school ‘spirituality.’ Read on at your own risk…

In late 9th grade there was an influx of Catholic kids into our public school. The parish schools only went to 8th grade. After that you could pay tuition to go to one of the Catholic High Schools, or you could join everybody else from Havertown at Haverford Junior High School. So 9th grade — 1966 — was the year Betsy entered my life.

Haverford Junior High School (now Middle School)

With her came the kindling of a nascent interest in religion, and in Catholicism, that would evolve through high school. And, just to be real, I need to also add that while Betsy‘s arrival on the scene kindled this spiritual interest, she also, importantly, introduced me to the Whopper and the Whopper-with-Cheese. (A perhaps similarly life-changing event!)

The interest in religion in general was fueled by a desire to understand and cope with the dysfunction in my home. But I also had an interest in questions of meaning that didn’t feel purely reactive. I’d gone to our Presbyterian Sunday School and church, but my questions weren’t answered there. And that being said, being drawn to Catholicism in particular was definitely reactive and rebellious.

My mother had railed against the Catholic Church from my earliest days. One thing she was most disturbed by was the ‘indoctrination’ that the Church practiced. Ironically, she had no qualms when it came to loudly indoctrinating us, starting at birth, about how evil that was.

By the time the Catholic kids, and Betsy, in particular, entered my life, I was ripe for explorations of Catholic spirituality. From 9th grade on, we were in dialog about questions of meaning and of spiritual experience. I read Martin Buber and Paul Tillich and other theologians whose names I don’t remember so well.

I visited the St. Jude Shop on Brookline Boulevard regularly, and grappled and questioned and tried to understand the ‘experience of God that Betsy talked about. (Side note: Back in the day, the shop was in a smaller storefront. Looks like it’s thrived and now expanded into the space that Martels — one of the small local supermarkets — used to be in.)

The spiritual experience that Betsy described was something I read about it in my books and thought about and valued. But I could not give myself over to an experience — any experience — as others, in those years, seemed to be doing. I was an observer who partly longed to step out of myself and be ‘included’ but was essentially and reflexively walled off. In retrospect I can see that as a totally understandable impulse of self-protection. At the time, though, it puzzled and frustrated me.

In my high school spiritual world there were two poles — the Catholics and the Jesus Freaks. The Catholics were represented by Betsy, for me, and the Jesus Freaks by two pretty active groups in my high school. One was called Young Life and the other was called Ranch and was connected to the Florida Bible College. Young Life was, and apparently continues to be, the more slickly ‘put together’ of the two. It was way too cool for me — and I was, in fact, very cynical about that group.

In the spring of my senior year it was like I suddenly became visible to some of the people involved in Ranch. I was flattered, because these were also popular people in my class of 700+ students and I had generally held myself outside of (and in my mind, honestly, above) all that. I never brought anybody home and basically kept to myself and a few friends.

But suddenly, there were people reaching out to me and I was flattered. Where the years of dialog with Betsy had involved grappling and searching in the intense and fervent way of teenagers, this new development was more about feeling accepted by popular kids. I tentatively felt good about myself, even while I still questioned it all, inside. It was a heady and confusing time.

I see now that I was basically a ‘commodity’ — someone to be ‘witnessed to’ and brought into the flock. The acceptance, while warm and enthusiastic, was conditional. I think I kind of knew that at the time, too. But I also remember dragging my friend CB to Ranch on several occasions — not sure exactly why. It’s something I felt vaguely guilty about, even at the time. But I still did it. And it’s not among my finest moments.

In college I was off and on drawn to the two poles of that old spiritual world, I gave my parents a scare when, during my freshman year, I thought I was being called to go to Florida Bible College. And honestly, how do you really know when god is telling you to do something? I remember the fear I used to feel, sitting in Quaker Meetings. I didn’t want to speak, but was terrified that the spirit would enter me and I’d have to. I’d spend entire meetings wondering and worrying about that.

Anyway, my father was instrumental in talking me out of going to Florida Bible College and, looking back, I see that as a bullet dodged.

As my friendships with the Jesus Freaks and with Betsy waned, so did my interest in the strains of spirituality that they represented. Evangelical Christianity has evolved into something so grotesque that it’s become anathema. But there are still aspects of Catholicism that I am drawn to. It’s where the contemplatives and mystics live — where the spirituality of western and eastern religions intersect.

And with that, I’ll call it a day…

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7 Responses to Catholics and Jesus Freaks

  1. spwilcen says:

    Well done. And I still struggle with the evils I was educated about by Catholics and Protestants, each mostly about the other. Organized religion for the most part is a bane, a societal poison.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Katie says:

    This is such an interesting story – I’m so glad you took the time to write it all out. Isn’t it funny how many bullets we dodge? This made me laugh out loud: I remember the fear I used to feel, sitting in Quaker Meetings. I didn’t want to speak, but was terrified that the spirit would enter me and I’d have to. I’d spend entire meetings wondering and worrying about that.

    As you know, I’m also very interested in Catholicism and the Monastic life. But have started to lean more toward living a monastic life in the midst of everything. And of course, not a Christian-based Monastic life. So I’ve veered totally off track from the whole thing. !!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Off-track is absolutely the way to go — I’m right with you on that. And OMG, that Quaker Meeting terror was very real! Of course, I also felt (and still can feel) something similar whenever I’d find myself in a space with other people and would start thinking about all the inappropriate things I could do. Life can be so exciting!


  3. nyeanh says:

    I love your family stories–and thank the goddesses (and your father)
    that you dodged that bullet!


    • Thanks, Alice — I was surprised that I ended up writing this…more on Aunt Emma soon — and indeed, thanks be to Dad!


      • nyeanh says:

        And Aunt Helen too; I’m VERY curious about her story,also. Did she do all the cooking? Did she have her own special interests? Did she play sports with her sister? Were there magazines laying around that may have thrown light on Helen’s interests. And Aunt Emma’s. BTW, I am going to the movies today with MaryLee–my first return to the wider world of film outside my cell since the resurgence. I am fed up with this isolation! So, maybe, just maybe, we can celebrate your birthday before the next one arrives. To be continued………


        • I’ll do my best with Aunt Helen — my memories are even less fleshed out about Helen than about Emma. And that’s wonderful about your movie – hope you enjoy it — and I definitely look forward to sharing one WITH you!


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