Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Catholic Book Club: Pope Awesome

Morning everyone! Today is official Catholic Book Club day, and July's installment is extra special. Our selection for this month is Pope Awesome and Other Stories by Cari Donaldson, and I was able to speak with Cari via email, during which time she graciously answered a handful of questions that I submitted to her about the book. I mean, exciting, right?!

I'll start with my thoughts on the book, and then we'll move quick like bunnies over to my conversation with Cari. You all know that I love spiritual memoirs. And I *especially* love spiritual memoirs that contain a lot of personal reflection over the small things in life that lead to a conversion of heart. One would think this should be present in all spiritual memoirs, but in my experience that is not always the case. Rushy rushy glossing over personal details in favor of theological analysis is just not my cup of tea in this genre.

And Cari's memoir provides *exactly* the sort of memoir that I adore, and she's funny to boot, BONUS! We journey with Cari through her young adulthood in Michigan as she meets her future husband and shows no interest in anything religious. Raised Presbyterian, going to church wasn't something she thought about often, although she and her husband married in a Presbyterian church. At first, they planned on having no children, but that changed prior to her heart beginning to think about God anew. She and her husband moved to Mississippi for his job, and it was there that those "God twinges" began in earnest. By this time, she had a child, and suddenly living in the deep South everyone was asking her if they had found a church home. From there, we learn about her spiritual search, how she started looking at the Catholic Church (a shock even to her in the beginning), how she navigated her growing family and homeschooling, and finally her and her husband's conversion. However, the story doesn't end there, and I LOVE that. Conversion is just the beginning! We learn more about her early years as a Catholic, how she managed moving again, with a larger family in tow this time to Connecticut, and the other trials and tribulations of a young mom and a young Catholic in both the Southeast and New England.

I absolutely loved Cari's story. It contained all kinds of interesting fodder, especially for wives and mothers. As a cradle Catholic, I also find it fascinating to read conversion stories from other Christian traditions. My favorite spiritual memoirs make you feel like you're a friend of the author, and she's telling you her story over wine and cheese one evening. This book absolutely has that feel. As I was reading, the pieces of the story that stuck with me are below, which I posed to Cari. Here we go!


(1) For one thing, I love your humorous writing style. The description at the beginning of the book of your early years living in Michigan and meeting your future husband really had me snorting in laughter as I read it. :) Taffeta and black velvet Jessica McClintock dress? Girl, I think we had the same prom gown!! When you approached writing this memoir, was this type of relatable tone that resonated with you, and that you were aiming for?

Actually, when I was first approached about writing a book, it wasn't a memoir at all.  It was a collection of stories, centered around specific areas of the house.  Since the home has been called "the Domestic Church", it was sort of a way to show how the domestic church can be funny and messy and not at all what you expected.  So, yes, from the very beginning, anything that I was going to write was going to be relatable in tone.  I think people respond to authenticity in writing, and I am not authentically philosophical or political or theological.  I'm  just a regular person, who fumbles her way closer to God, and needs a heavy dose of humor to make it through.

(I think I may still have that Jessica McClintock dress up in my attic!)

(2) In contrast to your journey, I am a cradle Catholic, yet I really related to your descriptions of complacent teenaged and young adult years in your faith life. What was it like for you to relive that time given where you are now in your life as a wife, mother and author?

It was terrible.  I think that's where the stereotype of "tortured artist" comes from - it's exhausting to dredge up vivid enough recollections of troubled times in order to write about them.  I know some people find it a very healing process, to write through traumatic memories, but I'm not one of them.  Honestly, I was pretty much a beast during the weeks I wrote those sections.  It was almost like the psychic residue was clinging to me, and I kept telling Jesus over and over again, "I hate writing this.  I don't want to do it.  If you want it done, you're going to have to give me the words."

He gave me the words.  But in retrospect, I think I should have asked for the patience, too, because it couldn't have been fun dealing with me then.

(3) The details you provided about your change of heart in welcoming children into your marriage were so touching. And by the way, the fact that you were watching "Bachelorettes in Alaska" when you went into labor with your daughter - priceless!! I remember that show very well. :0 But I digress. Do you see your children and role as a mother as playing a pivotal part in your spiritual journey?

Oh man.  "Bachelorettes in Alaska".  Back when reality TV was quality stuff.

I think there's a part on everyone's spiritual journey where they will keep running in circles until something strips them of their self-centeredness, and puts them outside themselves.  After all, you're not going to find God inside your own head.  And for me, motherhood was that stripping away of the self that I needed to jolt me out of the rut I'd been in.  I remember looking at my daughter for the first time, and being struck, physically struck, by the realization of how much my own mother loved me.  It wasn't until I realized the depth of my love for my child that I could grasp the love of a parent.  And I think maybe, for a lot of people, it's that failure to see the depth of a parent's love that keeps them from entering into a closer relationship with God.  Without a firm grasp of God as Father, loving Father, he's just a scary white dude, with a long flowing beard, smiting sinners from on high.  That image doesn't exactly foster intimate relationships.

(4) I was quite fascinated that you ultimately came into the Church while living in the deep South, since there aren't nearly as many Catholics there as where you formerly lived in the Midwest. It seemed to me though, that the deep-seated and lovely Christian faith that is so prevalent in that area of the country turned your heart toward hungering for God. (I loved that everybody asked you if you had found a church home as part of their welcoming process :0). Do you think that attending your in-laws' Presbyterian church created a bit of a "God spark" that sped your journey along?

Because religion, and almost exclusively Christianity, is so prevalent, so boisterously out in the open in the South, I was forced to confront the issue.  It's hard to pretend like you're searching for God when every time someone offers to talk about Him with you, you go hide in a corner.  So the constant exposure to other people's faith really kick started mine.  It really dared me to dig deep and see why I had such issues with Christianity, and to explore my misunderstandings about it, and then ultimately follow it to its source, which is the Catholic Church.

And that's what puzzles me about the small Catholic demographic down South.  These are people who are on fire for Jesus, who truly love Him.  Yet, I constantly met people who were more concerned about the quality of the "praise and worship music" portion of their services than who was responsible for assembling the books of the Bible.  I ran into more people who chose a church based on the quality of the sermon series, or the number of activities offered, then the dogma the denomination subscribed to.  There was this curious lack of curiosity that I can't explain.  Obviously, I'm biased in favor of my own experiences, but I really feel that when people start learning all they can about the early Church, and why do we believe what we believe, where did it come from? Then they come right up to the edge of the Tiber.

(5) Another thing that you detailed in your story to which I strongly relate is the evening research quest you undertook to learn everything you could about God and faith once your heart was inclined in that direction. I am a research nerd myself :) and when I get a bug in my brain about something I am insatiable about learning more. This quest led you straight to Mary, our Blessed Mother, and the Miraculous Medal. Do you still have a strong devotion to Our Lady?

I do.  I've always sort of been hounded by Our Lady.  Even years and years before Christianity, let alone Catholicism, was on my mental horizons, she was always in my field of view.  I love seeing her in ethnically diverse apparitions.  I love seeing her show up in pop culture.  I love feeling my Miraculous Medal around my neck, and remembering that she is my Good Mother, and is constantly praying for me.  I think that's why a certain type of person is almost compelled to mock her in art or literature: she is the magnet that pulls people toward Christ, and she is so completely human, and she is a woman - all those things make her a huge target for ridicule and scorn.

(side note: "Catholic tchotchke" - LOVE THIS! HAHA!)
I have a good friend whose whole house is done up in Catholic tchotchke.  It's beyond ridiculous.  I love it so much.

 (6) You mention happening upon an anti-Catholic Chick tract in a library when you lived in Mississippi. I myself have come across these, and it always leaves me feeling rotten. Have you encountered any negative or anti-Catholic reaction to your conversion other than what you detail in the book?

You know, I think "rotten" is the perfect word.  The tree that bears Chick tracts is a foul, angry, divisive one, and so the fruits could be nothing but rotten.

There's always the low- to mid-level anti-Catholicism that you see in secular interactions.  The offhand comments about family size or the priestly sex scandals or whatever.  The sort of comments that are prompted by more ignorance than malice, and so they're easy to brush off with a shrug.
But every once in a while I come across something that takes my breath away with its venom.  Usually it comes from a relative, so the situation is even harder to handle.  At that point, I try to remember this great prayer I saw once, "Dear Lord, bless Person X, and have mercy on me."  Then I dump the whole ugly thing on Mary's lap because I am a big baby and need my Mom.

(7) I love that your book doesn't end with your conversion - we learn about your post-conversion life and all of the challenges you faced in the years leading up to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI - Homeschooling and the wonderful community you found therein, but then having to leave them to move to Connecticut, and raising your family as it grew and people (rudely!) not understanding why someone would have 6 children. How have those pieces of your story continued to evolve since you finished the book?

You know the saying, "Every story has a happy ending, if you just know where to stop telling it?"  That was sort of why I wanted to make sure I wrote past the conversion, past the move, past the culture shock of New England.  I wanted to show that life keeps going, and there will be happiness and sadness and boredom and fear and anxiety and joy during all of it.  You just need to remember that the bad parts won't last, and not to be scared to fully embrace the good parts.

We still haven't found that magical homeschool fit yet.  The neighbors no longer bat their eyes about our family size.  I feel less like a traveling freak show, but certainly not a native.  There's good parts and bad parts.  Just like everything.


And so there you have it! Are you intrigued? You can purchase Pope Awesome in print or for Kindle (a bargain at $4.99) on Amazon, or get an autographed copy via Cari's website, Clan Donaldson.  Also, please do leave a comment if you have read this book to post your thoughts!

Next month we are moving to fiction, my friends, so something a little different! I'll be reading Erin McCole Cupp's Don't You Forget About Me, and I'll have a review up with pieces of a larger interview with Erin.

*excitement simmers*


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