Losing My Religion
I was the poster child for sainthood until my parents’ contrasting religious views clashed within me. From my mother, I learned to love the drama and pomp of her Roman Catholic faith. From my lapsed Protestant father, I inherited a healthy skepticism of any organized system. Despite the incongruity, once I made my first communion in the spring of 1955, I was enthralled with my new status as sinless bride-to-be of Christ.
There I stood, prayerfully clutching the traditional gifts for the sacrament: A tiny missal with a waxy, glow-in-the-dark rosary twined about it, binding those tools of righteousness to the idle hands of the disguised miscreant. I wore a startlingly white dress with a smooth bodice and crisp, but modestly ruffled skirt. Short brown legs, more accustomed to sweat socks and sneakers than lacy anklets, sprouted from ivory patent Mary Janes. Unruly brown curls poked out from under a heart-shaped headband and veil. Well-scrubbed fists still bearing the stains of wild strawberries and scrap wood forts were hidden by cotton gloves thick enough to disguise the feral child beneath as a worthy, spotless disciple.
Wishing to truly earn worthiness for my new status, I developed an almost comic fervency for all that was Catholic. Striving toward perfection was my daily goal. Not wanting to waste the priest’s time in the confessional, I would make up sins then add the lie to the list of innocent vagaries. I prayed with a fervor previously reserved for wishing the perfect birthday or Christmas gift my way. I often walked with head bowed and hands joined mimicking the mannerisms of the nuns who taught at the parochial school I attended.
In the fall after my ordination as saint-in-waiting, I knew I was making it as a Catholic. Every day before school, I attended early morning mass. I never missed a cue, kneeling and genuflecting with grace, piously closing my eyes, and bowing my head in prayers as if I’d been born with these rituals in my DNA. I was one of the true believers, sanctimonious in my condescension of the other children who chose to sleep in an extra hour. We chosen few were invited to breakfast on hot chocolate and freshly-made donuts after our devotions were complete. We were not subjected to waiting on the playground in the cold Wisconsin autumn until first bell. We were allowed to use the subterranean tunnel connecting church and school.
Several months into the school year, the boys in class began to be excused from lessons to take altar boy training. Wanting to further my efforts as a zealot, I questioned Sister Kiara about my prospects in that endeavor. She seemed puzzled that I would even ask. “But you are not a boy,” she explain. When she finally told me the reason I was not eligible, my indignation only frustrated her more. I was determined to pursue my argument and persisted until Sister refused further discussion and directed me to Mother Superior.
I had met the principal a few months earlier when I had slipped from my exalted state and fomented a minor student uprising. Sister Kiara was a relatively untested teacher who was easily flustered by the combined energies of her class of eight year olds. One early fall morning a screaming fire engine had careened by on the street separating our school from the cathedral. The entire class pushed and shoved to get to the windows of our second story classroom. We would never have been so bold with any other nun, but we had begun to use Sister’s lack of experience to our advantage. After the siren faded away, it took her several minutes to get us all back to our respective desks and quiet enough to proceed with the lesson.
We made the transition from spelling to music, and relative calm had returned to the classroom. Students were standing beside their desks, hands clasped behind their backs, breathing deeply and practicing their scales without resistance. My desk was in the row closest the windows and near the back of the room. From my vantage point I could see the now silent fire truck returning from its call. I shouted over the do re mi chorus to announce its return, and twenty-eight students erupted in cheers as they ran to the windows once again.
In her frantic effort to regain control Sister leaped, seemingly without effort, to a standing position atop the heating units that ran the length of the wall below the windows. She was startled to find herself in such a position, but she quickly ordered us all back to our desks and directed us to put our heads down as punishment. Red-faced and near tears, she looked about from her perch, apparently afraid to make the return jump. Slowly she slid to a sitting position and eased her feet to the floor. With renewed purpose, she yanked me out of my seat by my arm, propelled be towards the door, and reached for the intercom button. “Go!” was all she said to me, and I knew exactly where I was to go: Mother Superior.
Stories of grotesque punishments administered by maniacal authorities are the lifeblood of any elementary school, but in a parochial school, the added mystery of nuns’ lives heightened the dread. My first visit to the principal’s office was, therefore, filled with anticipatory angst. The short walk seemed endless. My bladder, weakened by impending doom, tried to coax me into a brief sojourn in the lavatory, but the school secretary was already standing in the hallway awaiting my arrival.
Shortly after I had hoisted myself onto the oversized wooden chair across from Mother Superior’s desk and survived several minutes of silent observation through her thick spectacles, my fear was abated. She must have known of my previous piety because I was pardoned almost immediately. Mother Superior viewed my devilishness as mere childish exuberance. I was cautioned never to allow my excitement to surface again in a classroom, patted on the head, and given a few prayers to say before returning to my studies. The leniency of my penance reinforced my belief that I was among the righteous and on a holy path.
Because of this earlier experience, my second visit to the principal’s office did not unnerve me. Instead, it felt like privilege. My concerns were going to be addressed by someone with more seniority and expertise than a mere classroom nun. This time Mother Superior swiveled her chair away from her desk and invited me to come closer. Even sitting, she had to bend lower in order to meet my eyes. She took my small hands gently in her own and acknowledged that she knew of my quest. With her head cocked a bit to one side and a slight, knowing smile on her wrinkled, fuzzy face, Mother Superior gave me her rationale for rejecting me as a novice altar boy. I was stunned that her answer was no more informed than Sister Kiara’s. No dialogue ensued. My privilege only extended to having been given a private lecture. As I left the office, I decided that I must take my questions to a higher authority.
I hurried to make my next confession. Once inside the musty cabinet, I rushed through my list of venial sins to get to my intended purpose. The anonymous priest so disappointed me with his response that I left the confessional without saying the act of contrition. Piety gave way to tenacity, and after several weeks of my relentless arguing, I was finally sent across the street to meet with the bishop.
The opulence of the bishop’s study overwhelmed me. It held an entire library of beautifully bound books on polished shelves. A leather chair and ottoman faced a burning fireplace. An oversized crucifix looked down upon a mahogany desk littered with papers and a tray with the remnants of a lunch. The atmosphere alone portended a successful conclusion to my holy mission. The bishop was a busy man and wasted no time in summarizing the stories he had hear about my questioning. His lecture ended abruptly with the same stupid answer I had been given previously. His ignorance, the absurdity of the logic portrayed as irrefutable, and the realization of my own naivete’ washed over me, purging me of my blind devotion, and I found my voice, “But Your Excellency, how am I ever to become pope?”
The bishop raised his eyes and hands heavenward as if making an offering. He covered his mouth with one hand, shook his head slowly from side to side, and offered his papal-blessed ring for me to kiss. I hesitated only a moment before I turned on my heels and left his citadel a free woman at the age of eight.
Every time I recall this story, a half century later, there is musical accompaniment. I have no idea of the intentions of the lyrics, but I am singing with R.E.M. right now, “That’s me in the corner…”