I recall with much fondness one Sunday during my childhood, waking up to the heat of the midday sun streaming through my sheer yellow curtain panels. I think I was about 9 at the time and it was an alarming thing at that point in my short existence, to wake up all on my own. Without the awful shrill ringing produced by my dollar store wind-up alarm clock followed by 15 minutes of pretty credible threats courtesy of my parents, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to get up and go to school or to church or just roll over and go back to sleep. Well Saturday was definitely yesterday so that was out. Was it like Memorial Day or something? I groaned to myself, wishing yet again that I’d paid more attention to such matters.
The clock said 12:20, but that couldn’t be right. Church is at 11:30 and although we’ve been late a lot, we’ve never actually missed it altogether. I heard nothing coming from the kitchen or the living room and that was also odd.
I slowly made my way down the short hallway of our simple single-level home, past the open doors to our bathroom and my brother’s room. No sign of anyone, but I could hear voices and muffled laughter coming from outside. From the kitchen window I could see my parents were still in their night clothes drinking coffee from big mugs while my siblings played in the sandbox in the back yard. This was a welcome sight, but a peculiar one, as this was the usual setting for Saturday mornings.
Sunday morning was always a blur of hair curlers, fights over church clothes and lots of rushing around. My dad should be yelling for everyone to get in the truck to avoid making a spectacle with our late arrival, while my mom frantically runs back in, wondering aloud if she left the curling iron and the coffee pot on.
I wondered if I should ask what was going on and risk messing up a good thing. Catholic mass is a long and boring, ritual heavy hour of watching the minutes tick off the clock like waiting for ketchup that is too thick to leave the bottle. .It was the most tedious drill; stand up, sit down, kneel, pray, sing, stand up again. I remember looking at the people in the pews in front of us to distract myself from the slow passing of the time. I would go over every detail of their clothing and imagine them trying each piece on and what the sales lady must have said to convince them to buy it. Anything to avoid looking at the small clock on the back wall.
Every now and then I would sneak a small book open in my purse, never taking it out, but putting it on my lap and only turning the page when everyone got up to go to communion or closed their eyes to pray. When I finally got caught by my mom she gave me a look that I’m still surprised didn’t instantly send me straight to hell. Their were a lot of high level intimidation tactics used to get us to behave, but that look was the worst of them. I went to Catholic school and we had mass and religion class every day, so when Sunday rolled around I had usually had quite enough time with Jesus for my liking.
“Get dressed, Sandi. We’re going to MawMaw’s for lunch in a little while,” my mom said as I closed thew back door behind me. My mind started racing with the endless possibilities! For all time, it was church then grandma’s. Church then Grandmas. Something was awry indeed, and I did not trust this new timeline. Maybe the church burned down? Sadly, this excited me. It was a small church attached to my school’s cafeteria so fire was definitely a possibility. Maybe we just weren’t going anymore? Did I miss a news report? Did God come back and not choose us to go back with him? I was surprisingly OK with any of these options.
It’s cruel to make little children sit still in stiff itchy clothes for an hour, forced to inhale the sweet buttery scent of those rolls. God must have just had enough of that blasphemy, I told myself.
I was confused as I started to return to my room to change and pack a stash of paperbacks for the ride to Plaquemine. I was busy daydreaming about my new life in public school where I could wear whatever I wanted, including those new white and pink LA Looks sneakers that sat in my closet, rejected in favor of my uniform’s plain white Keds when I got startled by my mom’s yell through the back door. “Don’t say anything to MawMaw about church today!”
My tiny heart sank as I realized this was a one-time thing. I heard my parents discuss being back in time for that special Sunday evening mass at St.Patrick. If I’m going to have to church, I want it over and done with ASAP! None of this waiting and waiting around for my punishment! It makes it 10 times worse that way!
Missing out on something fun because I had an obligation to church was a regular thing. My parents were always devout. More accurately, my mom was devoted to the church and Dad was devoted to making sure my mom was happy. We all knew he’d rather be out at the hunting and fishing lease down the road, on his boat with an iced chest full of beer. Occasionally when I was little, definitely before my sister was born, my brother and I would go to church with my mom while he fished.
My parents have never really argued in front of us, but I know that Dad’s choice must have become an issue at some point because things changed. All of the sudden my dad was with us at church every Sunday without fail. He always did what was necessary to make my mom happy and I quietly respected him for it.
Always looking to squeeze the good out of any bad situation, I was about 9 when I started babysitting for the people we knew at church, and they would make an excellent clientele for years to come. I was quite absorbed by The Babysitters Club books at that time so babysitting seemed like the perfect way to start my global empire.
Nights, weekends and all summer long I’d pack my little kit full of kid’s crafts purchased with my own money and head out to work. I took a CPR class at the Red Cross and got certified to add credibility to my resume’. I knew that money meant freedom and choices and I was all for that.
I got a real job as soon as I was able, even before I had a car to get there. My first job was at a car wash when I was 14. I’m pretty sure I lied and told them I was 15 to get the job at a local car wash, drying and vacuuming cars for minimum wage. Eventually, I got a 2nd job answering phones at night at the pizza place next door. I loved having my own money and having a perfect excuse to get away from my family. When I couldn’t get on the schedule at work for 10am every Sunday, I would often leave the house early dressed for work just to avoid church. In the South, money is the only acceptable Diety to skip church for.
I still felt like a spiritual person, but I didn’t connect with anything inside that church that felt like God to me. I didn’t want to be there and I felt like the whole ritual was too formal and and boring to get any real fulfillment from.
The Catechism classes I was forced to take every Sunday night when I left Catholic school at ten were no better. There was much talk of it being OK to question your faith and discuss it, but there was no one openly doing that. My adolescence was difficult, like most people would describe their own, but I had to deal with undiagnosed mental illness and the violent loss of some dear friends on top of the typical teenage drama. I was in a dark place when I met Fr. Trey, our new priest.
He treated me like a real person who’s feelings actually mattered, not common in my household. We really liked each other and connected outside of the actual mass. Seven years later he would say my wedding my mass and move me to tears as he talked about the personal relationships he had with me and my husband.
When I was almost 17 I would finally discuss with him all of the doubts I had about God, but more specifically with the church’s teachings. I was praying the words out loud at church as required, but with less conviction and more skepticism than ever before.
In college I began to allow myself a little room to explore other religions and expose myself to some different ideas. I didn’t want to be ignorant or uninformed, but I felt like my upbringing had put me in a bubble of sorts and I had a really negative perception of the Athiests and Agnostics we were always asked to pray for. There’s a presumption made by most religious people than in the absence of God there can only be Satan. We’re told good moral people cannot exist without God. Its an idea that is so deeply ingrained in some of us that we become offended or attacked when confronted with different ideas outside of our own faith.
I disagreed with the church’s policy on abortion, abstinence as sex education, pre-marital sex, birth control,gay marriage and many others, but I felt it was a bridge too far to openly admit that I wasn’t certain about the existence of God. I did tons of research on the bible and the history of the Catholic Church going back thousands of years. It upset me to learn that the Catholic Church came to be a superpower both financially and politically by defining themselves at the authority on morality in order to accumulate wealth and power around the world.
I was in my late twenties before I became aware of just how many scandals had plagued the church throughout history. In the middle ages people could pay the Catholic Church for forgiveness from their sins, and the church was profiting enormously from such corrupt practices. There have been countless abuses of their secular power and widespread systemic corruption from the Vatican all the way down to the local parish down the street. The church is exempt from paying taxes as a religious institution, but were defining the morality of political issues and campaigning from the altar.
As I became more aware of this disgusting practice of hypocracy, I quit meeting my parents at church altogether. I didn’t even go on Christmas and Easter when the Catholic’s in name only went. I could barely hide my disdain for the place and I didn’t want to upset my parents so I didn’t make a huge issue of it at the time, but I walked out afer mass one day in 2006 and never went back. That day’s homily was about the importance of voting against the law that would allow gay marriage, opting to preach of God’s hatred for the unnatural sinful practice of homosexuality instead of reflecting on the scripture. I fumed inside as I thought of the thousands of children the church had allowed to be raped, the children for whom they’ve done nothing.
I held my tears until I got to the car and then they came with full force, those hot angry tears of regret and embarrassment. It is hard to describe my shame in wasting that much of my life accepting the church’s teachings. I felt like I had been violated. They took advantage of the best parts of me, the parts that wanted to help the poor and obey God and my parents. I felt like I was a sucker and it was a feeling that I wanted no part of ever again. That was the last time I was in a church that wasn’t for a wedding or baptism.
I am bringing my own child up as a totally secular human being, teaching him kindness and compassion and how to be a good person without the need for eternal rewards for it. I don’t believe that shame and guilt should play such a prominent role in the moral training of children because of their questionable ideology. How can you be a champion for the poor while accumulating more wealth than most small nations? I want my son to be a person of character and to be able to recognize hypocrisy when he sees it. He will be expected to respect his grandparents and their beliefs without the participation requirement. I want to give him the chance to be exposed to many different ideas and choose his own way of life, a choice I didn’t have.
If my parents are disappointed by my decision to raise him outside of the church, they’ve never brought it up with me. I’m happy with the choice I made to leave the church behind. I don’t have all the answers and I’m okay with that. I think all of the mysteries of the universe and man’s place in it are just ideas too big for us to understand fully. I believe that science and technology will catch up one day, but I don’t believe that blind faith in God is a good answer to that which remains a mystery.