My earliest memories of talking about faith and God are from when I started first grade at Immaculate Conception School. Anyone who has attended Catholic school has studied the Baltimore Catechism, which attempted to answer the big questions like “Who is God?” with simplistic answers like “God is the Creator of Heaven and Earth.”
I was taught that if I didn’t sin (which of course, I did, since only God is perfect), or if I asked forgiveness for my sins, God would protect me, and I would eventually get my eternal reward.
Every Friday, our class would be marched in lookalike uniforms from school to church, in order to confess our sins to the priest perched in the confessional. We’d line up against the wall, comparing our sins in hushed tones: “I lied to my mother, I was mean to my sister, I cut the hair off my sister’s doll, I threw away my lunch.”
Really, how sinful can a seven-year-old be? I’ve often wondered if the priest who heard the confessions of first- and second-graders drew the short straw. These were not the juicy sins!
At Immaculate Conception School, I memorized the Ten Commandments and the tenets of Catholicism, and was presented with a blueprint for living—a model that, at times, was in direct juxtaposition with the lessons from my family.
In observance of the commandment, ‘Keep holy the Lord’s day,’ attendance at Sunday Mass is not only recommended, but is compulsory for Catholics in good standing. To not attend is not only a sin, but a mortal sin.
Every Sunday morning, we repeated the same ritual. My younger sister, my mother and I would be scurrying around our apartment, getting dressed to attend Mass, while my father, my Uncle Vinny and my grandfather gathered around the table for a communion of coffee and anisette, the bottle on the kitchen table altar.
As we were reverently bowing our heads in church, after receiving the blessed bread of communion, they would be raising their shot glasses in the kitchen in a toast to God—“Salute!”
Good material for the confessional
“Thou shall not steal” was obediently recited when my mother would drill me for an upcoming religion test on the stone tablets imparted by Moses. This was a simple commandment that my parents espoused. But when we went to the grocery store, my father would routinely sample the loose candy in the bins or pocket any small item that struck his fancy.
I once asked my father, “Daddy, isn’t that stealing?” He replied, “It’s OK. The store can afford it. But you shouldn’t take any.”
Once, when no one was looking, I stealthily pocketed a Tootsie Roll. I simultaneously felt the excitement of ‘getting away with something,’ along with heavy guilt, since I was sure God would count this as a sin. On the other hand, it gave me some good material for the Friday confessional.
On several occasions, Uncle Vinny would bring items to our house that were ‘hot.’ I eventually figured out that ‘hot’ meant stolen. There was coffee, and there were other items from the company where my uncle worked. Although the arrival of these items provoked excitement, it was made explicitly clear that our good fortune should only be shared with a select few. This was not ‘sin’ material for the Friday confessional.
Walter and Minnie lived in the house across the street. I remember visiting their basement with my parents, and I was surprised that it resembled a small store, with shelves filled with a range of items from small appliances to toys.
Often, when some interesting items had ‘fallen off a truck,’ they would invite my parents to check them out. What a dilemma! My parents admonished me about God’s commandment not to steal, but I learned to type on a typewriter with the serial number filed down.
God, the protector
No Catholic education is complete without a discussion of the Trinity and God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The God of my childhood was the traditional white-bearded, powerful-looking figure from the Old Testament. He was the law-giver, the judge and the jury. He could be terrifying!
As much as I was entranced by the image of animals marching two-by-two into the ark, the drowning of the un-chosen creatures, along with the people not related to Noah and his family, all seemed a little over the top. And insisting that Moses and the Hebrews wander the desert for 40 years, because they partied around an idol and Moses broke the stone tablets, seemed a bit harsh.
The nuns who taught religion, however, assured us that God was a staunch protector. This assurance fuelled my prayers to the Almighty that my father would be less angry. But his anger continued to regularly spark, and periodically explode. I would pray that God would make my uncle not kiss me in that disgusting way, but he would still insist on kissing his ‘favourite niece.’
I was not feeling the veil of protection. The childhood belief that I just needed to try harder morphed into teenage cynicism that questioned whether God really listened and wondered if His favours and protection were arbitrary.
Loving, soft hugs
The image of Jesus, the Son, was significantly more of a comfort. He was a gentler, kinder God figure. The gaze of his eyes held me up with their compassion and acceptance. Often, as a child, I would lie on the grass in our backyard, look at the sky through the canopy of tree branches and feel His nurturing presence. It felt as if I was enveloped by loving, soft hugs that sustained me.
Juxtaposed against the volatile, macho demeanour of the men in my family, the vulnerability and compassion of Jesus just wasn’t enough. I needed a warrior.
In retrospect, I realize that as much as I craved that deep feeling of nurturing, I didn’t entirely trust it. A gentle, kind God embodied by Jesus felt comforting, but not strong or protective enough. Juxtaposed against the volatile, macho demeanour of the men in my family, the vulnerability and compassion of Jesus just wasn’t enough. I needed a warrior.
My child and teenage self never fully grasped the concept of the Holy Ghost. There is a vivid image of this third of the Deity that always provokes a smile. It’s a Friday night dance, with the lights in the high school auditorium barely dimmed, streamers draped from the ceiling. The nuns of the Academy of St. Aloysius are shuffling around the dance floor, amid couples swaying to Carole King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”
One by one, as couples begin to relax into each other, they are tapped on the shoulder by a vigilant woman of the cloth who is admonishing them not to dance too closely, to make room for the Holy Ghost. Obviously, the Holy Ghost discouraged teen romance!
The Baltimore Catechism actually has much to say about the Holy Ghost, but it basically boils down to grace. ‘Grace’ in the Baltimore Catechism is defined as a supernatural gift of God that’s bestowed on us; it’s this supernatural help of God that enlightens the mind and strengthens the will to do good and avoid evil (like dancing too closely together).
The Baltimore Catechism is fairly dogmatic about this, but when I consider the Holy Ghost in terms of grace, it is actually rather comforting. Sources other than the Baltimore Catechism define grace as God blessing us, even though we don’t deserve it, or the divine influence that operates in humans to inspire virtuous impulses.
Let’s face it, most of us (at times) need divine influence to offer grace to people who have hurt or angered us. Only grace made me willing to drive my mother to visit my old uncle in a nursing home. It is through the grace of God offered through others that I have been able to navigate the ups and downs and ins and outs of my life’s journey.
The grace offered to me has inspired me to pay it forward. A circuitous path of grace. A circle of blessings and light.
Mary resonated with me
Mary, the Blessed Virgin, the mother of Jesus, is revered in the Catholic Church. This was never more evident than during the annual May Procession to honour Mary.
The entire student body of Immaculate Conception School turned out to process around the block, from the school to the church. The line of solemn uniformed children—hands demurely folded, girls’ beanies replaced by flowered crowns—was led by the May Queen, always an eighth-grade girl, and her court of honour.
To be chosen as the May Queen or part of the court of honour required the proper spiritual demeanour. This was evidenced by straight As in religion and regular attendance at Mass. I never made it into the inner circle.
As the May Queen placed a bouquet of roses at the feet of the Mary statue, we raised our voices in song: “Queen of the rosary, roses we bring, white buds of happiness, red blooms for pain untold _____.” The completion of the hymn segued to praying the rosary. Row after row of students sat on hard wooden pews, fingering a strand of rosary beads as they recited in unison, “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women _____.” Each bead in five decades of beads marked the repetition of a prayer of adoration to Mary.
The figure of Mary resonated with me. I saw Mary as a calm, quiet, strong, long-suffering woman, and in her image, I saw my own mother. As I matured, however, the image of my mother and Mary became less congruent. I still viewed my mother as quiet and long-suffering, but passively tolerating my father no longer seemed like strength. I still admired Mary, but I wanted a voice.
By the time I went to college, I had stopped regularly attending church and didn’t think about God very often. I looked for salvation in relationships, books and writers like Kahil Gibran. I left my family home, constantly comparing myself and my family to others.
I was on the quest for self that is frequently travelled at that age. I had long buried those feelings of spiritual connection, and my heart was heavily guarded. But the seeds of faith had been planted, waiting for the light to nourish them.
A place of love
My first job after grad school brought me face-to-face with children who had been physically and sexually abused. I questioned where God was in this.
I married a preacher’s kid, joining a family that openly practiced and talked about their faith. I gave birth to two sons and my heart softened.
I joined another church that was not Catholic, and began working as a psychotherapist. A multitude of stories of abuse, alcoholism, incest and neglect again triggered questions of God’s plan. Memories of my own childhood were awakened.
With every memory of family arguments, my uncle’s unwanted kisses and unwarranted criticisms, I questioned.
With every memory of family arguments, my uncle’s unwanted kisses and unwarranted criticisms, I questioned. I questioned God, my pastor and other people of faith. A colleague encouraged me to question, but then reflect and listen for God. The listening is as important as the questions, so I started listening more intentionally.
On an afternoon as gloomy as my mood, I glanced out the window of my office and noticed an arc of tree branches I had previously ignored. I mentally time-travelled to those childhood moments of lying on the grass in our backyard, when I looked to the heavens and felt the nurturing presence of God. I was transported to a place of love and peacefulness that fanned the flickering light in my heart.
The God I envision now is without judgment. I can feel the love and strength embodied by Jesus’ vulnerability and compassion. In silence, I can hear the Spirit speak deep within my soul. This is the God that sustains me, who has often taken me from the valley to the mountaintop and has lifted me up to do what I couldn’t on my own. A God of grace.
I don’t believe faith can grow in a vacuum. Prayer, questioning and listening for God has deepened my faith. But it is the grace of God, mirrored to me through relationships, that has often nurtured those seeds of faith in me and enabled me to reflect grace back to others.
The family and friends who have supported and loved me when I’ve felt unlovable, and have been sad, angry, anxious and overwhelmed with self-doubt, have helped me grow the self-confidence I need to support and encourage others through their journey.
The circuitous path of grace. A circle of blessings and light.
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