By Marc Frazier
Et cum spiritu tuo, Habemus ad Dominum, Dignum et justum est.
The sound of Latin phrases echo in my head as I sit in class trying to attend to Sister’s geography lesson. I’m memorizing responses for the liturgy of the Catholic mass: a clear expectation for an altar boy.
I enjoy dressing up to assist the priest, relishing wearing a cassock and surplice a little too much. To partake in such a ritual is comforting and calming, a sensual experience in many ways: the scent of beeswax candles, wine, the lingering odor of incense and father’s aftershave.
I ring the bells when the hosts are consecrated, the devout silence in the church making me drowsy. Holding the Communion plate under worshippers’ chins feels like a huge responsibility.
When a host falls on the floor, it takes quite a ritual to make things holy again.
In late elementary school, I thought I might have a religious vocation; thus I went on a couple of retreats at the archdiocese headquarters, enjoying this time surrounded by males for a weekend, sleeping in dorm rooms and sharing prayers and meals together.
I possess a black and white photograph of me in front of our house in Sycamore, my hands in front of me in prayer position, little black prayer book pressed between them. I have clunky eyeglasses and am wearing a child-size version of a trench coat. This was taken before I headed out to a retreat. I wanted to become a holy brother, as I didn’t feel worthy enough to be a priest, which said something about my self-esteem.
One of the most solemn times in the calendar is Forty Hours Devotion when the consecrated host, or Blessed Sacrament, is displayed in an elaborate monstrance the priest places on a side altar before which parishioners pray.
There is a schedule for altar boys to follow during the devotion period so that someone is always present. I was paired with my classmate Jeff for a few sessions of devotion. In between times, we hung out at his house near the church. I had a big crush on him and was bereft when our time together was up.
Though she died before I was born, my paternal grandmother converted to Catholicism from her family’s German Lutheran religion. I never met her as she passed when my father was serving in World War II. This caused a split in the family, as everyone was Catholic except for this set of relatives. The topic of religion could be a touchy one in our family. During one Thanksgiving dinner, Tante Edo called the tail of the turkey the Pope’s nose. Thankfully silence ensued.
I guess I thought everyone was Catholic really, and if they weren’t, they just hadn’t yet realized they needed to be. As a boy, I gathered neighbor children in our front yard, proselytizing by telling them stories of martyrs and saints. I don’t know how deeply my devotion went because the next moment I was rounding the same kids up for theatrical productions to be performed in our garage. I remember when the songs from Oklahoma were on the tip of my tongue for hours and days on end. One of my friend’s mothers taught me, “You Are My Sunshine,” and I created a musical number for all of us kids to sing.
My father was obsessed with the rules and regulations of Catholicism, more so than my mother for whom it all seemed more natural due to her Irish Catholic background. She said converts were stricter and more vigilant than those brought up in the Church.
One pilgrimage my father liked was to a place called Holy Hill. It wasn’t a very long trip, but we would pray the rosary on the way to the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians. It was a basilica with all the bells and whistles.
First, the outdoor Stations of the Cross, schlepping from station to station in all weathers. I enjoyed looking at the colorful brochures displayed in the entrance to the church. My sisters and mother pulled out their chapel veils and we entered the hushed nave of wooden pews, genuflecting on our right knees and making the sign of the cross.
“I don’t feel well,” I told my parents. “My stomach hurts.”
I was having a meltdown and they were clueless as to what I was feeling. I often had strange physical sensations I think were tied to the intensity of religious fervor, of my own investment in it. I wanted reassurance. All this piousness and I just wanted a hand to hold.
I had psychosomatic health issues. I was a fainter. It seemed somehow tied to church. I would feel like passing out, and one of my parents would take me outside to get some air. I sat in the passenger seat of the car facing out, put my head between my knees until lightheadedness passed. I remember one time passing out on the sidewalk in front of the church as we left mass.
From her pew, mother watched my face whiten as I assisted the priest say mass, worried I would pass out on the altar. My doctor tried giving me iron for a while thinking I might be anemic. I spent a couple of days in the hospital for tests. I was mean to my mother who brought me a poor, cheap substitute of a kind of primitive block printing press I’d been wanting; I was fascinated with words and writing even then.
“This isn’t anything like it,” I said.
“I thought it was what you wanted,” she uttered in a tremulous voice.
“I don’t even want it,” I added rolling onto my side away from her, oblivious to the effort this act of kindness took when she also worried about a husband and three other children.
My parents never thought of a shrink for a kid, but that is what I needed. Was there something so oppressive about the whole religion thing I couldn’t handle, and the warm enclosed space of a church filled with parishioners made me lose consciousness? Was this a form of experiencing the fear of God?
The examination of conscience was central to the religion. I did mine before I went to sleep every night, so my conscience was clear in case I passed in the night. Not a festive childhood. On Saturday afternoons, we’d pile in the car and head to church for confessions. How scared I was during my first confession! I was afraid of the dark, and the unlit confessional booth was frightening.
There were small, lit red bulbs above a confessional booth when someone was inside. When he or she got up from the kneeler, the bulb went out, signaling that the booth was available for the next person in line for Confession. I had a set menu of sins to confess. I, of course, feared committing a mortal sin that meant certain damnation.
It was comforting that I could estimate my venial sins with a conditional “about.” I talked back to my parents “about” three times; I disobeyed my parents “about” two times. As my parents stood in line, they seemed like different, vulnerable people. After kneeling to say their penance with bowed heads, they became themselves for another week.
There were some lighter moments, but not many. I loved spring, for the month of May was joyful. Some chosen girl from the eighth grade was given the honor of crowning Mary in the church during a ceremony. My proclivity to pageantry truly enjoyed this. At home, we built a May altar. A small glass vase filled with lilies of the valley and violets. We each vied for the honor of picking fresh flowers and changing the water. We’d kneel on the hard floor and say bedtime prayers together. There was something calming about such rituals.
I also found solace in the lighting of the advent wreath during the short days of December. Christmas was my favorite time of year and the rite of lighting candles was a reassuring lead-up to it. It was a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas which back then meant something to me.
It did sometimes seem Christ and the Bible played second fiddle to the Pope, to the dogma and rites of the Church. Our little black and white prayer books were used much more than the Bible which wasn’t much studied.
I’ve always been drawn to stories of religious devotion and the extremer aspects of it: the stigmata, self-flagellation, the mystical, including hallucinatory episodes. As youngsters, we watched The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima almost as much as The Wizard of Oz, and later The Nun’s Story with Audrey Hepburn. As an adult, I’m drawn to films, usually foreign, that explore the mystical aspects of religious fervor. One such movie is Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen.
I mellowed out in high school due partly to attending public school for the first time. There were no Catholic high schools in the area. The Catholic students really stood out to everyone, as the public-school kids had not had contact with them before. I felt left out in this Protestant environment.
I went to CCD classes on Wednesday evenings at the Catholic school I had attended. It was the sixties and we mostly watched black and white episodes of Insight that were contemporary morality plays. This wasn’t the church I had grown up with but something more concerned with poverty, civil rights and other social issues that really hadn’t affected the small Republican town in which we lived. (Most of the Democrats in town were Catholics as were my parents). The whole sin thing took a back seat and that was a nice respite.
I attended a group of weekly meetings at various churches in town that dealt with teenagers and sex. In retrospect, it seems very progressive for that time and place, and especially surprising that my father really wanted me to go to them. I think he wanted to help ensure I would be straight and make babies. While driving home from one of these gatherings, we had a very uncomfortable talk.
“You know if you ejaculate in the night while you’re dreaming, that’s not a sin.”
“Losing your seed in that way is okay, but that’s the only way.”
I couldn’t believe he was using that archaic saying, “lose your seed.” I don’t know how I even knew what it meant.
“Sex is meant for procreation within marriage and that’s a good thing. That’s the way God intended.”
“Uh-hum.” It was a roundabout way of saying that masturbation was a sin.
As long as we lived at home, we were required to attend weekly mass. Late in high school and during my first couple years of college, my mother, siblings and I often attended Saturday night mass held outside in a little amphitheater. These were guitar masses meant to appeal to younger and more progressive Catholics (thus my father didn’t join us). When I stopped going to confession every Saturday, my father would sometimes ask me when I last went. I was gradually falling away from the faith although I never lost my belief in God.
In some ways being brought up strictly Catholic is always a part of who you are. It is difficult to explain. I deeply respected how much the Catholic faith meant to my parents and to others, but eventually I couldn’t tolerate the official dogma and politics of the Church. Millions of American Catholics ignore much of this dogma and its political implications; they do not see that by going to mass, they are expressing an implicit belief in everything the Church stands for. As Thomas Mann said, “Everything is political; nothing is not political.” I can’t even understand how a woman or a gay person could be Catholic.
Of course, there were Catholic funerals for both of my parents. At my father’s, my siblings and I sat during the parts of the mass when people knelt. It was clear we had all fallen away from the faith. An old deacon made it clear from his little speech on the altar that non-practicing Catholics were not welcome to receive Communion. This really angered my mother who was known to speak her mind, and she later cornered him one day after mass and let him have it.
When my mother was in her late eighties, I started prompting her to make sure she had written down her plans for what she wanted for a service after she passed. I was concerned that my older sister who was completely type A would take charge and do what she wanted rather than honoring her wishes. Mother always said she didn’t want people gawking at her, so we knew she didn’t want an open casket.
One of the biggest influences of Catholicism was the parish school. We carried our books in rubber-lined bags carried by strings pulled snug at the top. In winter, I unhooked my blacker than black boot buckles, slush sliding through metal clasps, and set them to rest among boots multiplying in the narrow room of damp coats.
Father Shanahan rolled in the piano to teach us, “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” His words sprawled across the board in sloppy script were so unlike Sister’s perfect Palmer Method. She glanced disapprovingly at his unbridled animation, more comfortable with her pitch pipe—a second heart in the dark folds of her habit.
Ancient Miss Lawler talked of enzymes and proteins, reminded us of the body’s fallibility: burst capillaries, faulty chromosomes. Midmorning—cartons of white and chocolate milk neatly stacked on a wheeled cart. Sister Hiltrudis stretched logic: fornication as a crime, the trinity.
Morning’s end: girls filed through the cloakroom, retrieved lunches, followed by boys. In the dark of each brown paper sack: a sandwich, chips, cupcake or piece of fruit. Then to pages of new math, strangely bright and smooth. After, geography transported us: hordes of tulips, hats like wings, water in between everything, or dogs with barrels, snowy mountains.
Finally, under the eyes of Saint James and Jesus, we were sorted and sent our way.
About the Author:
Marc Frazier has poetry in journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, Good Men Project, f(r)iction, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Slant, Permafrost, Plainsongs, and Poet Lore and excerpts from his memoir WITHOUT in Gravel, The Good Men Project, decomP, Autre, Cobalt, Evening Street Review, and Punctuate. Marc, an LGBTQ+ writer, is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for poetry and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His book The Way Here and two chapbooks are available on Amazon as well as his second full-length collection Each Thing Touches (Glass Lyre Press). His website is www.marcfrazier.org.