Finding My Religion

What's a lapsed-Catholic former sex worker who doesn't like religious dogma to do when she finds out she still believes?

"Catholic is a race," my brother once told me as we killed a bottle of rum at the Wild Goose, a ticky-tacky pub on the north side of Chicago. We'd just loaded my entire apartment into a Ryder truck destined to light out for Minneapolis in the morning, and we needed a nip and a few juke selections to revive our flagging carcasses. My brother, who's always been the best kind of bar-stool philosopher, decided to use this pit stop for an impromptu seminar on theological roots. "You will never stop being Catholic," he said, waving his filterless Camel like a papal staff. It sounded more like an assurance than an admonition. "You can move away from here, but you can't move away from it."

"Here" was the epicenter of Catholic faith in the Midwest, and "it" was a rather extreme diet of Roman Catholicism. I'd spent 12 penitent years as a student in the largest Catholic school system in the United States, attending formal Mass six days a week during the school year. Where I grew up, every girl in the neighborhood had a closet neatly lined with plaid uniform skirts and white blouses in descending sizes, most passed down from neighbors, sisters, and cousins. Rather than being preserved in starch like our cherished First Communion veils (pricey lace shrouds from a store called Saint Mary's), these uniforms bore witness to years of horseplay and aggression. The crisp box pleats had long since collapsed, the squares of plaid were crosshatched with ballpoint pen, and the blouses took on a jaundiced hue around the collar and armpits. On the last day of school, graduating eighth graders ceremoniously destroyed their kilts with scissors, knives, and Bic lighters. It was a dogged exorcism of sorts by girls who hadn't yet realized that even if they moved a thousand miles from "here" and renounced "it" repeatedly, their Catholic roots were far hardier than a cheap acrylic skirt.

When my schoolmates and I were little, we embraced Catholicism in its purest and most rigid form. Well-schooled by geriatric nuns and priests whose sensibilities were formed long before Vatican II, we often invoked obscure dogma that even our parents had forgotten about. I refused on religious grounds to eat breakfast if I planned to receive Communion within the next half-hour. (This old stricture made perfect sense to me: The body of Christ should not be made to coexist with Froot Loops in a Catholic tummy.)

At the ice-cream social following my first confession at age seven, I turned to my mother and said, "I want you to know that I finally feel cleansed." I'd been waiting weeks for the occasion, compiling Top Ten lists of my most egregious sins (inspired by late-night Letterman viewings with my dad) and drawing pictures of how I thought my tortured soul might look (half white, half Crayola black, bisected down the middle with an ambiguous stripe of pink.) I wasn't the only kid who was completely committed to my faith, either. We were all gung ho, utterly devout. We had drunk the consecrated grape juice. We were the best kind of disciples: blindly obedient and willing to believe anything that was said in that massive red brick church with the bats in the rafters.

But as we Catholic girls stumbled toward adolescence, some previously inviolate bubble ruptured in our psyches, releasing a noxious and seductive gas that smelled to me like Charlie perfume, smoldering reefer, and other pleasures of the flesh. The changes didn't happen overnight, but eventually all of us succumbed, even the girls who'd always wanted to be nuns and tucked plastic rosaries in their Lisa Frank pencil cases. Electrified by MTV, public school mixers, and the swarthy, menthol-smoking skate punks at the Orland Square Mall, I suddenly decided I definitely didn't want to be Catholic anymore. Why subscribe to a belief system that made me feel so bad when nihilistic grunge rock, Boone's Farm wine, and boys with hot, downy chests made me feel so good? When Layne Staley from Alice n' Chains groaned, "Deny your maker," on the radio, I thought to myself: "You know, he makes a good point. That Layne Staley is going places."

A lot of lapsed Christians I know, Catholic and otherwise, like to complain that they didn't have a say as to which religion they were raised in. Like me, they were dunked in the baptismal font as infants, enrolled in religious schools, and forced to dress as myrrh-bearing vagabonds in countless Nativity plays. (My school did that ritual one worse--we reenacted the Stations of the Cross, complete with a blushing fourth-grade boy in Hanes as the naked Christ.) "My parents should have allowed me to discover my own belief system," people say. Or, "Religious pedagogy is toxic for children."

That Marlo Thomas shit is kind of cloying--and irrational--if you ask me. It's logical for parents to foist religion on their offspring. After all, my mom and dad also got to govern my wardrobe, diet, education, vocabulary, and access to the Porky's film franchise (access denied). What's a little mandatory Christ in the midst of all that oppression?

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