No one was more surprised than me, except, perhaps, my brother, that I attended church three days in a row. Not just any three days, mind you. For the Roman Catholic Church, Easter preparation and the actual day is the core essence of the Church itself. Its raison d’être. There has been little time to absorb the experience, so these are just notes to myself and you are welcome to eavesdrop if you like.
I was raised Roman Catholic, I had two great aunts that were Mother Superiors of their convents. I have five names. I think my parents rightly decided I would need all the help I could get and enlisted the Saints on my behalf.
I can’t really explain why I drifted away. I don’t recall having any issue with the Church~ oh, maybe that my mother was punished for being the first woman in the neighborhood to divorce and at the time, in the 60’s, that was a big no-no. I do remember visiting Italy for a month and seeing those incredible churches and contrasting that extraordinary beauty, art, craftsmanship and MONEY with the poor that must have dwelled right outside those church doors. Or, it might have to do with having gone to see The Exorcist at 17 years old… My nephews laughed years later when they saw it. They thought it silly. I didn’t. I went with about 10 other people and I was the first person to scream in the audience that night. I screamed when the music came on. Truly, I had no business being there and it just never occurred to me to get up and leave. It was unfortunate that I had a photographic memory because those scenes sank deep into my bones, blasting past any defenses I might have had, which weren’t many at 17. I was a wide open door psychically and that film got to me. When we walked out of the theater, someone gestured at me, raising their arm and I went flying back instinctively. I spent six months in a twin bed with my mother, who at least was kind enough to allow me to sleep with her. One of my brothers thought my fear was funny and he would read aloud from the book, but he didn’t have the Voice. When I would go to sleep, it was as though I was some sort of transmission beacon – pictures of people, strangers, would flood my mind and I would watch them just pass through. A couple sitting before a fireplace, a family at dinner, a man walking through the streets. It was disturbing.
Years later, a friend came to stay because I was having nightmares. Just her presence was enough to quell the subconscious. I am blessed in my friends. This one, even if out on a date, told me to call her and she would come home. Thanks, Charlotte. I have never forgotten how good you were to me.
Somewhere around 30, my cousin gave me a book called “Living with Joy” by Sanaya Roman. When I opened it to leaf through it, there was a chapter entitled, “Greetings from Orin.” I looked at my cousin. “Who is Orin?” “Oh,” she said airily, “That is Sanaya’s Guide.” I slammed the book shut and shoved it back at her. “No. No way, Cousin!” She gently pushed it back at me. “Look, just skip that part.” My cousin was in Human Resources and knew how to give medicine to scalded people. “Well, how about this? Take a look at the other chapters and see if anything interests you.” Now, I loved my cousin. I knew she was a devout Catholic and as kind and loving a person as anyone I have ever met, past, present or future. I trusted her. But I wouldn’t give it to her easily. I churlishly opened the book to the Chapter of Contents and yes, there were some good things that might be interesting… Well, that set me off on a journey that had begun earlier and this was the next step. The idea of meditation, closing my eyes, and sitting still, waiting for IT to reveal itself gave me the heeby-jeebies. And, yet, the book was good. It was gentle in its message of living with joy. And, God knows, I wanted and needed to live with joy. Halfway through, I went back and read “Greetings from Orin.” When I did decide to open myself up again spiritually, there were some very strong caveats and negotiations with God. “Here’s the deal.” I said firmly. “I will try this, but, if anyone or anything appears at the foot of my bed, that’s it. I will shutdown and I will never, ever open again. That’s the deal, God. I need to know that will not happen. If some creature appears and says, “Hey, HuntMode, want to change places?” I am out of here forever.” I have had some strange experiences, but no one has ever appeared at the foot of my bed. Thank You, God.
So, now spiral up 28 years or so: last year, at this time, I was trying to get myself to attend a local Roman Catholic Church – it was so close, I could walk it, if I gave myself time. I thought Easter services would be a good place to start, but I spent the day in a cold sweat and balked in panic to return home to lay down on the floor and remember how to breathe. I spent a year driving up the long driveway to the church, getting out and walking the grounds. I made it as far as the vestibule before panicking and ducking right back out the doors to my car and straight home to the cat and dog. Sundays, I would watch various religious programs on DayStar – some were too much for me, but a few made me feel as though I was touching base again with something old, something close to home.
Back in the 90’s, I dated an Israeli, whose primary mission in life seemed to be to convert gentiles. He liked to think of himself as at least Conservative, but wanted to be Orthodox – he had a long way to travel on becoming an Orthodox Jew. After we broke up, I asked him to recommend a good place to learn about Judaism. “Now? You want to learn now?!” He recommended the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, close by to where I lived at the time. I enrolled for a five month introduction to Judaism and, to my stunned surprise, it was fantastic. You had to do extracurricular work, studying Hebrew, and being adopted by a Synagogue, which meant the most liberal of the various sects, but I went further, studying with an ultra Hasidic Rabbi, participating in Friday night shabbat dinners and generally diving in to studying this religion. To my surprise, it was beautiful and disciplined. I can still remember the first shabbat dinner I attended when our host stood and called his children to come forward one at a time to bless each one and tell them how proud he was of each one and why, perhaps something the child had done that week. That is a tradition. I remember thinking how much a difference that would have made when I was growing up. One of the requirements was to keep kosher for one week. That too is tradition. My first kosher chicken still stands out in my mind. No one had told me how different it would taste due to their dietary laws and how they kill the chickens. The chicken is honored for giving its life and killed swiftly with a specially carved blade that must be honed to such a sharpness as specified in Judaic law. If not, if the blade becomes dull, it is no longer kosher. The difference in the taste of the chicken was the absence of fear at its death. Los Angeles has a large Jewish population and I had grown up with fabulous delis and survivors of the Holocaust. In the end, I knew more about Judaism than my Jewish friends, and certainly more than I remembered of Roman Catholicism. I remember thinking as we learned of the traditions that they had stolen it from us, the Catholics, only to realize, quite the reverse, we took many of our traditions from the ones who came before. While I was offered the opportunity to convert, I was not ready for that. It is said in Catholicism, “Give me a child at an impressionable age, and they are mine for life.” or words to that effect. Then I moved to Washington state and it is a much smaller Jewish population and, near as I can tell, there are no good delis here.
The bottom line was I missed people who enjoy the presence of God in their lives. People who were comfortable with the word “God.” On good speaking terms with him, her, it, the Source, whatever. The cry of my heart became stronger than my fear. I read up on my local church, on various matters within the church itself, which is famous for its failings. I finally got the guts to call the local church and timed it well. This is the Year of Faith, of Catholics Returning Home. I still wasn’t sure if it was the right place for me and so approached it all very slowly, tentative, delicately, very unlike my usual tactic of guerilla warfare approach to information: “get in, get the info, get out.” I thought it would be a good idea to do what I had done with Judaism, learn the skeletons, the bones of the belief system. However, after speaking with me, the outreach counselor who was as warm, gentle and loving as I could have asked for, suggested I start with a study group that met between masses. Currently, they were studying a video series, entitled “Catholicism” by Father Robert Barron. I was landing in the middle of an ongoing group, who were very kind in welcoming me. I found myself retreating step by step as the weeks went by for one reason or another, but still retreat was the result – whether due to a cold or some such excuse. I ended up checking out the video series from our local library and studying it on my own. I did attend Christmas Eve Mass and perhaps a regular Mass, not sure, but as Easter approached, it became clear to me that I had to meet this commitment as I hadn’t last year.
I had stayed connected, unseen, through the internet, checking out the Weekly bulletin of the local church. One of the silliest excuses I found for not going to church throughout the week or during Lent, which had numerous events, was being dressed properly. Now, I think God is more interested in what is in your heart, but I also think we, as a society, have taken the sacred out of the world and replaced it with something common. I find that a desperate pity. I had asked my mentor what was appropriate attire and she had said gently, “Well, it is good to remember it is the House of the Lord, and so you wish to honor Him by dressing appropriately.” I interpreted that to mean no casual stop bys on the fly; don’t be wearing jeans. Here’s the thing, Washingtonians live in jeans, that is pretty much what we wear. During the height of the .com bubble, it was a truism that if you saw someone wearing a suit, you knew he was a visitor. Since I am not currently employed, I wear jeans all the time and so I passed up going to church during the week, on the fly, because I was dressed inappropriately. Ummm, judging by the last three days, I would have fit in just fine.
I missed Holy Thursday because I wasn’t paying attention and that appears to have been a critical day. It was the last day for confession or reconciliation as they call it now. It is so different these days. I understand change, I do. My cousin put it really well when I lamented the loss of Latin, “Yeah, I know, but we actually go every Sunday and it is nice to understand and enjoy the services.” Good point. Then this past year, it changed again officially. By the time I got there, it felt as if all the old rules were gone. You don’t cover your head anymore. I have yet to see a rosary in anybody’s hands. No, I take that back, but the old woman with gnarled hands was on oxygen, so there was good reason for her to hold close to her rosary. The idea that I was born and raised a Catholic allowed me a pass when it shouldn’t have. I was utterly out of touch with the current customs and it really showed the past three days.
I went to Good Friday services, which I wrote about here and here, and I did take Communion, wondering if I was blaspheming the Host by doing so without confession/reconciliation. After being gone for so long and have reconciled with God a long time ago, the idea I needed to confess was a stumbling block. According to my brother, there is a group reconciliation where you just profess contriteness and sincerity and you’re good…. At this Church, it is done on Saturdays at 4:00 or by appointment. An appointment? Face to face? What happened to the confessional where there was the comfort of a screen between me and the priest? It is only a slight exaggeration to say that our priest looks to be about 20 years old, if not 14. The purpose of Good Friday is to acknowledge the Crucifixion and the grief in the aftermath; to honor the cross of wood, and the loss, the bathing of His ravaged flesh, and the burial within the tomb with the great big rock sealing it shut. I don’t remember this from my childhood. Communion began and everybody was filing single file out of the pews and on up to receive it. I had thought about whether to do so or not. Always before I had believed I could not take Communion without confession, but this was the day of darkness and grief where the Apostles had had their last Supper and then the arrest, trial and Crucifixion came upon them. I decided it would be okay and followed the woman in front of me, anxiously eying how this worked. A lay person – there were about four, plus the priest, held a chalice and passed out the Host, saying a blessing of some sort. The line moves fast and steady as a ship crossing seas. Just as one would receive the Host, the one directly behind would bow and then step forward, hands cupped to receive – that was another thing. We always stuck our tongues out ~ very rare these days. Near as I could tell, they said “Amen” on receiving the blessing, took the Host in their left hand, stepped away, some bowed again, some did not, and put the Host in their mouth, sometimes crossing themselves, sometimes not. Very confusing. It was a very solemn service and I went back the next night for Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil.
We begin outside in the darkness, which in the Pacific Northwest was accorded to be 8:00 p.m. A fire has been built and everyone has received thin, long tapers with a cardboard catch all for drips. The priest begins and eventually lights this huge, tall candle and then lights a few of the thin tapers. The ones with the lit tapers turn around and light the ones nearest them, who in turn, turn behind them and light the next and the next. The priest walks into the darkened church with his high flame, followed by these tiny lights, feet shuffling softly, everyone quietly filing into the church, filling pews until when you look around, all you see against the darkness are these tiny points of light. The service continues with readings from designated Scriptures – two men evoking Genesis in such a way as I had never heard it read before. My own inner reading voice had never given it the weight these men gave it, piercing straight to the heart of the messages. It was a three hour ceremony, including the baptism of people who had studied to become a member of the Faith for at least one year, as well as some Confirmations. We renewed our own baptismal vows, which were astounding. I was a baby when I was baptized and someone did the vows on my behalf. Listening and repeating those vows as an adult was electrifying. …by the time I returned home, I was wrung out on the intensity of the past two nights. At some point, the Vigil had passed and lights softly came up in the church and all around from every corner came the sound of tiny bells being shook. The first time the sounding of bells since Lent began.
When I awoke this morning, I was groggy and very tempted to duck a third day of church. But I had invested a lot in the last couple of days and this was Easter, the most joyous of days in the Roman Catholic calendar. I went and was glad I had done so. The joy was palpable in the music and the priest was smiling, though he had to be exhausted. It was his third mass of the day and he had the Spanish one at 7:00 p.m. Still felt incompetent and they had added a new twist in another person standing off to the side with a chalice of wine – your choice to drink some, carefully wiped after every individual sip. At the end of the service, I saw the woman who is my outreach counselor. I had seen her every night and day at the services. Her face lit up with delight that I had come “Three times in a row, HuntMode!” I asked to meet with her this coming week, determined to get to the bottom of proper protocol. We will do that. She asked if I needed to meet right then, the sign of an alert mentor. I still have “Glory to God in the Highest” ringing in my head.