Leaving the Catholic Church

I’m working on a memoir at the moment, and so from time to time I’ll publish a story from that manuscript as my weekly “Reflection.”  Today my post will recount how and when I left the Catholic Church.  In the following scene, I’m about 12 years old and living in Homer, LA, with my father, sibs, and paternal grandparents.  I had been raised in the Catholic Church by my mother and was trying to continue attending the Church after we kids were separated from her.

One of my main problems with Catholicism was with the idea that the bread and wine really turn into the body and blood of Jesus after the priest blesses them.  I went to talk with the local priest, Father Goubeaux, about this.  “You mean, the wafer really, actually becomes flesh and blood?  I mean, inside my stomach, it does?” I asked him.  He assured me that it did.


            But this young empiricist wanted proof.  I imagined someone taking communion and then being operated on, to see if in fact the wafer had become flesh.  Try as I would, I simply could not believe that this physical change would take place.  My doubts frightened me.  Against my will, I was becoming a non-believer.


            The other practice that bothered me was that of confession.  There were so many sins to be aware of–and not only were there real sins, but if you thought something was a sin and it wasn’t, just your thinking that it was, made it a sin.  If you neglected to mention even a venial sin when you went to confession, you were then guilty of a mortal sin and in danger of hell-fire.  But my major problem was that I felt that some of my sins were in bad taste and therefore unrepeatable.  There are some things you just don’t tell anyone else.  Well, God, maybe.  But not the priest.  I stopped attending church when I was thirteen.


            Father Goubeaux noticed the absence of us three children, and called my grandmother to see what was wrong.  “Marilyn Jane says she’s not going back,” Granny said over the phone.  The priest asked if he could come for a visit, and Granny allowed that he could come the following Saturday morning.


            Father Goubeaux arrived, and we were left alone there in the living room, so we could speak in private.  The priest sat on one end of the sofa and I, on the other.  He didn’t lean back, but rather sat on the edge of the sofa as he spoke to me.  His silver hair stood out like little wings from the sides of his head, and his teeth, which never all quite fit into his mouth, seemed even more prominent than usual.  His black cassock carried the whole weight of the Church.  Wasting no words, he began, “Marilyn Jane, you must come back to St. Margaret’s.”


            “But, Father, I don’t believe anymore.  I can’t help it.”  My fingernails dug into my clasped palms.  I tried to explain about communion and confession, but he would have none of it.


            “Who are you to think that you know more than the Church?  The Church is the way to God, Marilyn Jane, and the only way.  If the Church tells you that the communion wafer is the flesh of Christ, then that is what it is.  You are only a child.  It is your place to learn, not to question.”


            “But I don’t believe anymore.  I would like to believe.  I really would.  But I don’t.  I can’t help it.”


            He leaned forward, measuring each word, and his eyebrows seemed to grow darker and to knit together between his eyes.  “You must come back to the Catholic Church.  Unless you return, you will be doomed to burn in hell for all of eternity.” 


            Burn in hell for all of eternity!  That’s a long time.  And yet I could not deny myself.  “Father, do you believe that God knows everything?”


            “Yes, of course, my child.”  The eyebrows relaxed.


            “He knows every thought in my mind and every wish in my heart?”


            “Yes, my child.”  The smile broadened, and the teeth appeared again.


            “Then it will do me no good to pretend to believe, will it?  Because God knows what is really inside me.  I can’t come back to St. Margaret’s because if I do, it’ll be like telling a lie to God.  I’m sorry you’re upset and Mother will be upset, when she hears.  But how can I tell a lie to God?”


            Another soul slips away.



“Raw Faith” and Nashville Film Festival

I returned on Monday from the Nashville Film Festival, where our film, “Raw Faith,” had its world premiere.  This was a “first” for me.  I thought I would tell you a little about it.

The Nashville Film Festival (NFF) is one of the oldest in the nation, and the selection of films was excellent.  I wasn’t able to see very many of them, because many of my family members gathered there for the premiere, and I wanted to visit with them, but one favorite film was “The Greatest,” with Susan Sarondon and Pierce Brosnon, about a family that loses a child and has to struggle through the grieving with one another.

There was a “Red Carpet” event for our film an hour before the premiere last Friday night.  I hardly knew what to expect–but it’s all about media.  Sheryl Crow was there (she wrote an original song, “Love Will Remain,” for the film) and she went first, standing against a backdrop, while 8 or 10 photographers from print media took dozens of pictures, flashbulbs popping.  She moved on to 5 or 6 quick TV interviews, the reporters lined up, asking questions, like, “How did you become connected with this film?”  Then the director, Peter Wiedensmith and I went together along the same route, first the print photographers, and then the TV interviews.

Having Sheryl Crow there was a real plus.  She is a beautiful person in all ways, and she was gracious and charming not only in doing the interviews (check out an interview on her community web site), but also in the meeting and greeting after the film.  The piece she wrote for us is an incredibly beautiful love song that moves me more every time I hear it.

Then we saw our film on the big screen for the first time!  It plays well. Peter’s talent as a director is evident, and “Raw Faith” holds together in a powerful and beautiful whole.  I have seen the final version 5 or 6 times now, you would think I would become bored seeing my own story over and over again–but as with any fine work of art, each time I see it, I experience more depth and resonance.

The most satisfying thing about the premiere was the response we received, both from critics and from festival film-goers.  People were deeply moved.  People cried.  People gushed.  It’s one thing to have friends and family of the filmmakers say their film is good, but the real test is when strangers–and in this case, strangers from a different part of the country–say they loved our film. 

I had no idea what would come of this film when I started.  Doing it at all was truly an act of faith.  I didn’t know Peter Wiedensmith and had no idea how talented he is, and how committed he would become to this film.  Maybe the film would reach a small audience in Portland, or play in a few hundred Unitarian Universalist churches.  I didn’t know.  But now it seems certain that “Raw Faith” will find a national audience and perhaps even an international audience.  It’s not about me, really–it’s about us: our disabling fears, our yearning for love, our search for meaning and purpose, our woundedness from the past that threatens the present.  And the film gives the strong message that faith, hope, and transformation are possiblities in all of our lives.

See more at www.rawfaith.com or www.facebook.com/RawFaith


“Raw Faith” Wins PBS Human Spirit Award!

Many of you know that I have been working on a documentary film–actually, I’m the subject of the film–for almost three years now.  We are going to have our World Premiere at the Nashville Film Festival this Friday night, April 16, and the film will screen again on 3:45 Sunday.  The film is called “Raw Faith.”  It is by Sameboat Productions, a nonprofit company a few of us formed, and the director is Peter Wiedensmith.j

I just learned yesterday that our film has been given the PBS Human Spirit Award.  This is a significant award because that means our film will be shown on the local affiliate of PBS, and we will be in conversation with them about the possibility of a national PBS showing.

I thought the wording of the PBS panel that selected us from the five nominated films was eloquent and meaningful, and I will repeat it here:

“The NPT <Nashville Public Television>  Human Spirit Award, presented each year by NPT to a Nashville Film Festival documentary selection, acknowledges a filmmaker’s work that best explores and captures the human spirit.  The film must illuminate in a high artistic manner the important characteristics of what it means to be human: generosity, kindness, mercy, compassion, fortitude and honor. 

“‘In the past, NPT has honored films exploring the human spirit of those that have crossed racial barriers, given back to their homelands or had the courage to fight corporate goliaths,’ said the NPT Human Spirit Award jury in a joint statement.  ‘This year we recognize a filmmaker who captured one of the most unique of human characteristics, that of looking inward.  In joining Marilyn Sewell on her journey of personal discovery, Wiedensmith gives us a stunning and candid portrait of the power and value of exploring just who we are and where we’re going.  We, the viewer, are better for it.’”

When the Sameboat Production Company (all five of us!) set out to make a film, we wanted to make a film about human values.  That’s why, recognizing our interdependence, we called ourselves “Sameboat.”   We wanted to make a film that was honest, one that had integrity.  And the story unfolded in real time, as it happened, surprising all of us along the way.  Marilyn had not met George when the film started, and when he came on the scene, everything changed, as you might imagine.  Now the film was not just about her–it was about them, as well.  What was going to happen?  Marilyn didn’t know.  George didn’t know.  And Peter, the director, didn’t know.  The film led us on a personal and a creative journey.

As the “subject” of the film, I was more than a little daunted.  At the beginning of the project, I said to Peter, “Why me?  I’m not brilliant, I’m not particularly funny.  All I have to offer is honesty.  I can be real.  And that is what I’ll try to do, throughout the making of the film.”  “Raw Faith” went deeper than anyone thought it would, or could, emotionally and spiritually, and we all learned more about ourselves from the experiencing of creating the film.  I learned more about loving, and that’s the lesson that’s bedrock in human life, so now as we finish our work, I feel satisfied and grateful. 

Our goal all along has been to create a well-made film that would move and inspire people.  We think we have done that.  Now we get to see if other people agree with that assessment.  With the Nashville Film Festival, we’re taking this baby out in public for the first time.  It’s scary.  But it’s time.  And we offer it with the same faith in which in was made. 



Film Review: “Mother”

I recently saw the film “Mother,” in a small theater of the Fox complex downtown–the film had received excellent reviews, and actually a rare A from our local film critic, so I wanted to see it.  It is an amazing and disconcerting film.

On the most superficial level, it is a story of murder and intrigue–a “whodunit.”  But that’s only what drives the plot–not what makes the film memorable–or any film memorable, for me: for a film to be great, it has to have believable characters, and it has to go deep.  “Mother” does both.

I do not want to give away the serpentine plot/ending, but you will be surprised, I expect.  In fact, you will be surprised over and over again.  That’s why I use the word “disconcerting” to describe the film.  You see, you really can’t pin labels on people in this film–there are no “good guys” and “bad guys.”  There are people who are driven by feelings to do sometimes wonderful, things and sometimes terrible, disturbing things.  Mistakes are made.  Secrets are kept.  People who should be punished sometimes are not.  Villains are heroes, and vice-versa.  Just like . . . well, life. 

The viewers’ responses at the end of the film were interesting to me.  Portland audiences that see serious foreign films like this one are an appreciative bunch–they sit there through the credits, in awe at the filmmaker’s craft.  Not this time, though.  People couldn’t wait to get out of the theater.  They virtually raced out, as soon as it was (thankfully) over.  Why this strange response, I wondered.

I think we like our stories–our books and our films and our TV shows–to picture life as it should be, righting the wrongs, or at least showing up the bad guys for who they are, so we can all boo and hiss. Give us heroes, please!   Nobody likes to be confronted with the fact that we’re all capable of great good and great evil.  Nobody like to live in the margins.  You see, it gives us so little sense of control over ourselves and others.  About as much as we really have.


Premiere of “Raw Faith” at Nashville Film Festival!

Many of you know that I’ve been working on a film for a long time–in fact, it has been about three years now.  The good news is that the film, entitled “Raw Faith,” will have its World Premiere at the Nashville Film Festival on April 16!  It will screen again on April 18.  It is one of 5 films nominated for the “Humanity Award.”

“Raw Faith” is a full-length documentary about my transition out of parish ministry and my surprise in falling in love, and then struggling to accept that love.

I had no idea when Scott and Ashley MacEachern, members of First Unitarian, suggested that I do a film that this would be the result!  The film got jump-started with some funding from Jane and Jim Driscoll; we formed a non-profit film board called SameBoat; and we began looking for a director.  We eventually decided upon Peter Wiedensmith–and again, I jumped into the project not knowing much about Peter.  I had no idea how marvelously skilled and committed Peter is, and how generously he would give of himself to this project.

No one guessed where the film would go, in terms of its narrative line, when we got started–I had as yet to connect with George, the love interest in the film.  But when that happened, everything changed–everything in my life, and of course everything in the supposed direction of the film.  Yes, it was about leaving my beloved congregation, but the film also had to examine my fears about love, which reached way back to my childhood, fears that had to be dealt with.

I want all of you who are interested to be able to see the really wonderful trailer that Peter created, and also to hear “Love Will Remain,” an original song by Sheryl Crow which was inspired by and written for our film.  If you like what you see, please become a “fan” of “Raw Faith”–and please pass the trailer on to friends who might be interested.  The link is www.facebook.com/rawfaith

We haven’t as yet nailed down a date for the Portland premiere, but as soon as we do, I’ll let everyone know.  Many of you who read my “Reflections” attend First Unitarian and will in fact be seen in the congregation as the camera pans over the audience–and some of you are present in interviews.  Thanks to Tom Disrud, to the staff, and to all the congregants who made this film possible.  I see it as an extension of my ministry, now that I have left the parish.  I hope that all who see it will be uplifted and inspired.