Sunday, March 31, 2013

Holidays, Religion and Me

Today is Easter, which for me is a pretty sacred holiday. I was raised a devout Catholic in rural Vermont. Until I was somewhere around ten years old, the masses were still done in Latin and women were expected to wear kerchiefs or hats with veils on their heads. If you forgot yours, you couldn't enter the church.

My mother sometimes circumvented that with kleenex.
In my parent's household being Catholic meant that every Sunday and Holy Day, we went to church. We were also required to regularly attend confession once we were old enough and attend catechism classes.

Somewhere along the lines, I started to see religion as less than holy.

When I was thirteen, that belief solidified. My father had taken us to church for confession. My sister went first, and then my father. I was last to enter the confessional, a place that to this day makes me nervous. The priest slid open the little window and I looked at the shadow of him behind that grate. I began with the typical "Forgive me father for I have sinned..." And then I confessed how I had argued with my mother about something trivial. My parents were very strict and didn't tolerate bad behavior. This particular fight, which I can't even remember, was nothing unusual or horrible. Just a small rebellion on my part over doing the dishes or cleaning my room or something. I'd been punished - I don't remember how. Sent to bed without dinner or maybe grounded for a week.

The priest listened to my confession and then scolded me a bit for my sins. Then he handed down my punishment: he wanted me to say 100 Our Fathers, 100 Hail Marys, 50 Acts of Contrition, 50 Prayers to the Holy Spirit, and 25 Prayers to My Guardian Angel.

I was the last confession of the day.

When I left the confessional, my father was standing at the back of the church waiting for me. I scooted into the closest booth to the confessional and knelt to begin my prayers. The priest followed me out and chose a seat directly behind me.

"Aloud," he told me. So I began to recite the Our Father aloud. Whenever I picked up speed or slowed down or spoke softer, he would place his hand on my shoulder and tell me to begin again.

At some point, my father left. He went home, never questioning what the priest was doing or why. He left me there, in that church, alone with that priest for more than two hours while I worked my way through the prayers. We were the only two people in the church.

To this day, I wonder what the priest was doing as he sat behind me dragging out my punishment.
I missed dinner. It was nearly 7 pm when I walked out of that church. My father was waiting in his car, although he'd gone home and had dinner himself. The priest trailed me to my father's car, with his hand on my shoulder and explained to my father that I'd been a bad girl and had been punished.

He made me apologize to my father again. And then he left.

When I climbed in the car, I remember looking at my father who looked disappointed in me - although he had no idea what I'd done, he immediately accepted the priest's claim that I was a bad girl - and told him that I was never NEVER going to set foot in a confessional again. I said I would pray to God for forgiveness for mistakes I made not a priest.

There must have been something in my face - or perhaps he realized he'd made a mistake - because he accepted that and never made me go to confession again.

When I left home for college, I stopped going to church altogether.

In my house we celebrate many holidays, and we celebrate them low-key. If I were to believe the Catholic religion (and my parents), I'm not actually married since our wedding ceremony was performed by a Justice of the Peace. I had no desire to force my husband to attend religious classes so that the Church would recognize our marriage. And that in the eyes of the church, my son was born a bastard. My husband is Jewish. My son, although baptized Catholic, is agnostic. Or as he likes to say, he's "eclectic". I've never forced formal religion on him, although I've given him a solid belief in something more than him.

He has the added bonus of being born with Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism. The Church until recently exorcised children with autism because they believed them possessed (I actually think this still goes on because I've heard stories). The Church also doesn't like to provide religious education to children like mine because they question everything. Had I wanted him educated Catholic, he would have been turned away.

My son believes that science explains most things, but that science cannot explain everything. He believes the truth of God is found somewhere in the teachings of all religions since they share many stories. He understands that they are all right and all wrong in different ways. He accepts there is more out there than we know and he has a strong moral foundation. I think that's good enough.

As for me, I've been a lapsed Catholic for a long time. I love Mass, but I don't go except on Christmas and for the Stations of the Cross. I like to think God and I have an understanding. I have intense faith but I don't shove it on others and I don't need a church to practice it. I believe in many things that the Church doesn't - and I'm happier for it.

But today is still Easter and it's still holy, so Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate it today. And for those of you of the Jewish faith, Happy Passover. May whatever God you believe in smile down on you today and bless you with joy.