An Interview with Anna Keating of The Catholic Catalogue

Being Catholic means living a life. The practice precedes the theology.

This is the premise behind the eclectic and ever-engaging collection of multi-media material—articles, reviews, playlists, video—that makes up The Catholic Catalogue website, with a book by the same name forthcoming in 2016 (Image Press). Anna Keating runs the website and is co-author of the book alongside Melissa Musick. She is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in First Things, Salon, America, and The Denver Post, among other publications; and co-owner of Keating Woodworks, a handmade furniture studio.

Keating's writing has often focused on what it means to be a wife and mother in the Church and the world today. The following written interview for Church Life (given in April of 2015) focuses on several topics that might help to flesh out a pastoral theology of women, in the vein of Wendell Berry's "logic of vocation."

What are your thoughts on the oft-discussed issue of whether women today can really “have it all”, and more generally on the attempt to balance work, family, life, and faith? How does a healthy view of marriage fit in?

I’m a little uncomfortable with the expression “having it all.” Who has everything they want all the time? There are ups and down in any kind of life, especially in communal life. And suffering is also part of life. Everyone suffers, and suffering doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve done anything wrong. Sometimes, as in childbirth, it’s just part of the process. Most of my greatest blessings have involved suffering, compromise and sacrifice. I don’t think anyone has it all, all the time, much less the perfect life that the phrase implies.

Still I do think there’s a way in which women can have rich, full, meaningful and well-rounded lives. I’m married, raising two small children, running a website, and working on a book. There are ups and downs, good days and bad days, but I feel extremely grateful to have meaningful work both as a mother and a writer. And yet, it’s an ongoing process of discovering what’s best for me and what works for my family. If you’re open to love and relationship, meaningful work and compromise, I think there’s a way in which you can have all those things.

I married when I was 23, and a year out of college. When I was 22 and feeling called to be married, I worried—more than I now like to admit—about what other people would think about my decision to marry at a relatively young age.

I read and admired writers like Hanna Rosin, who wrote in The Atlantic recently that college girls today see a serious suitor the way they did an unplanned pregnancy in the nineteenth century, “a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.” That squared with my experience of how many of my peers felt at the time.

When I was 22 it bothered me that getting married young made me look less ambitious in other people’s eyes. It was difficult when people I admired, my professors and peers, voiced concern. My grandmother said, “I thought you wanted to be a writer.” I know good people worried that I wouldn’t be able to “have it all,” both rewarding work, and a husband and a family.

But there is nothing unambitious, in my mind, about wanting to be in loving, meaningful relationships, married or single. Those take time and effort too. They don’t just happen, any more than a good job just happens. And the quality of our relationships and friendships, to a great extent, determine the quality of our lives.

Too often I think we assume that a “successful” life for young women needs to follow a script, or that the measure of success is income, or status. According to the current script, the twenties are supposed to be a time of professional achievement as a single person, and then in one’s thirties career-minded people are supposed to suddenly settle down and have one or two kids, while still pursuing their careers with the same intensity. I didn’t want to live my life, holding the person I loved the most at arm’s length, or waiting for the socially acceptable time to make a commitment. There is no good time to get married or have kids.

Right after graduating from Notre Dame, I tried, briefly, to follow the script. I moved 700 hundred miles away from my then boyfriend, to take a job at a magazine in New York, but we were both unhappy with the distance. One day I was walking around Midtown with a co-worker and complaining about having met the right person “too soon” when he set me straight. He said, “So you feel sorry for yourself because you’ve found what most people are looking for, before anyone else has found it.”  The next day I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. I quit my job and starting making plans to move back to South Bend, knowing that I would need to find a job there and that this would mean getting married sooner rather than later. For me, that was the right decision. It complicated my life, because it introduced a husband, and eventually kids, into the equation, and I had to find work in South Bend, but it also meant being myself instead of trying to be someone else.

The lives of people I admire are often messy and meandering. When I met the right person, I had a lot of dreams, but I didn’t have a plan for my life. Neither one of us had a “career” when we got married, but we promised to help each other, and support each other, as best we could, as we figured out how to be married, how to be parents, and how to pay our bills together. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but it wouldn’t have been smooth sailing if we had been single either. I just dove in and put my relationship first, and then worked out my career as I went along, and eventually things started falling into place on the professional side.

For most people, it’s an ongoing struggle to try to balance all the work that goes into creating a life, especially if you have children. In my case, it helps to have support. For example, I rely a lot on my in-laws who watch my kids, including a seven-month-old, two days a week while I write the book. They have done so much for me. The modern idea of family is so small; it’s usually just the nuclear family, or just the couple. It helps to cast a broader net and to live closer to extended family, or close community, even when that complicates the picture in terms of added responsibilities.

Looking back, I wish I could tell my 22-year-old self not to worry. I’ve been married for seven years and have two children. My kids and my husband are my greatest blessings, but I’m also very grateful for my work, first as a teacher, and now as a writer. I’m finishing a book on Catholic spirituality and practice with my mom, Melissa Musick, which will come out in 2016 from Image (the Catholic imprint of Penguin Random House), and working on this project has been a dream come true.

Instead of “having it all” I think more about taking turns and supporting each other. I was a teacher and supported my husband when he was in graduate school. He now makes and designs furniture and has supported me both financially and emotionally as I’ve been working on The Catholic Catalogue. So, we’ve just had to rely on one another and be patient with the unfolding of our lives. (I say this as an extremely impatient person. It’s something I’m learning.)

Wendell Berry once said that the logic of vocation is very different from the logic of career. And I think that’s true. He says, “You must refuse to accept the common delusion that a career is an adequate context for a life. The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it. But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community . . . to which you belong.”

That has been true for me. We’re called to be faithful to our callings as Christians, and keep at it, not necessarily to be successful. And vocations are not just about the work you get paid to do, they’re about being who you are called to be. Being a mother or father is incredibly important and meaningful work. Many men and women feel called to be parents but they don’t know what to do with that longing because it doesn’t make sense in terms of the logic of career alone. It’s not about making more money or traveling the world. It means living a sort of monk-like existence when your children are small, and it’s not something you can put on your CV. But, there are a lot of amazing things in life that you can’t put on your CV.

Looking back, my twenties were a time of growth and discovery, but it was self-discovery in relationship: with my husband, my students, my children, family, and friends. At the end of the day, for men and women, even if you’re called to be single, I think you often have to make your relationships a priority.

How has your identity as a Catholic woman (and your understanding of it) developed throughout your own history?

When I was younger I identified as a Catholic feminist. As I’ve grown, I think of myself less in terms of those categories.

I’m just a Catholic, someone in need of God’s mercy and the sacraments. That doesn’t mean there aren’t larger issues that still need to be addressed in terms of the role of women in the Church, because there are, but my identity as “just a Catholic,” has its roots, I think, in the way I was raised. I never felt like a second-class Catholic because I was a girl. My sisters and I were baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ just like our brothers were. We were all baptized “priest, prophet, and king.” I was raised to believe that men and women weren’t just equal; they were both of infinite value.

What are the biggest obstacles facing Christian women who seek a robust vocation today, on a larger cultural level?

The Church is a slow-moving institution. This is good at times, but it can be challenging at other times. The Church needs to continue to work to include women’s voices. Some Catholics don’t know what to do with laywomen, or even women religious, in leadership. And of course, we don’t have enough women in leadership positions in the Church. I would love to see women returned to the diaconate, for example.

But Pope Francis is working on the need for female leadership in the Church. He’s said, “The feminine genius is needed whenever we make important decisions.” And it’s clear that he’s been trying to make changes, for instance, by appointing the first woman, Sr. Luzia Premoli, to a Vatican Congregation. But clearly the work is ongoing.

Still, most of the issues on the day-to-day level in the Church are people problems, not theological problems. There are some people in leadership who don’t know how to relate to women, and perhaps, don’t want to hear their stories.

On the parish level, we need people who are more loving and compassionate to one another, who are willing to listen and learn, and to pass on the faith in all its fullness. If you have a loving community, as a Catholic woman, you feel valued and appreciated. If you have a pastor who treats women like children, of course, you feel undervalued.

What do women need to hear and see more of from their pastors and parish leaders?

Pastors and parish leaders need to be open to women’s gifts. I have a wonderful priest, Fr. Drew Gawrych, CSC, who came up to me at a church picnic and asked me to get involved in a mother’s group at our parish, after some women in the community told him they thought there was a need. He introduced me to a lot of wonderful and holy women that I wouldn’t otherwise have known in my church.

I think the Church needs more pastors like him—men who are comfortable with women in various roles, and who are responsive to the needs of women in their communities. Fr. Drew often has women speak, sharing their conversion stories from RCIA, for example. And I have learned so much from hearing these women’s stories at Mass. It’s been a gift. And I could mention many other priests I’ve known who are like him.

When I was growing up, my home diocese, the diocese of Colorado Springs, had a wonderful bishop, Richard Hanifen. He played a crucial role in my faith formation and decision to remain Catholic. I’ll never forget what a humble and gracious man he was. He welcomed my questions about women priests, for example, and we used to have wonderful, if spirited, discussions. He never made me feel like the Church was afraid of dialogue, and he treated me like I mattered, even though I was all of sixteen at the time.

When I was in high school my mother was the Catholic campus minister at Colorado College. I’ll never forget how Bishop Hanifen would sit in the back of Shove Chapel and listen to her speak. He was a Bishop in the spirit of Pope Francis, truly a servant of the Servants of God, be they male or female. He knew how lead, but he also knew how to listen. The Church needs more women in leadership, but it also needs more priests and bishops like Drew Gawrych and Richard Hanifen.

Also on this grander scale, what unique, positive aspects about being a Catholic woman are worth acknowledging and fleshing out?

One of the things I love most about being a Catholic woman are the ways in which the Church honors and remembers the holy women who have gone before us. Of course, Catholics have a special devotion to Mary the Mother of God, and Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, but all the women saints play a crucial role and are honored by the Church.

When I was a kid I chose Teresa of Ávila to be my confirmation saint. I liked that she had a big personality and said funny things like, “May God protect me from gloomy saints.”

Teresa of Avila demonstrated to me that the Church valued strong and intelligent women. She founded seventeen convents, wrote four books, is considered one of the masters of Christian prayer, and is a Doctor of the Church.

As a kid, I liked that she was feminine and joyful, that she was known to dance while playing the castanets.

As an adult, my relationship with Teresa changed and deepened. I became more inspired by her recognition of her own sinfulness and the need for continual conversion. The idea that God is calling each of us to holiness and that for each of us that will look like becoming more fully ourselves. Also, Teresa’s life bears witness to the fact that we can experience some measure of God’s love in prayer.

Your online project, The Catholic Catalogue, is described as “a field guide to the daily acts that make up a Catholic life.” Can you tell us more about it—i.e. its scope, its future, and what makes it an important contribution to the current conversation?

Sure. The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up A Catholic Life, will be released by Image Press in 2016. It’s an illustrated field guide, designed to help the reader identify and celebrate both the seasons of life—from birth to death, baptism to funeral—and the seasons of the Church year.

When I was growing up my parents brought the feasts and fasts of the liturgical year into our home. It was strange and lovely to grow up in a home in which the passage of time was imbued with such meaning and significance. It wasn’t just one thing after another. Life was a journey, onward to meet Jesus. We were, as St. John Paul II said, “Wayfarers, pilgrims of the Absolute.”

It was strange and lovely to grow up in a home in which the passage of time was imbued with such meaning and significance. It wasn’t just one thing after another. Life was a journey, onward to meet Jesus.

I went to public school for K–12, so I knew other kids weren’t being forced to pray around the Advent wreath or fast on Good Friday, but when I went to college, I discovered that other Catholics hadn’t grown up with some of these traditions either. I didn’t know many students at Notre Dame who had chanted night prayer, or visited monasteries, or protested nuclear weapons with Catholic Workers, or kept St. Lucy’s day with breakfast in bed.

And yet, despite the absence of tradition in their lives, the people around me had a deep longing for spirituality and tradition—especially as friends began to start families, in their thirties. It wasn’t uncommon to see someone on Facebook ask, “We’re looking to start some family traditions. Any ideas?” Most people, who were nominally Catholic or seeking, had no idea where to begin. The traditions of their Polish, Vietnamese, German or Irish great-grandparents had been lost. That question: “How do I begin?” was the germ of the idea for The Catalogue, both the website and the book.

Because of the way I was brought up, my experience of being Catholic has always meant living a life. Being Catholic was and is more than just a serious of intellectual assents or political talking points. The practice preceded the theology (and the politics).

But it’s clear that many of the ancient customs of the Church—eating together, going on pilgrimage, keeping watch with the sick, attending births and deaths and keeping days and seasons—have been overshadowed by the demands of contemporary life. We’ve lost some of the richness of what it means to live a Catholic life. There are literally thousands of practices that can help us transform our hearts and give us some measure of wonder and peace.

I’ve spent the last couple of years learning about these practices for the book and I feel more connected to my faith as a result of incorporating many of them into my life.

Why do we make Confessions? What is a Byzantine Fast? How do I pray with icons? How does someone discover a vocation? What’s the deal with abbey ale or Catholic tattoos or consecrated virgins? In trying to answer these questions, and others, for the website and the book, I’ve also been answering them for myself. The goal of The Catholic Catalogue, both the website and the book project, was to help people make room in their busy lives for mystery and awe, meaning and joy, whether they’re encountering Catholic spirituality and culture for the first time or have been steeped in it.

I’ve been fortunate to work with other Catholic women on the project. My co-author, Melissa Musick, is a columnist for National Catholic Reporter, and our illustrator, Chau Nguyen, is a friend who also graduated from Notre Dame in 2006. So it’s been a collaborative process. We’ve also been very fortunate to work with our editor, Gary Jansen, on the manuscript. And our readers online (we have about 60,000 followers on Facebook) have been wonderful, offering support, asking questions, sharing posts, even giving interviews about their experiences with some of these faith traditions, many of which will be included in the book. It seems like there’s a hunger for something positive that moves beyond left/right categories.

I think The Catalogue is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation, because it emphasizes diverse practices and the ”way” of faith, and de-emphasizes the divisions, which often receive too much attention, especially online.

Featured Image: courtesy of the author, all rights reserved.


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