Lent will be upon us soon. Holy days bring with them many memories and feelings. I was abused as an adult as many of us were, so I was able to keep the fairy tale of a holy institution of a church and infallible people living in human form until I was much older.
Church was always a comfort and a constant in an uncertain and ever-changing world. It was something done as a family once a week. Going to mass was always in there at Christmas…should we go before or after we opened our gifts?
Then school began and we as five year-olds learned religion. Not about “religions” and that some people had different beliefs….just “religion” …. the Catholic kind….the only kind that I knew existed. We were taught about God and the bible and Jesus and we drew pictures and we learned what was considered good and bad and how to please Jesus, but mainly how to say the right things to please the nuns who were our teachers and our parents who were paying for our education.
There was already a pack mentality. You lived in the box if you wanted to fit in. And what kid doesn’t want to fit in? I mean, the biggest fear when you are a kid is losing your parents or your sense of security and belonging. So you are going to do what you are asked and you are going to please. And kids don’t always know what religion means. We had rules, you know? No meat on Fridays. So one Friday when I brought in a cheese sandwich, one of my classmates got an attitude. She told me I could not eat that cheese sandwich because “cheese comes from mice and mice are meat”.
So we as kids understood that school and the nuns and church and the priests were kind of an extension of our parents. We had to confess the things we did at home at church if we knew it would not please Jesus because we knew it would please the priest and all of the grown-ups to do that. We knew that if we did anything morally questionable at school, our parents would hear about it and we would be in trouble. The religious people at school, like our parents, were able to lecture us and punish us as needed.
One time in the sixth grade, the boys in the class got to form a football team after school. One of the girls, a friend of mine and an independent thinker ahead of her time, asked one of the teachers at gym if the girls in the class could do cheerleader practice after school to be able to cheer at the boys’ games and practices. No uniforms. Just us in our after school jeans and our tiny 6th grade breasts covered in layers of shirts and sweaters and such. Nothing resembling the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders….just us girls wanting to have our own activity.
But it had to go through the principal and the principal would not hear of it. I don’t know why, but the answer was no. So my friend felt this was unfair. She wrote a letter to the principal, a huge elderly nun with thick glasses and a prominent nose, to tell her that she didn’t think it was fair. After all, it was after school hours and everything. My friend passed the letter around and had all of us girls sign it. Well, signing that letter turned out to be the moral equivalent of taking the side of the pope over the king of England in the mid 1500’s. There was outrage from the main office and we were all called in one by one and interrogated as to whether we were aware of what we were signing and if we knew how very wrong it was to speak back to the principal once a decision was made. Highly disrespectful.
And of course under interrogation, all of us good Catholic girls who said we would die for Jesus rather than deny Him, lied and said we had not read the letter before we had signed it. In essence, we were moral weaklings who threw our friend under the bus. And I for one, was rewarded for doing that. My teacher said she knew I would never have signed the letter because I was such a good person. I never told her the truth. I wanted her to think I was a good person. Good or not, we were all punished. We had to stay after everyone was let out at noon for a holiday. We stayed a full day and could not leave until we memorized whatever was given to us.
Would that happen these days? I don’t know. These days the school may be charged with discrimination for not allowing the girls to have their request. In fact, having an all male football team may come into question as well. That is what my friend really wanted to do. She wanted to play football. Cheerleading was the best thing a girl could hope for at the time.
Thing is, we had attempted to set foot out of the box we didn’t know we lived in and we were punished for doing so. Rules were rules. And ultimately, the fear of leaving the safety of the box kept us from venturing too far. I think this is something to which many people can relate.
Another way church was mixed with family was that one of the priests from church would stop by and visit my grandmother once a week. I never questioned that. It was just the priest’s job to check in on shut in’s and bring them communion and make sure they were okay spiritually. And that is how I saw things from my time living in the box when I questioned nothing. Now I look at that differently. Exactly how much was my grandmother contributing to the church for this visit? Was this priest left in her will when she passed away? These are questions that I sadly ask myself now.
Someone mentioned in a comment how wonderful the good old days were. They said men were men and women were women and they each knew their roles in life. Life was simple. And women going to work was the beginning of the end of that.
Although it sounds like a quaint old fashioned opinion, I could relate to that. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and for the most part, moms were at home and people didn’t get divorced and our neighborhood was completely white and life was pretty much mapped out for everyone. Life felt safe and predictable and you learned not to step outside of the box or question anything.
But life did change. And it didn’t go as planned. And all of a sudden, women were supposed to go back to work after having children. And it was not what I had planned or I had wanted. It felt unnatural to me to leave my babies. But I had already begun to leave the box. I had been pregnant before I got married. And I hid it as carefully as possible, gaining 13 pounds by the time I had my first baby….totally afraid to gain weight so people would see and being fed by my mom, who til this day thinks the best way to eat candy is to chew it and spit it out so you get the taste but not the calories.
Today when I look back at the good old days, I realize that I was privileged and I didn’t realize it. Until I myself broke a rule and lived outside of the box for the first time, I never realized what it was like for anyone else who lived in this world who did not have a complete family or a mom who didn’t have to work or a home and food and I never worried about my parents not being responsible for taking care of things or having them abandon me or the church not being there for us.
I fit within the box. I ticked off all of the boxes. I was a white female who did not question authority, I was attracted to the opposite sex, I did pretty well in school, my ambition was to work in a female-dominated profession as a secretary to continue to serve the male -dominated sector in the boss department until I married and had children. My culture blended in nicely with the neighbors. In fact, the biggest culture “shock” in my young life was when we had Italian neighbors move in and the husband was from Italy. He had a heavy accent and cooked heavenly Italian food and he became my dad’s best friend for life. But that was not venturing outside of the box. They went to our church. They had the same beliefs.
I am not sure whether it would be harder for someone to venture into the box that we had back then, or to try to leave the box. But sooner or later, both things began to change. My mom’s neighborhood where I grew up is now more diversified. Many people are non-Catholic. There are people from different cultures and races. There are gay couples buying houses together and unmarried people living together. Even people who don’t have any children live on the street now.
But for me, as someone who grew up within the box with its rules and its limits and its invisible cloak of control as we were all molded to be one and the same, going past its limits and even beginning to see the truth of the box’s existence has always been uncomfortable. And yet, in having to grow outside of the box and away from the realms of other’s approval, I have grown in a way that I never would have otherwise.
I have seen truths that I don’t believe I ever would have seen in the comfort of conformity. I feel I have learned more outside of the box on my own and have searched for more answers myself than when I would have living in the safety of knowing only what others told me I needed to believe.
The truth is oftentimes not very pretty. There is power and prejudice and fear and hatred….and coverups. And it can feel so overwhelming to be able to now see the giants and monsters who only once existed in the books you mother read to you and to feel powerless.
I can tell you what helps me and what I turn to now for comfort and guidance. I no longer feel the need for someone outside of myself to tell me what I need to be doing. I look inside. I meditate. I shut off for awhile. I go within. I still believe in the basic message but not the church. I may still give something up for Lent not because the church says I must but because I eat too much chocolate and I drink too much soda and I have not been motivated to do a lot because I am home with no place to go so my body needs respect. I am the spirit and I am my church. And I still believe in guides and guardian angels. I just have a hard time linking that up with a building that is built with the money of the people that it destroys. Or listening to the words of someone who may be getting away with criminal acts.
Have a good week. Have a safe week. Take this week’s poll. Remember that the meeting for those abused over the age of 18 meets weekly on Sunday evenings.
Also, just a bit of trivia for you. Last year, this blog reached people in 43 countries. Not only the blog, but your comments are being read around the world. To think I used to want to write sermons. Sending good thoughts to everyone.