My parents came for a visit so my husband Phil and I could attend a wedding about two hours away. We decided to take advantage of the free babysitting and spring for a hotel. This meant I was leaving the kids on their own to handle the Sunday Morning Church Conversation.
“DeeDee and Poppy are going to want to go to church—at St. Mary’s,” I said to 12-year-old Emma, who was stretched across my bed with the iPad while I packed.
“Ugh! Why?!” she said, rolling over on her back and tossing the iPad aside. “Why do we have to pretend like we still go to St. Mary’s? No one even knows what Father McMumbles is saying, so what’s the point?”
“The point is it makes your grandparents happy. And if you go gracefully… I’ll buy you something.” I realize bribery is not a highly evolved parenting strategy. But neither is asking your children to lie for you, so at least I’m consistent. And what I was asking Emma to do did merit some form of recompense: An hour of Father McMumbles was torture.
She sat up: “What kind of something? Like an ice cream cone or are we talking bigger?”
“A clothing item of your choosing, but I cap the price.”
My parents are Catholic: Silent Generation, early Vatican II, hardcore Catholic. Growing up, Sunday mass was non-negotiable, as was the list of things we were forbidden to do: steal, lie, eat meat on Fridays. I never had to ask why any of these things were off the table, because the answer was always the same: Hell. If you push the envelope too many times, that is where you are headed.
Now in their retirement years, my parents’ devotion to the church has only intensified. They arrive at mass early so they can “get a good seat.” They travel with a church group to Israel and Italy, where they ride camels and hit all the religious hot spots. After each pilgrimage I am given a bottle of holy water destined to sit in my God Shoe Box, along with all the prayer cards, crucifixes and Mary statues I’m too paranoid to throw away.
I consider myself a Recovering Catholic. While I haven’t been to church in years, I don’t think it’s possible to divorce myself entirely from the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. To become Un-Catholic would be akin to becoming Un-Irish, or changing my astrological sign from Cancer to Capricorn. I look at Catholicism like my bladder sling. When I had pelvic prolapse surgery, the doctor explained that the transvaginal tape used to hold up my droopy bladder would eventually mesh into my tissue, becoming part of my personhood. The Catholic in me is the transvaginal tape. It’s just in there.
Things began to go south for me and the church when I was about nine years old and saw a commercial for The Exorcist. I was lying on the couch in our family beach house in New Jersey, watching Little House on the Prairie when the show went to a commercial break. A sinister voice said: “Somewhere, between science and superstition, there is another world – a world of darkness.” In less than 20 seconds, I witnessed levitating, head spinning, and green projectile vomit. All coming from a demon girl who size-wise looked around my age.
I was terrified. If there was a world of darkness where children could end up, I was a pretty good candidate. At the beach house, I shared a bedroom with my cousin Beth. When my family arrived before hers, I picked the twin bed closest to the door. This way, if an ax-murderer broke in through the window, he would kill Beth first. Good, sweet, saintly Beth, who not only said her prayers at night but in the morning as well, while I watched cartoons and inhaled Cinnamon Toast Crunch straight out of the box. So, while the ax-murderer might be coming for Beth, Satan would definitely be gunning for me.
I became obsessed with demonic possession. I would lie in bed cataloguing my sins, wondering which misstep would seal the deal. Then the nightmares started. One night I woke up screaming that Jesus was in my closet. My dad, who had come in to comfort me, didn’t understand why this was a bad thing.
“If I had to have someone in my closet,” he reasoned, “I would be pretty happy if it were Jesus. Jesus is a good guy. He’s not Satan or say…a deranged clown.”
Great, thanks for that, Dad, I thought. Let’s throw some deranged clowns in the mix.
I decided the only solution was to go to confession. This confused yet pleased my parents immensely, because I had always pitched a fit about going in the past. I didn’t understand why my sins were any of the priest’s business. Why the middle man? Couldn’t I just fess up to God, privately? But the whole possession thing really had me thrown, and I needed an expert in this area to set my mind at ease.
Our parish had Reconciliation hours on Saturday, so my dad sat in the car and listened to WOR talk radio while I entered the church alone. A priest led me into a little room with folding chairs. I was happy to be face to face versus behind a screen, because I was dressed in my churchiest outfit: wool plaid skirt, turtleneck, and monogrammed sweater. I figured he would take one look at my blond pigtails and knee socks and say, “Oh, honey. You’re fine. Definitely not demon material.”
After explaining to the priest that I wasn’t there to confess anything but to gather information, he leaned in, intrigued.
“So,” he asked, hands clasped and elbows on his knees, “what do you want to know?”
“What I really need to understand,” I asked him, “is how someone gets possessed. Like, do you need to be a really bad person, or can it happen to anyone? Just because?”
Father Dreamcrusher sat up straight and rubbed his thighs, then leaned forward again, closer this time. He looked right in my 9-year-old face and replied: “It can happen to anyone. Anyone. No one is safe, because we all have evil inside us. Some of us escape the devil, while others are not as lucky.” Awesome. So much for ever sleeping again.
I got back in the car and relayed the disturbing news to my dad, hoping he would tell me that Fr. Dreamcrusher was an alcoholic or in the early stages of dementia.
“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that,” he said, pulling out of the parking lot.
“I don’t? Why not?” I leaned forward, resting my chin on the front bench seat of the station wagon.
“Because if you get possessed, I know a priest in Paterson who can take care of it.”
I sat back in my seat and stared out the window, images of the red-eyed, green-faced, vomit spewing girl from the Exorcist flashing through my mind. My dad was 0 for 2 in the spiritual pep talk department.
Father Dreamcrusher’s words continued to haunt me as a teenager. If luck was the major determinant in possession, I knew I was screwed. The wisest words my mother ever said to me came on the heels of me getting drunk (and busted) at the senior prom: “Jessie, some people are lucky. They break the rules and won’t get caught. You are not one of those people. You will always get caught.”
This is the truth. I am a lightning rod for disaster. If a tree is going to fall on a still and sunny day, it will fall on the windshield of my mother’s new Volvo the one time she lets me drive it. I know this because it happened. So if evading the devil was a matter of rolling the dice, the odds were not in my favor. I was basically waiting around for Satan to show up.
As soon as I got my driver’s license, I began secretly skipping mass, opting to read J.D Salinger or Flannery O’Connor in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot instead. If we are all inherently flawed, and there was nothing I could do to fend off Satan, what was the point of clocking church hours? It was like shoveling while it’s still snowing. The whole thing felt like a colossal waste of a Sunday morning.
But skipping out on mass as a teenager and officially leaving the church as an adult are two different things. For my family, being Catholic is more than a religion – it’s who we are. I attended a Catholic university because my parents paid for it. I married a Catholic man in the Catholic church because my parents were paying for that, too. To deviate from the path was simply not worth the fight.
When Phil and I got married, I moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia. I took a job teaching third grade in a Catholic school, because as an out-of-state new teacher it was the only job I could get. As a public school heathen, I was a fish out of water. Who knew there were so many Holy Days? The whole school could be summoned to mass without warning, math and social studies be damned.
Mrs. Baumgartner, the religion coordinator, dropped into my classroom one morning and asked the class: “So tell me children! What saint are you learning about this week?”
The kids glanced at me, wide-eyed. Catholic schools teach children a new saint every week. When I announced to my class in mid-September that I had just been made aware of this and we had to giddyup with the saints, they groaned.
“Saints give us nightmares,” they pleaded.
“St. Lawrence was grilled to death, like a hamburger,” one student chimed in, the others nodding in agreement.
Their point was a valid one. The life of a martyr never ended well: Beheadings, stonings, being eaten alive by carpenter ants. How was this a motivator for good behavior? Why would a child choose to do the right thing if being tied to a tree and shot with arrows was the reward? So, the kids and I made a secret pact to boycott the saints. Mrs. Baumgartner, with her orthopedic shoes and enormous crucifix, would not be sympathetic to my “Saints Are Scary” reasoning. In Mrs. Baumgarter’s mind, fear is the reason. Fear is what keeps your legs together.
Mrs. Baumgartner’s question hung in the air, but Gabby Esposito, an A-student in the front row, had my back.
She sat up straight and raised her hand: “We are learning about St. Clare, Mrs. Baumgartner.” The other students looked down to hide their smiles. St. Clare was the only one we covered, because she was the patron saint of television.
When we became parents, Phil and I attempted to be grown-up Catholics. We joined a parish and willed ourselves to show up each week with a check. While we disagreed with the church’s views on pretty much everything, the comfort that accompanies the familiar kept drawing us back in. And, we loved the sacredness of the mass itself. There is a meditative quality that comes with consistency and repetition.
Early in our dating relationship, when I was living in an apartment in Hoboken above Biggie’s Clam Bar, we would occasionally attend mass when the smell of fried clams woke us before noon. On one such Sunday morning, we consulted the yellow pages for a church with an 11:00 mass. We slipped into the last pew of St. Francis at 10:59, allowing us one minute to kneel and repent before the mass began.
The priest raised his hands and began: “Nel nome del padre, del figlio, e dello spirito santo.”
Crap. Leave it to us to find the one Italian mass in Hoboken. Phil pinched my hand and we tried not to laugh, because there was no turning back now. But the experience proved that the mass lived in our bodies. We sat, stood and kneeled without hesitation. The ritual of the mass transcended language, and that felt sacred and grounding. It didn’t hurt that all the shame-based trigger words melodically roll off your back in Italian.
But as we moved through our 30’s, we could no longer turn a blind eye to the corruption that existed within the Catholic Church. How could we support an establishment that preached love and compassion but shunned women and rejected homosexuals? When the lid was blown off the widespread sexual abuse and the hiding of pedophiles by church leaders, it became impossible to rationalize our affiliation with a group of lying child molesters. We stopped going to mass. But we didn’t officially leave. We had our daughters baptized because we knew if we didn’t, one of our mothers would secretly do it in the kitchen sink. We existed in a state of purgatory, one foot in and one foot out.
But then, at my cousin Beth’s wedding, something shifted. I was a bridesmaid and Emma was the flower girl. She was perfect in her champagne dress and gold ballerina flats, sitting and standing and kneeling on cue. At the preparation of the gifts, I recited the words I had spoken thousands of times: “Lord I am not worthy to receive you. But only say the word I shall be healed.”
Emma leaned over and whispered in my ear: “What did we do?”
“What do you mean?” I whispered back, even though I already knew what she meant. I could feel the gravity of her words settle inside me.
“Why are we not worthy? I thought we were being good,” she said, an edge of annoyance in her voice.
Time stood still for a moment, the way it does when the truth hits you upside the head. It was as if my 5-year-old self were standing next to me, wondering what she did wrong, when really, she was just being a kid. A normal kid who tried to be good except for the times she would rather give her American Girl Doll bangs with the kitchen shears or eat a box of Twinkies in bed. I saw in Emma what I myself had been: a perfectly imperfect kid, who was worthy not because of anything she did or didn’t do, but because of who she was.
Growing up, I was taught that everything fits in two categories: Good and bad. Goodness led to worthiness. Unfortunately, my desire to be good was often overshadowed by my desire to do whatever the hell I wanted. Being good was not nearly as fun as drinking wine coolers in the woods, or – God forbid – having sex in the woods. When my mom found a condom wrapper in my college dorm room, she couldn’t look at me for two weeks. You would have thought she found a dismembered body. A part of me thought I should have gotten a high five for using a condom in the first place. But shame runs deep. The little girl who lived in fear of the devil, desperately seeking affirmation for her own worthiness was still in there.
But when I became a mother, I began to question all that I had been taught about shame and worthiness. When a newly potty-trained Emma pooped on the white carpet and then immediately dropped the F-bomb, I never questioned her worthiness. When I caught Phoebe hiding under the covers watching Justin Bieber videos on the iPad she wasn’t allowed to use, I didn’t lose sleep over her worthiness either. And because I never doubted theirs, I began to wonder why I ever doubted mine.
So when Emma turned to me that day in church and asked, “What did we do?” I knew I couldn’t set her up for the same spiritual mind games. I knew it was my job to get my daughters to adulthood with their worthiness still intact, and in order to do that, I needed a clean break from Catholicism. I just wondered if I actually had to tell my parents about it. I figured once we had the First Communions in the books, maybe we could switch religions without anyone really noticing. Why be the cause of needless drama?
Am I a coward? Of course I am. But after an entire adolescence of locking horns with my parents, I now prefer to keep the peace. It’s just easier. This doesn’t mean I pretend to agree with them. I just don’t make a big production about disagreeing with them. For example, when my dad comes to visit and insists on watching twelve straight hours of Fox News, I don’t say, “Dad, we don’t watch toxic right-wing fear mongering garbage in our house.” No. I just get him his own TV, up in the guest room, far, far away from the rest of us. My father doesn’t need to know how much money I’ve spent on therapy, or that my car is two months overdue for an oil change. My mother doesn’t need to know that I have a medicinal marijuana card, or that I don’t use spray starch or own duvet clips. I operate on a strict need-to-know basis.
And somewhere in my conflict-averse mind, I thought maybe I could put the Catholic Church in the duvet clip category. There was no need to tell them that we had started going to the Unitarian Church on occasion, the one with meditation classes and the Pride flag hanging out front. My dad refers to the Unitarian Church as the Joan Baez Church. It wouldn’t go over well.
But as we packed for our wedding getaway, I realized my lies of omission strategy had a weak link: my loose-lipped younger child. Whereas Emma understood the need for what I like to call “soft deception,” when it came to my parents and church, Phoebe was too young to understand that many layers of crazy. I could see the scene playing out in my mind. They would all pile into the car for church, and upon arriving at St. Mary’s Phoebe would announce: “Oh no, Poppy we don’t go to this church anymore. We go to the one with the rainbow flag. They play bongo drums and Bob Marley and we get cookies after. It’s way better.”
But as we backed out of the driveway and honked goodbye, I decided I had to let Jesus take the wheel. There was only so much I could control. If Phoebe spilled the beans, well better her than me. I would have to defend my heathen ways. But until then, my plan was to go to the wedding and forget all about it with the help of a dirty martini. Ok, two dirty martinis.
On the way home from the wedding Sunday morning, Phil and I took advantage of the kid-free time for some shopping. We were in the checkout line at World Market when I spotted a large canvas print of a herd of white alpaca, with one black alpaca in the middle. While the herd of attractive white alpacas gaze off into the distance, the black alpaca – with it’s slightly matted coat and impressive underbite – stares dead into the camera.
“I have to have that,” I said to Phil, pointing to it.
“Are you serious?”
“You must have an ugly llama poster for $99.”
“I think they are alpaca. And yes.”
Typically when I make frivolous purchases, Phil’s face gets tense and he gnaws on his knuckle, followed by the question: “Do you really need it?” which of course I never do. But lucky for me (and him), we had hotel sex the night before, so the world was my oyster.
“Ok, well, if you must have it, then let’s get it. My little black sheep,” he said, patting my head.
We returned home, and managed to make it through Emma’s basketball game, dinner, and bedtime with no mention of church from my parents. Maybe I had underestimated Phoebe’s ability to keep touchy subjects close to the vest.
But no. Turns out my mom was making sure she was appropriately Chardonnay-ed before she got up the nerve to intervene on behalf of my soul.
“So, Phoebe tells me you are going to a new church,” she said.
I stopped loading the dishwasher and looked over at Phil, who was sitting on the couch watching the Eagles game. I sent him telepathic messages to come over and help me, even though I knew he was in his happy place. His eyes remained glued to the TV.
My dad came out of the bathroom and said, “So, heard you guys are going to the Joan Baez church.” Phil snickered from the couch.
“Hey Phil?” I called, and then said with my eyes: Don’t make me do this alone.
His eyes said back to me: But it’s the middle of the Eagles game.
And my eyes said: PLEEEEAAAASSSSEEEEEE!
He heaved a deep sigh, and then came over to join the conversation. I opened the fridge. No more wine. Damn.
The conversation was tough, especially when my mom started weeping. She was definitely mourning the loss of Jesus in my life, even though I said repeatedly that it was not the mission of the Unitarians to kick Jesus out of my life.
“But do they believe in Jesus?” she said.
“They believe in everything, Mom. No one is trying to get rid of Jesus.”
“But….they’re not Christian.”
“No, but I can still be Christian and go to the Unitarian church. No one is trying to convert me to anything. The whole idea is tolerance and respect for differences, and that there are many paths to God.”
“But what about Jesus?”
OH MY GOD.
“They are cool with Jesus, Mom.”
She didn’t look convinced.
Suddenly my dad started reciting the Nicene Creed, which I was impressed he could remember after an entire bottle of Cabernet: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth….I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ.” He stopped there and said: “Do you believe those words?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “I’m not worried about it because you have all had the sacraments. Because you know what the sacraments do.”
“Not really, actually. What do they do?”
“Protect you from the demons.”
“The demons,” he repeated, dead serious. He looked me square in the eye and said in a soft voice: “They’re out there.”
Because I knew the topic of demons was a rabbit hole from which we might never return, I declared it bedtime. My mom was really trying to hold it together, and the sight of her shaky hands and quivering lip almost broke me. But said she would never let it get in the way of our relationship, so all in all, it went well.
My mom and I were hugging it out when Phil brought in the ugly llama poster from the car.
“What the hell is that?” my dad said.
“It’s Jessie’s black alpaca poster. She had to have it,” Phil said with feigned seriousness.
My parents looked at each other and shook their heads. “We’re going to bed.”
They don’t get me, and that’s ok. I know they will always pray for me.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Boris Ott