Growing up, being Catholic was just as big a part of my life as it is today. I went to St. John the Evangelist Catholic School — for only three years, until it closed — but for those three years, baby, I went to Mass every single day.
An early childhood spent dreaming of saints, breathing incense, and contemplating stigmata is a powerful force indeed. Tell me, did YOU have to learn how to spell “excommunication” on any of your third-grade spelling tests?
(Well, I didn’t either; it was “Communion.” But still.)
Couple that with some of the habits of my parents, who were just as Catholic-soaked as their offspring— literally as it turns out — and you’ve got someone like me, who has a glow-in-the-dark Blessed Virgin next to her kitchen sink which I actually treasure dearly.
My mother is a sensible woman if ever there was one, and practical as the day is long. She can also be very funny. One of the fondest memories of my childhood is of Mom putting together the salad for the nightly meal, rinsing the various vegetables at the sink.
A random child wanders by — say, me. Mom picks up the celery.
“I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!” she cackles, spraying everyone in the vicinity with water from her dripping leafy stalk of celery.
If you’re not Catholic (or perhaps Episcopalian or Lutheran, who retain many of these same customs) you may be unaware that priests frequently bless the congregation with Holy Water, using either a special rod-like thing (called an aspergillum) that he plunges down into a vessel borne by an altar boy, or a palm frond. If you’re in the line of fire (or water, in this case) when he’s just gone back for a fresh load, you can get very wet indeed. It’s sort of the ecclesiastical version of riding the water ride at a theme park.
Exhibit B — my father. Dad didn’t just attend Catholic school; no, he went to an actual Catholic seminary (where priests are educated) for high school and one year of college. It was a boarding school and it was the 1950s. You may not be surprised to learn that all the boys were required to wear cassocks, the long black garments which priests today wear beneath their vestments and, depending on the church, so do the altar servers. His chief recollection of having to flap around in these things was that the slits in the sides, provided so that the boys had access to their pants pockets, frequently got caught up on the end of the staircase rails as the rowdy boys whirled around the banisters, late for class.
He also recalled that they were prohibited from smoking cigarettes, which is why all the boys took up pipe smoking. 1950s, remember.
At any rate, in addition to learning an awful lot of Latin, Dad also absorbed fully many of the traditions and practices of the Church. You might even say that he was infused with them. The second most-vivid comedy-gold Catholic memory of my childhood is the sight of my inventive father, swinging a thurible of his own invention and manufacture in order to hasten the heat and subsequent usability of charcoal briquettes prior to a backyard barbecue.
What’s a thurible? See right. It’s used at Mass, or on other occasions when the Church wishes to use fragrant smoke to symbolize our prayers rising to heaven, purifying what it touches. It’s pretty potent, and the chronically allergic wisely avoid those Masses which promise to be heavily clouded in incense.
But back to Dad. You know how it is. You light the charcoal and wait 1.5 geologic ages until it’s burned down to the white-hot coals which will adequately cook your burgers and dogs. So the old altar boy came up with this method to speed the Baker barbecues. Swing-swing went the Bakerified thurible, hastening the burning process of the briquettes. I suppose I was a little embarrassed by it; I mean, no other dads were swinging incense burners during other kids’ cookouts. But hey — we got to eat sooner. Thank you, Catholic Church!
Most Catholic kids, at one time or another, have played Mass. There’s a lot of drama, after all, with ringing bells and ornate platters, chalices and whatnot. (It is, in fact, the earliest form of drama.) The big moment for the kids, though, is the distribution of Communion, though always a bummer for us girls, who were forever relegated to being receivers only since only the boys could play priest.
OK, so most Catholic kids reenact the Mass. My mom, however, would reenact stigmata.
You may know about stigmata; it’s something many saints have exhibited: the bleeding from the hands, feet, and side at the sites of the wounds of Christ. It’s a big deal, saint-wise. But I’ll never forget the occasions on which my mom accidentally stabbed herself in the palm — like the time she thrust her hand right into a stick concealed in the pile of leaves she was raking — and she’d clutch her hand saying, “stigmata! stigmata!” I’d always run into the house for a stalk of celery to help her out.
When my husband, Tras (who was not raised Catholic), entered my life, he one day innocently asked me just where we Catholics procured all the implements of our faith: crucifixes for the wall, statues for the dresser, holy cards for all occasions. When I told him about Catholic bookstores, he immediately dubbed them the “Catholic PX” and never fails to remark on it when I need to run down there and pick up a gift for someone’s Confirmation or First Communion. Do I need further evidence that he’s the one for me? That kind of humor doesn’t generally grow on non-Catholic trees.
Today I was reading Pioneer Woman‘s blog, and see a post from her friend Hyacinth, who details a recent redecoration of a stairwell nook. A Catholic, she used items that were important to her, specifically crucifixes, icons, and other — in her words — “Jesus doodads.” Ah, another kindred spirit.
I might have to run down to the PX and pick me up another couple glow-in-the dark Marys … just to be sure.