Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Part Two

After some questioning that coincided with burgeoning adolescence, I threw myself back into church. It was time to begin preparation for Confirmation. Confirmation was always hyped to us as being something that was a huge and important choice, involving our total free will and commitment into the church For Life. This was something, they told us, that was not to be entered into lightly, that it was a contract of sorts, and that we should be totally sure we wanted to do it.

Then why wasn't I ever asked if I did/ given the opportunity to say no? It was always taken for granted that all of us wanted to get confirmed, and were automatically put into Confirmation classes and spent one day entirely in retreat. I knew that I couldn't bring something like this up with my family, that I would be severely punished and life at home would not be good if I did so. And I wasn't even really sure that I didn't want to, I just knew that I was unsure and would have liked to talk about it some, to seek some advice. I learned another valuable lesson around this time: questioning God/Catholicism/anything that went along with it was not looked on favorably. In fact, it could get you in trouble, punished, or ostracized from your friends or family.

So I kept quiet. I shut up. I went through with it, in my maroon dress and high heels. My aunt gave me a ring from her childhood, and I got various gifts, some religious, and some not. I remember the Bishop showing up and having to be anointed with some sort of oils as we were blessed by him and our parish priest. I know that it involved me making claims about my eternal and lifelong devotion to the Church, to my religion. I had to have a sponsor, and chose my aunt Jacque. She was extremely serious about the religion, and scared me a few times with her fervor. I had to choose a Confirmation name, and chose Lucille, after my grandmother.

To prepare for this sacrament, we had been sent on a one day retreat earlier in the month. The main thing I can recall from this retreat was that we sat in the church rectory and a priest played Guns n'Roses's "Welcome to the Jungle" for us while we were told to analyze it for the sex, drugs, and violence content. It was imparted to us that this was a very "wordly" song and we could learn a lot from it about how to face sin head on and come out a winner. Even then, I found this to be surreal and corny. But I didn't say a word about it, just brooded internally, stuck in my confusion and feeling guilty for having any doubt in the first place.

High school loomed. I was to attend Gonzaga Prep, the local private Jesuit catholic high school. For a long time I had resisted the thought of going to four more years of Catholic school, but I had taken a tour the year before and had loved the academic and creative possibilities I saw. Plus, my family really wanted me to attend. I was excited at the possibilities for choice and independence that high school offered to me, glad to be leaving grade school and the same 28 kids that were in my class since Kindergarten behind.

The first year was great: I was the ultimate Good Catholic Girl, wore plaid skirts and knee highs and got excellent grades and went to the voluntary school mass every Friday and loved attending the mandatory all-school masses on church holidays. I made new friends yet kept them at a distance because I was undergoing a huge religious revival within myself, and didn't want anyone to get in the way of that. I prayed constantly, tried to avoid tumult and change within myself at all costs, and completely freaked out when I developed a crush on a boy who would soon be my first boyfriend. I was terribly confused and tired and looked to Catholicism for answers and relief, shoving down inside all doubts I had in my mind, both those leftover from the past and the new ones that kept popping up.

Sophomore year was different. The beginning was a lot like 9th grade had been, but then around the Christmas holidays I began to notice a change in myself. I was melancholy, whiny, moody, and talked much less in classes and with my friends. I began to wear mostly black, started listening to "weird" music, and grew my hair out so it fell over my eyes. I started to question everything I saw around me, and the previous year's religious revival soon fell aside, replaced by intellectual fervor and a desire to be weird/different/artistic/cynical. I read like crazy, and began to realize that other people also had questions about Catholicism, questions that often involved issues of reason/sex/gender/race/class/sexuality. I was introduced to an entire world of skepticism and intellectual discourse and theory that backed up my nascent disbelief in all that I had been taught.

But it was also incredibly scary. It's terribly difficult to give up something that was probably the single biggest influence on your childhood development. I felt horribly guilty and often worried that God (if He existed) was going to shoot down fire upon by disbelieving, heathen head. Yet it was also such a relief; I felt like I was breathing again for the first time in years. It's cliché, I know, but I finally exhaled. All of my previously squelched worries about the oppression of the Church came to the forefront again: I learned, historically and in modern times, that the Church was pretty fucked up. I felt like I was seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, and was learning all about a world of knowledge and understanding that had, only a few months earlier, been entirely foreign and unknown to me.

I had no one to tell about these discoveries, though. My friends had either already been there and had figured out these things on their own years ago, or were completely devout and would have been offended if I explained to them how brilliantly motivated and relieved I was. And there was no way in hell I could tell my mom: she was already dismayed at my obvious change in appearance and political beliefs, but religion was something I wasn't about to bring up. I was certain that she would not be happy about this change, to say the least.

I kept it quiet for as long as I possibly could. Yet, the pressure of attending a Catholic school in which questioning was not allowed and even often punished, and being forced to attend mass every weekend, eventually got to be too much. I broke down and told my mother that I was an atheist, that was no longer Catholic and that I would not be attending church again. She was furious, and told me I was confused, sinning, and being very awful in every way possible. I locked myself in my bedroom and sobbed and sobbed. She refused to allow me to skip church, and I was miserable, even often plotting my suicide. This was the time I began to self-injure, too. She could not understand why in the world I no longer wanted to be Catholic; me telling her this was tantamount to a blow in the face, one that she felt she would have to deal with forever and ever. I was sinning, and to her, this reflected poorly on our whole family. She warned me not to tell grandma and I didn't. I was terrified at the response that would come from a woman who often spoke of the snakes in hell that were reserved for sinners, and who frequently reminded me what a grave sin it was to not attend church each weekend. I never told her; she went to her death thinking I was still a Good Catholic Girl, and I'm glad she did.

My parents and I got in awful fights Junior year. My grades suffered some due to the fact that I was more absorbed in my creative projects and my friends than I was in school work. I also began to dye my hair even weirder colors, and dressed in outlandish thrift store outfits. My mother connected all of this to my lack of belief in Catholicism, and she and my stepfather often spent hours yelling at me, and me back at them. I would end up in bed, sobbing, throat raw, until I was woken up in the morning to attend church. I was miserable.

At least I had my boyfriend and my best friend. Although I look back now and see how immature those relationships were in most ways, at the time they gave me the strength and support to keep on fighting for my own identity and freedom in an atmosphere that was trying to push it out of me on a daily basis. My boyfriend's dad was a religion teacher at my high school, and he gave me a ton of great advice and let me vent to him and sob on his shoulder when it all got to be too much. He was a very liberal Catholic, and I was so impressed by this. I had only ever met one type of Catholic, and his views and actions blew my mind. He taught me about Emma Goldman and Mother Jones and St. Francis and showed me how this religion could have its benefits, too. My boyfriend's family became my second family, one in which I was accepted and understood, and I'll be forever grateful to them for that.

The morning after the first time I did anything even remotely sexual, I was at my grandma's house, and was wandering around in the back yard, thinking and staring at things. I sat down next to the large statue of the Virgin Mary that my grandma kept, and I could have sworn that I felt her eyes burrowing into me, saying in a soft yet determined voice, "sinner, whore, you're no longer a Good Catholic Girl. sinner."

There was a retreat that year to a monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho. Most of my friends were there, and we had a great time playing in the snow and watching Lawrence Welk on the old television in the common room, and exploring the old castle-like main building. Although it was scary and I despised the nuns at first, there was a sense of peace there, and took away from the experience the realization that I didn't always have to rage so hard against Catholicism. It wasn't going to take over my mind and destroy my new-found identity and independence if I let my guard down for one second. So the self-injury lessened a bit. I stopped burning pages from my bible for a while. I calmed down.

Senior year brought Search, a horrible, borderline-brainwashing retreat that all G.P. seniors traditionally go on. I resisted it completely; I had heard stories, knew that it was a pseudo-psychological time in which we were supposed to bond with our fellow classmates, to pretend that they didn't just pick on us or break our hearts the week before, and to become "one with the Lord." I told the Religious Studies office that I was not going, and was relieved and happy. But they telephoned my parents, and my mom forced me to attend.

I dreaded the day's arrival. The entire weekend was creepy and more than vaguely unethical. They remove your belongings from you for the entire weekend, force you to talk to virtual strangers, force you to talk about your pain in big group circles, and force you to tell how much you love the Lord. It was horrid. And they always tell each group to never tell the younger kids what goes on, that it's all a big secret. Fuck that, it's creepy and strange. I became intensely depressed after it.

College loomed and I decided to attend the University of Washington. I have little memories of my freshman year there, mostly because of the intense depression I was living with. I decided to "try out" various religions in the hope that one would save me and bring me back to the happiness I had felt as a clueless Good Catholic Girl immersed in religion. Although I know understand that it was borderline cultural/religious appropriation, I threw on the mask of Judaism, then Hinduism, then Buddhism, and I even considered going back to Catholicism again. But nothing worked. I was happy to finally be free from my religious high school and from Spokane, but I was morbidly depressed, the kind of depressed where you're so mired within it you can't even see you are. It was the water I swam in, the air I breathed.

At the beginning of my third year of college, my boyfriend of over four years broke up with me, unceremoniously, by email from Europe. I was devastated but it was eventually to become the catalyst for the end of my overwhelming depression. I found myself again, although it took a really long time. I re-immersed myself in my interests and passions, and enjoyed school again. I was fragile and broken and tired but finally free, taking baby steps to recovery. Then, during the summer of 2000, my grandmother suddenly died.

My beautiful, strong, inspiring, pain-in-the-ass grandma, who had always wanted me to be a nun and who always held out that hope that I was perhaps on my way, died without me having the chance to say goodbye. I was devastated and realized just how close we had been. I locked myself in the bathroom at the hospital and sobbed on the cold, smelly white tiles and cut myself with my scissors. Talks of the funeral began a couple of days later. I was offered a part and gladly accepted; I was to do the First Reading and offer some words during the eulogy. Then my uncle began to discuss his part, and how he was going to speak about "those who are saved and those who are not saved." The stress and sadness of the past few days finally peaked in me and I screamed to half of my family, "if you're going to make it into a fucking fundamentalist preachy thing, I'm out!" and stomped out. I was already having so many doubts about being involved in a religious ceremony, but was glad to do it for my grandma's sake. But I was not, in a million years, about to let anyone turn her funeral into a venue for hateful, judgmental preaching.

He decided not to say the piece, and I was grateful. The funeral was incredibly difficult, as she was lying in state in an open casket and I was absolutely terrified to go see her. Finally, when I saw that my younger cousins were able to, I went up for a look. She looked ghastly, puffy, overly made-up. I wanted to lean down and kiss her face but was terrified. I ran into the back of Assumption and started to cry. My entire family was in tears, but we put forward the façade of toughness and so most of us were crying separately. It felt so strange to be back in Assumption, and felt even more strange to be participating in mass again after so many years. Before the mass, I had to consult with the Monsignor about the reading choices, and felt so strange. I felt, suddenly, just like the little girl he used to know, and wondered what he thought of me now. I said very little and was terribly confused.

At grandma's burial, I held my cousin's baby girl and stared up at the airplanes flying overhead. It was a windy, sunny day and I avoided the prayers my family was offering over her grave. I wanted to have my own time with her, and eventually was able to find it. I tried to explain to her how my religious beliefs had changed a lot, but that I was still a good person, and that I hoped she would forgive me. I'll never really know.

After college I had a nervous breakdown and moved back to Spokane. I started grad school at EWU and met my boyfriend through the local weekly paper. We began to email back and forth and realized that not only did we have very similar music taste, but we also had both attended Assumption and Gonzaga Prep and grew up in the same area of town and my grandparents knew his parents, etc. He is seventeen years older than me, but we found so much in common, especially as relates to the growing up Catholic issue. We were both lapsed Catholics, and had a great time sharing our feelings on the religion and its followers.

My grandma always told me: Once a Catholic, always a Catholic. But it's not true. I’ve grown up, and what I grew into was not Catholic. I'm an atheist, an intellectual, a theorist, a thinker, and someone who demands reason and facts to back up my beliefs/worldviews. I have learned a lot about the oppression and crime the Church and religion in general have perpetuated. I don't want to get married. I don't want to have children. And if I ever change my mind and do, I would never, ever raise them religiously. I very much agree with Richard Dawkins's assertion in The God Delusion that raising children in a religious atmosphere that threatens a terrifying and very real hell as punishment for sins is child abuse, plain and simple. And I no longer feel like I'm "sinning" because of any of this.

Catholicism is like my appendix: I don't really need it, but it's still there. It'll most likely always be there. But it doesn't mean I'm a part of it anymore. I've finally come to the place where I can accept that it will always be inside me, a huge part of me, but that I don't have to be a part of it anymore. I didn't turn out to be a Good Catholic girl, but that's okay.

It's sometimes beautiful, even.

So, yes. I grew up Catholic, but I grew into me.

(This post, and the previous one, are edited/somewhat revised excerpts from a zine I did in 2003)

More posts soon. Thank you for reading.

1 comment:

fleeboy said...

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