Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Further Negotiations: I’m Here for the God

In third grade Stephanie Bruce and I become good friends.  On Sunday mornings we ride the Spirit Buss to Temple Baptist Church together. On the bus a teenage youth counselor who even in the eyes of 8 year olds is overly self-impressed, plays guitar while leading a sing-along of One Tin Soldier (The Theme from Billy Jack), It’s Time to Rise and Shine and Give God Your Glory Glory Children of the Lord, This Little Light of Mine, We Shall Overcome, If I Had a Hammer, and inexplicably Puff the Magic Dragon. It is the thick of the seventies.

Every Sunday, they usher us into the children’s chapel where we hear a lengthy plea for tiny sinners to come forward and get born again. Then we attend the sort of Sunday school classes that I imagine Christians of all flavors attend: Bible story, Bible story-themed craft project, recitation of memorized Bible verses, bestowal of gold stars for well-memorized verses. Then back on the bus for another round of singing songs surely penned in a haze of marijuana.

I am told I was christened as an infant. As proof I offer a well-loved copy of A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young whose inscription is on the occasion of said christening.  (My mother-in-law made certain my children were christened: I have Certificates of Baptism from the Church to prove it. Said certificates will be needed if my girls ever get married in the Catholic Church.)

Between my christening and third grade, God exists in my world as “God Talk” on Wednesday mornings at Trinity Episcopal Preschool and in Saturday morning broadcasts of Davey and Goliath. My parents do not talk about God. They talk about sunsets and wonder and goodness and peace. They quote the Bible, but do not read it. My sister and I are taken along on visits to art museums. My father uses Jansen’s Art History as our picture book as often as not, and through those discussions we hear Bible stories. My parents read and discuss Aesop’s Fables with us. Politeness, kindness, and compassion are emphasized.

One Sunday, I skip happily off the Spirit Buss to find my mother ironing in what was once the trunk room of our Victorian house.  (It had become the kitchen for a second floor apartment prior to my parents buying the house and restoring it to a single family dwelling, so it had a counter cabinet with a sink and the rusted outlines of large appliances on the linoleum. Inside one of the cabinet drawers lay a package of rolling papers printed like draft cards and a long ribbon of sewing notion trim woven in an American flag pattern leftover from mom decorating one of my dad’s Levi jackets.) That Sunday, I had big news: I had been saved.

Without looking up from my father’s collar, my mother says, That’s great, Honey. Good for you.

I say, No, Mom, you don’t get it; I’m going to live forever in the house of the Lord and I will have His gifts visited upon me. (I like to imagine that I twirled my skirt with the gifts part, but I know I didn’t because I usually wore a pair of overalls with a large rose embroidered on the bib.)

Mom put down the iron and looked at my earnest face. I smiled waiting for a response. Mom picked the iron up and went back to work saying, You know, you don’t have to believe any of that crap.

And so began my relationship with organized religion.

Three decades later I am lying on my back, arms and legs akimbo for savasana. The instructor of the yoga class is doing that chatter that all yoga instructors do throughout class, but especially during savasana.

Savasana, or corpse pose is a relaxation posture usually assumed at the end of class.  While meditative, it isn’t recommended for meditation because there’s a good chance you’ll fall asleep pumped full of endorphins and exhausted from an hour or more of sun salutations. Savasana is a post-coital experience.  (Maybe it’s called “corpse pose” because it feels like you’ve just experienced the “little death”? I don’t know.)

One literalist instructor suggested imagining our flesh sinking into the earth, our presence retreating deep into our skulls to float in the eternal dark, our bodies rejoining the earth to become part of everything, as we always were part of everything. Imagine, she said, your flesh falling gently from your bones, your bones sifting away like powdery sands…

My moment comes with another instructor. (This particular instructor chattered less often than the corpse pose literalist.) This instructor says, breathe deeply-- enjoy the peace of this moment-- remember this peacefulness, the peacefulness of the contented infant-- it is the peacefulness we rose from and will return to-- it is the way we would be all the time, if we would only let ourselves.

 And this is the closest I have ever been to God outside of the bedroom. (They don’t call it ecstasy for nothing.) It is my greatest chaste experience of the divine.  It is in this moment that I realize, yes, the universe is a benevolent place and we are beloved of it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Further Negotiations: Pre-Cana

I’m not sure what we expected to find at the Pre-Cana class held in the reception hall of another parish, but I was a little shocked by what we did find. We were by far the oldest of the couples at 32 years old—most were in their late teens or early twenties. We were not pregnant, nor had we already had a child together. We were not starry-eyed neophytes holding hands dreamily secure in our shared faith.

At the time, we attended mass sporadically at the Wilshire Boulevard Our Lady of Angels, which in my Los Angeles sits between a very nice synagogue, The Wiltern Theater, The Piccadilly (an aging nineteen twenties high-rise apartment building in which we had considered renting the penthouse soon after the riots when the rents were down, way down) and The Ambassador Hotel (of Kennedy shooting fame and whose own demise has been too painful for me to watch). Our Lady of Angels had an adorable cantor with a lovely voice, huge stained glass windows, interesting sculptural Stations of the Cross, and nicely polished wooden pews with squeak-less kneelers. The Pre-Cana class would be held at another parish.

Google map clutched in my hand, we sat in our Civic hatchback in the parking lot and questioned whether what crouched before us was, in fact, a church at all, but maybe a public or parochial school. The buildings had the flat-roofed exterior walkways propped atop metal poles favored by California elementary schools, libraries, and UC system campuses. We followed other couples who looked like they knew where they were going into the reception hall. Metal folding chairs in that dark, institutional beige. Speckled linoleum tiles in bisque and fawn. Cement block walls painted a tasteful Navajo White, the wall color favored by apartment management companies everywhere in So Cal.  So much for the pageantry and romance of a two thousand-year-old faith tradition.

We spent an entire day sitting in those beige folding chairs. I remember only a few things.

We prayed. Everyone knew the prayer. Everyone but me. Catholics have lots of prayers that they all seem to know the words to—like their own private Beatles sing-along in a world in which only Catholics have ever heard of the Beatles. Protestants say the Our Father, observe a tasteful moment of silence, or chime in with a heartfelt Amen at the end of the pastor-lead prayer. Twenty years in, I can now report that Catholics like to keep prayer cards handy, they say the rosary, novenas, several prayers during mass that do not change, a universally used meal blessing. They all know these prayers. And, unlike the Metropolitan Opera, there are no subtitles.

A priest flatteringly introduced the couple leading the seminar. They had been married for seven years. They had four children.  He was active with St. Vincent de Paul (a charity), and she taught natural family planning and organized bake sales—or something like that. Very nice people. Warm. Good intentioned. Active in the parish.

We participated in several exercises meant to demonstrate the various blessings and obligations of married life. I don’t remember most of them. I do remember we were asked to exchange wallets with our partners early in the morning and hold them until lunch break. Rich and I laughed at the discomfort of the youngsters around us: we knew each other’s PINs, mothers’ maiden names, social security numbers. When my husband and I got married, we had already been living together for eight years—the point at which most couples in California call it quits.  We not only had been shopping with each other’s credit cards, we knew enough about each other’s financial identities to buy a house in the other’s name if we felt like it.

Meanwhile, the skinny 19-year-old girl primly sitting next to us gingerly handed her eel-skin wallet to the gangsta-fied dandy slouched in his folding chair next to her, backwards baseball cap jauntily color-coordinated with his blue-striped boxer briefs. The toothpick in his mouth was an extra. When the couple leading the course suggested, we aren’t going to ask you to give your partner your car keys, but you might as well do that too, backwards baseball cap grinned around his toothpick and said, yeah, like that’s going to happen—ain't nobody touching my ride.

The couple asked by show of hands, how long each couple had been together. One month: almost everyone. Two months: a few hands drop. Six months: several more couples down. One year: several more bite the dust. Two years: a quarter of the room still has their hands in the air. Three years: just me and Rich and the only other couple over 25. Four years: just us. So, how long have you been dating, the man asks. (His wife barely said a word the whole day.) We giggle, Rich coughs, and I pipe up: We’ve been living together for eight years, I say proudly.

This was not, apparently, a point in our favor. But it did generate another round of questions by show of hands: How many of you have children? How many of you are expecting? How many of you currently live together? Catholics are nothing if not fecund. There were a handful of sinners with multiple children already between them. At least two buns in the oven.  And a scattering of couples like us merely living in sin.

Natural family planning was discussed. And by discussed, I mean we were handed pamphlets directing us to organizations and persons who could inform us about natural family planning if we were interested. We were sternly reminded that the church does not condone artificial means of contraception. The couple said they practiced natural family planning, and they reported, it worked pretty well for them. I’m guessing child number four had netted the “pretty well” qualifier. See, fecund.

I looked at the cover of the pamphlet and asked, so, you interested in spinning this roulette wheel? Rich shook his head no with the seriousness and vehemence some of the other men had reserved for their wallets and car keys.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults: Stories of My Negotiations with the Catholic Church

My husband is Catholic. He is and was a “cradle” and “cafeteria” Catholic—which tends to mean for Americans attendance at Sunday, Christmas and Easter mass, practicing “unnatural” birth control, tithing irregularly, lax observance of the holy days of obligation, and a jovial and comfortable disagreement with Rome on a wide range of topics.  What he wasn’t comfortable with was getting married outside the church.

From that concession—yes, I’ll get married by a priest in a Catholic church—came a snowballing avalanche of other concessions. When Protestants get married, they order their clothes, plan a reception, and schedule a date with the pastor for whatever site they have chosen for the vows.

There is process by which one is married Catholic. Catholics can only take the Rite of Marriage, one of the seven sacraments of the church, on consecrated ground, normally a Catholic church or chapel. Catholics must prepare for the Rite of Marriage by taking Pre-Cana; a course on marriage usually taught by a married couple whose relationship is exemplary in the parish. After taking the course, the unmarried couple takes a several-hundred question Scantron compatibility test and discusses the results with the priest who will be performing the marriage. The bride, if she is not Catholic and does not intend to convert, in this example, me, will have to write a letter to the local Bishop requesting permission to marry the Catholic, explaining why she will not be converting, and promising to raise all children conceived in the marriage as Catholics. Finally, it is necessary for the practicing Catholic to take the Rite of Reconciliation prior to receiving the Rite of Holy Matrimony. At some point, the couple provides copies of their baptismal records—the practicing Catholic also providing proof of First Communion and Confirmation in the Church.

And then you have to plan the wedding and reception.

When the couple finally marries, they give each other the Rite of Matrimony; it is the only rite of the Catholic Church in which lay people minister to each other—or so our officiating priest told us.

Each step in the process of marrying a Catholic posed a new set of discussions and compromises. Twenty years into this relationship, I am still in the thick of negotiation with the Catholic Church.  My husband does not appear to be negotiating anything, but as he is fond of reminding me, I cannot possibly pretend to know his soul. I let him think so.

This, then is the story of my journey with the Catholic faith told in bits and pieces as it occurs to me when it occurs to me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar: The Apple, Candied

Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky filmed as live action in the visually lush style of Terrence Malick's Thin Red Line, but with all its symbolism articulated in leaden expositional dialogue.  Eye candied Gia-land as the setting for a culture war fairytale pitting tree-huggery against corporate avarice...not as good as Miyazaki's or Malick's work, but as an immersive environment in I-max 3-D, there are much worse places to spend an afternoon.