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Interview

Interview

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Lauren Ely interviewing Nora Calhoun about her faith, her work as a doula and reflections on the pro-life movement.
Lauren Ely interviewing Nora Calhoun about her faith, her work as a doula and reflections on the pro-life movement.

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Published by: Nora Nicholson Calhoun on Jan 22, 2013
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01/22/2013

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1) You are a recent convert to Catholicism. Can you describe your journey to the faith?
My family is not religious but both my parents do believe that human beings have souls. Sowhile my upbringing did not include any religious education, their tremendous love and wise parenting did give me a deep sense that the world had innately moral and transcendent qualities.I often
 felt 
that things were holy without actually believing that they were in any concrete way. Ialso had a mulish faith in the ability of human conscience and reason to resolve any quandary— although by “human” I usually meant “my”. I was very opposed to the idea of God and religion.Both seemed to me to be failures of reason and conscience. Much of this came from an arrogancethat ran very deep—although this arrogance partially stemmed from the loneliness of being anintellectually precocious child. By high school I was describing myself as a militant agnostic: “Idon’t know and you don’t know so don’t pretend you do” (words I parroted from others). Iwasn’t indifferent to the idea of God, I was angry about it.When I was 16 I went to a boarding school in the Indian Himalayas. I was intending to stay for only one semester as a visiting student, but was so happy there that I ended up staying for thetwo years until graduation. It was a Christian school, although the vast majority of the studentswere not Christian. At first my antireligious stance only became stronger. There was one dorm parent in particular who was a very verbal Christian and also treated me unkindly and unfairly.But then I began to spend time with a group of students and teachers who were articulate, devoutChristians (all Protestant, mostly Evangelical).I began to ask them confrontational questions about the nature of evil, suffering, hell, theevidence for God, morality: everything that bothered me about Christianity. The answers theygave—intelligent, straightforward and compelling—did important work in clearing the way for the changes of heart that were to come. At the same time I was watching these people living outtheir faith in a way that was totally unlike anything I had seen before. They cared more aboutwhat Jesus thought of them than what I or anybody else thought of them, openly believed inmiracles, and the beatitudes were the backbone of their moral life. I was catching a glimpse of real freedom and I wanted in. I’m still amazed that they called me their friend and made me feelwelcome, considering the staggering degree of condescension I brought to the relationship. Mostimportantly though, at that time the Holy Spirit began to whisper unsettlingly that their faithmight have important and disruptive implications; that the story they told demanded a responseof some sort. I began to yearn for God, a God I did not believe existed, and at regular intervalswould find myself weeping and praying a deep, wordless “Please” and receiving no answer, thenresuming normal life. These moments always came when my defenses were down, all posturingset aside. The longing appeared when everything fell silent, or I was suddenly alone, or when I’d been hiking for days and my body was exhausted and the glory of God’s creation was all aroundme, hammering at the doors of my heart. I continued in this way for a year and a half, each timeending with the thought “I can’t do this again”. And all the while my understanding grew of whatChristianity actually claimed.By the time I started at Columbia I understood both in my heart and in my head that if theChristian story were true, it was the greatest news the world could ever receive. I wanted it to betrue but had insufficient evidence that it was, and could not step into belief honestly. I began toread C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” but stopped because it was so painful. Initially out of 1
 
homesickness for India and my school I would go to the campus nondenominational fellowshipmeetings on Thursday nights and sit at the back and pray and cry while they sang songs I didn’tlike with words that filled me with inexpressible longing. Then I would slip away at the end toavoid embarrassing conversations.In November I visited a friend of mine from India. She introduced me to a friend of hers whom Iimmediately felt was more like me than any other person I had met. She was a Christian. Wetalked and talked into the night and through to the next morning. I tried to explain my spiritualstate to her and she said that she thought I already was a Christian but not happy about it yet.While I don’t think that was true, somehow her words admitted the possibility that I might be ona path whose end was conversion. I still don’t understand exactly what that conversation did, butwhen I left I knew that something had changed. For two weeks or so I didn’t pray or think aboutGod or do anything related to faith…everything was very still inside me. Then I went to one of the prayer meetings that I’d been attending since school began, and as they played their worshipsongs I allowed myself to pray as I had in the past, expecting that overwhelming “Please” to wellup from within me. But instead I found that I was praying an equally wordless “Thank You” andthis time it was tears of joy and gratitude that were streaming down my face. I had encounteredGod’s love; I became a Christian.I began to attend a wonderful church called Trinity Grace that could probably best be describedas progressive evangelical. I invested in community with other Christians, read scripture andcultivated my prayer life. I also kept as many of my old ways of living as possible and was badlywounded by sin. I grew. Two years after my conversion I was baptized in a small pool in front of the congregation of Trinity Grace in Chelsea. I believe it was the most joyful moment of my life.A few months after my baptism I met my now husband, Alex. He was raised in a family thatattended a Lutheran church and was baptized as an infant, but only in the year or so before I methim had the Christian faith begun to have any real meaning for his life He had read “The PerfectJoy of St. Francis” and later Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Story Mountain” which wastransformative for him. And from there he moved into the world of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Etienne Gilson and other Catholic thinkers and writers and saints. He felt himself drawnmore and more to the Catholic faith and finally, after an experience in prayer that confirmed thatthis was what he was meant to do, he decided to enter the Church. I met him while he was inRCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, classes for adult converts), preparing for hisconfirmation and first communion on Easter. Out first date was to Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker community in New York. At the same time my friendship began to grow with a young womannamed Carolina who was a devout Catholic. We were roommates and sometimes in the morningI would go to her room and we would sing the daily office from the Liturgy of the Hours beforeclass.At first I was pretty wary of Catholicism. On the one hand I was watching Alex fall in love withGod and grow in his identity in Christ, and that love and growth were happening in a definitivelyCatholic context. I knew there was something good there because I could see its fruit. On theother hand, things like devotion to Mary and purgatory and confession and the Saints and the papacy made me nervous because I was worried that they contradicted scripture or drew2
 
attention away from the central heart of the faith: Jesus. Also, most of the Catholics I knew besides Alex and Carolina were a lot less excited about their faith than the Protestants I knew.But the most important thing that drew me to Catholicism was that I began to learn aboutsacramental theology and to attend mass with Alex. Catholic belief about the Eucharist began toseem increasingly beautiful and true to me. When I saw Alex take his first communion, I knewon some level that it was much more than bread and wine he had just received. And I longed to participate in the Eucharist, to be part of the Feast. In fact, the more I learned about Catholictheology the more I saw that, whether its dogmas were explicitly or implicitly scriptural, theywere in every way consistent with the character of God. It was not so much a question of whether I wanted or was even capable of believing in sacramental reality, it was a question of whether God’s nature is to love and be known in that way.But even those realizations weren’t enough to prompt me to take the plunge. About six monthsafter Alex’ confirmation I went on a retreat with my church. It was held at a retreat house run byCatholic nuns somewhere in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was a silent retreat and in the hoursof quietness I listened much more closely than I usually do and received in prayer the clear  prompting to enter the Catholic Church. I’ve only been spoken to in prayer with clear wordsthree times and this was one of them. The way it was phrased was “I want you to enter theChurch; I have something for you there”. Upon returning to the retreat house, I was confrontedwith the painting “The Descent from the Cross” by Rubens. The leaders of the retreat explainedto us that it was in fact the central panel from an altarpiece, so that the heavy falling gesture of Christ’s body and blood down the painting would end with His resting on the altar as the breadand the wine. Again, I quietly cried with longing. After the teaching session ended, I went andfound a little plaster statue of Christ hidden behind some bushes on the retreat house grounds andknelt in front of it and promised that I would enter the Church, if that was His will.After returning to New York and a couple days of feeling not completely settled, I called the priest who had confirmed Alex, Fr. Rafferty, and joined RCIA. At the Easter vigil in 2010 I wasconfirmed into the Church and participated in the Eucharist for the first time. And as I knelt back in my pew I received clear and loving words from God one more time: “I am always here withyou (plural); now you (singular) know where you can find Me”.
2) When did your interest in pregnancy and midwifery begin?
When I was seven years old my brother was born at home with a midwife attending. My sister and I were welcomed into the process and watched my mother labor and give birth on the bedwhere both of us had been born. It was powerful. I remember that the room was full of love andcalm and that even though my brother was only minutes old and not “supposed” to be able tofocus his eyes yet, my mother told him who each of his family members were and he turned hishead to gaze up at each of us in turn. If you’ve ever seen the deep, gray eyes of a newborn babyyou’ll know how profound that moment was.After that the thought of birth and midwifery didn’t reappear until I was in India. The parents of two of my friends were missionary doctors at the hospital near the school and one was anOB/GYN. They were devout and skilled and served in a way that excited me. Somehow the idea3

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