As my mother recently reminded me, I wanted to be a nun at one point. This was the summer I was 11, just --and I mean just--before I discovered boys. At the time, I said that it was because nuns didn't have to pay taxes. (How did I not grow up to be Republican, again?) I think I pictured their lives as quiet and full of books and without work to go to every day. See, maybe I am fulfilling the dreams I had as a child.
My journey in the faith, of course, began much earlier. I was born Catholic, into a big Catholic family. It was as much a part of who we were as the fact that we were Ohioans, or Irish, or a family. I went to Catholic school for kindergarten, and I loved the nuns, who would come read us stories. Some of the teachers there would smile and clap their hands together when they learned my name, because they had taught my father and his seven brothers and sisters. I met a girl named Sheila who turned out to be named after my aunt (who was also my godmother). I felt famous.
But, I wanted to go to school with my friends, the tribe of neighborhood children with whom I spent all my free time. This was when kids played outdoors, unsupervised; light years ago. My mother transferred me to the neighborhood public school, which she and her siblings had attended. She wasn't Catholic, anyway, except by marriage, and I think she was already a little mad at my dad. I was playing in the next room when she told him she had pulled me out of Blessed Sacrament. It's the only argument I can remember them having when they were married; sadly, it's also the only conversation between them that I remember at all.
My religious education continued in CCD classes on Tuesday nights. My dad would pick me up and drop me off; I think he liked to visit his old school. Of all the CCD classes I attended, I remember two incidents: a priest whom I loved all out of proportion to our actual relationship, which was nonexistent except that he had baptized me, brought us candy apples. I cried when he left our parish. They named a building after him, but they had to take the plaque down when he was convicted of multiple counts of child sexual abuse. The second incident is when asked our teacher, a sweet woman named Pam whom I loved because she was a cashier at the Big Bear and always talked to me when we went in, how we knew that all of this stuff was true, about Jesus and God and crucifixion and all that. I was already a big reader, and I knew that the stories in my books weren't always true. Why, I asked, was the Bible any different? None of us had been alive when this stuff happened, so how could we know that it was true? I really, really hoped that she had an answer I could accept. I was at an age when I was starting to get a bad feeling about Santa and the Easter Bunny, and I was hoping that some of my childhood comforts were going to stick around. But Pam was no Jesuit, and her answer was something like, we believe because we have faith. That's what faith is. Mine was badly shaken.
My next religious revival occurred when I was about 11. That's when I thought I might be a nun, and made my mom drive me to Mass every Sunday, where I sat alone. I used to say my prayers every night before I fell asleep, secretly, with the covers over my head. I've been trying to think of why, but I have no idea. I guess I've always been drawn to tradition and ritual, and I must have needed an extra dose of it at that point in my life. It just made me feel good to go. I loved (and still love) the incense, and the bells, and the creaking pews, and the chanting in unison. I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters... I was so proud of myself when I learned it all by heart. I guess it had to do with being part of a like-minded group, and fitting in. I also wanted to be deeper than the people around me, to have a profound connection with something big that the people I lived with didn't share. I was trying on new identities, and I thought piety might suit me.
Then I went to California, to stay with my favorite aunt, the youthful one who had run away to live by the beach. She was--is--very religious, and we attended Mass. But she couldn't take Communion because she was a divorcee, even though her husband had gone AWOL from the Army and abandoned her, and even though she scrubbed altars every week and went without the Pope only knows what to send her kid to Catholic school. Budding little social justice fiend that I was, I was horrified by the unfairness of it all, and the Church and I have been broken up ever since. I'm waiting for the right time to tell her that it was she who inspired me to reject the Church; she's still very observant and will be horrified. She has terrible politics, too. Tee hee.
But the Church got its revenge in the for of my Aunt A., my mom's youngest sister, who recently converted. A. is only 9 years older than I, and was my idol when I was a kid. She had a 'little brown bag' from Bloomingdales--who knows where she got it--hanging on the wall of her teenage room, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. She used to argue with her father and brothers about politics and would end up storming out in tears while they laughed and opened another beer. It's eerily familiar from this vantage point. I thought she hung the moon. Two summers ago, by my mom's pool, we were discussing my hypothetical future children and how they would come into being, and she talked about how adoption was a good option for me, so many children need a good home blah blah. You should adopt then, I said. I knew she wanted another child. No, she replied, she couldn't because it was important to her to have a Christ-centered family created by her and her husband from the sacrament of marriage.
Ooh, my face flushed just typing that.
You know the phrase "apoplectic with rage"? I never really knew what it meant before that night. I haven't been home so much since because seriously, there is no hope for the people of Ohio. I'm only grateful that she didn't join a mega-church and start wearing long skirts and tennis shoes with white socks. (Side note: I know I have a little excess feeling about this particular situation. When I get health insurabce again I promise to go back to therapy and find out why. I think it's because I used to think I would grow up to be like her and I feel betrayed by her devotion to all of the stupid tenets of the Church.)
The strange thing is that most of my friends come from lapsed Catholic stock, like myself. Some of us are more lapsed than others; I just had to talk one of them out of buying a portrait of the dead Pope to hang in his apartment (stay strong, man; one day at a time.) It turns out that a lot of the people I like had a fleeting desire to be a nun or priest at one (pre-pubescent) point; I'm sure there's an interesting socio/psychological dissertation in there somewhere. (For some reading on the subject, I recommend two novels: Mariette in Ecstasy and Lying Awake.)
I'm not tempted by sincere iconography, and I definitely don't have a vocation, but I do love the smell of old incense, wood polish, and guttering candles. ( I swear, if Wiccans had bells and better footwear, I'd be there.) And, not to shock any of my readers on either side of the faith divide, but I am not really a godless heathen liberal; not even agnostic, really. I'm more of a Pascal's Wager girl, hedging my bets, as always.
I can understand how deep and tangled people's feelings about the Church are, but I'm still taken aback a bit by all of the Pope hoopla. The world is surprising. As for me, there are lots of divorcees, homosexuals, fornicators, and proponents of abortion whom I really love, so the Church and I likely won't be seeing much of each other any time soon. I guess the guilt and repression are my consolation prize.