by Lauren May
I was seeing nuns everywhere. Behind me in the grocery line. Passing me in the airport. I was dreaming about nuns. I was also dreaming about light. Rays of light. Cathedrals. I was painting cherubs basking in clouds, for heaven’s sake. I bought Frankincense. I bought prayer candles. Holy shit, I was praying. To what, or who, or why, I’m not sure.
Maybe it’s Pope Francis, who has been dubbed the “Most Progressive Pope Ever.” Maybe it’s age. Twelve years of Catholic School had me paddling hard to get out of the Church. My skepticism hit around puberty, but was it teenage rebellion? Was I just being dramatic? Now, after almost twenty years of skepticism and rocky relationships with family and friends, many of the Church rituals have found their way back to me. I abandoned my faith early, but did I jump the gun? And why all the nuns? I decided to revisit, to go back, as an adult—like sleeping with an ex one last time to make sure you’ve made the right decision.
The confessional was just like the ones you see in the movies, grand and shrouded in antiquity at the back of the church. I walked slowly and with reverence, like I belonged. A line of men had formed in the center aisle, but I couldn’t tell which end of the line was the back. Cutting felt wrong, and asking someone felt amateur, so I meandered by the vestibule. I stopped at an open book on a podium: The Book of Petitions. This was a binder full of prayers to the Church, like a guestbook signed with strangers’ hopes and wishes. I had the urge to steal it and read the entire thing. Instead, I grabbed the pen and wrote my own petition, stalling as long as I could to keep an eye on the line and read the two pages in front of me.
Some of the petitions were vague: “Pray for all who suffer.”
Others were more specific: “Help my daughter on her school work.”
Another, in shaky cursive: “I pray that my insurance company allows for the necessary treatments that I need.”
I wrote something sweeping, like this: “For the women of this world, mothers of the Earth, may they take care of their children, in all forms, and find peace of mind. Above all, may they have the courage to nurture themselves and what lies in their own hearts.”
It was something dramatic. And I meant it. I had some friends in mind, but why stop at just a few?
After loitering by the petitions, I got in line behind a man in a suit. Almost bald, he looked to be in his 40’s, and wore a wedding band. He shifted his weight side to side, shaking his head, wringing his hands. I wondered what was so urgent that he came over here on his lunch break to confess. Maybe there was nothing urgent. Maybe he did this every week. True Catholics always surprise me. I think they’re hard to come by. By true, I mean they attend Mass more than on Easter and Christmas and they do penance on their lunch breaks. True like they celebrate the feast days and pray the Rosary. True like devout. True believers.
Many Catholics I meet as adults self-proclaim that they have “lapsed” or are “recovering.” I prefer the term “estranged.” Once you find this thread, you commiserate with them like you’re old war veterans or did time at the same prison. You understand each other’s need to escape, and the guilt that keeps you from ever truly doing so. Even when you “leave” the Church, you get roped in at the holidays to make Mom happy, or an old friend invites you to her traditional Catholic wedding, all ninety minutes of it. At least there will be booze. And years after you’ve left, you end up baptizing your baby because all the grandmothers will disown you if you don’t. It’s easier to just play along.
As the guy in the suit shuffled in my periphery, I noticed a small red bulb shining above the confessional door—an ON AIR sign for the absolving of sins. I stared into it, trancelike. It was almost my turn, and I didn’t have a confessional speech prepared. All I could think about, though, was how the red light above the door was Rudolph’s red nose incarnate. I studied the intricate detail of the woodwork behind the light, which the church describes as “elaborately carved Philippine mahogany.”
When the light turned off, the confessional door opened and a messy-haired kid, maybe 18, stepped out. He dipped his hand in a basin of holy water, made the sign of the cross, and then sat in a pew up front. Was he here on his own accord? When I was his age, I had already backpedaled a few blocks around the Church and was ready to back out for good. My decision to leave was neither fast nor deliberate. There was never a moment of putting my foot down in defiance; it was more like scraping a stubborn bar code sticker off an item from the store—one tiny piece at a time—and then finding that the bottom film never goes away.
Early on, Catholicism was confusing. The whole sinning thing didn’t add up. We all sin, and should feel extra bad for our sins, and extra guilty, but God forgives as long as we are deeply sorry in our hearts. Here was the message: keep on sinning, but feel tremendous guilt, and God will forgive you. Mom was extra devout (and still is), and didn’t seem to question it. This angered my adolescent mind. With Dad I just wasn’t convinced. He converted to Catholicism before he and Mom got married, and I always wondered if he was just doing it for her. He’s an old school, scientific kind of guy, and a real war vet. I’ve heard the way he talks about chiropractors and holistic healers; “They’re all quacks,” he says.
Given his personality, I can’t see how he wouldn’t dismiss the Church in the same manner. At least, that’s what I want to believe. And then there’s this: On Christmas Eve, circa 1993, our family went to Midnight Mass. The church was under renovation, so Mass was in the cafeteria. It was packed. Mom and I got a seat, but Dad and the three boys had to stand in the back. This was after our holiday party, and Dad had had one too many Scotches on the rocks. The priest made a comment about leaving if there wasn’t enough room, and it pissed Dad off. He cursed the priest under his breath, and he and the boys walked home before Mass even started. Mom was appalled at Dad’s actions, but Dad felt slighted by the priest, and with good reason. The church was supposed to be a place where all are welcome.
Back in the church, suit guy was in the booth. The red light was on and I was on deck. I felt anxious all of a sudden; what if I don’t do it right? A tall woman with a bun and pearl earrings walked in, genuflected, and got in line behind me.
Fuck, I forgot to genuflect. I was rustier than I thought.
At last, the light went off. Mr. Suit exited the confessional. He looked relieved. I felt relieved for him. I stopped to let him bow to the altar before he left. Inside, the priest sat behind the screen, so I could only see his silhouette. There was a kneeler and an elbow rest, which didn’t match up with my anatomy. I knelt, hunched over the whole time like I was waiting to hit a baseball.
After an awkward silence, I began, “Good Morning.” Just then, he started to say a prayer on my behalf, and I felt like an ass for interrupting him. When silence fell, I spoke again.
“Um…” I sighed. “ I haven’t done this in fifteen, maybe twenty years.”
The priest laughed a little. It sounded condescending but I couldn’t see his face to be sure.
“Let me give you some advice,” he said.
“Try to make this confession more general rather than going through a bunch of specific examples from the last twenty years.”
“Good idea,” I said. I could do general. That was easy.
Throughout adolescence, the mixed messages continued, especially regarding sex. In November of 1998, Britney Spears’ hit single “Hit Me Baby One more Time” debuted on MTV. I was in 8th grade. The video, with Spears in a skimpy Catholic schoolgirl outfit, was overtly sexual not only for girls of the church, but also for young girls everywhere. I saw how this image affected the boys and men around me. I saw that it aroused them and the power it could hold, that I could hold. I heard society on my shoulder, whispering that sex was a very important tool.
On the other extreme, we had Mrs. Lanning that year for our religion teacher. She was old, plain, and spoke in a monotone voice. There was nothing seductive about her. She never even smiled. She in no way reflected the sexy glamour of the Catholic School girl we saw on TV nor did she relate to us in any way to show us a better alternative. She made spirituality and a strong moral compass seem like horrible things. We never wanted to be like her.
And then there was Pam. Pam was the one-woman star of a VHS series called “Sex Has a Price Tag” that we were forced to watch in 9th grade health class. Pam, a Rachel Ray look-alike with short hair and a pantsuit, told us to beware of the boys that pressured us into sex by pretending to love us. “But we love each other,” she’d whine, imitating what a future suitor might use as a selling point to get us to sleep with him. Her message: real love waits. She’d sprinkle in all sorts of frightening tales about genital warts and chlamydia. I’m sure there was a part in all of us that feared for our loins after watching these videos, but mostly she made us laugh. At this point, many of us were already experimenting with our sexuality. We were beyond abstinence.
My confession commenced.
“Well, I’ve lied to people… people I love, people that are close to me…and to myself… and I’m self righteous. All the time. And I’ve been holding onto emotions that are keeping me from moving forward with my life. Emotions I need to let go of.”
“Well, this reminds me of a story of when I first became a priest.”
“OK.” I was listening.
“A man called me up from the hospital, on his death bed, and wanted me to contact his estranged brother. They hadn’t talked in thirty years. He didn’t even know his phone number. I asked him, ‘why on Earth haven’t you guys spoken?’ The man told me, ‘Ya know, I don’t even remember anymore.’ So I called up the guy, told him that his brother was in the hospital, and that he’d asked me to call him to let him know. I asked him the same question, ‘why haven’t you two spoken?’ The man replied, ‘Ya know, I don’t recall’.”
The priest sort of chuckled at the story.
“Does any of this make sense to you?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes. I think so.” Through the screen, I saw the glow of the priest’s cell phone as he put it into his coat pocket. He was checking the time.
“Well, do you have anything you’d like to add to this confession or any questions you have for me?”
“No, I think I’m just going to marinate on what you said.”
“I won’t make you do all the Hail Mary’s for not coming to confession in twenty years,” he told me.
“Are you familiar with the Act of Contrition?” he asked.
“It’s been a while,” I told him.
“Go look it up. It’s in the red book at the front. If you go do that right now, I will absolve you of all of your sins.”
The church is against abortion and contraceptives. Along with preaching abstinence, it has another method it teaches called “Catholic Family Planning.” Junior year, my mom signed me up for a class called Teen Star. Ten other girls and I learned from an ex-nun how to track our ovulation cycles by charting our vaginal discharge. Each day, we had to mark on our worksheet the goings-on of our vaginas. From here, we could monitor when we were ovulating, so we could avoid sex at that time and decrease our risk of getting pregnant (or increase our risk once we were married to a man and ready to conceive). Out of all the weird shit we had to do in Catholic School, and as mortified as I was to be a “teen star,” I am actually grateful for this one. It helped me better understand my body.
“I’ll go look up the Act of Contrition,” I told him.
The priest waved his hands and then did the sign of the cross.
“I here now absolve you of all your sins! Next time you come back, you can skip the part about it being twenty years.”
He mumbled a prayer.
“Amen,” I said.
“If you don’t mind, I have to walk out with you. Mass is about to start.”
We walked out together. I sat in a pew and stayed for Mass.
Nowadays, leaving the Church isn’t out of the norm. In fact, it’s on the rise. A new Pew Research Study found that since 2007 the total number of Catholics has dropped by three million people. Catholicism loses more members than it gains at a higher rate than any other denomination. And, more than a third of millennials claim no religious affiliation. Even my mom has switched gears. While her faith remains steadfast, she now attends Mass by a priest who has been excommunicated by the Church. He wanted to get married and have children, but the Church does not allow this. Instead, he branched off and has started his own Catholic community where he invites everyone to the table, including people of all sexualities. His mission is to offer spiritual support for those seeking a personal relationship with Christ in a non-judgmental community. The Catholic Church does not recognize his Mass as legitimate, and has encouraged its patrons not to attend his gatherings.
For once, Mass seemed short. About forty people were there, and we all sat scattered in our own pews. It was the Feast Day of the Rosary, commemorating a famous Battle in 1571 that saved Christianity in the West from the Ottoman Turks. St. Pius V was involved and it was the Rosary that brought the victory. I’d done this a million times, it seemed, sat bored in church listening to the priest drone on about something that happened centuries ago. This is why the Catholic Church is losing members. It’s holding on too tightly to the past. I’m not sure a hip new Pope or a renegade priest can save it, but I’m glad they’re here. Change has to start somewhere.
Like the guy in the suit, I left feeling great relief. Not because I got some sins off my chest, but because I know I have made the right choice in leaving. I slept with the proverbial ex, and all I felt were the hands of a stranger. Spirituality is personal. I’ll keep my candles and my incense. And I’ll make some weird celestial art.
And I’ll keep praying, but to what, or who, or why, I’m not sure.