I once heard that author Ray Bradbury said he remembered details of being born, including the bright lights and his head being crushed. Likewise, I have ‘memories’ of my baptism. Yet, since I was a pious, dreamy child, I may have imagined it all later, the large cathedral ceiling above me opening wide in Catholic church in Brooklyn, New York, my soul merging with the infinite expansiveness of the universe. As I floated into an eloquent silence, I entered into a great wide sea of omnipotent love — what I later experienced as God. As the priest bestowed the typical baptism blessings, softly touching my tiny head with holy water, my soul returned back into the burrows of my tiny body, where the great and majestic mystery of God found a deep, hidden place to rest. Imagined or not, to me it was all real.
Si non es baptizatus (a), ego te baptizo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.
“I baptize thee in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
My early childhood years started in one of the first American suburbs, Levittown, Long Island. Back then the neighborhoods were filled with families who went to church— so churches were brimming with children and well-dressed families. It’s not like today where families slip out of church on Sunday morning early for a kid’s soccer practice, or miss church all together, or avoid talking about church with secular families who’d think all church goers are mean, condemning, fundamentalist religious folks.
Now, although I find solace in a church, and attend Bible studies during the week, with our busy schedule, I don’t go to church on Sunday all the time. More and more the words of Jesus ring true to me, that the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship God in spirit and truth.
Back then on Long Island, church was a part of life for most families. Here’s the steeple, here’s the door, open the door and see all the people. Just the same, Bar Mitzvahs and weekly temple attendance were standard for most of my Jewish friends.
As a little girl, kneeling down beside my bed in the quiet of each night, holy, obedient and reverent, I felt God’s omnipotent presence. Yet, over the years, unable to comprehend the immense meaning of the sacraments, the skinny Jesus dead on the cross, and the need to confess my sins each week, I lost a conscious sense of God. Yet, later I realized the blessings of my church experiences, the intense, poetic, visual, and auditory rituals week to week, mattered. They help form within me a faith-filled sanctuary with deep roots.
The mystical child of my baptism, holding close the all-loving, omnipotent God, remained hidden in a sacred part of my soul. I viewed the world from this secret, holy hide-away, sensitive to the feelings of everyone around me. I watched mom closely, her gregarious laughter and wide smile, the brightness of her playfulness, and yet, also her private sadness and withdrawal into a somber distant world. I knew she was weary from caring for five small children, but it was years later, although she loved us, she would tell me she didn’t want five children, she had just followed the laws of the Catholic Church — meaning no contraception.
On days I’d be at home sick from school, I’d watch her scooping out a heap of Maxwell House coffee on the tablespoon into her mug, waiting for the water to boil in a small saucepan. Deep in thought, she poured hot steaming water into the mug, stirring it over and over again, her worn, terry cloth bathrobe hanging from slumped shoulders. The washing machine in the kitchen made a synchronized swooshing sound at the every turn, soapy water splashing against the front loading window. It looked like a mini ocean in a bowel, its tumultuous waves splashing up against the glass on each beat. Colorful blends of wet clothes swished by, like the racing thoughts in her mind I imagined. As she walked throughout the house from room to room, vacuuming, picking up toys, making five of us breakfast and lunch, a dark cloud seemed to hang around her like the dusty cloud billowing up from Linus’ blanket in the Charlie Brown cartoons. She was tired. Although I know she loved all of us, five toe heads under the age of eight, she was tired of motherhood, tired of being a housewife.
But always on Sundays, she’d be freshly dressed and bright-eyed, quick in her movements, like a magician, miraculously rallying the five of us kids to dress in our Sunday best, helping comb out the knots from three girl’s hair, managing also to get my baby brother dressed, as well as herself, and rather elegantly at that, and shuffling the whole pack of half asleep small children, with the help of dad, into our Ford every Sunday morning to get to mass on time at our parish, St. Ignatius Church on Hempstead Turnpike in Hicksville.
When our family entered the church, we lined up one after the other, taking up half the pew. I remember Easter Sunday in 1965, dressed in the in the exact same outfit as my sisters, beautifully made by my Italian Grandma, a skilled seamstress having worked for fashion designers as a single mother during my father’s childhood; pink and white flowered suits with pleated skirts, little suit jackets, with blouses underneath, lace ruffles hanging off the V-neckline and wrists, those frilly cuffs, like in Victorian times. We wore black patented leather shoes and carried matching purses to complete these dazzling outfits. Crowning our little, sophisticated outfits were grandma’s homemade pink berets covering our pixie haircuts, placed on a slight tilt. My older brother wore a suit jacket and a tailored button down shirt with a pair of neatly creased slacks. My baby brother wore a smart infant outfit, probably from Macy’s or Sears, a little red, white and blue polyester sailor’s outfit. He looked so smart with his white hair and big round brown eyes glistening. How did mom do it, make sure we looked so good?
I received my first Holy communion at St. Ignatius. Shame filled me the entire communion ceremony. Before we left the house, I couldn’t find my hand sized white Bible. All the girls receiving communion wore white frilly dresses, with a white veil, and white shoes and socks. We were instructed to walk in a straight line to the altar with our white Bibles between our hands in prayer.
Everyone was already waiting in the car for me to drive to the church. I could just imagine my father, clenching his teeth tightly, huffing and puffing, impatient as always, which made me even more frantic and anxious. I looked all over the house, under my bed, my pillow, I emptied my draws. But I couldn’t find my white bible. Mom came in the house, “take this, take this” shoving my brother’s black Bible in my hands. I had no choice, we were late.
During the ten minute drive to the church, I felt like Joan of Arc on my way to the being burned at the stake. I imagined walking down the isle, everyone staring at me, the damned one carrying the black Bible. The scarred one, the sinful one, the odd ball one, the problem one. In the car, I held back a flood of tears. Walking down the isle, an assumed young bride of Christ, my body burned inside from embarrassment. Glancing at faces of those sitting in the pew watching the parade of little brides, I imagined them thinking, ‘Oh the poor girl”. I know my mother felt sorry for me, I could tell by her sad eyes.
In my heart, I didn’t marry Jesus that day because I didn’t understand the whole shebang. He was just the half naked dead guy hanging on the cross, who I didn’t know. I had no idea what communion meant, or what it was to ‘marry’ Christ in our hearts. I didn’t know this Christ. The Christ I found later was not a fearful guy requiring pomp and circumstance to receive him. Instead, he snuck up behind me in a dream like like long lost friend, almost 40 years after I my parents and family left the Catholic Church for good. He reminded me of one of the rare strangers we meet who become immediate friends, those who give us a big welcoming bear hug, and then take us under their wings as we embarking on a grand, new adventure. Jesus came along at the right time, I needed whole lot of needed healing — including mending psychological trauma from my mother’s tragic demise, and the downfall of our lovely family. After we left the church and moved to a more affluent area, mom’s life seemed to be about a house full of kids and friends, feeding the clan, shopping for clothes, decorating the house, adult gourmet dinner parties with plenty of alcohol, and keeping up with the Jones’. Slowly, alcoholism nabbed her, my parents divorced, and mom’s life unraveled.
Being confirmed was a special occasion where I got to shop for a beautiful white frilly dress at Sears, then to the Catholic store to buy a white Bible with gold embossed letters, and a white veil. I went along with it all, playing the part. Grandma gave me a gold necklace with a cross, and we had a big party afterward with cousins and relatives and friends. I got lots of cards with $10 bills, and still felt like a dirty bad girl losing my white Bible at home, having had to carry shame and my brother’s black Bible down the isle.
I did come to love being able to receive communion at church the Sundays following — the long procession of church goers moving slowly to the altar to receive the Eucharist, the round, quarter size, paper thin wafter made of flattened flour. Each Sunday in receiving communion, I moved to the hymnal music, shuffling forward in a line until it was my turn. After the priest said, “The Body of Christ, with my “Amen”, I’d open my mouth with tongue out, as he placed the wafer on my yearning tongue. I loved the odd, sensation of the wafer moistening, then sticking to the roof of my mouth. I made it a ritual of my own, moving my tongue in circles in a rhythmic motion, slowly scraping the wafer off with it’s tip. After sipping cheap wine from the chalice, I’d rolled the tiny pieces of dough around in my mouth before swallowing.
For years, I still didn’t understand that this sacrament of receiving communion was about Transubstantiation, the wafer and wine symbolizing Christ’s body and blood offered for the forgiveness of my sins, a necessary part of salvation in the Catholic tradition. I didn’t understand I was ingesting a sacred morsel with a grander meaning. Yet the wafer ritual was a simple, private, sensate joy.
But somehow year to year, the sacred mass and the holy and repetitive hymns played out as a hypnotic symphony. The movement of the priests arms lifting the chalice to heaven, like a conductor leading a symphony of the Messiah, and the cadence and repetition of the priest’s words, all a visual poetry, created a sacred space within me for the indwelling of the Spirit I already knew from birth –– pre-religion, pre-language. When I later read in the Gospel of John, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”, it made the most sense to me. Whether in church or out, we must worship in spirit and truth.
The root word in Latin for religion is ‘religare’, meaning to bind back. So in a sense, the mass, the church, did that for me in mysterious ways. The cathedral shaped church building filled with icons of saints on stain glass windows, and even Jesus hanging from crosses on walls, and in living color on stained glass windows, and above the altar, along with the liturgy and hymns, each helped create a sacred container within me, a welcoming place within for the great presence of God. The years of worshipping in the company of fellow travelers, and witnessing the selfless compassion of Christ followers giving to those in need (not often covered in the media), offered the possibility of what each human heart yearns for — a beloved community. The presence of God, a great beautiful mystery, who spoke to me in a silent language, like a poem without a beginning or an end, dwelled and grew within me. But I still didn’t know Jesus the dead man on cross, the one who would come later in my life. Yet, when Jesus arrived in my Big Dream, it’s as if he settled next to me on a great big couch in this dwelling place, so familiar, all of it now so perfectly clear, all made whole.
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