Posted in Identity

How I Became a Catholic

Around Twitter, people were sharing a story from their past that just illustrates how Autistic they are.

My faith journey, surprisingly, is how I know that I’m Autistic.

I grew up ELCA Lutheran.  The ELCA matters because that’s the liberal Lutheran.  Around here, we also have Missouri Synod and WELS, both of which are nearer Baptist.  ELCA Lutherans are nearly Anglican, and they use the same worship service structure.  Maybe if I had grown up a more conservative faith, farther away from Catholicism, it might have been different.  Anyway, my mother’s family is all Catholic and my dad’s mom’s brothers both married Catholics and converted.  We’re not a long line of anything: my dad’s dad was Congregationalist (not really; they rarely went to church) and my mom’s mom went to a Presbyterian church.  My grandparents picked Lutheran as “close enough.”

It all began when I was in high school, or perhaps middle school.  Whatever the path, I stumbled upon Gladys Malvern’s books (very few of them, but some of them; I’ve tracked down a lot more on eBay) in my public library’s collection.  She used to write historical stories that were researched, but she’d fill in the gaps, and later, I’d find out that her Tudor stories were pretty nearly accurate, as opposed to Carolyn Meyer whom I detest, likely because she is not very good at depicting Queen Mary I of England in any way I found believable.

Anyway, Gladys Malvern had two volumes I read and reread quite a bit: The Six Wives of Henry VIII and The World of Lady Jane Grey.  I fell in love with Tudor history then, because it is unusually female-centered even though historians like to shift things and focus on Henry VIII a bit too much.  His wives, daughters, and niece, Lady Jane Grey, were really huge characters in the story, and he was pretty one-dimensional.  Henry’s story is this: I am paranoid because my dad fought in a big war for years and we won only by marrying our enemy and then we got to be king.  If I die without a male heir (they weren’t yet sure how a woman could be capable of ruling), all my dad worked for would be for naught.

But here’s the funny thing about the story: he totally blew off his dad, right at the beginning of his reign.  He might have been much more interesting if he’d have stuck with that Henry vs. “paranoid Henry.”

The story goes like this: Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, was betrothed to Arthur, his big brother.  Henry VII loved the idea of having King Arthur on the throne.  Now, the Spanish princesses, contrary to what you might have heard, were extraordinarily intelligent because mom insisted on her daughters being taught actual things like languages, history, and diplomacy.  Yes, they learned music and sewing, too, but Isabella believed a woman could be a diplomat and a wife, too.

So Catherine gets moved to England to marry Arthur.  They get married.  Arthur dies soon after.  The historic belief is he’d been messing around with other women and gotten syphilis and died.  Clearly Arthur would have been a great king!  Henry VII was a cheap jerk, besides.  Catherine came with a dowry and he didn’t want to send it back, so he kept her in England, but didn’t know what to do with her.  She got bored, and his younger, smarter, son, Henry (soon to be the VIII) was bored, too, since dad wasn’t too great about king lessons.  Henry junior’d go chat with Catherine and he loved that she could actually carry on a conversation.  Like, in Latin, if she wanted to.  By then, she had learned English (English was an unimportant language; she could speak French and Latin, but English she had to pick up in England).  So, he’s thinking, she’s gorgeous and smart, I need her to be my queen.  She had fallen in love with him, too, by then, since, well, he wasn’t a jerk like his brother.

Love is bad in these king-queen matches.  It hurts more if it goes awry.

So Henry tells his dad: why can’t I marry Catherine?  Dad is like “because I’m working out other deals.”

Dad keeps working out these deals until he dies, and Henry VIII becomes king, marries Catherine, and the villagers rejoice (kind of literally; she was generous, too; she’d be giving out food all the time).

So, Henry, even THOUGH he later BECOMES a paranoid jerk, starts out his reign by acting like Dad is a moron.  He can be a bold, decisive guy, but as the story moves on and he trades wife for wife since he’s paranoid, he looks like a fool.

His story is boring.

Catherine’s story is fascinating.  She lives a good life with Henry, but few babies are born that survive.  A son almost survives in that he gets baptized, but he dies, too.  They’re left with Mary, who is smart and pretty and pious, but kind of sickly (yes, she doesn’t look great LATER, what with being deprived of food, proper medical care, and love, but look at her little girl picture).  Henry starts having affairs and one of them results in a baby boy, so he’s all, “clearly it’s not my seed that is the problem here.”  He eventually wants a divorce, but Catherine says no because they are Catholic, so that’s not a thing.

Surprisingly, he doesn’t just murder her.

Instead, he annoys her.  He sends her to the yucky castles that aren’t remotely comfortable and keeps cutting her staff.  When she makes him happy, he will send Mary to be with her for a while, but inevitably, he keeps taking her away.  Catherine takes it all in good humor and keeps sharing what little she has with the villagers.  She just waits for him to visit, which he does, to demand she let him divorce her.  She says no, but is otherwise the same old loving wife so he feels like a jerk whenever he goes to see her.

Now, Catherine isn’t just sitting around.  She writes letters.  A lot of letters.  She has very powerful friends and family all of whom could wipe the floor with England if they wanted to do it.  If she riles up the French, too, Henry would be in real trouble.  But while they all send letters of support back (including the Pope, who is in debt to her Spanish family), they don’t wipe the floor with England.

Eventually Henry just leaves the church and demands she come into court.  She does.  She is all loving and respectful of her husband as the king.

But she still says no because God won’t allow it and that this court isn’t the right one to hear this; they had to have the Pope as the judge.  Sorry.

She leaves court and won’t come back.

Henry divorces her anyway, at least from an English perspective; Catherine believes that she’s still married because the Pope didn’t divorce them.  At first, he’s all happiness and joy (the villagers are discontent, though), but it’s like he realized this isn’t a blessed union because he must have messed something up here since Anne, wife 2, can’t have surviving boys either.  The next one (Jane Seymour) has a boy, but he’s sick and she dies since he paranoid-like drags her to the Baptism after a really hard birth and she gets sicker still.  The next one (Anne of Cleves) is too good for him (though she has pockmarks, so he thinks she’s ugly).  He asks for a divorce and she’s like yes, please.  She got out of this great, with a whole household and stuff.  Anne of Cleves actually was instrumental in making sure both Mary and Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, were treated decently again.  By this point, Henry was thrilled to have her as a sort of extended relation because she’d done what he asked and agreed to the divorce the first time, so this worked out well for his daughters.  The next one was Catherine Howard who was young and seen as stupid (in reality, she was just desperate for affection, it seemed).  A cousin to Anne Boleyn, Catherine had been engaged before marrying Henry and they decided to get her executed for that reason.  Really, he got bored with her.  The last wife, Catherine Parr, was smarter and more Catherine of Aragon-like, but Protestant.  She was a widow and she could debate with him.  At one point, someone got him paranoid and he wanted to execute her, too, but she learned of the plot and started screaming.  He couldn’t handle it and called the thing off.  He died after that.

So, as I’m reading this story, I’m all….the wives are the story, really.  And among the wives, Catherine of Aragon is absolutely amazing.  All girls should be learning her story, how she’s smart and pretty.  She’s obedient and firm.  She can sew and argue politics.  To be fair, Catherine Parr was no slouch, either.  She could inspire Protestant girls.

But history buries a lot of Catherine of Aragon because we’re supposed to be Protestants.  Catherine of Aragon is inconvenient in that narrative.  Catherine of Aragon de-vilifies Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and every time someone sees their name everyone goes “inquisition.”  Don’t get a well-read Catholic started on that!

Anyway, as I discover Catherine’s story, and also her daughter Mary’s (she was paranoid like dad, but also like mom; were it not for her paranoia, she could have come up with a viable plan B to having kids of her own, but she was too paranoid), I realized, hey, these people weren’t villains.

Not even Mary I, who people insist on calling Bloody Mary.  She burned Protestants, yes, but her advisors told her if she did that, she’d save their souls.  She didn’t like doing it, but she worried about them.  I suspect if she’d been allowed to spend more time with mom, she would have learned how to convert people with love, but dad kept her away from her for too long so she got more dad-like (and bitter and resentful).  Besides, Elizabeth, her sister burned many, many more Catholics.  That’s conveniently forgotten.

So by high school, I’d decided that not only was I going to be Catholic like Catherine, I wanted to be a nun because men are stupid anyway.  I converted at 17, before heading off to a small, women’s college run by nuns.  These sisters nurtured my faith so I learned to love first.

Later, I’d attend schools run by legalistic Catholic lay people.  They were insistent upon being harsh and didn’t seem to think much of mercy.  I nearly left the church over this because I didn’t understand how people could be cruel to other people in the name of this faith.

See, I’m Autistic.  I can follow rules with the best of them, but I’m also not a jerk.  I can be merciful.  Those sisters taught me well.

I think if I had been a young convert and gone directly to a place where the strictest of Catholics (many of whom seem to spend more time hating people than they do loving them), I would have been lost to the cause.  I don’t know if I would have been able to find a husband or not with that group, since I’m kind of weird for them.  It’s hard to explain, but most like to be “dad in charge” which doesn’t work great for Autistics, I don’t think.  We kind of do our own thing.  Even an Autistic man wouldn’t want to micromanage the wife and kids.

But because I have spent time with the traditional Catholics, I get them, and I also can get along pretty well with them.  We don’t argue about Trump anymore (they really don’t get it), and we don’t debate policies of serving the poor (they’re for giving to charity; they’re not that draconian, though it sounds like it; they forget that Jesus said the poor would always be with us and we need a safety net; I don’t see them giving until it hurts like Catherine of Aragon did to offset the lack of safety net they’d like to see (literally, she’d have next to nothing and she’d still share)), but I also don’t see liberal Catholics giving much at all to charity and only relying on the government, so…

I like that I can see both sides of the arguments about my faith from within the faith as being reasonable, and I like being challenged in that way.  This is why the faith continues to work for me.

But when it all started, I was following Queen Catherine of Aragon.  My obsession with Tudor history made me Catholic.  My Autism made me Catholic.

But my Autism also gives me the patience to understand the variety of Catholics that exist and to not run from them because of the contradictions.



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