I am reminded of my Catholic upbringing by a charming blog entry from Mary of Egypt (http://soluscumsolo.blogspot.com), writing yesterday about Fish Fridays. Mary is a poet who has left her husband (very temporarily and with his approval, apparently and amazingly) to spend a year at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
Inspired by her husband's solo dinners back in the states, she goes out to find something delectable to cook for herself. And here is the good part: she lives, not in a college town, or dorm room, or grubby student digs with hotplates--but rather in a fishing village on a peninsula of an island. Appropriately, she searches for lobster...one of her grandfather's favorite foods, I happen to know. She finds it not.
MOE is a Catholic convert, lively and celebratory soul, High Romantic and when she sweeps into a room, you know that Someone Special has arrived. Her relationship to the church is infused with all the intensity and yearning associated with it throughoug English literature. I see her as entering a room trailing colored silks that bear with them the music of the great Catholic poets of the long ago past. (It does not hurt that she is beautiful.)
Hers is a wonderful way of embracing religion and I find myself applauding her, even though my own relationship with the Church is considerably more problematic. (So much so that I no longer have a relationship with it. As with politics, the labels that carried the convictions of my forebears have drifted away from me.)
My Catholicism, in contrast, was dishearteningly plebian--fish on Friday meant I couldn't spend the night with a friend without either sinning or skipping dinner. At home, of course, it was a different matter: shrimp creole, crab mornay--both favorites--and only occasionally trout almondine (imperfectly boned, sad to say). I always got the bone that was missed while my parents were scarfing down the delicate morsels. But choking on a bone was OK, because the Church has a celebration for that. A celebration rife with anecdotes of dead children, a specialty of our church at the time, it seems.
So with images of little kids who choked in my mind, we at St. Anne's School trooped into the church for St. Blaise's Day, where the priests blessed our throats. I remember two candles, tied into the shape of an X, hovering at my neck--very briefly, I might add. Did I mention that this terrified me? That this was only one of the many Catholic Mysteries that still make my skin crawl?
Take the Revelation of Bernadette--the third mystery about which in those apocalyptic times much speculation clustered. If mankind did not mend its ways, disaster would come--within my lifetime! We were still being required to huddle periodically under our desks in class to practice for the day when the Bomb would Drop. It did not take genius to associate the third mystery with the dropping bomb.
We were required to attend Mass every morning, which I found boring past the point of pain. This was the plain, everyday mass in Latin (its sole glory); not the wonderful High Mass with the music that I loved--ancient music, not some kid on the altar with a guitar.
I had a solution for the boredom, though. I would read the stories of the martyrs in the back of the Missal. There is no atrocity of today's Middle East that exceeds the litany of tortures to be found in these exceedingly morbid stories. But they were stories and stories are not boring.
In class we were given a little magazine that featured stories about children--Saintly Children of our Time--who died. To this day I can't lie in a bed with my arms on each side of me so that they pin down the sheet because that is how the little boy was lying in the picture of his mute suffering prior to death.
Thus, the glorious mysteries of Catholicism that seem to inspire so many great writers have been swamped for me by the procession of relics (body parts of long dead Saints), the grisly stories of flayed and dismembered martyrs, the constant promise of lurking disaster for the living world and the superiority, really, of just getting it all over with so we could go on to eternal life with God.
But while still trapped in the misery of worldly life, we were not to date a member of another religion--a sin. We were not to so much as think "unclean" thoughts while in the presence of the opposite sex. If you had thought something unclean (unspecified, too, so it could be interpreted broadly) and be killed, you would go straight to hell.
Every one of these concepts that rail against life and celebrate death and sterility fell like hot embers upon my sensitive psyche, leaving many scars.
When I attained the exalted age of 22 and discovered that my mother's long and happy marriage to my father, a divorced man, had prevented her from taking the sacraments for all that time--a significant penalty for her--I decided that the Catholic Church as it functions in America was not for me.
I am hoping that the Church embraced by Mary of Egypt and her Thomas More has changed--or that its effect upon sensitive children has become less devastating.