My friend Tom and I have talked about the “lobster effect” of religious upbringing. Initially the environment feels pretty good, safe and protective. Then eventually things heat up until self-doubt and self-hate come to a boiling point. Then, like a lobster in the pot, you are a goner.
I think of my early days in Catholicism as an extended adventure in longing and beauty. There were lots of rules, but in comparison to the world around me, that order was a also beautiful. I similarly longed to have that order in my home and neighborhood. Even before I started elementary school, I knew there were rules about church attendance, eating fish, and obedience. Women had to cover their heads, children needed to be silent, and bells were rung at precise times.
My first parish church was St Wenceslaus. I knew the spelling of that name before I knew my own. He was a good king, an important factor in the immigrant neighborhood of Poles, Germans, Russians, Serbs, and Slovaks. Everything had a season, too. From Easter we moved to the spring rogation days, the Ascension, the Immaculate Conception, the whole month of May, Pentecost, more rogation days, Transfiguration, Annunciation, Advent, Christmas, the Circumcision, more rogation days, and so on. Novenas and Perpetual Help Devotions would precede or follow special events. With funerals, weddings, and baptisms, the church year was completely full.
Intelligent women from working class and poor backgrounds became nuns and arrived from Ireland and Germany. They knew little of the lives of the young people they taught. Most were ill-prepared for classroom management. Many created order in the room and in our lives through carefully prepared lessons, high expectations, and loads of homework. A few also exercised astonishing cruelty with punishing blows that would close an institution down today.
While my first church and church school were old and rickety, they were also beautifully designed and lovingly cared for. Unlike many of our homes, these buildings were always warm, clean, and relatively safe. They were also beautiful in their decorations. For many of our homes, lawns and flower beds were an extravagance we could not afford. Paintings and sculptures would have been a rarity. But church was very different, and in that, a refuge.
It was in church that I learned to stand in line and rank myself among my peers from shortest to tallest. I learned enough Latin to recite parts of the Mass as an altar boy. I learned how and when to ring the bells, how to light the incense and swing the thurible. Church music completed this picture in a way. Panis Angelus, Pange Lingua Gloriosi, Miserere – these were so emblazoned on my mind that even 60 years later I do not need to look up their spellings to confirm the accuracy of my recollection. While I can still sing many of the lyrics to these songs in Latin, I am equally able to reproduce the longing tones in which they were sung. We wanted something very badly back then.
In most neighborhood homes where I lived, there would not have been a record player. A hi-fi would have been very unusual. But in church there was a choir loft, a pipe organ with three key boards, several dozen stops, and an antiphonal organ at the other end of the nave.
It was also in church that I got my first crush. It was on the hunky Jesus on the crucifix. For a second grader who would later be gay, kneeling for hours each week in church before a fairly homoerotic image of Jesus on the cross was inspirational in ways that I am fairly sure no one had planned. I was confident I could make his life better. After all, he had given his for mine.
A year or two later I would move my affections to Father Murphy and five years after that, to Father Justin. While these men were only good and kind to me, it was their warmth and good looks that attracted me most.
It still strikes me as odd that my earliest attractions to church had nothing to do with faith, but rather with art, order, beauty, music, and sex.
This week my friend Tom and I are again collaborating on a project. This time we’re writing about our experiences with religion. Our paths converged after widely divergent beginnings, but we both ended up at the same destination. We just took our own journeys. Mine was Catholic to Protestant to atheism. Tom’s was Lutheran to Catholic to atheism. You can follow Tom at One Whole Life.