Faith of Our Fathers
The only part of the Latin Mass that I understood was the English part when the congregation said three times, very quickly “Lord-I-am-not-worthy-that-you-should-come-under-my-roof.-Speak-but-the-word-and-my-soul-shall-be-healed.”
My father said it, though I couldn’t hear his individual voice. I probably said it, too. I don’t remember. But then my father would go up to receive the parchment-papery circle of wafer that was the body of Christ. I didn’t go up. I wasn’t really a Catholic. I just went to Mass with my father for fun. That’s the kind of kid I was.
I liked the holy water in the little holders by the door. It always seemed more slippery than real water as if its power to bless and to heal was somehow related to its special viscosity.
I liked the genuflecting and the kneeling. I liked the marble columns that had pink veins running through them. For some reason they reminded me of Beechnut Fruit Stripes chewing gum that had been sculpted into these lovely columnar shapes. I always wanted to take a bite out of one.
Votives at St. John Cantius Church
I loved the incense. The mysterious sanctus bells. Mostly, I guess, I loved the little memorial candles that flickered willy-nilly in their blue or red glass votives. From time to time my father would let me light a memorial candle for Aunt Alice or Grandpa or for his own father, Pop, who had died before I was born.
My father would give me coins to drop into the metal box that sat next to a pile of thin, wax-coated wicks. I would pick up one of those long wicks, light it from another candle and then choose the votive I wanted. When my candle’s flame began to flicker along with its companion candles, I would drop the wick into a metal tray and its flame would gradually die out.
After my father died I used to light memorial candles for him whenever I was in a Catholic church. I imagined him watching me as I set a little tongue of flame into a blue or a red votive cup. I imagined that he knew I was lighting it for him and that somehow, in a way I didn’t pretend to understand and could scarcely allow myself to trust, it made me feel closer to him.
I liked the memorial candles best. But I also liked the hollow sound of the priest’s voice echoing throughout the walls of the church. I liked the way the ushers swished the offering baskets—on their broomstick handles—quickly up and down the pews, twice each service.
That’s how you could tell it was a Catholic church. They took the collection twice.
In our church—my mother and sisters’ church, my church—they took it only once and it was gathered slowly, the shining brass basin passed from hand-to-hand by every person.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church was very different from St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic church where my father went and where nearly all of my classmates—Catholics, like my father--went.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church was a better church, of course, a more godly church. Somehow I had been brought up to believe that. I’m not sure why we thought we were better. Maybe it was because in my mother’s church I was so much more terrified of God than I was in my father’s church.
For one thing, in my mother’s church there was so little to distract you from the fact of God’s awful presence. The pastor was a boring preacher who spoke unconvincingly of a loving God. In our hymns we sang of a God who existed, it seemed, only in order to menace us so that we should know ourselves as sinners, first and last: “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed his blood for me;” and “Come to Calvary’s holy mountain, sinners ruined by the fall;” and “Go to dark Gethsemane, All who feel the Temptor’s power.”
They didn’t sing in the Catholic church. They just murmured responses and kneeled a lot. Maybe the Catholics couldn’t carry a tune. I’d never heard my father sing, but my best friend, Denise, was a Catholic and she was most definitely tone-deaf.
The Catholic kids got to take Communion by fourth grade. I wasn’t allowed to take Communion in my father’s church because I was a Lutheran.
I wasn’t allowed to take Communion in my mother’s church either. I wouldn’t be able to do that until I was fourteen. That was not only because I wasn’t good enough, but because I wasn’t old enough to know just how not good enough I was. I would know a lot more about that by the time I was fourteen.
But still, the Lutheran church was better than the Catholic church. And maybe that was why: because we knew we were poor, miserable sinners and there was no priest or penance to let us off the hook and convince us otherwise.
My two sisters and I had been baptized at St. Augustine’s. That had been part of the deal my mother had had to strike with the priest in order to get married to my father: she had to promise to raise her children as Catholics. But somehow I think it was always understood that she would have the final say about our religious upbringing.
She had grown up a Methodist. I don’t think she had been much of a Methodist. The only thing I ever remember about her girlhood church life was that her pastor had tried to kiss her—and it was not a holy kiss.
After she got married and had kids, that’s when she started going to Our Saviour’s, a Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church.
As a child I didn’t know much about what it meant to be a Missouri-Synod Lutheran. Or why, for a church in upstate New York, it seemed necessary to be identified with such a far away and clearly backward state as Missouri. The ‘Show Me State.’ It wasn’t even subtle; they might as well have called it the ‘Show-off State.’
Nevertheless, being Lutheran in a town full of German and Irish Roman Catholics seemed very exotic to me. It was almost as exotic as being Jewish.
‘Lutheran,’ I liked to say the word. And I liked Martin Luther, too, except for his haircut.
Luther seemed to struggle with the same thing I did: ever since I could remember I wanted to be good. And I certainly did not think I was.
I was a sinner.
Unlike the Catholics, we didn’t tell our sins in secret, as if somehow we could be told to say a few “Hail, Marys” and get off Scot-free. We announced our sins in front of one another. Not each sin, of course--that would be rude. Rather than bother with individual peccadilloes, we simply announced our general total depravity.
First the pastor would say:
Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto Thee that we are by nature sinful and unclean and that we have sinned against Thee by thought, word, and deed. Wherefore we flee for refuge to Thine infinite mercy seeking and imploring Thy grace for the sake of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Then the congregation spoke in unison the scathing admission of our human worthlessness:
O almighty God, merciful Father I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserve Thy temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them and I pray Thee of Thy boundless mercy and for the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.
I didn’t know what God’s grace and mercy would look like or feel like. But what was clear to me was that I was not good and could not be good and if I did manage to do something good, I would soon enough find out I was still not good enough. Nevertheless, I was expected to try to be good because the alternative was my justly deserved temporal and eternal punishment—a.k.a. hell. Hell in life and hell in death.
Hell would be like our basement only much, much worse because most things about our basement I rather liked. My father’s woodworking shop was down there. My mother held our Camp Fire Girl meetings down there. All of those things took place in the finished part of the basement.
But there was another part of the basement, the part on the other side of the black sewer pipe.
That part was vast and dank and dark. Hell would be something like that—damp and underground. The stereotypical fiery furnaces of hell never made much sense to me.
Corot: Orpheus leading Eurydice out of Hades
I mean, in my favorite Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Eurydice is given that blessed shot at trying to make it out of Hades, relying only on Orpheus’ self-control that he not turn around to look at her until they were once again above ground.
But Eurydice was not trying to escape flames. She was trying to escape a dank prison, an underworld oubliette of bone-rattling chill that never warmed up, never dried out, never saw the sun.Even though I knew Greek myth was all made up and Lutheran hell was a real place, I still feared it could be like the Greek version and I really did not want
to go there.
I needed to keep close track on the number of things I did wrong versus the number of things I did right.So in an effort to track my status, I ranked my sins. There were the lesser sins and there were the greater sins.
Disobedience to one’s parents, thinking bad thoughts about somebody—these were kind of inevitable. These were lesser sins.
Talking about somebody behind their back, though, was very wrong. That was called being deceitful—just like the French-Canadians who lived across the river, my mother used to say. Yet my mother managed to talk behind people’s backs quite a lot and somehow we were not supposed to consider it bad when she did it. I never understood how that worked, but I accepted it. She wasn’t really being deceitful. She wasn’t even French-Canadian.
Lying was definitely a greater sin, maybe the worst of all, except for stealing and killing. Lying was the really bad thing to do. But even with lies there were lies of lesser and greater consequence.
Little white lies were okay. Like the kind my mother told about Christmas presents or birthday presents or letting my aunt Marion think my mother really liked her even though she couldn’t stand her.
White lies were okay. Real lies were bad.
My first lie, the lie that haunted me for years, was about the butter cookies.
They were the round, thin cookies my mother made at Christmas. And apart from the fact that they had little pats of colored sugar on them, they could have passed as thick-cut Communion wafers. They were tiny. And one time before dinner I asked if I could have some cookies and my mother said, yes, just a couple. And I took five.
No, I hadn’t lied, per se. I had disobeyed. But I had also omitted to tell her that I was disobeying her which was, implicitly, a lie. I never told her about it. I just kept it my own dirty secret.
Vintage Barbie shoe
Which goes to show how I wasn’t good at owning up to individual sins and in that way also an indication that I was not a real Catholic, in spite of the baptism. Imagine having to tell the priest about the butter cookies. Or the Barbie shoe.
I was five when the Barbie shoe episode happened. And if intention means anything at all, I never intended to steal the Barbie shoe. I really only meant to give a stray a home.
Understand that early Barbies didn’t have a lot of different shoe styles. They had those unnaturally-shaped feet with their permanently-flexed toes that were designed for high heels and high heels only. And the ones Barbie wore were always the same—stilettos with a tiny band of plastic across the instep. Classic fuck-me mules. And they came in different colors to match the many different outfits.
I didn’t have many different outfits—my family was not one to overwhelm us with toys—so I took great care with those that I had. Only it happened I was missing one red shoe. And here it was, as if provided by the generous hand of providence, a single, red Barbie shoe.
Then, one night I was at the five-and-dime where my mother worked rummaging through this table of assorted junk—perfume bottles missing their caps, stockings in ripped boxes, teddy bears missing buttons. I happened upon some Barbie doll outfits with packages half-opened so that they were missing some of their component pieces. Things had simply fallen out, like a Barbie clutch purse that was supposed to go with the fur-trimmed red and white satin evening ensemble or a thigh-high boot intended to go with the psychedelic-print skirt and matching Nehru jacket.
I would never, ever have taken one of those half-opened packages. If I had wanted one I would have asked my father would buy it for me and then be content with his answer.
Nor would I ever, ever have reached inside to take out one of the pieces that belonged to a complete outfit. Either action was unthinkable.
But—fallen like grace from one of the packages was a single red Barbie mule.
Just the one. One was all I needed.
So, making sure nobody saw, I slipped it carefully into my pocket, grateful to God for having seen to my needs. And Barbie’s.
I figured I was not so much stealing as I was bringing back the missing, giving a lost shoe a purpose.
I brought it home and set it next to the other red shoe in the little wooden wardrobe my father had made for my Barbie outfits.
But I knew, deep down, what I had done. I had stolen.
And I just did not have the guts to bring the shoe back to the store and slip it back onto the sale table of damaged junk. Besides, I needed it more than the store did.
Oh, there were lots of sins I remember, lots of ways in which I was a disobedient kid. I put my feet on the sofa without taking my shoes off. I was noisy and hyper at the Camp Fire Girl meetings held in our basement. I didn’t do a good job on my fire prevention booklet because mine was never picked as the winner anyway, so why bother. After a while, Smokey Bear saying “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” meant very little to me. We didn’t even live near any forests.
And there were more sins, as well. The biggest one, though, was clearly a sin of the flesh, I recognized that right away. Even though I had discovered it quite by accident, I knew immediately, as sensations ran through my body that made me want to point my toes just like Barbie’s, that what I was doing had to be a sin.