Early Sunday morning, she found herself inexplicably awake at six am. Too early for anything, she thought as she lay there listening to the steady breathing of her husband. She thought about the day ahead, making dinner for her cousin in town from the East Coast. He was a priest. A curious career path for the 21st century, even though she knew her cousin would say it wasn’t a career but a vocation. He would be getting ready to say mass. She tried to remember when she was last even in a church, more than a year ago.
She carried her Catholicism around with her like some people carried the latest handbag—possessively although not ostentatiously. Although she had other identifying tribal affiliations like being an English/Polish pseudo-aristocratic bourgeois with a lineage that stretched back to the 1400’s, a prep-schooler with a naïve pretension of nihilistic intellectualism (probably a result of too much theatre as a child, combined with her older pseudo-intellectual siblings being a main influence,) and, today, a forty-something fashion snob with a decided bent for all things Belgian—she mostly thought of herself as a re-lapsed, Vatican-hating, feministic, veil-loving Catolica who felt perpetually sheepish (read guiltified) about the way she ultimately lost that long ago virginity (both physical and spiritual). Shallow and proud of it, she bragged about how Catholicism meant the most to her when all the females in her family got new hats for Easter Sunday mass. And she was nostalgic for the veils, those lace dribbles pinned to every female’s head in the sixties, even if she was too young to remember wearing one. (If truth be told, she never wore one, since they were worn by adult women and she was stuck in hats, being so young, not that hats were bad.) It was only when she fully grew up did she realize that the church thought the female head unclean, hence the headwear. Then there were the nuns. Modern vestal virgins, they could never hope to rise to the status of priests. Sexist for sure, but only after it had all been pointed out as such. When something is as familiar as that, you don’t necessarily question it or resent it. It was rote role-playing more than anything else. Like genuflecting before getting into the pew.
It was a quandary—this mix of repulsion/obsession. She truly believed that Vatican II killed organized religion as she never knew it, what with its gradual relaxation of standards that eventually resulted in the horror of bland guitar masses and made-up face-to-face confessions. And even if she could’ve been an altar girl, unlike her older sisters, she had no interest. She pined for the mix of exoticism and mystery and (perhaps most of all) the sense of ritual, (after all, she had minored in Anthropology) that seemed to add authenticity. No matter that she couldn’t remember the Latin mass when last practiced, she hated that most of all. It seemed a sign of being not only a lapsed Catholic, but belonging to a lapsed religion. She felt the whole religious revision had deprived her of experiencing the genuine, historical ritual, when going to mass was an event, dramatic pageantry—hence supportive of her revulsion/fascination. She was, after all, nothing if not melodramatic in her analyzing, rationalizing, conclusion-izing.
Being Catholic somewhat redeemed itself with its perpetual identifying factor/curse. She knew who she was—always. This possessive trait of her religion stamped her, tainted her throughout her day, affecting everything from turning the right cheek to crossing her legs properly like a lady in a pew. Then there were all the sacraments of her childhood, a way to get money from relatives and also a nice party with a cake. She, unfortunately, had never been confirmed but that never kept her from being a Catholic. It wasn’t her fault, anyway. They kept pushing the confirmation age further up in grade school. Her older siblings had all been confirmed (with parties and gifts) by sixth grade. Thanks to the new, modern take on things, everything changed in the seventies and confirmation was moved to the eighth grade. When she arrived at that final chapter of Catholic schoolgirlness, it was moved to the high school level. Well, she was not about to attend special classes on Saturdays simply to be confirmed, even if it did mean a cake (and she so loved cake). And she was most certainly not going to attend St. Ann’s girl’s high school for the convenience of confirmation. Rife with rumors of girl-on-girl action, she much preferred boys. But if they wanted her to publicly state her baptismal intent, they could have made the whole thing easier, like keeping it back in the sixth grade as it had been for all her siblings. Easy peasy. So she became a sort of in-between. No one seemed to mind it either, even when she was married in her family’s church. Unconfirmed but still not a heathen. It wasn’t like the Mormons where they excised the soul or some such trashy bible nonsense. (She only knew this sketchy information from visiting other parishes in eighth grade with the then-considered-liberal Sister Agnes Mary. Sister Agnes believed in opening up her student’s eyes (but she kept close tabs on their souls) and minds to the whole wide world of religion beyond the doors of St. Stephen’s grade school. Along with the Mormons, they’d visited Armenian, Episcopalian and Baptist churches, as well as a temple. Heresy before 1976—most assuredly.
The problem was, she still believed that the whole possessive/identifying thing enslaved her. She used to say (jokingly) how she was Catholic whether she wanted to be or not. It was like she had no say or choice in the identity that burdened/gladdened her through the years. A smallish weight to carry through life compared to being Jewish. But being Jewish seemed so much more than mere religion. It was a much more glamorous cultural stamp, they even had their own cuisine. On the opposite side of the coin, the Episcopalians she knew had no such identifying problem. It was just one small part of their lives, not their character. Still, there were no Episcopalian foods.
Then she remembered the fish fries of her childhood. Meatless Fridays during Lent meant dinner out at a church hall, supper club or even a tavern. Why even the Episcopalians ate perch on Fridays, it was so delicious. Maybe that was her religious culture food—perch from Lake Michigan. Pan-fried with potato pancakes and a lavishing of creamy coleslaw. Suddenly feeling better about it all, she knew what she'd make for her cousin's dinner and dressed for her own ritual—her Sunday morning jog.