Updated: Apr 4, 2021
Last night, both April Fool’s and Holy Thursday of the Last Supper in the religion of my youth, several ambulances screamed past my car. My right hand reached up so my thumb could draw a little cross between my eyebrows. (I was born with a large, red splotch there, that later faded). Thumb dropped down to my breastbone to wiggle another tiny cross, over to grace my left shoulder, then right.
Please send help and comfort to the soul or souls in need. The sign of the cross lives deep in my hand’s brain -- muscle-memory-sign-language -- from my earliest Irish-Roman-Catholic days.
That wailing sound sets the cross in motion. If I ever try to resist, my arm lifts anyway, and makes a smaller air-cross. Otherwise, my ancient self would feel ... Unhelpful. Unuseful? Unhugging. And, especially this past year, maybe also unhugged. I’m with you, wherever and whoever you are. Help is on the way. You are not alone. (So, I guess, neither am I, in a communion of spirit.)
I hadn’t thought about that gesture as self-help before. Just that my hand still asks a trinity of higher-love to add love and aid to the responders, with a mutually nourishing hope.
Hope for those who just wrecked cars in an intersection, on a wild day of sleet, snow, wind, then bright, setting sun. Or someone who fell in a bathtub and lost consciousness for several minutes. Maybe slipped and fell from dizziness, from a narrowing of carotid arteries, as Doppler imaging would reveal at the hospital, later last night. So the falling will become a blessing, with earlier diagnosis and a plan of treatment, along with a gnarly hip-bruise. Maybe tomorrow his whole family will send out a prayer of gratitude to the responders, the healthcare-team, their own concepts of higher love-power.
Full disclosure on this reflexive cross: I’m now what they call a lapsed Catholic. By the time I got to college, I was itching to learn about other theologies, traditions, beliefs, mythologies. I’m grateful for rigorous courses and debates through grad-school, that (along with life itself) taught me the difference between knowledge and belief. They schooled me in mythologies much older than the Abrahamic tree of faith. And I’m surely now none-the-wiser about the Universe in all its mystery and spirit across its boundless, yet somehow expanding, edges without edge.
The ancient Celtic “pagan” circle simply absorbed the cross of Christian preachers, in recent millennia. Some Native American creation myths simply added a sentence about “Jesus flying,” to spare their tribal nation's lives. What became known as the “Big Bang” theory was conceived by a Catholic priest and scientist, a Belgian named Lemaitre. (In grad-school, I put together an independent-study comparing creation myths around the world and scientific theories of creation and unified-theory. Way fun and worth every borrowed dollar to explore.)
Today, called Good Friday of Easter weekend, the woods exploded in new green growth – resurrection, renewal, rebirth, from what had looked dead and gone -- serious stuff.
And those symbols of fertility (especially at Easter), bunny rabbits, again bounce around my yard. I can still smell the dyes of a Paas egg-coloring kit, still remember the thrill of seeing my shape (drawn in wax on
the shell) repel the dye and emerge, safe.
“Lapsed” sounds like I forgot to renew my car’s registration. Maybe better: “contentedly uncertain” about that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived.
(St. Anselm’s description of God, there. As a human animal, I can only conceive of so much, so it’s hard to argue that something more than the limits of my imagination wouldn’t be out there. Beautiful! in a circular way. To me, Anselm’s God could be called Mystery, or the Beyond. However you might call something greater than whatever greatness you can conceive.) Maybe also: gratefully agnostic.
Got no quarrel with the man from Nazareth, whose love didn’t shut off toward people at the margins of dominant society. He embraced prostitutes, lepers, powerless folk, including women. Blurred and disturbed the social hierarchies. That socio-political radical who made such an impression two millennia ago? Stood and loved and died for love is love is love is love is love. My quarrel? With the ways in which people still distort that kindness and tolerance and love. And there's so much of that. How can so many proclaimed Christians support hateful rhetoric, cleave to the dichotomous when nature, including people, has always been complex and diverse? Or praise the separation of children from their parents, then putting them in cages, or lifting flags of supremacy over others as they commit violent acts? The man from Nazareth would not recognize those distortions, from where I sit.
Also, whenever I attend, say, a Catholic Baptism ceremony, like Ben and Deena’s for their first wee one, I have no quarrel with a ritual that pledges community and lifelong care to a fresh and tiny human. (Who could imagine a better pledge for a new person born?)
Some might say I’m self-contradictory, with uncertainty-writ-large while holding close the tolerance and love of Jesus’ own teachings -- so similar to the Buddha’s, and almost every other faith’s core, teacher-leaders:
treat each other well, love thy neighbors, all of them wherever they’ve come from, serve thy community, honor each other, and yourself, do unto others as you'd have them do unto you.
For me, the cultural shame, judgment and hypocrisy within religiosity has long intercepted, even reconstituted, what’s ‘right’ – as if ‘some love doesn't count, only the love we’ve decided is the right kind.’ Whom does it hurt, for example, that two adults who love each other, love each other? Goes against the very ritualized values of a supporting community around each of us, and against that truly universal Golden Rule.
Part of my uncertainty/lapse started by age 7. The 2nd Vatican Council had shifted already – priests faced us and spoke English during Mass, nuns could wear knee-length dresses and simple veils, and mothers or daughters who didn’t cover their heads in church were relieved of hell-fire, even penance.
Yet. Old-school nuns who clung to their heaviest habits and elaborate wimples and fear-based authority still reigned, with terrifying control. As my class prepared for our First Communion ceremony, one such nun screamed, “Children, remember! Do NOT CHEW THE BABY JESUS!”
What? Why would we chew the ba—
“The Communion wafer IS the body and blood of Baby Jesus!” I can still see her red face and aerodynamic headgear. “Let it dissolve slowly on your tongue. Do. Not. CHEW! Baby Jesus!”
So many extra sins, Jesus wept! I was already losing track. By age 7 I had watched older humans accept the Communion wafer, substantially thinner than a Necco candy wafer, and not once had I wondered, Is that fellow parishioner chewing the Baby Jesus?
I remember starting to shake at my wooden desk, traumatized by this ancient nun that I would, in fact and inadvertently, chew the most Jesus of the babies, whom I loved. Although I could not have named it at the time, this was a nightmare of homicidal dread.
Our house was so baby-acclimated, the old nun’s warning took my brain toward Billy, still in diapers. The very thought of someone chewing my youngest brother, the 5th in our litter, to date? I couldn’t. Think further. Did not even want the whole Communion thing at all.
I remembered that for Lent, people got a rub of ashes on the forehead. I wondered if just getting that annual ash stain, right on the ghost of my birthmark, could bless my soul enough. Without the baby-chewing altogether, the Communion. I never asked anyone out loud. I just lay in my bunk-bed under or over Lori, depending on our latest negotiations, and across from Pauline, and away from our bedroom window and its wondrous tree outside – not sleeping, not wanting to chew, anything, again.
Out on the playground during recess one day, a different full-habit-and-headdress nun yelled at me: for whistling.
I whistled songs, often subconsciously, from the time I got out of bed until I got back in bed. A family of cardinals lived in the tree outside our bedroom window. Most mornings, I would stand there and try to imitate the birds before I went down to a box of cereal. (My big human-girl face often frightened them off the tree. But sometimes, it felt like we had a conversation.) Whistling was a favorite, even essential, activity to me, outside a well-behaved classroom.
“Every time a girl whistles,” this nun yelled, “the Virgin Mary CRIES.” My head snapped around to see her glaring right at me.
(Well that didn’t sound right. At all. I’m sure my face revealed this.)
“Every time! She CRIES.”
Most of the time I was an excessively compliant good-girl. But I heard myself say to this scary nun, “Didn’t St. Francis of Assisi talk to the bir—“
“You are not St. Francis, missy, and you are not to whistle again!”
Pretty sure I glared back at her in spite of myself and ongoing fear of knuckle-whacking (a wooden-ruler-based habit between nuns in old habits and certain boys). Yet, from that day forward, I tried consciously to avoid whistling anywhere at school. This was like giving up candy for Lent, forever. Okay much worse.
That afternoon, I got home and asked my mother what happens when a boy whistles. I could see she didn’t understand the question.
“Sister [Agnes, let’s say] told me I couldn’t whistle because every time a girl whistles, the Virgin Mary cries.” I watched her face. She just blinked a few times. “So, what happens every time a boy whistles?”
My mother had welcomed the Second Vatican Council and its efforts to reach out to other faiths. Also to let the nuns (who chose to) dress more comfortably. Not just because she hadn’t learned Latin and Greek as well as our father had. Still, she tried very hard to align with ancient nuns’ teachings.
“I guess I don’t know what happens, with boys whistling. But maybe … maybe the Virgin has reasons we don’t understand.”
I remember thinking, ‘like because she’s a little petunia cry-baby?’ which I instantly doubted as I thought the thought, knowing some of her many sorrows. Briefly, I wondered if Jesus’ crucifiers might have whistled while they worked, to pound the nails through her son's hands, so that sound was too painful to hear, even from Heaven.
Quickly though, another thought: ‘or because it’s just totally not true?’ and ‘because I’m sure she loves birds and their whistling and music of all kinds?’ then ‘or because some nuns just like to yell at children?’ Kept all these thoughts to myself.
I probably exhaled dramatically and ran outside to talk freely with our backyard birds. My strongest feeling? Angry. No, angrily flummoxed. A ridiculous claim. And no fair, the just-girls part, however much I was used to that, already. But I wasn’t allowed to say any of this, and even thinking it knitted tension into my 7-year-old stomach.
For that matter, who could convince me that Jesus’ mother, or Himself, would condemn a fresh Communicant to Hell if her teeth happened to meet the wafer melting on her tongue? What child would imagine chewing a baby of any name but especially named Jesus, whose name, incidentally, showed up on baseball cards all the time, but which, as explained by Mrs. Hughes across the street when I asked her, might not mean a sin because some ballplayers came from somewhere else where that name was okay for modern baseball-playing men.
My point exactly, Mrs. Hughes! Mari-lynn’s mother was one of my heroes, for many neighborly reasons. There it was.
The randomness. The weirdness. The cornucopia of sins, or not-so-much sins, because of, I guessed, famousness?
Sins were not so, for those of certain social status. Like even being a whistling boy.
While murder, for one, did seem significant. Bearing false witness. I would alternate lying and stealing in the Confessional closet each week, not knowing what else to say. “Lied twice, stole once,” then “Lied once, stole twice.” I’d get my penance and be on my way. It was easy!
I had made the mistake once of confessing to something real – “yelled at my mother” – and the priest wanted to talk about it, get to the bottom of it, help me see how much my mother loved me. All punishment in itself, before I even said my 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys and thought about the yelling even more and felt even less holy.
That same year, we learned in school about a place called Limbo and Pagan Babies: If an un-baptized baby had not lived long enough to commit sins of his or her own, but of course still carried Original Sin --
the still-mysterious (to me) human stain on each soul, pre-birth, after our collective and still-mysterious (to me) Fall from Grace, after an early Man ate an Apple from an early Tree of Knowledge (the knowledge-stain of foreseeing our own death? self-consciousness? alienation vs. self-identity? impulses toward both community and wandering thoughtfully and alone?)
and the early Man having been tempted by an early Woman, who took time to listen to a magical talking early Snake, a creature that periodically sloughs off one mortal coil to begin another incarnation, fresh, and they took bites of that Apple, hmm, much to digest there,
yet we Catholic schoolchildren accepted our Original Sins as The Deal, like we took the night sky to be dark (except for all kinds of starlights; even as children, we digressed)
but a Pagan Baby was stained
– then that Pagan Baby would be relegated to eternity in Limbo. In other words, all un-baptized infants could never get to Heaven. Which, we’d been taught, was a fate worse than death itself.
To use Hegel’s dialectic wheel of understanding something, my 2nd-grade-brain’s Thesis: Infants were still pretty darn innocent, so no fair committing them quite to Hell;
Antithesis: still, apparently, according to intense subcultural rules, they were stuck below Heaven without having been holy-water-blessed.
1st Attempt at Synthesis: Hearing the Babies’ plight in class, I started to pleat the hem of my plaid uniform’s skirt. Making pleats of fabric had been a nervous habit since pre-school, a bit of business for my fingers while my brain grappled, tried to shrug off some unfairness, or sadness, which persisted as I lay in bed not falling asleep, just folding my fitted sheet into a closed-fan shape, against the side of the mattress.
But seriously No fair, I thought, as the Sister explained. The babies had barely even lived a life alive. And just because they were born someplace without baptismal fonts -- or convenient baptismal lakes, which I’d seen once on TV – who says they shouldn’t get to Heaven?
I didn’t think the loving Jesus would agree to all this stuff.
2nd Attempt at Synthesis: Did I start to cry quietly about the Pagan Babies at my desk in class? I did. Like when we learned about the caste system in India and Untouchables – “they were born into it and could do nothing about it” and were never touched? had wrecked me for days. By then, I’d become skilled at crying with my eyes down, so no one could see.
Around then I asked my mother what “shut-ins” were; our TV advertised a “Mass for Shut-Ins” on Sundays. She told me these were people who couldn’t go outside.
This was horrifying news. “What do you mean, why not?” She explained that some people were sick, or lived in a wheelchair. I fought hot tears and shook my head. “So they can’t ever go outside?” She did not answer.
About the saddest thing I’d ever heard in my life. Sadder than Hell Itself or being Untouchable. Decades later, after passage of the ADA, a somewhat more welcome environment awaits a person who needs a wheelchair. (Realizing that throughout this pandemic, millions more of us are “shut-ins,” with various congregational versions on electronic screens.)
But I digress. Regarding Limbo and those heartrending Pagan Babies: this nun of noteworthy girth and perspiring face offered a complete Miracle 3rd Option—Church-Authorized Dialectical Synthesis!
“Listen! Children! IF we collect enough money to send to the Church, we can free the Pagan Babies,” here she paused for effect as the stiff wimple across her forehead wiggled with her eyebrows, “and they will go to Heaven!”
Our classroom full of 7- and 8-year-olds clapped and cheered. I stopped pleating my hem and blinked. What was that?
“Go home tonight and collect all your Tooth-Fairy money, any allowance from your piggy banks, birthday gifts from your godparents, First-Communion money, bring it into school tomorrow, and we’ll see if we have enough for the Pagan Babies! To get to Heaven!”
We freshest Communicants hooray-ed. That afternoon we clambered off our yellow buses and dashed into our houses in a frenzy of heroic fervor. We would absolutely buy those Babies’ way out of Limbo! Let’s DO this!
My mother looked stunned to hear the challenge. She may have even phoned my father at work. In any case, my understanding was: he made a phone call to the school.
I would, actually, not be bringing my Tooth-Fairy or First Communion money the next day. Apparently, neither would many other 2nd-graders.
New Thesis, from the top: Apparently, although our parents had been raised with these very sorts of challenges (pre-Vatican-II), they were also no longer quite sold on their children’s obligation to meet them in the same manner. (Years later in public school, we’d learn about medieval papal “indulgences” to buy wealthy citizens’ way out of sin and Purgatory and into Heaven. Pope John-Paul II reinstated indulgences in 2000; his successor, Benedict, increased the call for them about 10 years ago.) see NYT link
Upstairs in our bird-less bedroom, I changed out of my plaid jumper, feeling strangely relieved. I’d already begun to wonder if my class’ pooled money would have made it to Limbo. How would that work, exactly? Who on Earth could get all the way to an unearthly realm, unlock its main gates and set the babies there free? Sounded more like a fairy-tale. With magic beans. But Sister had been dead serious.
Or. Maybe. No.
Maybe. Our own nuns and priests, could just, then? Buy fun things? Like new Viewmaster slides, or chocolate cake, with our Tooth-Fairy coins? And those poor Babies, born somewhere not-Catholic, through no fault of their own? Would have stayed stuck!
After the Pagan Babies “fiasco,” a word I had just learned from my father, things seemed harder for me to nail down altogether, Church-wise.
Along with an abiding curiosity about stories, mythologies, theologies, biologies, so many –ologies, like the Golden Rule that pervades all human cultures, I’ve had an abiding curiosity about words. While writing a grad-school thesis a while back, I discovered the word “pagan” is related to the word “fix.”
‘pagan (n.) late 14c., from Late Latin paganus “pagan,” in classical Latin “villager, rustic; civilian, non-combatant” noun use of adjective meaning “of the country, of a village,”
from pagus “country people; province, rural district,” originally “district limited by markers,” thus related to pangere “to fix, fasten,” from Proto-Indo-European root *pag- “to fasten.” As an adjective from early 15c.
Online Etymology Dictionary
So an unexpected connection, that fixed to a cross – crucifixion -- comes from the same root as pagan, a non-combatant villager, a person practicing pacifism.
Can’t beat that with an Easter egg (another obvious symbol of fertility, rebirth, regeneration).
To everyone who celebrates a meaningful holiday of holy days this week, around themes of survival and new life, I’m praying with and for you. Never a bad time to do unto others as we'd wish done for ourselves. And why not give an Amen, two ancient syllables, for our ever-multiplying community of humans?
With all our fertile imaginations, our making of meaning, and our limitations of understanding and conception. Toward whatever mysteries await, beyond? Amen
and thanks for reading, and praying however you do.
Some further reading if you’re interested, from a pastor and an art collective and news of recent popes: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/nyregion/10indulgence.html