Like the majority of the kids in the part of the northeast that I grew up in, I was raised as a Catholic. It seemed you were pretty much either Catholic or Jewish. Because of this, most of the kids that went to public school together also attended the same CCD classes and belonged to the same church. If you lived in my hometown, it was highly probable that your family belonged to St. Patrick’s Catholic church. Unless, of course, you were Jewish. I think we had a few other denominations of Christian churches around, but I can’t really remember any. Where I grew up, spring break always seemed to fall on the week before Easter to include Good Friday, what I personally consider the holiest of days. I’m not sure if things are still this way, and it may or may not have been to accommodate Holy Week. (I am curious about this now.)
I’m embarrassed to admit that I still don’t really know much about the differences between the other Christian religions. In fact, I probably know more about Judaism and the religions of cultures different from mine (which I studied while in college) than what separates the Catholics from other Christian sects. One of my best friends growing up was Jewish and I never thought twice about prayers or meals or their traditions. I have been very close with a family that practices Kosher traditions and their faith has always played a big part in their lives. I have seen what a strong family they are; a strong marriage, fantastic children, and a truly loving family. I believe this has a lot to do with the sharing of their faith as a family. We both believe in the Old Testament, it’s just latter part of the Christian bible that separates the two religions (I know there are other things, but I’m simplifying it). We are both steeped in traditions, one of the things I love most about my own religion as I am generally a traditional person.
Saying that one was raised Catholic, generally means you attended CCD (now called PSR) which is basically Sunday school, you were forced to go to mass on Sunday mornings, and maybe you even attended Catholic school instead of public. You at least attended mass until you completed the sacrament of Confirmation. After that took place, it seemed that many parents backed off on the Sunday morning ritual (including my own) as social lives, SAT stuff, and college applications started to fill your weekends.
By the time I went to college, my outlook on religion (and the world) had gone through a lot of changes, yet I still picked a small, private college that had deep roots in religion, Manhattanville College. It’s not in Manhattan. (That sentence is for my fellow alumni.) I chose that school for a long list of reasons, but religion wasn’t really one of them. Well, not exactly. I loved the diversity of the student body and I ended up taking lots of courses on various religions from around the world. I have always been curious about the customs, foods, and people that are different from me. Perhaps I was also doing some subconscious soul searching.
I spent the next 9-10 years drifting farther and farther from the church. I became what are referred to as “Easter-Christmas Catholics,” attending mass on those two holidays and a few others interspersed here and there throughout the year. Those attendances were usually because I was visiting my grandmother upstate or she was at my mom’s, so I would always attend. She was a very faithful woman that loved her church, and that deep faith can also be found in my mother. It seems that now the legacy is living on through me.
I had a crazy-fast romance with The Russian; meeting the last day of June in 2003, getting engaged that September, married that November (by a judge the first time), and moving south to Georgia the following January. What a six months that was! For someone that is not very good at making decisions that had never lived more than 30 minutes from my childhood town, I still laugh sometimes at that time of my life. Moving south was the best decision I have ever made, but it also marks the beginning of some of the toughest times of my life.
When we moved, The Russian couldn’t work as we were waiting for the government to do what they had to do with his status. The financial responsibilities fell on me. I had spent the previous 5-6 post-college years in NY teaching preschool and pre-K, supplementing with a ridiculous amount of babysitting on the side. Did I mention that we moved here without any jobs? We had an apartment that was paid for and that was it. So I looked for work. Anywhere. I ended up with three jobs in order to support us, and we still needed help occasionally from family. I worked Monday through Thursday for a naturopathic doctor, Fridays for two to three families at a time to watch all their kids at once, and then on Saturdays and Sundays I worked at a flight school (where I still work on Saturdays because it’s awesome and I love it). Yes, I held down three jobs and worked seven days a week to support us. I always do what needs to be done. This ended up costing me some of my health which is how I began my journey in the natural world, but it also brought me back to the church.
This was such a dark time for me, not my darkest ever, but I was exhausted, struggling with a new marriage in a new place with no money and no friends. My friends have always been my family, sometimes more than my family to me, and I cried. A lot. I was so homesick. I wanted my mom. I wanted my friends. I wanted to be back in New York. But I continued on, thanks to the strength that I found when I went back to my faith.
It was February 25, 2004. Ash Wednesday. That was the day I realized that I was not alone. I did have something to turn to. I had my faith, and at that moment, I began my journey back to the church. I googled Catholic churches in the area where I was working and found one that had a mass I could make to get ashes during my lunch. It was strange to walk into a church I had never been to, alone, unsure of the way things flow for communion, and I didn’t know anyone. Then the priest at the altar completely surprised me. He was young…as in, he seemed to be around my age. And during the homily, he spoke to us instead of talking at us. He didn’t stay behind the pulpit. Instead, he walked around the front and up the aisles a bit, making eye contact and smiling. This was so strange to me and I felt so welcome and calm that I almost cried right then and there. I knew I had found what I needed. I was glad that I listened to the voice in my head that told me to seek out mass that Ash Wednesday. It was the start of something big for me.
I continued to go to church there, becoming a registered parishioner and attending mass nearly every week even though it was 20+ minutes from where I was living. There aren’t a lot of Catholic churches down here as we are in Baptist land, and I didn’t do much looking around after finding Father Bryan. I knew this was where I was meant to be. He was a contemporary, even relating his homilies to things like Star Wars. He was the best priest I had ever encountered and I know God wanted me to meet him for this purpose. I needed to see that the church is changing, albeit slowly, but it is capable of change. And I was getting drawn in because of what I was now experiencing.
In 2005, we got married. Again. I needed, and wanted, to receive the sacrament of marriage. I wanted to share our love and celebrate with all the other people in my life that didn’t join us for our very small (8 other people) first marriage and celebration. It was planned back in New York at my mom’s church as it was easier to ask a few people to fly up there than to ask everyone up there to fly down here. It wasn’t a full mass. I was the only one to receive communion, my sacrament of marriage, and that was all that I needed. It was so important to me that The Russian gladly obliged to marry a second time, this time in the Catholic church.
Then in 2006, The Russian joined the Army. I had changed jobs and started to feel like this particular church was no longer a good match for me. Long story short, some other priest started with politics from the pulpit and I nearly walked out – some people did – so I knew I had to find a new church. I go to mass for my personal relationship with God, my own spirituality, not for that junk. I don’t have to agree with all the things that the church pushes forth, I have my own mind (most die-hards would call me a “cafeteria Catholic”), and my going to church is about me and my spirit, nothing more. So I found another church that was close to my flight school job that had a Saturday Vigil mass. I started going to and in the first few weeks, who do I end up seeing there?? Father Bryan! I knew that again this was where I was to be. I registered at Saint Catherine’s and have been a member since. This is where I really started to grow and realize why I was back for good.
When The Russian deployed, it was tough. I had amazing friends and a great support system by this point (2009-2010), but there were still many times that I would cry for no reason. That was a hard time in my life, despite the appearance I put up going out to distract myself. I had to in order to stay sane. I decided it was time for me to start getting involved in my church community as he wasn’t home and I had too much free time. I noticed in the bulletin that they needed Catechists, the people that teach PSR/Sunday School/whatever you want to call it. I was missing teaching and thought this would be a great place for me to start. So I signed up. I was given 3rd graders my first year and I taught on Wednesday afternoons. As I taught that first year, my assistant in the room was full of compliments. There were times when the kids would ask me tough questions and I swear that I had no idea where I got the answers from. Her and I would look at each other sometimes and make “Wow” faces as she knew that I had never taught religion before. It was the Holy Spirit coming through me. What else could it be?
During his deployment, I also lost both of my grandmothers within two weeks of each other. I honestly feel like I would have been lost during that time without my faith, without believing some of the foundational pieces of my religion in order to make sense of it all. And let go. My dad’s mom left us first and my mom’s mom was still hanging on even though she should have already left to meet her maker. Both of these women were close for many years, so I asked Grandma Tish to tell Gram that it was okay to leave, that it was time to go. A few days later, she did. When I went to Gram’s service back in NY, I had another reason to be thankful for the church. The priest had actually known my grandmother very well and it was an amazing eulogy. He was full of words that gave me comfort and I started to feel proud that I am continuing her legacy through our faith. I am not as involved as she was or my mother is, but I’m sure I will be as I get older. When I would visit Gram in North Carolina at the place she ended up spending the last years of her life, I always took her to church. It became our thing and I think even when it got more difficult for her to remember my name or who I was at first glance, she was happy to see me because she knew I would take her to church. I miss her, but I feel connected to her every single time I’m at mass. Faith.
Growing up, we are put in religious education classes and dragged to church (what it feels like to a kid) on Sunday mornings. Looking back, I feel that I missed so much of what was taught. My heart wasn’t there, it was just an obligation that I had. I didn’t get it, not like I do now. To be able to share with children really deepened and strengthened my faith and understanding in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The following year, I signed up again and got the perfect class for me – Kindergarten. I LOVED that class. I had the best time teaching them and have many incredible moments where again, I have no idea where the words came from. Sometimes it felt like an out-of-body experience. I got pregnant that October and haven’t been able to go back to teach PSR since then, but I will once Sugar Bee is old enough to attend. And I can’t wait.
Teaching wasn’t the only reason I that I understand why I was led back to the church. It was also for my daughter. She has the strangest affinity, and I say strange in a positive and endearing way, for Jesus. Let me be specific here, it’s Baby Jesus. Everything relating to Christ is referred to as Baby Jesus with Sugar Bee, and I absolutely love it. She often went to mass with me up until the age of two when it started to get more challenging. Since the age of one, she has been attending “school” at local Baptist churches. I know that her love for the Christian religion is not a sole credit to me as I don’t take her as often as I would like these days, but she has gone several times during this Lenten season, and for this I thank these churches. I have never thought twice about the fact that she’s not in a preschool at a Catholic church. We are all Christians and they are teaching her more that I had ever hoped for her at this age. She gets upset if I pick her up early and she misses bible time. That makes me beam with pride and my heart swell. I am eternally grateful to them for instilling what I am not sure I would have been able to as her mom. What a blessing.
We sing Christmas songs. All. Year. Long. I can’t complain and it’s not every night this year because I have been resisting rocking my sweet babe to bed every night, something that I would do the rest of my life if she would let me. Her favorite song in the entire world is Little Drummer Boy, which happens to be in my top 5. Since this past Christmas, she likes to sing it to me at bedtime. How could I refuse?
One of the most incredible conversations that continues to happen between me and Sugar Bee is when we pass a funeral. There are several large cemetery and memorial parks around our house and the first time she noticed a funeral, she had questions. I explained it as simply as I could, that someone had died and those people were all gathered there to say goodbye. This little child said, “That’s so sad, mama,” but her mood changed when I told her that it was okay because that person was going to meet Jesus. She was so content with my explanation, but still said that it was sad. Now whenever we pass another funeral or we stop for a funeral procession as they do in the south, she talks about how that person is going to meet, of course, Baby Jesus, and that it’s still sad, but good. And I find myself smiling every time.
We baptized Sugar Bee in my church when she was three months old. There were rumors of The Russian leaving again for an extended period of time and we decided to just do it. As I said before, she attended mass quite often as a little one. We took a break from when she turned two until around three, but she wants to go to church with me. How can I refuse that?
She is still learning the ropes at communion time, and I have to share a few of the things that she has done. (crap, this is a LONG post!) Before making first communion, both for non-Catholics attending mass or for the littles that walk up to receive a blessing, it is customary to walk up with your arms crossed, placing your hands on your shoulders. The first time she started to “get” what was going on, she got upset on the way back to the pew. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I didn’t do a good job because I didn’t get any.” She almost started to cry, and I almost started to laugh. I squeezed her tight and reminded her about her cousin’s First Communion and she was content for the moment. A few months ago when the deacon went to bless her, she tried to grab the whole cup of communion out of his hands. He and I looked at each other and chuckled. She wasn’t amused. Then two weeks ago, the person giving her the blessing raised their hand above her head and she gave them a high-five. That time, we both laughed out loud. Last week during Palm Sunday mass, I glanced down while I was kneeling and praying before receiving communion and there she was, kneeling along side of me, hands clasped and her eyes closed. I found the hugest grin sweep across my face and I thought I was going to burst with pride. This is why I found my way back to the church. To nurture this child, not only with her mind and her body, but also her soul.
I look around my church when I am at mass and I feel sad. I feel somewhat alone in my generation. There are not that many young families at the masses that I regularly attend, granted that I usually attend Saturday Vigil or Sunday evening ones, but most people are around my mom’s age and older. Who will be there to keep our church going? What has happened to my generation? To get slightly political, I blame the media. Christians, and most often the Catholics, are made fun of and treated poorly for their beliefs. Not to say that they are perfect and don’t deserve some scrutiny at times, but what group of people is perfect? There is no perfect religion or group of people. Christians are being persecuted in the Middle East, just for being Christians, and no one is talking about it in this country. Christians represent the largest population in the world, yet the media in this country is all but silent about these atrocities. These “tolerant” people in government and the media are quick to bash Catholics and Christians, showing very little support. Yes, the Catholic church might be the richest in the world, but we are also among the largest donators and charity supporters, incredible humanitarians, and strong missionaries. I probably should evangelize, but I don’t. (Insert Catholic guilt.) If people ask me anything, I will share, but I personally don’t care what people believe. To each their own. I am only responsible for my own soul. Church as an institution isn’t for everyone. I happen to get something out of it. Actually, I get a lot out of attending, but I don’t judge anyone for not being a practicing member of whatever faith. Just believe in something.
Catholics are moving forward and have a Pope now that is trying to show the world that we are capable of change. Don’t let a few judgmental Christians or other negatively painted stories that you hear about in the news decide if you want to be part of the church or not. I promise that you are not being told all the good being done.
This was a long and flip-floppy post. Anxious to get it out before Easter Sunday, I probably should have spent more time reorganizing, but there it all is. Thanks for visiting and have a blessed Easter and Passover!