Even though going to Mass and Communion had been my lifeline since I was a little child, (with an interim period in my twenties when I knew I was immortal and knew more than anyone else in the world) I was finding more and more difficulty getting myself to church on Sundays. After two years or so of getting used to the idea that Adam would never return, and that it had been Adam's choice to leave, not God's, I'd started to take an interest in participating in the prayers at church, and rustily tried to sing the hymns. My timing was rarely worse. A cantor had been hired to sing at my usual Mass at St. Bernadette's, and perhaps she considered herself a trained singer, an operatic voice, but the fact is, she was terrible, moving me to wonder if what I heard with my ears was so utterly different than what others hear, notably, the pastor, who must sign her paychecks. Most hymns are for everyday people to sing, not screeching prima donnas. Some are works to be sung by an accomplished voice, to be sure, like Ave Maria or the Protestant Our Father, but most of them aren't. What that woman could do to Now Thank We All Our God was a mortal sin in itself. Okay, not 'mortal,' but she was definitely going to have to pay for it in Purgatory.
I went from apathy to opened heart to teeth-grindingly critical in about three months. The thoughts that I was having about carrying small new potatoes in my purse and bouncing them forcefully off her and/or the organist's head when they butchered the service music was going to have me in Purgatory with them, holding their music while they screeched and dragged the notes so slowly no one could sing with them.
The camel's back broke one weekend when I gave Charles and Nanny a bit of a break, and a chance to focus on Kelsa and Michel, the youngest children. I had Marca, Oesha, and Owen with me for a visit and I took them to church. While ushers with long-suffering faces took up the collection in long-handled baskets, the cantor plunged into a high-pitched hymn that sent feedback vibrating through the sound system. I felt like my spine was being sandpapered from within. Then I heard Oesha giggle, and looked past her four-year-old head to see her twin holding her nose with one hand and gratingly screeching right along with the hymn. Owen, sitting pressed against my left side, laughed aloud, and promptly stuck two fingers up his nostrils and began to sing loudly, too. I hushed him and pulled his fingers from his nose, only to look back at Marca, who had grabbed the sides of her face and was pulling the skin back towards her ears, making her mouth a grimace and revealing part of the insides of her lower eyelids, still singing. I raised a finger in warning and she sat back against the pew. Oesha had both hands pressed against her mouth to keep from getting in trouble by laughing.
Tears began to spill from my eyes. I could feel my face burning red. My lips were trembling, and my hand shook as I fumbled a tissue from my purse. All I could envision was Marca's face as the cantor brayed into Verse Four, and that was the end. I knew that if I stayed another minute, I would lose control and laugh like a fool. The kids would not be able to contain themselves, and I could not blame them. Fortunately we'd sat on an end pew, and I hustled the three out the door and into the van before we dissolved into giggles and imitations.
I decided God was telling me that the time had come to try the parish right there in Riverton. Our Lady of Guadalupe's was small, so they wouldn't be able to afford the operatics' rate of pay. At least I hoped so.
I went the next Sunday. The little church was packed, lots of screaming babies and fidgetty kids (good, all Five would not stand out!), and the cantor had a voice that reminded me of Kermit the Frog and made me smile. The organist played at tempo, at least, and the people sang along with Kermit, unintimidated. The priest read the Gospel reading, and then gave a sermon about how hard it is to pray sometimes. "Sometimes, when I pray, I get distracted, and forget what I'm trying to say. I try hard," he confessed, "but I don't always do so well. You know, I look at the saints in the windows here, and I feel so inadequate, but a lot of them had trouble praying, too, from time to time. We just need to not give up. Just the trying to pray is prayer, too."
Yeah, I can dig it. I was impressed by his honesty and lack of pomposity. No finger-shaking. And though I ducked so she wouldn't see me, there was my next door neighbor Mary LeMay exiting with the rest of the congregation. Is this a sign, or what?
October was drawing to an end by the time my neighbor Mary spotted me in her parish. I found myself smiling, perhaps a bit sheepishly, at her look of surprise and delight. She came right over and perched on the pew beside me, gripping my forearm in her strong, friendly hand. "Sully! How long have you been coming to Mass here?" she whispered.
"Not long," I hiss-pered back. "I'd been going to St. Bernadette's, on the north side of Stockton. I decided to see what this parish was like."
"I didn't even know you were Catholic."
I couldn't help laughing a little, quietly. "I didn't know you were, either, until I saw you here."
She mmmphh'ed a little laugh, too, squeezed my arm again, patted it, and then it was time to stand up and behave ourselves as we began the prayer of the Mass.
In the first parts of the Mass, we confess communally that we are sinners, that we have done things we should not have, that we have not done things that we should. Frequently I've heard on television, or read in books or newspaper articles, how the admission of guilt has warped Catholic children for life, or that acknowledging people to be 'sinners' is a sign of an oppressive religion. Myself, I can't even imagine how awful it would be to think that I was or should be capable of resisting all temptations every day all the time and make all and only good decisions all the time. This is not to say that I like screwing up, mind you. But I'd had a taste of 'living sinless' and it was quite unpleasant. Let me explain. When I was in grade school, and doing well, my parents (mother) told me that because I was smart, I was expected to do well. Sounds fine and good. Nevertheless, by the time I was in high school, and making straight A's, the 'doing well' part had come to mean, 'do perfectly or be punished' -- three "B's" on the old report card would get me grounded for the next grading period until the subjects were back up to "A's". I studied and memorized, not for the sake of learning, or because I was interested in the subjects, but because I did not dare take the risk of missing anything or leaving anything to chance, or trying any subject I might not be good at.
Do you see what I'm getting at? If you force someone to be Always Right, you take away their freedom to choose. And what's more, who is going to decide what Right is, anyway? In the early days of the Church, people thought that once they had made the decision to follow Christ's teachings, that that would make them perfect and sinless. Baptised by water and the Spirit, they put on Christ like a radiant garment, and were expected to always do good and not forget to do good.
Failure to never make a mistake about what was considered good was punishable by being kicked out of the Church community. Think about how women were expected to behave in say, 200 AD, mouth shut and head covered, and you have an instant idea of the narrow path that folks had to walk, and how those people might have been oppressed by 'sinlessness'!
In time the Church figured out that whoa, we are all capable of mistakes, even wrongdoing, and people started to forgive themselves and each other again, remembering that Christ himself was reaching out to sinners, not to beat them, but to get them on the right track.
A right track, not a tightrope. The right track? Love God and love people. Pretty broad track, don't you think? Broad as the whole world, and anything that big is bigger than just about everybody. So big, and so broad, and so overwhelming, that you need Someone to get you through. Help, I can't do this Good thing alone! Help, I don't know what is right in this instance! Help, I screwed that one up big time! Help, I can't help myself!
So I personally find comforting the beginning of each Mass with that communal admission of guilt. Guilty, as charged, of not being able to get through life all alone.
Sometimes I wonder if my faith wasn't forged and strengthened by the way I saw my mother live. She was self-confident in my first memories of her, but over the years became self-reliant to the point of refusing to accept any help from anyone. She complained with bitterness of how each person in her life had let her down, hoarding the memories like a collection of counterfeit coins. My mother had friends, and she was loved, but she didn't love her friends, and the people she said she loved were more like the possessions of a miser than human beings. I refused to live like that. I wanted to love with all my heart and soul and mind, and revel in the mystery of each unfolding day as if it was created new from a single word. I wanted God to love me, not for what I could do, or would do, not for what I was or might become. And though many people cannot see what I see, I've found that love in my faith.