Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Church Nerd - The Beginnings
At the end of September I will mark the 19th anniversary of my return to the Roman Catholic church. That means that I have finally passed the point where I have been back longer than I was gone. I was out for 18 years, now back 19 - I guess I'm in.
It is an entirely unlikely anniversary of an entirely unlikely event - or series of events. Add to that today I am working for the Catholic church, studying for an advanced degree at a Catholic institution of higher education and spend a good chunk of my time doing things at another Catholic church, where I worship - well, you know...unlikely.
To go back to the beginning, I was raised in a Catholic home. My father was Jewish but had left his own faith behind. My mother was a cradle Catholic. My mother was however a rather marginal Catholic. My father on the other hand became the driving force in Catholicism.
Looking back, I think my father loved the drama and the ritual, the transcendence, I think he longed for a lot of what the Church had to offer. He also wanted to belong to something. And he wanted it to all be as far as from who he was as possible - that was the Church.
My own Catholic childhood resembles little of the stereotypes. Sorry - no abusive or awful priests - although Father Sam was pretty grumpy, Father Julius was great; they were Stigmatine Fathers from Italy.
There were no ruler-bearing nuns with anger management issues in my past - these were wonderful women, Sisters of the Divine Compassion.
I began my religious education in the First grade; I went to public school. This was serious business, taught by the nuns. We met on Wednesdays and Sundays and I look back on a very thorough education.
Even way back then I was some kind of church nerd, I loved going to church. I would have my little St. Joseph's Missal (which I still have) and a laminated card with prayers in Latin and in English. I always thought that et cum spirit tu tuo sounded like a phone number! We sat with our class and that meant the front pew on the left. I wore a little round white chapel veil until I was about 10 or so and was allowed to wear a mantilla, sometimes even a black one. I felt so very exotic and holy, all at once.
And I was never without my scapular and my rosary!
It all went very well, I loved going to church, I loved our little parish (sadly no longer extant), I loved Father Julius, I loved the nuns, I loved it all. We never missed church, which was good because back in those days it was believed that one missed mass was a mortal sin. If you died - bye bye heaven hello hell. OK, that was a bit scary, that and limbo. But I wasn't walking around in terrified submission, I generally liked the whole business.
Everything was humming along fine. I think that I liked the stability of church and the transcendence, kind of like my dad did. I knew that I believed in and loved God very much and Jesus too, scary as he was all dead and on the cross... but yet he came back to life and I loved that part. It all made so much sense to me and gave me great comfort and so much joy.
On a less healthy side, it did feed my inner people pleaser and who better to please than Jesus!
The fact that my father was Jewish was never brought up. He was at church every week, he and my mom sat in the back. I found it odd that they did not receive communion. I knew that daddy couldn't because he was Jewish and because he was divorced. These things were not discussed publicly. It was never clear to me why my mom did not receive communion, but it seemed prudent to not ask... Later I came to know it was because she married someone who was divorced.
In any case, there was such turmoil at home, I think I loved church for the things I said earlier and for more. I even thought about what it would like to be a nun - and this was back in the very old habit days!
So where and when did it all go wrong?
The year was 1970. Vatican II was working its way into our lives. We had folk mass sometimes. Honestly - I didn't like it. I missed the "smells and bells" and I thought that the guitars were hokey.
My father died in October of that year. It was devastating. Even if things were all messed up at home, that was what I knew. My world was torn asunder in a huge way. I got a tremendous amount of comfort and consolation from knowing that daddy was with Jesus, Mary and the angels.
Some nun, an older one, well meaning as possible stopped me after what was still called "catechism class" and asked me how I was doing. I replied with honesty and told her what I just told you all - about daddy being with Jesus, Mary and the angels.
Her face fell. Maybe her mouth twitched a little. Then she said it... "Your father is not in Heaven! He can't go there, he was a Jew!"
And in that moment, in my first real exercise of internal authority and individuation I knew that she was wrong.
There are some who would still argue with me about this, but I, even knowing all that I do know about my dad, still believe that he is there in heaven.
Something broke that day, I separated. We still went to church, I still went to catechism, but inside something changed.
Sister was wrong, the Church was wrong.
A few months later I made my confirmation and not long after I suggested to my mom that we stop going to church. In her depression over dad's death she readily agreed, not one question asked.
And that was that.
It felt very liberating and a little scary, but it seemed the right thing to do. I still had my prayer books and my statues, I still had my rosary and I still believed in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and all the angels and saints. I just was not sure about belonging to the Church.
Now one thing would not undo it all, but I guess that a lot of stuff was going on and in this one way I could be me on my own terms.
Doing anything on my own terms was dizzyingly astounding and I kind of liked it. I mean - at this point I was what... all of 14?
Well that seemed that, and off I went. I did not think I would return again.
How wrong that was!
More to follow.