Cathleen Falsani: an Episcopalian with a Rabbi, Raised Catholic
“Blessed is the influence of one true loving soul on another.”
~ George Eliot
So how does an Episcopalian with a rabbi, who was raised Catholic and then Southern Baptist, help someone who lives in the black-and-white, plunge head-first into the gray?
It’s too simplistic to describe Cathleen Falsani as a religion columnist for The Chicago Sun Times or The Orange County Register, even if she has been both.
It’s easy to mention that she interviewed a then-little-known Illinois state senator named Barack Obama about his religious beliefs—an interview that remains the longest Obama has given any journalist about his faith.
It’s titillating to say that her first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, contained the religious and spiritual views of the likes of Ellie Wiesel, Bono, Anne Rice, and Hugh Hefner.
But this doesn’t begin to touch the work she does every day.
Hearing Falsani’s dulcet tones during an interview on satellite radio was riveting. Her life story is fantastical, but it was the idea of her then-newest book that most intrigued me: Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.
She had me at “sin.”
How do you not listen to someone who requests, nay, demands that you sin boldly? And who doesn’t need a little grace thrown their way every now and then?
I quickly signed up for a writing workshop Falsani was offering near her home in Southern California called “Incubate Spirit,” about finding your own story, the one that’s probably been hanging around inside your heart and mind for years. You just need someone to help you spot it.
To “incubate” means to maintain favorable conditions to promote development. Falsani works hard at fostering stories from those of us who feel something is in there but need help getting it out, birthing it into an uneasy world. She is a true midwife—a doula of thoughts, words, emotions, and most of all faith.
On Day One of the Incubate Spirit workshop, I assumed Cathleen was Catholic because she mentioned “my priest,” her great-aunt the nun, visits to the Vatican, and her “crush” on Pope Francis.
But you know what happens when you assume….
Then we learned that Falsani was raised Catholic until the age of 10 or so when her parents became Southern Baptists (in Connecticut, no less). That she now attends an Episcopal church, but has a rabbi and a priest, made my brain fold in on itself.
“Every nice Christian girl should have at least one rabbi, otherwise she’s doing it wrong,” she says.
Falsani is more partial to the word “faith”— rather than “religion” or “spirituality”—when she describes the focus of her work as an author and journalist, and the lens through which she sees and understands the world.
The axis on which she pivots, even when she is at her self-described “lowest or most ego-driven” is faith. It draws her back to her center—to a place she likes to describe as “grace.”
“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” the author Annie Dillard, one of Falsani’s self-confessed heroes, famously said. Falsani spends her life beautifully, magically, wildly, messily, and sacredly. Each step is a tribute and her devotion touches every facet of her journey.
She says she is grateful for an upbringing where faith was central to life, but open enough that Falsani encountered a variety of religious and spiritual traditions and their practitioners. That openness has fostered a community of faith that today continues to color her already vibrant world.
Falsani understands that our “outward appearance often has nothing to do with the condition of our heart, our soul.” She is endlessly curious and surrounds herself with friends and mentors who breathe life into her spirit and her faith.
She says she appreciates people who plug you into their faith like a spiritual charging station.
But what Falsani doesn’t seem to realize is that she is one of those conduits for other people—for me.
When I described her as a “sponge,” Falsani laughed and said that was a title much better suited to Rabbi Secher than herself. Instead she likened herself to a squid.
We settled on a starfish as her aquatic spirit animal after she shared a favorite parable with me:
One day, an old man was walking along a beach littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. He came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, sir.”
The old man chuckled and said, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water, turned to the man, and said: “I made a difference to that one!”
Falsani is married to Maurice Possley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author who specializes in criminal justice—particularly death penalty cases and prisoners who have been wrongfully convicted. Together they have a teenage son, Vasco, whom they adopted from Malawi, Africa in 2010.
She may not realize it, but Falsani is a shining light to some of us who are floundering on the shore like so many starfish.
Seeing through her eyes I found myself falling back in love with myself and spirit. I can almost picture myself flying through the air and landing back in the big, beautiful gray ocean of faith.
I wish everyone could know someone like Falsani—an unwittingly grace-filled electric eel of a girl who might shock you first, but takes you by the hand and leads you back (or tosses you in, if need be) into the ocean of faith.