Thursday, February 23, 2012

Losing My Religion: Two Views

Now that our country is in the throes of constantly reminding itself how Puritanical it is, it seems that all things Christianity-based are News, so even if I wanted to remain unaware of the arrival of Lent, I could not.  I am a Recovering Catholic, so Lent is still a Presence in my life, and while I do not traditionally observe it, I use it as a catalyst for reflection and renewed resolution.  This lax attitude would have dismayed the nuns at St. John the Baptist's back when I went to catechism classes, but I blame my mother, St. Patsy, who Longtime Readers have met here before.

My mother, who was born and raised a Lutheran, converted to Catholicism in order to marry my father in a scandalous liaison more than sixty years ago.  She immediately became a pariah in her own family and a better Catholic than my father, who sporadically attended mass, if at all, for the rest of his life.  To this day, however, I have no idea if her Catholic Rules are based in The Church, Vatican II, or simply a combination of Maternal Common Sense And Frustration. Under her spiritual tutelage, all four of us siblings learned the following tenets of Family Catholicism in the Church of St. Patsy:

1.  You could still take communion if you didn't eat 15 minutes before mass.
2.  On Sunday, you could have what you gave up for Lent.
3.  A headband counted as a head covering for girls at mass.
4.  Going to the Lutheran church with Grandma counted as going to mass.
5.  It was okay if you missed confession; you could still take communion. What, did you murder someone?
6.  If you were sick, Lent didn't count.  You're sick!
7.  If your birthday was during Lent, Lent didn't count.  It's your birthday!

As you can probably imagine, these rules were vastly different than Sister Marguerite's rules for Lent.  Sister Marguerite was a tough old nun of choking wimple, voluminous black skirts, and in spite of her impossibly tiny stature, intimidating mien.  Every Monday from four to five in the afternoon, we Public School Children trudged into St. John's classrooms to be instructed in religious doctrine.  Sister Marguerite started every session by telling us that our parents did not love us enough to make the Ultimate Sacrifice by giving us a Catholic Education, so she had to save us.  Here are Sister Marguerite's Rules For Lent:

1.  We cannot love Jesus as much as He loves us.
2.  No matter what we may sacrifice, it is Nothing compared to His. He gave His LIFE!
3.  We must do more.  And then even more.  Is that all we are doing?  There must be more.
4.  Come now.  Think of our sins.  How terrible we are! We will go to confession as a group each week during Lent.
5.  We must tell our parents that we want to go to Catholic school.
6.  No eating after midnight on Saturday before mass and until the communion wafer is in our mouths.  Not even a breath mint or aspirin.
7.  Absolutely no meat during Lent. Ever.
8.  Only mass in the Catholic church counts as mass.  Observe all high holy days, which also do not count as attendance at mass.

Is it any wonder I had a debilitating headache each and every Monday?  I could not wait to get home to my mother, who was cooking one of her wonderful, comforting dinners.  I would walk in the side door and into a steamy kitchen, smell mashed potatoes and pan gravy and see my mother in her apron at the stove.  I don't remember ever telling her a blessed thing that happened in catechism, but I do remember telling her the day I made my confirmation that I was never going back.

And I didn't.  To her credit, she didn't even try and make me.  My father didn't even weigh in on the matter.  My religious life was complete, my basic sacraments accomplished, and I was free to coast home on Mondays.  Free!

But those of you who are In The Club know that Catholicism is the original Gift That Keeps On Giving.  Hell, there's even a teeshirt for us.  Despite our best efforts to the contrary, we all suffer (now and then) some pangs of residual guilt.  The whole religion is built on it.  It and its twin, Shame.  Just look at Sister Marguerite's diatribe--and that was primarily for Lent!  She had quite a repertoire of standards at the ready for all occasions, be it Lent, Easter, Christmas, or anything that might arise, such as tardiness, incorrectly defining name it, she could reduce any elementary school kid to a blushing, teary-eyed bag of guts with ease. 


I don't feel guilty for leaving the church.  Not one bit.  That's not what I mean.  What I mean is that, like the Puritanism of colonial times, living the code of a religion that proscriptive, that harsh, that strict...well, it's defeating.  It makes you feel as if you can never truly live in its image, never meet its demands.  You are destined for failure.  That, of course, was the eventual fate of the Puritan church in America.  And while the Catholic church is enduring, it goes without saying that it is gasping for breath.

Of the four of St. Patsy's children, two of us have left Catholicism.  The remaining two are, shall we say, extremely liberal Catholics.  Just like St. Patsy herself.  She would laugh and be dismissive were I to call her a radical, if I were to tell her she was ahead of her time, in the avant garde of the new Catholicism.  So maybe I will tell her, just to hear her laugh.


  1. OMG, Nance. You've gone and opened up the I-Was-Raised-a-Catholic can of worms. I hardly know where to start, but fortunately some stuff just can't even be put in the comment box. But here's some stuff that can:

    1. My mother was raised a Catholic by her strict Catholic mother. Definitely not by her father, who was a 42nd degree Mason. Back when that meant anything, and even then, I never understood it.

    2. My father converted to Catholicism, before he even met my mother. Years later he confessed to being agnostic at best. Or, really, well, let's just say it: atheist.

    3. I had no idea of what transubstantiation was at the age of six, but I made my First Holy Communion anyway. Because I got to wear a fancy white dress with a veil.

    4. Confession is one of the creepiest things ever invented. And when you are a little kid, it's such fun going in with your grocery list of sins and comparing penance later with your sister, who no doubt lied, and said she only got 2 Hail Marys and an Our Father. I gave up on confession when telling the truth would have to include sins such as forgetting that My Body was a Temple of the Holy Spirit and I might have had some Unclean Thoughts about the cute guy in my Chemistry class. Things were getting tough. Because just Thinking About It was already a Sin.

    5. I went to Catechism classes for years, and actually went to a Catholic School for the one year my parents thought they could afford to send all four of us. I was 13, and wanted to be a nun. It was tempting: guaranteed job, no decisions about what to wear every day, and you never had to worry about being left on the shelf. (This was just before the Unclean Thoughts began to interfere.)

    6. My mother stopped taking Communion after her fourth child was born and something called The Pill was invented. Other people's moms just found a priest who would say "It's really between You and God." So my mother kept going to church, but Guilt prevented her from approaching the Host. Guilt prevented my mother from a lot of things. That's the part I can't put in your comment box.

    7. When I was 18, having logged on many hours of Unclean Thoughts Never Acted Upon, I decided that:
    (a) preventing conception was not murder; (b) I was way too madly in love with a College Guy to live with the possible Guilt I envisioned on the horizon. So I hung up my Catholic Hat and never looked back.

    I think that comment might have been longer than your actual post.
    For these and all the sins of my past life, I am truly sorry.

  2. Mikey G.8:05 PM

    Thank something I had teachers like you and wasn't subjected to that sort of craziness. I can still picture you giving your sassy "okayyyyy" in class ten years ago.

  3. I may have mentioned this before; my mother had a terrific job with the Catholic Church.

    She was the East Coast distributor of Guilt! You got away with NOTHING. Everything was a sin. Washing your hair when you had your period was a SIN!

    I know I am much older than your average reader and they may not understand the torture we went through but it was extreme. Picture Rick Santorum on Hydrocortizone and you will understand our priests. They spent every Sunday harrassing the poor
    frazzled mother of eight about practicing birth control and in confession they told her that she was committing a Mortal sin if she did not provide her husband with his marital rights..Talk about guilt!

    Then when we find out what the priests were doing with the poor little 12 year old altar boys just before the Mass, all Hell broke loose and we came to our senses and left the church.

    Forty Five years ago when I first moved to the area where I am still currently living,the local Catholic Church had 6 masses on Sunday morning and confessions on Saturday from 3 to 5 and 6 to 8. Today, that same church has 3 masses on Sunday with confessions 15 minutes prior to the 9 o'clock Mass.

    I know all this and I hate what they did to us and what they did to the little kids . So why do I still feel guilty every Sunday morning when I don't go to Mass?

  4. Nance, this post is fantastic on many levels. One doesn't have to be raised Catholic to know about guilt and negativity, so I'm sure many can relate. I like your mother's modified version of "the rules." They all seem very reasonable to me! Whenever I feel guilty, I remind myself of that quote about guilt being a wasted emotion, and then I get over it. ;-)


  5. Well I was raised Southern Baptist, which is its own kind of guilt trip (although I have to admit that the Catholics really have cornered the market for their particular kind of guilt). I've settled on the Episcopal Church which combines all of my favorite Liberal Teachings. But if it weren't for singing in the choir I most likely wouldn't go to church at all.

    By the way - my birthday is March 3, so you KNOW I'm with your mom on the Lent thing. I AM having cake! Probably more than one cake, since we're traveling to visit our families that week. So there!

  6. My mom converted to Catholicism when she married my dad, who was raised Catholic. My brother and I got dragged to Mass every Sunday when I was growing up, and we both spent four years in Catholic school. About the time I got a driver's licence is when they started the Saturday-evening-Mass-counts-as-Sunday rule. I would leave the house on Saturday at 4:30 and say I was going to Mass, but would actually either drive around aimlessly or go to the mall or a grocery store--anywhere but church. As soon as I went away to college, I never went to church again. I don't miss it EVER, and have not had one stab of guilt about it. My mom is still an avid church-goer to this day.

    I won't jump on a soapbox (much) about organized religion, but let's just say that I feel that most religious organizations are based in superstition and are mostly about the power over and control of their followers, but most especially about the money. I don't need some old man in Rome (or insert your head of church name here) to tell me how to run my life or make me feel guilty for not following "the rules", and I'm certainly not giving a tenth of my income (tithe-ing anyone?) to some institution where I have no say on how it's spent.

    It's a testament to the ridiculously superstitious mindset of the majority of the population that organized religion has any sway at all. What individual with any brains buys this shit? It's amazing what people will make up and then tell other people that they better believe it's true or they'll go to hell if they don't follow all these new rules. Hell? Really? Show me proof.

    I'm pretty much an atheist--I don't believe in some man up in heaven overseeing our every move. I do see the awesome order of the universe and feel that that's enough. I practice what I call situational ethics, i.e. trying to do the best in every situation I find myself in. Usually I do ok, but some days are better than others, and when I am less than my best, I don't spend days or weeks beating myself up about it. Look at your mistakes, figure out what you can do better next time, and move on from there.

    Stepping off the soapbox now. As Ortizzle said, this is a big can of worms.

  7. Just delightful...she says as a recovering Episcopalian. :)

  8. Mage--Probably we Recovereds should form a support group.

    LaFF--"Situational Ethics" is considered a pejorative term to much of Organized Religion. It implies that one has no Moral Code to guide him/her in all situations, at all times, come what may. Could you ever imagine parenting this way? Governing this way? DRIVING THIS WAY? How insane.

    Bug--I'm not well-versed in the faith of the So. Baptists, but I'll certainly feel comfortable taking your word for it regarding its dispensation of Guilt. Most religions do their part in making women the root of all evil, so that one is a given anyway. I will refer you to Mage's Former Episcopal status, though, as a bit of a warning. Enjoy your singing, enjoy your imminent birthday jaunt and cake(s). You and the Professor are two of the Travellinest Folks I know!

  9. Shirley--Therein lies the difference: Of course I know that "guilt is a wasted emotion" and all that, but that rational thought does little to expiate the feeling, usually. As with most ingrained habits, it is a ongoing process, and a difficult one. As I get older, though, I get so much better at letting things go and compartmentalizing. The recent death of a dear friend has helped me refocus much.

    Nancy--The decline of the Big Catholic Family is proof positive that catholic women are, in fact, consumers of birth control products. The rhythm method cannot be that efficient. In NEO the diocese closed fifty parishes. The bishop said the churches had declining attendance, little operating money, and a shortage of priests to staff them. To say final masses at each church, the bishop had to have armed escorts because of such angry protests and malicious letters on the part of the community and parishioners.

    This is how the Church treats its Faithful! Those of us who are already gone just shake our heads and wonder why the Vatican, whose assets have been estimated to be worth about a billion dollars, can't at the very least pony up for the bills of its priests victims.

    Mikey--You are a sweetheart. Thank goodness no one ever had to see me in a wimple.

    Ortizzle--Sigh. You know, I also had a brief ambition to be a nun. Can you possibly imagine that? My students were always amazed whenever that came up. I was about the same age as you, and I was sick of everything in my life being a struggle. It represented an escape for me, and an acceptance. Relief.

    Another common thread (and there are tons more, here and I bet unsaid thus far) is that I just felt confused and beaten up by the religion. It felt abusive and punitive. Never once did I feel comfort, peace, or serenity. Not one time. My favourite aunt on my dad's side divorced her husband (for personal safety and dignity)and was told by her priest that she could never take communion again. My aunt remained a devoted catholic. Her daughter went to catholic school and college. Didn't matter. I was horrified by this maltreatment of her. It was one more strike against the church for me.

    Even the mass itself is authoritarian: stand! sit! kneel! stand again! sit again! kneel again! shake hands with someone! walk up here! now go! sigh.

    Glad we made it out.

  10. Nancy--In my distraction formulating my response to your comment, I neglected to be accurate. Forgive the ommission of the apostrophe at the end of "priests."

  11. Oh, when I first moved to San Francisco at the age of 21, I had a brief flirtation with the Catholic church. I was raised atheist, much to my Grandmother's horror. (She was baptized at least 3 times, in three different Christian sects, because it was the community she lived in at the long as you believe in Jesus, that's all that matters to Grandma). Anyway, my three best friends were all Catholic, though none devout. And there was a beautiful church just down the street. I found it very peaceful and comforting to go there, listen to the chants and the words and smell the incense. It may have helped that it was probably a fairly progressive Catholic church, assuming such things exist, being in San Francisco. I loved it.

    Would your mother be upset that I took communion, even though I've never been baptized? Probably a venal sin right there.

    In the end, I couldn't convert because I didn't believe in anything they said. Esp that there's a God, but a lot more than that. Too bad though. It was a really, really great place.

  12. hee. Yeah, probably believing in God is a pretty stringent requirement for joining the church. You know, one of the things I really disliked right before I left the church was all the progressive changes to the mass. I used to love all the Latin and chanting and ritual. Once they got rid of that and started letting laypersons give the host, it felt like a hippie-driven, ersatz service to me. Like the movie "Interview with a Vampire", the church couldn't seem to make up its mind as to what it was.

  13. Nance,

    I so agree with you about the changes the Church made in the services. I,too,enjoyed the Latin Mass and reading from my Missal.

    I loved it when the priest would say,"Dominus Vobiscum" and I would reply "Et cum spiritu tuo". I felt connected and "in on" what was happening.

    Then it all changed. The first time I saw some long haired kid playing the guitar on the altar and singing "Michael,Row the Boat Ashore" I walked out of the church with tears in my eyes.

    At that point it was all over for me.

    Because I was in complete agreement with this conversation about the Church and appreciate so much your bringing the subject up for discussion,I am going to let you slide this time on the apostrophe.

  14. Nancy--I started feeling disoriented and disappointed when nuns began dressing like laypersons. I felt the same way when nurses stopped wearing their distinctive caps. WHAT IS HAPPENING?!

    (Do I get a pass for the typo on "omission" as well? Sigh. It's like I'm someone else all of a sudden. It took me long enough to spot it...!)

  15. Sorry, there will be no dispensation for the misspelling of omission.I will keep that mistake in abeyance until I need something to hold over your head.

    I learned that technique from Sister Nicotine of the Holy Smokes.

  16. I'll say that the church I went to was in English, but there was NOTHING hippy dippy about it, except that perhaps they didn't preach heavily about sins of birth control or being gay or whatever. They didn't bring it up. I don't know if that's common (being atheist). There was one church in SF at the time that still had services in Latin, and I took Latin in grad school. Should have gone, but by then my flirtation with religion was over. Oh well.

    But no, I wouldn't have liked it if it had been hippy dippy either. I have no problem with that in its place, but its place is not a Catholic church.

    Went to a wedding once where the daughter of the groom was a witch and blessed the wedding, and a Native American friend also blessed the wedding, and it was a pot luck, with signs in the bathroom saying, 'if it's yellow, keep it mellow', etc. Me, in my SF garb, and my boyfriend (now husband), we were the most conservatively dressed people there, and probably the only ones that didn't smoke any pot. HA! We did stand in a field in a circle, holding hands, and sing, "Imagine". About as hippy dippy as you can get, and actually quite sweet. But not Catholic.

  17. Nance: Thank you for visiting Chubby Chatterbox and for taking time to leave a comment. Your blog is wonderful, and I'm not just saying so because I love martinis. I hope you'll visit me at Chubby Chatterbox again. If you press the join button I'll return the favor. Have a great day.

  18. Stephen--Hi, Stephen. I visit and read your blog all the time. Bug recommended it when I replied to one of your comments on one of her posts! I have only commented a couple times because I refrain from leaving remarks unless I really have something to say.

    I don't have a "join" button here at the Dept. Not much on that whole thing, I'm afraid, but I hope I can look forward to your comments now and again. Thank you for such kind words.

    j.@jj--Oh you California types! Just kidding. My own cousin, at one of her weddings, had an actual NUN perform an interpretive dance ON THE ALTAR to GUITAR music. IN THE CHURCH. I thought I was going to literally vomit. Or collapse. Or both. Needless to say, it was not Sister Marguerite and it was well past the days of the Latin Mass.

    TO EVERYONE: I have no idea what Blogger/Google has done to the commenting form or the Word Verification. I had no say-so and cannot find a way to change it back or modify it. I know it is hideous. Thank you for persevering and leaving comments in spite of it all. I have heard from some readers that it is prohibitive, that Blogger has eaten your comment, etc. I am sorry. Hopefully, it is just temporary.

  19. It is a pity that religion so often goes with intolerance. I don't think there's any way to untangle them, and yet there are so many good kind people who just quietly live their faith and don't try to shove it down other peoples' throats, or teach that misery equals "love. "

  20. Jenny Woolf--Hello, and thanks for reading and commenting here at the Dept. Your remark about those who live their faith quietly without shoving it down other people's throats reminds me of something I read over at STFU Believers. To paraphrase that person's sentiment, which I shared with my son Jared in an email,

    "Religion is like a penis.
    It’s fine to have one
    It’s fine to be proud of it
    but please don’t whip it out in public and start waving it around…
    and don’t try to shove it down my throat!”

  21. Anonymous4:43 PM

    You know HOLLYWOOD..they all flipped for deals and JAGGER went mole with CROW.
    What did you expect?
    They're peds after all.

  22. Anonymous--O-kaaaay. So...what now? Let me try to break it down for you:
    1. Actually, no, I don't know Hollywood.
    2. I have no idea what "going mole" means, or who or what Crow is in your world or context.
    3. I expected a comment here to be A) marginally coherent and B)at least somewhat related to my post
    4. I take it that by "peds" you are not referring to the little cotton socklets worn to try on shoes? But if you meant "pedophile" instead, who exactly are you referring to? Hollywood? Jagger and Crow, whoever they are? And just how the hell are they related in any way to this post about catholicism?
    5. This last sentence makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, beginning as it does with "Ands." Is that a person who "did" that group of political figures?

    Wow. Are you even in the right place?

    (I'm off to to see if I'm hopelessly out of touch. Or "mole" or something.)

  23. Oh, Nance, my father was Irish Catholic and my mother the first of her family born outside of Italy. So I don't have to say what it was like. I went to Catholic schools and was beaten by the nuns in first grade for doing MORE than I was asked to do (two pages in my printing primer, not one). I misunderstood the directions. This woman, a Vehicle of God's Love on Earth, used to humiliate children by making them sit on a baby blanket on the floor surrounded by rattles. I used to suffer huge bouts of nausea before school. I was terrified. They would send my brother (a fifth grader) to the classroom to comfort me at times. And that's just the bit about school. I'll spare you the rest, except to say that my husband, raised Catholic but later becoming an Episcopalian, was not permitted to participate in his mother's funeral service because he was not "certified" by the Catholic Church to read a passage fromt he Bible. This man baptized, confirmed, and married in the Catholic Church and a regular church goer in "that other church" was not deemed worthy to simply READ a scripture at his own mother's funeral. I'm not joking. It was three years ago and it still infuriates me. I wish I hadn't thought about it. I'm sure if he were a pedophile it would have been OK, but being an Episcopalian was just inexcusable.

  24. V---Wow. So it's all still going on. That is yet another reason why I do not believe in "Organized Religion." How far from its Mission has it fallen! Do unto others notwithstanding, where is the basic Christian principle of loving thy neighbor, even something as simple as The Golden Rule, or, failing all of that, just plain and simple Compassion? This just makes me think of the old Puritan rhyme about how God, in His infinite generosity, would reserve for the unbaptized babies, "the easiest room in Hell." It all just makes me sick. All of it.

  25. Oh, and V--In my earnestness, I neglected to say the Very First Thing that came to my mind upon reading your anecdote: I am so very truly sorry. For all of your experiences with the church. It was all so needless and so pointless and so painful. And not what it was supposed to be. Bless your heart that you have so much joy within you that you create such beautiful art, both in words and three-dimensional media.


Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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