the stained glass windows;
the smiling nuns and different language;
the beatific statue of Mary;
and the scary statue of Jesus.
One Christmas Eve, I woke up in the middle of the night and saw the Star of Bethlehem, just as it is in the pictures, and felt peaceful with my born tradition. As much as I liked all the references to lambs and sheep and bread, my life as a bad Catholic began early, when I insisted that the three shepherds were actually sheep, and flunked my first grade catechism class.
As I grew older, going to church quickly became distasteful. I was intrigued with an old priest who used to sneak outside once mass started, smoking cigarette after cigarette on the cement steps, stopping only to cuff the ears of the children who would disrupt mass and be taken outside to be watched by him.
I developed games to help the time pass: my favorite, which I believe has helped me with the visualizations necessary as a practicing Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition, was to take my mom’s rosary and place it in a large square on the pew, and pretend I was at home watching TV. I would even change channels to find what I really wanted to watch.
My friend Rose, who received confirmation a few years earlier than I, had nosebleeds every Sunday and was escorted out of mass. Outside later, the red blood against her white handkerchief was hypnotizing.
Her nosebleeds didn’t stop us from running around downstairs after mass, eating sugar cubes from cups on the long tables filled with donuts. Within minutes we would be so amped on sugar that the anger of our parents erupted loudly, between bites of their maple bars and sips of Maxwell House.
Luckily, as I hit adolescence, our church got a new young priest who played guitar during mass. All my mom’s friends had crushes on him and found reasons to consult with him. He suggested that my mom deal with stress by replacing her cigarettes with marijuana. Around that time the teacher of my catechism class disclosed that his favorite way to study the Bible was by taking a bong hit first.
Seeing my way out, I used these two examples as arguments why I should not have to go to church OR catechism anymore. Though just a teenager, I had already taken up studying the Bhagavad-Gita and Taoism, and had discovered for myself the difference between spirituality and churchianity. Though at first my parents rejected my pleas, my mother admitted to sharing this truth. For the first time in our family history, we quit going to mass.
I continued going into churches for different reasons. One of my friends, Fred, was a talented keyboard player. A group of us often snuck into our local church, clustering into the “sweet spot” of sound, while Fred went upstairs and played “In A Gadda Da Vida” on the organ. It was so cool. The church pews vibrated with the sound
One day I visited a small church in a tiny fishing town. As I stood in front of the statute of Mary, the afternoon light shifted through a high window, illuminating her alabaster form like a beacon.
I felt my sense of self disintegrate, watched my hands lift and meet Mary’s fingertips; my whole body shook as if electrocuted.
This was the Mary
my mother took refuge in.
This was the light
Mary used to answer my
mother’s prayers for clarity
in times of deep discernment.
This was the Mary
that appeared to my mother
after her terminal diagnosis,
giving her the peace to die.
This was the light
that engulfed my mom’s own bald head
during the last conversation we had
before she died.
This is the light
that has led me back
to my Christian roots, now strengthened
by my own experiences of light and spirit,
and allowed those roots
to live and strengthen what has become
the fertile soil of Spirit
in all forms.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us Sinners.
Now, and at the
Hour of our Death,
(sermon for the Christianity Module)