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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

Thoughts on a Catholic Mass from a Reform Jew

Last night, Louis asked me a question I think I’ve been avoiding: “Do you really want to come back from your gap year the same Zoe you were before you left?”
The standard answer, of course, is no, because you are supposed to go on a gap year to grow and change, to grapple with those important questions of who you are and who you want to be. But so much of me wanted to say yes. Yes, I’ve already answered all of life’s important questions. Yes, I’m done growing and changing. Yes, I am a responsible Adult. Because at 18, that’s what you’re supposed to be: an Adult, capital “A.” 18 is when you leave home to start your own life, a strong head on your shoulders and your feet solidly underneath you. 18 is when you apply the self knowledge you already have, not gain more.
When Louis asked me his question, I was sitting on my bed in the corner of our cozy hostel room of five beds in Potosí, Bolivia, tears streaming down my cheeks. It was 8:15pm, we had just returned from attending evening Mass at a nearby church, and, looking back, I’m pretty sure I was mid-panic attack and absolutely terrifying my roommates.
I was raised Jewish, partook in a lot of Jewish programs as a child, and spent three weeks in Israel learning specifically about my Jewish identity the summer after my sophomore year of high school. And yet, I’ve always been surrounded by people slightly too academic to really believe in religion, the type of people whose first question upon meeting a religious person is always “do you believe in G-d?” followed by a shocked “really?” if said religious person answers that question with a confident “yes!” Perhaps stemming from that, I’ve always been intensely curious about religion, so I jumped at the opportunity our instructor Brian offered us to go to Catholic Mass. Maybe it will be like temple, I thought, and, this is an incredible opportunity to learn about a different group of people. Never did it cross my mind that what I might be learning the most about was myself. So walking out of Mass at 8pm, I was more than a little shaken when my answer to “how did you feel about the service?” was “freaked out.”
The Mass was beautiful and entirely in Spanish. The ten Dragones who attended the service explored the church beforehand, which was decorated with homages to various saints, and then separated so we could take the service in individually. Standing by myself in the second to last pew on the left, the first 35ish minutes comfortably reminded me of temple: lots of singing, someone at the front saying words that you don’t necessarily have to listen to, and a specific order of standing and sitting. The first tendril of panic began to creep into my brain when everyone began to kneel, something we don’t do in the Jewish tradition, but I pushed past it, figuring a new experience was bound to contain an uncomfortable moment or two. Despite my curiosity, I stayed seated when people went up to accept the Host, figuring it was rude in some way I didn’t even understand. But when it came time for the holy water, and everyone in the church was approaching the pulpit, I couldn’t help myself and surged forward with the crowd. I was almost to the front of the room when I saw something that made me stop in my tracks: the priest walking around the altar as if on a stage, splashing droplets onto the crowd with what looked like a giant serving spoon. My stomach dropped, my mouth went dry, and I began to back away. I grabbed my backpack and walked quickly out of the church, in some unknown way shaken to my core (luckily, it was the end of Mass, and my hasty departure was not as rude as it sounds). Upon arriving at the hostel, I told Ned that I needed to lie down and, if we fast forward a few minutes, we arrive at Louis’ question.
I woke up this morning at 5:45, unable to stop thinking about last night. Religion is one of those questions you’re just supposed to know the answer to. I’m Jewish but only culturally. I’m Christian and I go to church twice a week. I’m Muslim and I wear a hijab by choice. Reform Jews from Cambridge, Massachusetts aren’t supposed to be scared of the power of Catholic holy water. And yet I was. It was like during Mass I was suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed by the weight of all the faith there is in the world and in myself.
I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is that it took going to 7pm Catholic Mass in Potosí, Bolivia at 18 years old and getting scared out of my wits for me to realize how much more I have to learn about myself. Whether I turn out to be more Jewish than I think or not, the experience made me reconsider many of the parts of myself I usually regard as unchanging. It’s 7:30 in the morning now, and I’m sitting calmly on the same bed where just last night I talked to Louis in a panic. I have more questions than answers, and for the first time in a long time, that’s okay.

-Zoe