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A Sketch of the Past

On memories of childhood religion.

Not long ago—last week, in fact—I somehow found myself agreeing to teach catechism this fall to first and second-graders. (It goes without saying, I hope, that readers ought to pray for these children.) In the course of preparing for the class I have found myself thinking about my own religious education and the faith such as I understood it at my students’ age.

When I was very young, a cross hung in my bedroom, but I thought it was a sword. My first memory of the Church is of attending Mass at Saint Pancratius in Cass City, Michigan. It was a very modern sort of building, one of those imitation Frank Lloyd Wright churches that were built in the Seventies and cannot now be torn down except at great expense. My understanding is that it has now been shuttered and its congregation folded with that of another parish nearby. I remember that there was a kind of gift shop—complete with a counter and cash register—in the front to the left of what I suppose must have been the narthex and that there were rosaries for sale there. One, with beads in vivid lime green, is fixed in my memory as an object of desire, though my mother would never agree to buy it for me. Why I should have been pre-occupied with this devotional item I cannot say; I cannot recall that we ever said the rosary at home. I remember that in my paternal grandparents’ old house there was a crucifix in the dining room on which rosaries hung. Once I asked my mother what those necklaces were, and she said that they weren’t necklaces unless you were a nun, in which case it was okay to wear them. I believe it was at Saint Pancratius that my sister and both of my brothers were baptized, though I have no memory of the occasions.

Later I remember attending Mass when visiting my maternal and paternal grandparents in Clio, Michigan, at Saint Charles and Helena, another church of very modern design. I cannot remember how it looked originally from the outside, as it was “remodeled” when I was nine or so. The interior, I recall, was of a circular design. I remember that there were pews that faced east toward the table altar and others, on either side, facing south and north. There were also two or three rows of pews installed in what had once been the choir loft. I recall thinking that it was great fun to be able to sit up there with my cousins, the eldest of whom served Mass. After the Gloria children who had not yet made their First Communions were invited to walk up to the altar and be blessed by the priest before leaving with a kind woman who would paraphrase the day’s Gospel—she never had anything to say about the Epistle or the Old Testament lesson—and give a kind of discourse. One Sunday I remember Donna telling us that in Heaven we could do whatever we liked best; one of my cousins whispered to me that upon entering into the Beatific Vision he hoped he would be able to play football. I raised my hand and asked whether this was true, which embarrassed my cousin until our catechist answered in the affirmative.

My childhood religion was a private, internal matter. I have no memory of family prayers or of attending Mass on days other than Sundays; we never attended Mass on a day of precept during the week. Of my private faith and prayer life at that time I have vague, haunted, conflicting memories. My impression of the state of my soul as a child is above all one of great confusion, and fear. I remember that whenever anyone mentioned the Devil or Hell I was greatly perturbed; the sight of a “shoulder devil” in a cartoon filled me with dread. Television was, I believe, a constant source of anxiety and loathing. I was driven to despair by references to Hell in cartoons; I remember one in which a New York subway led to the inferno and another in which a character met his grandmother there. On one occasion I seem to recall that I asked my mother something about Hell, though I recall neither the substance nor her answer. I know that by age seven I would sometimes lie awake at night afraid that I would die in my sleep and that this would be the end of consciousness. I was terrified of the third line in my bedtime prayer; the petition of the fourth line seems to have made no impression upon me. I remember that I once awoke from a kind of dream-within-a-dream in which I had been given to understand that everything I had been told about God was a fantasy. I also had a great fear of cannibals and of being burnt at the stake; for a time I believed that there was someone under my bed who would grab my foot and drag me under unless I leapt beyond its reach.

I do not recall what parish we attended when we first moved from Cass City to Three Rivers, Michigan. It is possible that for a time my parents were “lapsed,” as I believe my maternal grandparents had briefly during my mother’s childhood. By the time I was in second grade, however, we were attending Saint Martin of Tours in Vicksburg, a church just north of Three Rivers. (I have memories of my mother saying that people at Immaculate Conception in Three Rivers, where my son now attends pre-school, were unwelcoming.) It was there that I made my first Confession and Communion and where I find I have my first really substantial memories of attending Mass. My parents adored the pastor because his homilies were topical and amusing. I do not think there was a proper choir loft at Saint Martin’s; the music was invariably from a folk trio who stood with their instruments on the Gospel side to the left of the altar. I seem to have flourished in my Wednesday catechism class. I once did the first reading at a pontifical Mass, I suppose because I was a good reader, something of which my mother was very proud. I cannot recall much of the substance of religious education at Saint Martin’s. The Act of Contrition I was taught there was very inadequate, and I never learned to say the petitionary half of the Hail Mary. I remember once that one of our teachers made reference to a Zorro film starring Antonio Banderas that was then in theaters, saying that we should not take an interest in such things because they were immoral. Though I had no particular interest in seeing this film I was very much disturbed by what he had said, for I recognized that he was condemning all merely secular learning and entertainment—nay, all the glittering things of this world! If to be good meant denying oneself all, did I really want to be good? Worried that I did not, I remember that I resolved to watch every episode of the Franco Zeffirelli television series Jesus of Nazareth, which my great-grandmother had given us as a somewhat aspirational Christmas present—a resolution in which I failed. One of my other memories of catechism was being told that no one went to Hell except for “Hitler and people like that.”

This brings me to our old farmhouse in Vicksburg, where we lived after moving from a little ranch house, and where I would make another vow, one that I have known for two years now that I shall never be able to fulfill. Here, though I am getting older, we must pass from the realm of observable phenomena and solid facts to that of impressions and shadows. The place was an old farmhouse typical of the kind one sees driving on country roads in southwestern Michigan near the Indiana border. It was very large, with four bedrooms and a massive basement that I only entered once, during a tornado, and painted a hideously emetic shade of green. It was flanked by three dilapidated barns and corn as far as one could see in all four directions. Not long ago I had a nightmare of the house, which is illustrative of how I, my mother, and my siblings always felt about it, though I do not recall any of us saying much about it at the time, apart from my mother’s insistence that we never go to the basement. Why were we all afraid of the house? I can only say that I was almost never in my room at night regardless of the season without feeling cold and out of sorts, as if there were something sapping away at me. I recall one night that I was sitting up with a book about sharks in which I read that they were virtually immortal because they had no natural predators and were immune to disease; something about this nonplussed me and suddenly I felt an extraordinary sense of foreboding, followed closely by mortal terror. It was as if something very close to me were feeding on my fear, not merely to the point of satiation, but luxuriating in it, gluttonously devouring my innocent horror. I sat there for I know not how many hours praying, I think, the Our Father and begging God to spare from from whatever it it was. I told Him that if He did so I would become a priest. Eventually I worked up the courage to bolt out of bed and run downstairs as fast as I could, to my parents’ bedroom, where I opened the door and promptly announced my vocation. I think it must have been obvious to them that I was frightened, for my father very kindly said that when he had been my age he had thought of becoming a priest and that it was a wonderful thing to want to be. I cannot be certain whether I am conflating the details of the above incident with another in which I believe I saw a toy of mine move across the floor of its own accord and any number of evenings I spent shivering with a vague sense of uneasiness, drawing the blankets close and arguing with myself about whether our Savior had ever really lived before finding my way down the noisy staircase once again. More than once I remember taking comfort from the life of Saint Helena, with whose legend I was familiar, though I do not recall when I learnt it.

I have written elsewhere about how I later came to leave the Church, and how I returned. In reflecting upon the religion of my childhood I am struck by the persistence of religion among my diurnal concerns, despite the dubious quality of my religious instructions and the absence of pious examples. Perhaps there is some hope for the children this fall!

This column was originally published in The Lamp's Tuesday newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.