When I was growing up, the divide between Catholics and Protestants seemed greater than it does now. I’m not sure the word “ecumenical” had even been invented yet. But be that as it may, I remember being baffled by my Catholic friends, who on regular school days seemed, well — regular. But drive by a church, and there was this sudden flurry of unexplained activity, which I thought might denote some scratching but which turned out to be my friends crossing themselves. I hadn’t a clue what that meant. I think I’d heard the name “Jesus” by then, maybe at 11 years old, but I certainly had no real idea who he was or that he was to play such an enormous part in my life when I became an adult.
Lent was another occasion for religious bafflement and for a certain amount of envy on my part.
Catholic girls got to wear amazing dresses with skirts out to… there. They had little hats, which were too cunning to contemplate. They had small patent leather purses that swung from their wrists by neat little chains. And they wore white ankle socks with dressy shoes, which I coveted.
Being the child of atheists and political radicals, I did not go to church. Not ever. I had no dressy shoes, no frilly dresses out to there, and if you’d told me that believing in Jesus and becoming a Catholic would translate into frilly dresses, patent leather shoes, an Easter bonnet and a cool purse, I would have converted in a moment, no questions asked!
But even before the whispered talk at recess about, “What are you wearing?” which made me feel lower than dirt, were the conversations about what kids were giving up for Lent. What was this Lent thing anyhow? It took place over a period of time — I got that. And you were supposed to give something up, either chocolate or bubblegum. Seeing as I was hardly ever allowed to chew bubblegum, the idea of giving it up was an anathema. And why give something up anyway, and what was all this fuss about Easter??
It wasn’t until I was 16 and went to a sunrise service with my best friend that I had a glimmer of what Easter was about. It meant getting up early. It meant the excitement of cold, dewy grass. It meant standing solemnly in the graveyard while the Protestant minister said prayers. And when I came back to my house, the light in the hallway glittered with such intensity and such a fierce joy that I didn’t understand it. I only knew that my heart leapt up, and if I was unsure about this Jesus guy, my heart knew that the light was meant for me; that it was a cloak enveloping me in warmth. Later, I would know it as Divine Love; then I knew it as light.
And now? My very favorite service of the year as a Catholic is the Easter Vigil. That’s when I came into the church. That’s when the priest blessed my forehead with consecrated oil, and I felt a welcome that penetrated to the soles of my feet, as if the oil had run down my entire body. That’s when I heard for the first time people singing the Litany of the Saints, which still brings goosebumps to my skin. All of those departed, holy people! It felt as if they were hovering within the church above the flickering candles and just below the painted ceiling. I could talk to them and pray to them; they could become a part of my life. I was hooked.
Then I had to revisit this giving up bubblegum business as an adult convert. I realize that some people give up certain foods or wine — perhaps movies, violent TV shows, driving too fast, whatever. For me, my sins seem to coalesce around snarky personality traits that I only share with my priest. This year I am giving up being judgmental. As soon as I see a trace of judgment crossing my mind, I am going to stop it in its tracks. Or at the very least offer it up to God and try to let it go.
I didn’t need the frilly dress, the cool purse, the shiny patent leather shoes, or the dressy hat to be Catholic. I just had to hold my candle up in the darkness and know that the air was alive with holy people, with angels, and that at that moment I was recommitting myself to another year of putting my feet on holy ground.