I grew up Catholic.
Catholicism is something that has always been a huge part of my life, whether I've been an active participant or not. It's like the air I breathe, the water I swim in; it was something surrounding me as I grew up, something unquestioned and not often thought about. There was five days of Catholic school a week, and church once or twice on the weekend, yet no one ever really talked about Catholicism as an actual entity or set of religious beliefs, one that guided and controlled our collective lives more than any other. It was just there, and what you felt about it/towards it was irrelevant. You're born Catholic and that's that.
Or so I was told. I was born September 30, 1978 in Spokane, WA. That same year, my Grandpa Leo finished work on Assumption Church of the Blessed Virgin on the north side of the city. Although there had been a school and church there for quite a few years, the previous church had been housed in the multi-purpose room of the school, and the facilities were less than stellar. The new church was huge, modern in style, yet charming and sacred all at once. It was warm, with light flowing in from the huge tinted yellow windows, and the orange carpeting that covered the floor and pews. There is a picture of newborn me somewhere, being held by my mother in front of the newly built church. The area is heavily wooded, the grass shines green and the new building sparkles with fresh paint and promise. The sun shines on my baby face and the picture is tinted in that '70s Polaroid way. The first memory I have of being there is attending mass around age three.
It was hot, stiflingly so. I would breathe heavy as my mom would fan me with that week's church bulletin. I would stare at the flames flickering in the candles, or at the way the silver container of incense moved back and forth, reflecting the sunshine as the priest and the altar boys dispensed it over the crowd. I would stare at the huge wooden Jesus hanging risen on the front wall, the one my grandpa had built, and shiver in the thought that this was actually the man from the stories I'd heard. Sometimes I'd flip through the hymnals, trying to read the words of the songs or responsorial psalms to myself, and attempting to sing along when the time was right. I quickly learned to kneel, sit, and stand at the right times, when everyone else was doing it. I'd often fall asleep on my mom's lap, laying my head on her chest and smelling her lovely skin through her clothes. I'd wake up, sweat-drenched, and being carried back to the car. Sometimes she'd let me bring a dictionary, and I'd look up words (sometimes naughty ones) to amuse myself, falling asleep curled up on the orange-brownish plush bench next to my mother, smelling of incense and lulled by the repeated words.
I learned to genuflect when entering the church and when entering the pew. I learned to bless myself with holy water, always reciting "In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen." I was taught the words for the various rooms around the church: vestibule, sanctuary, crying room, chapel. I memorized the ways the light through the tinted windows fell at angles across the altar, and across the first few rows of pews. I discovered how hard it was to see the altar on a sunny day because of the intense reflections. Children's Mass was on Christmas Eve each year, and the kids of the parish would parade up the center aisle, bringing gifts for the poor to place in the miniature nativity scene that sat on the altar. At Christmas, the church was lighted up with lights and decorated with wreaths. It was pure magic to a four-year old's mind.
One day after Sunday mass, the summer I was three or four, I went outside to play on the log toy part of the playground after mass, while my parents and other family members talked in the courtyard directly in front of the church. I remember asking my mom why God had talked so long that day. She was confused, until she realized that I was talking about the Monsignor. She had to explain that, although he looked just like the picture I always saw of God in the Children's Bible and Sunday school books, he was just God's helper, sort of like how the Santa Clauses at the mall weren't really Santa. I was confused and a bit saddened by this. It forced me into the sudden and painful realization that this man "God" that everyone talked about in all the prayers and the books and the songs was really just an idea, something intangible, something I couldn't see or touch or talk to. For a pre-schooler, this was a difficult concept to digest.
Soon after, I began to see the Monsignor, formerly "God," at my grandparents' house. He was their friend; they often traveled together to Mexico or Canada, often to see a holy Catholic site or to see the Pope. He would sometimes eat dinner at their house when I would eat there, and I always was reminded beforehand not to pick my nose or say naughty things at the dinner table when he visited. I was always terrified and on my best behavior.
Grandma was the rock, the foundation, the boss of the large Irish-Catholic family into which I was born. She was tiny and somewhat frail but undeniably tough. Her fingernails were long and pointy, and she would scrub our heads with them as she prepared us for church on the Sundays when we’d stay at their house. She told us early on in our lives about God and Heaven and Hell and Jesus's death and the lives of the Saints. I loved reading the book about the Saints' Lives and was always told that I should emulate them, especially Saint Theresa and the Virgin Mary, the ones my Grandma loved the most. Good girls, I was told, love God and their parents and eat all of their broccoli at lunch. Because there were starving children in Ethopia and Jesus loved the little children, so eat all of the broccoli or it will make Jesus sad.
In their basement, my grandparents had a huge replica of Russian Icon of the Virgin and Child. I was absolutely terrified of it as a child. The stories my grandmother and Sunday school had told me about the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus and the miracle of the coming of the Savior had terrified me. I equated it with magic and the supernatural; like ghosts and goblins, I was absolutely terrified of this painting. It seemed to be alive, dark, moody, staring at me and judging me. I was only five and already possessed a huge internal sense of guilt and fear. I knew the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Seven Deadly Sins by heart. I knew that grown-ups went to confession to tell what sins they had committed. I was already counting what I had done wrong during the day up in my head, a tally of sins and guilt and fear. The painting represented all of this, staring at me in a scene of mother/child love that now seems beautiful and peaceful but then seemed terrifying: like Jane in Jane Eyre and her supernatural childhood experience in the red room, I was absolutely terrified to be alone in that cold, blue carpeted basement room with the huge painting on the wall.
My grandma had eight children, seven of which lived in Spokane and the surrounding areas for most of my childhood. She had raised them all strictly Catholic, in a small Iowa town where the church was the center of the town and the kids all attended private Catholic schools for most of their education. I have pictures of my mother's First Communion, and she looks adorable, innocent, a Catholic girl in the tumultuous world of the Cold War and the '50s. She grew up devoted, faithful, the fourth child of eight. Her religion, from what I can tell, was something like an ethnicity to her and her siblings: it was just what they were, they were Catholics, and that was that. They were born that way and the world identified them as a Catholic family and big one, at that. They heard all the jokes "Oh, you must be Catholic or Mormon to have so many kids!" My grandma was pregnant for 72 months of her life, six years. She was fiery and devoted and prayed the rosary every day. She told us to do likewise as she scrubbed our hair in the bathroom sink that smelled like roses and told us about what God liked and didn't like. A calendar of the Pope from 1984 hung in her kitchen. It's still up there.
She especially loved the Virgin Mary. To grandma, the virgin seemed to represent all that was holy and right and proper for a woman: she was a virgin, yet she had a child. She was devoted to God and let him do whatever he wished with her. She sacrificed herself for men. She was perfect. Grandma wrote letters to nuns/sisters across the country, and I would often sit behind her corner chair and look through all the piles of prayer cards and novena promises and letters from these nuns, talking about God and devotion and faith and what a good woman my grandma Lucy was. I absorbed the sight and the smell of these letters, the way they reminded me of sitting in church when it was quiet and being warm in the sun through the windows. They smelled like peace and how I imagined God to smell.
But soon I wasn't around my grandma all day anymore. It was time for kindergarten to start. I was to go to school at Assumption, in the school my grandfather built, near the church he built. I remember getting on the bus outside of my grandparents' house the first day, feeling important and grown up. In kindergarten, I learned to tie my shoes, add numbers together, and memorized the Lord's Prayer. I distinctly remember sitting at one of those cut-out tables that teachers often have, with a student teacher behind the open oval and five or six students sitting around the table, making drawings about the Lord's Prayer and practicing it together until we got it right.
I also learned about Friday Mass, each week at 8:45 when the entire school would gather in the church for a mass that involved a lot of the students in the readings, preparation, etc. I had a fifth grade pal who would sit with me in church, and I remember being so terrified. Church was suddenly different: quieter, more solemn, less ritual. I could no longer curl up on my mom's lap, or bring the dictionary to pore over. Suddenly, the very real threat of punishment hung over my head: if I wasn't quiet in church, or didn't kneel when I was supposed to, I could be punished.
This related to my knew-found perception of God: all at once, the beneficent, kind, fatherly God who was basically a friendly grandfather type to me was now a terrifying wrathful God, one whose job was primarily to keep us in line, to make us obey, and I quickly learned to sit and stand when I was supposed to, no questions asked, for fear of the wrath of this God, or of one of his ambassadors on earth (the priests or teachers.) Church no longer smelled like incense; instead, it smelled like stinky kids and sounded like shuffling corduroy pants and girls' penny loafers sliding along the orange carpet. I could hardly believe that this was the same church I had felt safe and okay in not so long before. It was suddenly making sense! All of what grandma told us about God's will and punishment and being a good girl, it all now became tangible, lucid, real. The major shift in my Catholicism had begun. The panic attacks began each Friday morning: suddenly, I was terrified of going to church.
I became a Good Girl, the best good girl I could possibly be. I wore my blue plaid jumpers, wore the right color socks, loafers, white tights. I prayed dutifully, succeeded academically, and did exactly as I was told. I attended church twice each week, once on Friday and once on Sunday. I held my breath through much of the masses, only exhaling when I started to become light-headed. I figured, somehow, that this would ward off the impending panic that seemed to come now each time I set foot in that building. My sanctuary was lost to me: I didn't know how to deal with it. I just skirted the issue like any sensible seven-year old would.
Second grade, though, brought First Communion. My role as a Catholic was now becoming formalized. My family reacted with happiness: I received rosary beads, a leather-bound bible, many books on how to be a Good Catholic Girl, and some money. I was now, I learned, an adult of sorts, truly inducted into the most important sacrament of the church and the centerpiece of the mass. Confusion reigned; I felt like a child, in the midst of all this mystery and fear. Catholicism was draping its veil of confusion and required obeisance over me, and I still wasn't quite sure what it all meant. I knew, though, that my family was thrilled, and that I got to wear a beautiful lacy dress and veil. I felt like I was a bride, walking down the aisle, at age eight.
Yet no one fully explained to me why I was drinking red wine (I was eight! I thought wine was only for grown-ups) and eating little pieces of bread as I was blessed and had to shuffle off to cross myself. I understood that the consecration/transubstantiation ceremony (in which the bread and wine were made holy and made to stand for/become the body and blood of Christ, respectively) was something special and solemn, and that lots of kneeling and repetition of chants were required. I had been taught in Catechism school that I had to attend in order to receive my First Communion that we were to be consuming the body and blood of Jesus soon, and that this would be amazing and life changing and it was a miracle that we were soon to be privileged to enjoy.
I was quite confused. But I never really asked the questions that kept popping up into my head. I was too shy; the Catechism class had 50 kids in it, and I just wanted it to pass by quickly. It was cold in the church at night, and sitting there being lectured to about What We Should Not Do was making my panic at the changed state of my relationship with the church even more intense. After First Communion, my role at mass changed immensely: I was now a fully participating member, an Adult. When the right time came, I too got to shuffle out of my pew, down the aisle towards the front of the church (past the metallic artwork depicting the stations of the cross), and take my place among the chosen, the few, the saved.
Or so I was told.
Church evolved into a more powerful presence in my life, one in which I was now expected to be fully awake in/aware of. I felt that I could no longer just look off into space, count the bricks in the wall, count the squares in the window, or make up stories in my head about each person I saw. Now, I was certain that if I didn't kneel solemnly and force my mind to stay focused on the consecration beforehand, I would be zapped by one of God's Magic Pain Rays or Satan would surely write this down on his tablet and remember it years later when it was time to decide if I was going to Heaven or Hell. So, I forced any other thoughts out of my mind and stayed there, knees glued to the bench, like a perfect good girl, awaiting the time to move up the aisle to bread and wine.
People marveled at my devotion, said that I was a perfect example for the other kids who often goofed off in church or talked to their friends. This always made me feel sheepish and embarrassed. I felt guilty because I knew that I wasn't fully there, either. I just pretended better than a lot of kids. This guilt found a good home that same spring when it was time for my First Reconciliation. This one, unlike First Communion, was done with little fanfare or notice. There was no white dress, no veil, no presents. It was just a Saturday in which all of the kids from the Catechism class, who had been told in the past few weeks that this would soon happen and vaguely what it would entail, went to the church and waited their turn to see a priest for confession. Assumption had two confessionals, both with mahogany wood doors on which hung a tiny brass nameplate of the priest who was currently performing confessions inside. A green and red light hung over the door, to let us know if it was empty or not.
I was terrified at the prospect of confession. The entire week before I knew I had to do it for the first time I constantly searched my brain to find any trace of something that was sufficiently "bad," something I could tell the priest that would make them sure to know that I was a Good Catholic Girl, one who knew her sins and was ready for redemption. But I couldn't think of anything outside of tattling on a cousin or saying "darn!" when I broke my pencil when I did my math homework. The Big Day arrived and I cried all morning, in a state of sheer panic. My mom was beaming as she brought me up to the church, but I was terrified. We all sat in separate pews, facing forward, supposed to be thinking on what we had done wrong and preparing ourselves to ask God/the priest for forgiveness. Instead, I quickly learned (and took great advantage of this for years to come) to read the Bible stories out of the Old Testament. They were brilliantly fascinating, full of intrigue, violence, and sex. Plus, my first grown up Bible was illustrated in brilliant color, only adding to my delight.
Yet, the time had come. I put my Bible under my right arm, and made my way to the first open confessional. I entered into a room much darker than the church itself, one that I had to adjust my eyes to see properly in. It smelled similar to the church's incense/stale air/people smell, but more intense and contained. I quickly kneeled down on the plush orange mini-kneeler, crossed myself, and said "Bless me Father, for I have sinned." He did a blessing over my head, then asked me what I would like to confess today. I told him, on the spur of the moment, that I had punched my cousin in the chest. He said something along the lines of the Lord grants forgiveness to all those who ask it, do you ask it. And I said oh yes, I do. He then crossed my head again, and told me to pray ten Hail Marys on my rosary. I was in shock at the solemnity and speed of all this. I figured that maybe we'd have a little conversation about what I had said I had done, discuss reasons and repercussions and ways to avoid doing it in the future, but it was all extremely fast and seemed scripted, almost. I wondered, suddenly, how the priest managed not to laugh at all, having such intense, formal, proper interactions with a tiny eight-year old girl with a made up sin. I definitely wanted to laugh, if only to relieve some of the tension.
So, three sacraments behind me, I was quite the Catholic by age nine. School was going okay, I was an excellent student, winning all the spelling bees, even going to regionals once before I lost on "iridescence." I got great grades, read at a 10th grade level, enjoyed all of my classes, played sports, and was active in Campfire. I was shy and awkward socially but had a few friends. I suffered from horrible panic attacks, mostly related to the fact that my father had abandoned my mother and I and I was sure that my mother was next to go (she gave me no reason to believe this, I was just petrified of being alone, totally abandoned), but things were mostly okay. I loved spending time at my grandparents' house, and was excited to get out of third grade, move on, stop being treated like such a kid.
Fourth grade arrived, and brought Sister Jackie with it. She was to be my first and only actual nun teacher. We had heard horror stories all throughout third grade: Sister Jackie is so mean! She'll give you five hours of homework a night! She likes to hit you on the knuckles with rulers! Being terribly shy and scared easily, I definitely feared having her as a teacher. Yet we got along pretty well. I always made sure to straighten my jumper out and make sure my shoes were non-scuffed when I went up to her desk to show her the progress I had made on my assignment, or to ask her a question, but she was always quiet and nice to me. She was probably 45 or 50, plain, even frumpy in appearance, and didn't wear a nun's habit, which shocked me to no end. She turned out to be stern, but kind, and religious, but not horribly fire and brimstone or preachy.
There were other nuns at Assumption, two elderly retired ones who lived in an old convent up on the hill behind the school. They often walked their huge German shepherd dogs around campus, which terrified me to no end. I hated those dogs, cringed when I heard their barks, and feared that they would bring them into my classroom, which had happened before more than once. The nuns themselves, although old and somewhat feeble, were formidable presences, ones not to be taken lightly. If they saw you goofing off in inappropriate ways out on the playground, they would come over and yell at you and guilt trip you about God's favor until even the toughest of the older kids would run away and cry. Their house was old, terribly scary, and one day when I was sent up there with a classmate to clean it (yes, two students a week had to clean their house), I found my grandma in there talking to them and praying together in the living room. I was shocked, to say the least. If you didn't clean the house exactly to their specifications and exacting standards, you were given a lecture about cleanliness being next to godliness, and how you had failed at being godly today.
This guilting/berating continued in a much stronger form when it was time to learn how to serve mass. Because of Vatican II, girls too could now serve mass, so once fifth grade rolled around, I began to learn the mysterious ways of the altar servers. I was taught how to properly hold the cross that led the way into mass, how to hold the book so that the priest could read the prayers from it (I was so so worried about my hands being shaky and slippery from sweat and dropping if in front of the whole congregation!), what to bring up at the time of consecration and where to place it on the altar, and what color sashes to wear with the white robes at each time of the year. I was intimidated but excited, because now I at least got to take a more active role in mass, and maybe that would result in a little less panic in church. At least now I was making things happen, controlling things a bit.
And it was okay. I was terribly nervous (altar serving is a lot like being in a play that you don't get to memorize your lines for or have much rehearsal for), and so afraid of messing up in front of the congregation, but it mostly went okay, and I soon learned what my cues were and when I had to do certain things. I felt important and useful and my grandparents were proud. Yet after mass sometimes, even masses during which I had felt that I had done everything well and correctly, one of the old nuns would come up to me and yell at me, often in front of a large group of people. She would nitpick me about things I had supposedly done wrong, lecture me about how God was always watching and was horrified when little altar servers made mistakes. I, of course, being uber-sensitive, took this to heart and would cry for the entire day afterward.
Repeated occurrences of this made altar serving less and less fun. Also, around this time, I realized that, as a girl server, I was not allowed to do everything. I couldn't help the priest during the actual act of consecration, and I couldn't carry the large cross out of the church after mass. It dawned on me, for the first time, that as a girl I was marked as different, as less in the Catholic Church. I had known for years that the expectations for a Good Catholic Girl were tougher than for being a Good Catholic Boy, but had always assumed, I guess, that this was because girls were tougher, in general. It had never really occurred to me that I would be thought of as "less" by God or his employees, as I liked to call the priests. It all became clear: there were no women priests, Grandma telling me about how the Virgin Mary was the ideal woman, the sign in my grandparents' kitchen that said "As for me, and my family, we follow the lord". Everything coalesced and I realized, for the first time, what "sexism" meant and especially how it applied to this religion.
I tried to squelch this realization, to toss it aside, to forget what my consciousness and my impending sense of selfhood and independence and gender identity were telling me. I threw myself into school. I went to confession each week, told my sins, and was told I was forgiven. I read the bible religiously, but mostly for the stories. The uniform changed once you were in 6th grade, and now I wore a white short-sleeved blouse, a gray herringbone wool knee-length skirt, a navy or black cardigan, and penny loafers every day. I loved to read and threw myself into writing short stories. I was absorbed in school and church to escape the pain at home. Sometimes, I'd even come to school early so I could attend daily mass in the chapel before school started. I was usually the only child in there with a ton of old ladies. I prayed the rosary devotedly, on my lovely turquoise beads...
(This post, and the one that follows, are edited/somewhat revised versions of parts of a zine I wrote in 2003.)