Holy week and the gift from my youth

It’s Holy Saturday. A dog is barking outside and there is a substantial wind. The curtains billow around the open window. C is playing in his room, creating race tracks and drumming symphonies, all while suffering an unpleasant cough. Dave is sleeping late, by which I mean past 7:30. I’m sitting at my computer trying to write this up before C notices I’m awake. He’s been asking me for a while “mommy, are you awake yet?” But I keep telling him that I’m sleeping.

Easter is tomorrow. Easter gets short shrift in the secularized Christian holidays of America, but in the Catholic calendar, it’s the biggest one. It’s the end of Lent, it’s the Resurrection, it’s the basis of the entire Christian faith. For years after I gave up my faith, tossed it off like an extra layer of skin, I considered Easter to just be a bastardization of pagan celebrations of the equinox. I had common ideas about religion being, first and foremost, a means of oppression, and that to believe in a higher power that could initiate the faithful into glory while shunning all the rest of us sinners was really just weakness, or at least thinking too highly of yourself.

I have vivid memories of attending church with my Gramma Dag, even though I don’t know if this was a common occurrence or just one that lives large in my consciousness. It was a Lutheran church, with dark wood, and the host was past among the pews. The wine with thick, a deep shade of red, and looking into the cup was like looking into an unknowable blackness. My Gram is faithful, my Gram believes, and she carries herself with a thoughtful, vibrant, grace. She takes in the people and places around her without judgement or anger, she embraces with a smile and a crinkle of her blue eyes. She never once judged me. Not even when I gave up my faith.

My step-mom J was horrified to discover that I hadn’t been baptized. She was Catholic, and in Catholicism, the oldest of the Christian faiths, one is baptized at birth. I once witnessed a baptism at my Gram’s church, and the person was grown, in long robes, and walked into what I remember as a 5 foot high glass encased individual sized pool, the water up to their neck, and was submerged by the pastor. J wanted me baptized, and so it was done, under protest, I believe, from my Dad’s family, and my Gram. I was 7 years old when I became Catholic.

C is playing in the bathroom, I can hear the water running. I’m almost concerned enough to go look and see what he’s doing.

Like other Catholic children, I went to CCD— catechism classes— after school once a week, and church on Sundays. I don’t remember the classes well, but I do remember getting there. Once a week the Catholic kids were bussed from school to church, where we would attend classes, and our parents would pick us up after. I loathed he CCD bus even more than my regular bus home. At least on my regular bus it was just the kids who lived on my route, but on the CCD bus it was all the Catholic kids, which included kids who were popular, which corresponded, in my mind, to kids who were mean to me. It was on the CCD bus that things between me, the outcast, and these kids was the worst. Because none of my friends were on the bus, or at least they don’t stand out in memory.

I hated CCD, I hated the bus, and I hated going to church on Sunday. Leading up to my confirmation I had to go to church, but because it was right down the end of Spring Street, and I could walk there, that’s what I did. My step-mom and Dad didn’t come. In memory this was every single Sunday, but I don’t know if that’s what really happened. I do remember smelling bacon cooking on my way out the door, unable to eat any because of the “no eating an hour before Eucharist” rule. I walked down the side of the road and let myself in the side door. I sat alone, surrounded by Catholic kids from my school, who were there with their parents, who would like at me like I was some kind of freak show. “Where are your parents?” a girl asked me derisively one day. I shrugged and stared down at the hymn book in my hand and listened to the folk singers give it all to God. Then I walked home.

C just came in soaked from the bathroom. I wonder how that could have happened.

I went to Catholic school, I argued with Sister Ellen Mary in religion class, and she argued right back. It was the most intellectual challenge I’d ever faced, and it was great. I made friends. My family fell apart. I was elected to student council. Then I moved to Philadelphia and a Quaker school.

My mom and step-dad were not religious at all. There was no pretense at all. I knew my Mom had been raised Catholic and my step-dad Jewish, but neither of these things were relevancies in their lives, and at Passover time Easter time, which are typically around the same time, they would throw what we called a Seder for Half-Breeds, where all friends of my brother’s families where one parent was Jewish and one parent was not, would come and butcher the Haggadah with us. One year the front door smashed open with a forceful wind and we all screamed for Elijah. These were really lots of fun.

Religion was not a thing at school, where there were only a few Catholics in our year, my future husband among them. God was not something one talked about, and Jesus, never. I buried myself in the internal, I buried myself in books, and I liked it there. I read everything transgressive that I could get my hands on, and it’s no wonder that, to a Catholic kid, existentialism was the Holy Grail. Camus and Sartre were big for a while, followed up by the hedonists, Henry Miller and Nin, replaced finally by the gloriously smutty, Sade, Rice, Reage, topped off with physics. I didn’t want to believe in God anymore. Believing in God was hard, and it hurt. It was like a real, sharp, bottom-dropping pain in my chest to believe. Where was God when I hurt so bad? What the hell?

I didn’t know that he was there with me, holding me tight, and crying my own tears so I didn’t have to weep them alone. I didn’t know for years. I didn’t know until now.

By the time I was married and on my own, I had given up God for good. That hurt too, but not as much as belief. We had a big Catholic wedding, because that’s what traditions are for, but we seldom went to Church. When we did go, we would feel good, and go for breakfast after, and feel light and full, but we didn’t remember that on Sunday mornings when sleep was more essential than light.

Now in my thirties, having read almost every book I ever laid eyes on, having watched my crazy husband turn into a good father, I know all the really solid, scientific, philosophical, unknowable reasons why a belief in God and Jesus Christ is non-sensical. And if I were ever to forget, I could just check my facebook feed, where my artist friends continuously tell me why Atheism, and Science, are the integral components to a rational consciousness. But I know all that stuff. And it doesn’t matter.

I believe because I want to. I believe because the pain of belief is finally more bearable than the pain of disbelief. I believe because I know I don’t cry alone, and with faith it is most sincerely true that anything is possible.

Yesterday, past our house, walked a procession from our church. A man was bent low against the wet, black asphalt, he carried a cross, a crown of thorns rested in his hair. He was followed by two men who whipped him. C and I walked outside to watch. We’d talked about Good Friday, and he’d learned about it at school.

“Today we celebrate that Jesus was killed,” I told him, “that man is pretending to be Jesus. Do you know what happened when Jesus died?”

“He opened the doors of Heaven for us,” he said.

For C right now these things seem concrete. Death. Life. Burial. Heaven. These are real things that are touchable. I wonder if he’ll read existentialism at some point and decide that religion is a fiction. I wonder if he’ll suffer through years of grief attempting to find meaning in a secular life while shunning the light and joy of God’s grace. I wonder if he’ll come back to it.

What’s most important to me isn’t that he maintain a strong faith throughout his life, but that he knows that it exists. Being brought up with faith means that it never truly leaves you, it is always there, ready if you want it. I am grateful to my Gramma Dag and to my step-mom for insisting that religious practice be part of my early life, so that I wouldn’t have to look to hard to find it when I wanted it.

C knows that God loves him, that there is a soft, warm place in his heart where the light of God will always shine, and because love, as we phrase it, is a gift, he knows that love is always with us.

The kids at the bar doing my play at Sticky on Holy Thursday.
The kids at the bar doing my play at Sticky on Holy Thursday.
Playing outside the bar before Dave finished performing and took him home.
Playing outside the bar before Dave finished performing and took him home.
Chilling at the bar reading comics, like you do when you're 5.
Chilling at the bar reading comics, like you do when you’re 5.

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