Thursday, April 13, 2017


If you grew up Catholic in the days before Vatican II, you always remember the smell of church. It wasn't so much incense, although there was that. It was mostly the smell of candles--pure beeswax, lit by the altar boys with a long stick that had a wick on one end and a snuffer on the other side. Low mass, which we usually attended, didn't include incense, but there were always candles. I don't have many memories of Saint Patrick's, except for the statues. You walked upstairs (the school was on the first floor, the church on the second floor) and at the top of the stairs was a life-size, painted version of the Pieta, with blood stains and wounds. Inside, there were statues of Saint Theresa, carrying a cross adorned with a dozen red roses, and Saint Patrick, and Saint Anthony, and of course the Blessed Mother. Irish Catholics mainly referred to Mary as the Blessed Mother. Not the Virgin.

What memories I have of Saint Patrick's seem to be in the spring or summer, when the doors and windows were open and air and sunshine poured in. We left by way of the fire escape, out into the fresh air. I was too young to go to daily mass by myself, which may be why I have fewer memories of going there. When we moved to Cottage Street, maybe a mile away, it automatically meant changing churches, and we began to attend Sacred Heart, which is what I mainly remember. Sacred Heart had a formal church with high ceilings and elaborate stained glass windows upstairs, and a chapel downstairs with a low ceiling and stained glass that was merely designs.

I walk in and I dip my fingers in the holy water font and make the sign of the cross. Near the door is a lost and found, where stray winter gloves and hats and handkerchiefs may be found, but also left-behind prayer books. I want a prayer book so bad, and I often consider stealing one of the ones left there. No one has claimed it--would that really be stealing? A Saint Joseph's Daily Missal, with ribbons of red, green, purple, black, white--the liturgical colors, so that you could mark the Ordinary of the mass and also today's saints day, and special prayers at the back or front. The mass was written in both Latin and English, so that you could follow along.

At some point, in around 4th grade, I use S & H Green Stamps to buy a missal (how and why are the stamps mine to spend?) Mine is a Marian Missal, not a St. Joseph's, which is a little disappointing. Shortly after getting it, I am allowed to spend the night at Joan Page's house for a sleep-over--the first, and to my recollection, last sleep-over I ever had. The next day is a Holy Day of Obligation, so I take my missal with me in my suitcase, which is the shoe carrier I use to carry my tap shoes in. I am so nervous getting ready for bed in a strange house that I manage to drop my new missal into the toilet! The red ink that edges the pages bleeds onto the pages and the paper remains crinkled for the rest of the time I own this missal.

My memories of going to Sacred Heart church are all winter memories. We went to daily mass during Lent, which starts in the dead of winter and gradually transitions to spring. Mass is at 6:45, so I get up at 6:15 and put on my uniform and walk through the freezing cold morning to mass. The church is nearly full. Many people attend mass on their way to work. The nuns all walk in as a group, eyes downcast, and sit together in the front two rows. There is no singing, unless it happens that someone has paid for an anniversary mass to commemorate someone's death. Then a woman stands in the back and puts her finger in her ears and sings in response to the priest. Some of the priests have pleasant voices, but some drone, and the worse they are, the slower they sing.

Foreign-looking women, maybe Italian, mutter the rosary half-aloud as they pray. I think they don't know how to think words inside their heads. Someone leads the congregation in the rosary while waiting for mass to begin, and it continues over the start of the mass, I think. the priest has his back to us, and the priest and the altar boys alternate lines: Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison, Kyrie elaison, Christe eleison  Christe eleison....I know that this is the oldest part of the mass, and in Greek. The rest is all in Latin, except the gospel, which I think even on weekdays is read facing us and in English. Or maybe not. The whole thing is a little rushed, a little perfunctory, mechanical --and yet soothing for being so, comforting, eternal and unchanging. The bell rings urgently, and we look up and see the priest raising the host. Then we come forward and kneel at the altar rail, while the priest walks along accompanied by an altar boy who holds a gold plate under our chins in case we somehow manage to drop the sacred host.

There are a few working people who receive communion and immediately leave, to catch a bus or drive to work. But for most of us, the time after communion is the most important part of the mass--you cover your face with your hands and feel something--wrapped in love, held and comforted, alone with God, who is in you.

It may have been still quite dark on the way to church at 6:30, but by 7:15 going home, it is light, I am light, I feel whole, and holy. Breakfast is waiting when I get home, the washer is going, the radio is on.

I also go to daily mass during the month of May as well, Mary's month. That is a different feeling. Lent is the feeling of winter's last gasp, a little depressing, but also cleansing. May is pure jubilation. Lilacs bloom and we cut them and place them in front of Mary's statues. I have a very delicate and beautiful statue of Mary that I won in a raffle in the second grade. It is my treasure. I make a May shrine, using flowers made from tissue paper or even just Kleenex tissues.

I believe all that I am taught with no questions. Although my own grandmother and great-grandmother are "protestants," (which means merely, not Catholic) and do not go to church or believe anything, I feel as if the Catholic faith is omnipresent, omnipotent, ubiquitous, no more to be doubted or questioned than gravity or the national anthem. I love it all. I love going to confession and receiving communion and daily mass. I love the Stations of the Cross, which is followed by benediction, when they break out the incense. The priest is wrapped in a special stole, in addition to his usual vestments, and with great ceremony, lifts a golden cross with rays of the sun surrounding the host, and blesses us all. There are special songs sung at benediction--Pane Angelicus, I think, bread of angels, written by saint Thomas Aquinus himself. We also sing a gloomy song at the stations of the cross, intended to make women weep--At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last. I try to make myself cry, but even then, crying did not come to me.

I also tried to see visions. Lots of saints saw visions, and I did have some hope that I might be a saint, and if I could see a vision, it would make that more likely. But I was no good at that either. There were holy cards that had a picture of Jesus in reverse, and if you stared at it a long time without blinking, and then looked at the wall, you could see Jesus on the wall. A forced vision. That's as close as I ever got.

My favorite saint was Saint Theresa of Lisieux. Actually, she was almost everyone's favorite saint, at least the girls, but I read her story over and over again. The Houghton branch library had a biography of her that began "Le bon Dieu," the good God, and tells how her mother taught her little girl to love God from childhood, and how she insisted on joining the Carmelite convent at age 15. That didn't seem young or strange to me at all. Later I read her "Story of a Soul" in which she tells her own story (somewhat expurgated, I later learn.) It is her story that gives me a fascination with dying young of tuberculosis. I also love the child visionaries, Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, and especially the three children of Fatima, Lucy, Francisco and Jacinta. I have no sense whatsoever of when or where these people lived, or even the shockingly young ages at which they had their world-shaking visions. They are as real and as near to me as the many martyr saints from 200 or 300 AD.

The nuns told us many stories of shocking suffering--scourgings, burnings at the stake, being roasted alive, being torn apart from lions, being threatened with boiling oil. These stories were encased in a patina of piety and love and didn't shock or offend. They were all a holy blur, from ancient saints dying to protect their virginity to Saint Maria Goretti, fighting off an attacker and dying of stab wounds, to dear Saint Theresa coughing up blood and rejoicing that she would soon die and go to heaven.

I have no regret or bitterness about the things I was taught and believed. I moved from belief to belief, attending Quaker meetings, Pentecostal churches, Baptist, Church of Christ, back to Catholic, and then losing all faith that there is anyone there at all or any life beyond this one, but I cherish these memories. My feeling is best summed up by Thomas Hardy:

The Oxen
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

I wish it were so. I wish that all things worked for good, that the good were rewarded and given justice, that there was someone who never gave us more than we could handle, or that everything happened for a reason.

But it is not so.

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