published by SplinterGeneration.com
I missed mass again. Third Sunday in a row that grading papers, cleaning the apartment, going for a bike ride, or watching football have been more important. After more than thirty-five years of being Catholic, I am ready to quit.
Before I could walk, speak, or even hold my own head up, my parents guided my hand to make the sign of the cross. “In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” Each part of the invocation is paired with a gesture: to the forehead, the heart, left shoulder, then right shoulder, ending with a kiss to the gesturing thumb. Before every meal prayer, when entering a church, and at the sound of sirens, this ritual is embedded in my nerve endings. In bilingual households like mine, children also learn, “Nombre del Padre, Hijo, Spirito Santo, Amen.” It is a faster version, the one I prefer today.
Less popular among my generation, but still prominently displayed among my parents’, is the reverent bow or nod. Whenever Jesus’ name is spoken aloud and somewhere in the middle of the Nicene Creed, thousands of chins move closer to the chest. I’m sure an observer of the motion without sound would be confused by all the agreement.
These repetitive motions are the cornerstone of Catholic training, but they are only the beginning. Every stage of a Catholic child’s life is marked by learning a new prayer, a new form of control.
Once I could sit up at meals with the family, I learned the “Bless Us O Lord.” Line by line, I echoed adult recitations with hands folded reverently over the plate, not daring to touch a morsel before the final Amen. My mother was insistent about this. I was threatened with the fires of hell for such an infraction. My mom wasn’t mean, just hard-core Catholic. She believed in the wrath of God, a God who punished. She did not have a sense of humor about anything she perceived as irreverent. I had a bar of soap shoved in my mouth for taking the Lord’s name in vain. What child hasn’t said, “Oh my god”?
My dad, who isn’t as strict with himself as he is with his daughters, decided to alter our sign of the cross to the version he learned in Catholic School. Instead of “Holy Spirit,” he said “Holy Ghost.” To many people, this might not make much difference, both having a haunting connotation. But when his volume increased to add “the one who eats the fastest gets the most,” because it rhymed, my mom frowned, and he burst out laughing.
Daddy would not be laughing now if I told him I didn’t want to attend Christmas Eve mass. But at thirty-five, I am the dutiful daughter, so I keep my mouth shut and join the family dressed in my Sunday best.
“Two of you sit in the back row,” my mom whispers after all of her velvet-ribboned granddaughters, her grandson, and her two youngest boys are safely nestled in the pew near her. I volunteer to sit back there so I can at least get a brief nap, but my sister, her husband, and the infant seat won’t fit in the space next to the kids, so they get the back row. Lucky!
It is impossible to sleep once mass starts anyway. What an extravaganza! Before the opening procession, a giant screen descends from the ceiling to the right of the altar. The kids all respond in not-church volume:
“What is that?”
“I want that!”
“Shhh!” I say. As a kid, I was expected to sit still and be quiet in church; we weren’t there to have fun. The hard pews permanently smashed my rear; the smell of incense still reminds me to straighten my spine. Once I turned too far left to see my classmate across the aisle and got my braid pulled. Whispering to my sister got me a pinch under the arm in the soft, sensitive flesh. That left a mark. When were especially fidgety, we got knee time at home after mass to think about Jesus. Apparently my mom is less strict now; how could she NOT be with this spectacle?
I shake my head at the hi-tech madness, partly in amusement and partly in disgust. The camera mounted on the ceiling to our left captures the empty manger at the altar waiting for the newly birthed ceramic baby Jesus, a pale blue-eyed form with arms and legs sprawled at awkward angles. Only his privates are covered in swaddling clothes.
“Please find a seat,” Father Henry booms over the microphone. Then the organ starts wheezing “O Come all Ye Faithful,” and the children’s choir begins singing from the loft above us. We join in, reading the lyrics from the giant screen. Holy karaoke!
At the end of the song, the camera cuts back to baby Jesus. Then the camera controller begins zooming in and out spasmodically.
“Oh crap,” my youngest brother says a little too loudly. “It’s making me dizzy.”
“No seas tan exagerado,” my mom scolds. But I notice she isn’t even looking up at the sporadic images because the youngest granddaughter keeps her and her purse full of M & Ms occupied.
The technological spectacle is enhanced by the procession up the center aisle of children dressed as shepherds, Joseph, and Mary atop a burlap-sack stuffed donkey.
“What is this? Jerusalem meets Silicon Valley?”
“Not funny,” my dad responds.
My mom scowls at me. “I remember when you wore wings and a halo at midnight mass,” she shares without whispering. Why is it okay for her to talk during mass? I make an effort to smile towards the heavens and shape my fingers in a circle above my head.
“Lightning’s gonna strike,” my brother chides.
“Your heathen ass,” I retort.
“We’re in church,” my mom growls.
“It says ass in the song.”
The midnight mass angel appearance that made my mom nostalgic occurred thirty years ago, when I was in kindergarten. At the time we lived on a ranch forty miles east of Deming, New Mexico on the south side of Interstate 10. My mom prayed regularly, not just at meals and bedtime; she had mini-altars all over the house. The Virgen de Guadalupe statue in her room got a few quick Hail Marys while mom got dressed in the morning. Entering the house, she kissed two fingers and placed them on crucifix above the light switch plate, mumbling something about forgiveness. The plastic saints on the windowsill above the kitchen sink got an earful of requests while she washed dishes after dinner. I thought she was trying to become a nun until I learned what they really were. My dad said she was just lonely. My mom said all Mexican women have such a devotion to the Blessed Mother; it was how she kept being our best Mommy. Her tears told a different story. She missed her sisters and her mom. Going to church in Hatch fifteen miles away was the only time she was able to socialize with other Catholic women.
During that twenty-minute drive on Sunday, my sister and I learned to pray the rosary. For many people it is just a pretty necklace or a rearview mirror decoration. For us it was a weekly ritual. My mom led the rosary with her melodic voice, making each prayer seem like a song. She guided us through the long Apostle’s Creed line by line, her patience never wavering.
“I believe in God,” she would start.
“I believe in God,” we would repeat.
“the Father Almighty,”
“the Father Almighty,”
“maker of heaven and earth.”
“maker of heaven and earth.”
Getting from the beginning of this first sentence to the last one (of six compound-complex sentences) was as “everlasting” as the life our prayers promised after death. The trip seemed everlasting, especially when my little sister responded “Huh?” instead of repeating the line. It was years before she learned to at least mumble the same rhythm and number of syllables once my mom was lost in prayer. And The Apostle’s Creed was just the first prayer. It was followed by five Our Fathers, fifty-three Hail Marys, five Glory Bes, and five Oh My Jesuses every time.
The beaded strands in my hand were purple and in my sister’s pink. Mom used a fancy pearl and gold one; each bead connected with a fancy chain link instead of cotton thread like ours. I sat up straight and dared not wrinkle my dress in the hopes that one day I, too, could have a rosary like that.
As we grew older, we had to help lead the rosary. I would say the first half of the Lord’s Prayer, and then my sister was supposed to join my mom in responding with the second half. It was a call and response that could rival any slave spiritual. But three-year-olds are not always focused on the plan. When I enunciated “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” my sister interrupted before I could finish my part.
“Oooh, she said King Kong!” her accusing finger almost touching my nose; I slapped it away.
“Shut up! I did not. I said –” but I could not remember the words. I’d always repeated them robotically, in order, so that individual words lost meaning. I had to go back to the beginning to make the correction. My mom had to reach back and flick us both after two failed attempts at pinching our squirming bodies, her eyes still on the highway.
When I pray the rosary now, it is my own private penance for missing mass on Sundays. My devotion to the Blessed Mother is an attempt to compensate for my sins.
I was seven when I learned about sin. “Why doesn’t Daddy go to church with us?” I asked my mom. “Mrs. Albidrez says it’s a sin.”
My mom smiled that knowing grin she used when we got hurt after disobeying her (surely a punishment from God). “Ask him,” was all she said. My daddy mumbled something about work and behind his back my mom muttered, “Football is not work.”
The next Sunday he joined us on the drive to Hatch and we couldn’t say the rosary with the staticky AM radio blaring first downs and field goals.
“Daddy, park by the tree,” I requested as he turned on Hartman Street in front of the church.
“Shhh!” He flapped his hand at me. Fourth down. Rams on the twelve yard line. A touchdown ties the game. “Shit!”
He turned off the engine and looked back at my sister and me. He forced a smile. “The next game starts at twelve. We leave after communion.”
The longer we lived in New Mexico, the more my mom hated it. Not the state itself, but being five hundred miles away from her sisters and mother who still lived near or in Holtville, California. When we knelt beside our beds to pray each night, she asked, “For God to get us safely back home so you can have a baby brother.” Daddy wanted another baby but she said, “Not here, not alone.”
When I was seven, we finally returned to California where I began my First Holy Communion preparation. First I had to make my reconciliation. That meant asking God to forgive me for stealing or killing someone, coveting or bearing false witness. I felt so pious when we met individually with the priest. “I have never sinned,” I said, waiting for my invitation to join the sisters in the nearby convent.
“Really,” he asked.
“Yes, sir.” Still smiling I tried to look through the lattice divider and into his eyes so he’d know I wasn’t lying or “bearing false witness.”
“Have you ever disobeyed your parents?”
I started to say no, but in the small dark room, I could feel God frowning at me. The plastic kneeler grew hot and sticky under my skin. I looked down expecting the fires of hell. I burst into tears. “Well, this one time,” I sobbed and couldn’t finish my explanation of how unfair they were when I just had a few more pages to read in my book and they told me I had to go to bed. I wasn’t hurting anyone by reading with Daddy’s big red flashlight under my covers so as not to disturb my sister snoring in the next bed.
“It’s okay my child,” he said. They always said “my child” even though priests don’t really have any children of their own. “You know not to sin again. Go say five Hail Marys and one Act of Contrition.”
I gasped. I didn’t know the Act of Contrition yet. How would God forgive my sins? I know I heard Father Tony chuckle before he passed a little card under the door. On one side, a picture of Jesus’ thorny head, blood dripping down between his agonized eyes. On the other side, printed words to the prayer I would learn to say frequently, sometimes just in case.
Later, I learned about the body and blood of Christ as part of Sunday mass. “Is it really blood?” my sister whispered after we thought my parents were in bed and I told her what I’d seen in catechism.
“Yep. The blood of Christ. You know how he has those cuts on his hands and feet?”
She nodded, barely visible by the moon peeking in our bedroom window.
“They just put the cup up there before everyone gets to church and say a prayer. Out it comes.” I had not actually seen that, but in my mind that seemed to be the most logical explanation.
It puzzled my parents why, after that, my sister ran from the car to the church entrance to peek in as soon as we arrived. I was never at risk for being identified a fraud. We were always late for church. I said another Act of Contrition in case that was a sin too.
My faith continued like that for years. Never questioning. Always obeying. Asking for forgiveness when my obedience faltered. The cycle continued until I was twenty. That’s when my sister, a freshman at UCLA, gave birth to my nephew, Nicolas, and I became his godmother. I realized the weight of that responsibility one sober Sunday as we baptized him and I repeated my own baptismal vows.
“Do you reject Satan?” Father Tom asked.
“And all his works?”
“And all his empty promises?”
I renew those vows every time I dip my fingertips into the font of holy water at the entrance to the church. The trickle of a fountain, the drip of a faucet, and the crashing of waves are all reminders that return me to a sacred place. God cleanses me of my sins.
Shortly after this revelation, I joined the Pastoral Team at UCLA. The University Catholic Center (UCC) became the focal point of my extracurricular activities. I found solace in the converted sorority house on Hilgard Avenue; my godson loved to climb all the stairs. We celebrated mass outside on the patio and helped with Lenten soup suppers on Friday nights. With Chris and Michael, I helped plan trips to the orphanage in Tijuana; Becca, Cynthia, and I organized weekend retreats. The multicultural music selections entranced us all. No longer was I forced into faith; it was a conscious choice at a crucial time in my adult life. I found sustenance and support at the UCC.
After I graduated college at twenty-three, my professional obligations took me away from UCLA. I drifted into complacency and no longer actively pursued my commitment to my faith. My sister and her son were safely in the hands of her new boyfriend; she no longer needed my support. I occasionally tried to attend mass at a neighborhood church, but felt the message was addressing someone else; the music didn’t stir my soul. The support system I had worked so hard to establish had eroded, and I returned to less holy habits intermittently for the next four years. Most of it is a hazy intoxication that I don’t remember it well enough to regret. But there was definitely no God guiding me then.
It was almost six years before I found my faith again. I was almost thirty, teaching high school English, and living alone. I was content with my solitude and committed myself to celibacy until God found the right person for me. I wasn’t a candidate for the convent, but I had outgrown the casual choices of my past.
Every morning on the way to work, I prayed the rosary. While my car’s engine warmed up, I prayed the creed, rubbing the raised figure of crucified Christ on the tiny plastic cross until he was almost worn off. Keeping my eyes on the traffic, I prayed ten Hail Marys as I drove west down Ocean Park Boulevard to Eleventh Street, finishing an extra Lord’s Prayer as I turned left on Michigan Avenue to enter the school parking lot. The beads in my right hand lay across the passenger seat and I expertly steered with my left hand. Only using the blinker complicated my ritual. Once parked, I asked: “Blessed Mother, Heavenly Father, Brother Jesus, help me be patient, tolerant, and wise, the kind of teacher you want me to be.” There were colleagues who noticed me lingering, my lips moving without being on the cell phone. They looked at me funny. I didn’t care to explain. On the mornings I did make phone calls or got caught up singing with the radio instead of praying, I forgot to ask for those special gifts. That’s when I was more likely to lose my temper with my teens. Then I picked up the beads on my way home, seeking forgiveness.
Funny, how we return to the rituals that comfort us. I sought some renewed connection to God and especially needed the Blessed Mother’s guidance to be a good woman. But, my busy life often complicates my faith. While I continue to recite the rosary on my way to work most mornings, it has become a habit without much meaning, like brushing my teeth or taking my vitamins; I know it does some good, but I don’t think much about it. Birth and death, disaster and misfortune plague my family. Doubts arise. Tragic situations cause me to question the presence of God. It is in these moments that I pray a new prayer, not one I was taught as a child. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It is a prayer that reminds me I need help achieving my goals and overcoming obstacles. It helps me slow down and take each day as it comes.
No one forces me into faith anymore. I attend mass for baptisms, first communions, funerals, and family weddings, but some Sundays I wake up late and spend the day frantically trying to catch up on grading, reading, or writing. No fires of hell reach up to scorch my feet; no bar of soap finds my mouth. It usually takes two or three weeks before I start feeling empty and need rejuvenation from the community of faith.
I don’t have to quit being Catholic to live the rest of my life. God will always be there, even if I sleep in on Sunday.