I’ve attended Catholic mass in three languages. In English, three times a week plus Sundays with my mother, as a uniform-wearing student at Saints Peter and Paul School. In Italian, thirty years later, at St. Peter’s Basilica—he didn’t know it because we weren’t speaking in the wake of my parents’ divorce, but in the shadow of the Pietà, I prayed for my father to have healing and peace. And the one I sought completely on my own: Spanish, by myself, at All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, Virginia, for reasons that are up for exploration.
The Mass, and perhaps this is true in the services of other denominations and faiths to varying degrees, is highly ritualized and follows a clear pattern (especially if you heard it four times a week while your brain cells were still forming), so that even in a foreign language, you get the gist. This is the fourth Sunday in ordinary time. Transubstantiation—the priest, an earthly human, blesses the wine and wafers, turning them into the blood and body of Jesus Christ himself, exactly as a baker turns yeast and water into bread.
As a child, I was starry-eyed and transfixed by all of this magic. My home life was shrouded in darkness; I sensed this long before I had words to express it. My father’s battles with suspected mood disorders (we can’t say for sure as he never sought treatment) prompted emotionally abusive behavior toward my mother and me, and ultimately, physical abuse against her, which was when the divorce came. I grew up terrified that the eggshells I walked on would crack and make noise. I became savant-like at knowing exactly what to say, and when to hide, to try and ward off the next storm. The worst of it was decades in the distance when I attended those first Masses in my plaid uniform, when my feet did not touch the ground as I sat in the pews. But it took no prophet to know where we were headed.
So the idea of a heavenly God watching over me, and the Blessed Mother beseeching Him on my behalf, a ceremony of unchanging certainty, sins washed away by a few short prayers and the blessing of a holy man who spoke directly for Jesus—this was pure bliss.
By the time I found the Spanish-language Mass, I was an adult working in local government, running elections. Thus, projecting absolute political neutrality was a must, and I had a natural instinct for it. I kept my opinions to myself on social media and even in conversations at the grocery store, lest someone who knew someone should overhear me. I would tell my staff, “When we work here, we leave our opinions at the door.”
When members of the public, and sometimes even elected officials, walked through those same doors, they were bound by no such principle. Many people registered to vote with smiling faces and went on their way; some thanked us for the work we did. But some felt the need to make sure we knew exactly why they were registering and who or which party they intended to vote for. They spewed their political views like geysers, ending with leading interrogatory phrases such as “…you know?” Whether anyone agreed on the inside or not, I expressly prohibited employees from joining in and even supplied them with a list of reflex-teflon responses to have at the ready: “Well, you are very passionate, so we’re glad you’ve registered today.” Et cetera.
The very hardest days were when voters—all of whom I was sworn to serve (truly sworn; I had to raise my right hand at the courthouse to take the job)—voiced opinions that were plainly xenophobic. There were plenty of remarks that gouged my soul, but the ones in the “foreigners=bad” category were most common. Manassas has a large Hispanic population. I don’t want to repeat the specific comments I heard. They were ignorant, misplaced, painful—to me and my staff, to the whole country and the entire universe as far as I was concerned, but I think that at this point in late 2016, the Hispanic community has heard these epithets quite enough. Perhaps this is a mistake—perhaps I should repeat them in order to bear witness. Either way, the whole thing made me ill—the prejudice, the comments, and most of all, the fact that I felt I could not rebuke them aloud. I got “lucky” in that there was never a Hispanic voter in the office when this happened—I told myself I would at least speak up at that point—but it didn’t make me want to scream any less.
So I decided I wanted to learn to speak Spanish. Occasionally, voters who spoke English as a second language would have benefited from moderate assistance from a Spanish-speaking staff member (though usually it wasn’t needed). Still, we didn’t have anyone, and I wanted to be able to provide that assistance, and to be able to think the rebukes to the slurs in my head in Spanish. This would be my form of rebellion.
I used DuoLingo and Rosetta Stone. I watched Spanish-language cartoons on Univision. Handy Manny—Manny a la Obra. “Hola, Manny!” “Hola, herramientos!” (his tools). My meager understanding grew, though too slowly for me, and I wanted opportunities for immersion without patronizing Spanish-speakers by asking them individually to practice with me. The local Catholic church offered Spanish-language Masses, and I decided that was my opportunity. I could sit quietly in the back, not bother anyone, and let the language wash over me and sink in. I hoped that because I knew the Mass so well, I could begin to cobble together fluency.
I wanted immersion. And I got it.
All Saints is a large church. I don’t have great spatial sense, but I estimated that 1,000 people were there. People everywhere. The parking lot, the lobby, the sanctuary teemed with people and talk. I could see that a group recitation of the Rosary was already in progress. (It should be noted that I had neglected to look at the calendar and so hadn’t realized it was Palm Sunday, one week before Easter). There was no English spoken anywhere, not one word. I was bathed in Spanish, its musical phonemes swirling around me like a flock of butterflies. I felt exhilarated and out of place. I had the ridiculous thought that I was glad I had dark hair and olive skin (my ancestry is Italian) so that maybe I wouldn’t stand out so much, as if my cartoon deer eyes and total lack of speech wouldn’t do the trick. A smiling greeter handed me a bilingual hymnal, and I felt a gust of relief blow through me (what a moment of privilege—for so many immigrants around the world, their lives and the lives of their children depend on learning the language of their new country. Not that I had any idea how many of my fellow Americans at church that day were recent immigrants or had lived in this land since California was stolen from Mexico).
The sanctuary was so crowded that I nearly had to sit on the floor, until a man made room for me among his family members in a pew. A band played far across the room, which I knew only by sound, because they were invisible behind the sea of humans. The sermon was fierce in tone. I was so proud when my ear picked up even a single word. When singing was in order, I was in luck. The young woman standing next to me had a strong, melodious voice, so I tried to lean toward her sidelong and listen without getting caught, as though I were a seventh grader cheating on a test by copying her paper. I tried to sing along a little. The only Spanish words I managed to say out loud that day were “La paz, la paz,” as we all shook hands (the short version of “Peace be with you.”)
I left enveloped by a giddy tingling at having been drenched in the language. Certainly it redoubled my efforts toward studying Spanish and communicating with my neighbors and voters. But the giddiness sprang from something else as well.
There had been a canyon-sized gash of years between this day and the last time I had gone to church. There are a lot of reasons for it, one being that after junior high school and the sacrament of Confirmation, my mother stopped making me. When I went off to college, I dove into an ocean of Shakespeare and Thoreau and would have been happy to drown in it. I began to awaken to politics and history and what happens when those ideas and religious doctrine collide. I started to feel uncomfortable, doubtful, angry with the idea of a bearded man who purportedly loved me but for the smallest infraction would cast me into a torrent of fire. And it’s not hard to imagine why.
But what I disdained most consciously as I grew into adulthood—and started watching the news—was that I was expected to do more than believe in the simple graces of the teachings of Jesus in order to belong. The kindly Sisters of Saints Peter and Paul School became a hazy sort of dream, and the shoulds piled up like a landfill. I should give money. I should detest and turn away from a huge number of people because their sexual preferences may have conflicted with seven or eight words cherry-picked from the Old Testament and then melted down by so many warped blacksmiths, and re-forged into spears. I should most definitely cleanse myself of my political views, which had become synonymous with who I am: pro-choice, pro-contraception, pro-all kinds of things that the faithful, or at least those claiming to be so, were screaming in hot-faced, vitriolic opposition to daily on my TV. I should avert my eyes while children were abused by the living emissaries of Christ himself.
So I stopped going. I made a shining belief in the causes of the dispossessed my religion, and Che Guevara, Gloria Steinem, Norman Thomas, Audre Lorde, Hillary Clinton my saints. I volunteered for the Obama campaign. I read books and articles about the Taliban, the American civil rights movement, the “disappeared” from Argentina’s Dirty War. I took the elections job, and I wouldn’t even put up a Christmas tree in the break room of our office. I rolled my eyes at mentions of religious faith and especially at the idea that everything happened under the umbrella of a wisdom passing understanding, since nearly every historical injustice I studied had been perpetrated in the name of God.
Still, as an undergraduate, arguably my most heathenistic time (oh, those Women’s Studies courses), I joined a Methodist church choir when my roommate asked. I told myself it was because they needed someone who could play piano and guitar. Even now, I say the Hail Mary at the lowest points in my life. I tell myself it’s because the rituals of childhood are comforting, even though I “know” I am talking to no one at all. And by the time I decided to attend All Saints as an exercise in office politics, Pope Francis had come along. And I couldn’t look away. From his intoxicating inclusiveness, his washing of convicts’ feet, his assertions that the traditional notion of God was outdated and that nature could be my church, his now-iconic statement that “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” And his Spanish. Ideas intermingled in my head into a stew of confusion. Every time the Pope popped up in my Facebook feed, I clicked and read. I felt my eyes widen and dart their way through his words. Im must have been thirsting, wishing—maybe begging—that he would say something that would make me want to be Catholic again. Something that would give me permission, something that would allow me to walk into a church as my whole self, heathen views and all—leaving nothing at the door.
So what was I really seeking that day? An enriched ability to stick it to the racists in my town, or something altogether different? After all, I could have gone any number of places, really, to search for immersion in Spanish, not the least of which were the dozens of colleges in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC, where I could have taken an actual Spanish course. And before I left the elections office, I had more than one occasion to say, “Thank you for registering,” but to think, Pendejo. But the sense of satisfaction was much more hollow than I had hoped for.
I would love to have a set of unquestionable guidelines to live by, the framework that organized religion appears to provide. It seems like it would make life so much simpler. Every calamity provides a lesson. Every tragedy is a jigsaw puzzle piece, patiently waiting for the afflicted to find the precise place where it fits within the mind of God. And if those efforts fail, they may simply lean against their Heavenly Father, and trust that it has happened according to His capital-lettered Will.
My earthly father would certainly have liked for me to view Him this way. Every one of us has a primal wound in need of healing, a curdled emptiness that wails inside us as we walk through each day, plastering on the smiles we wish for others to see, the cloaks of neutrality we hope will hide our misery, the suits of teflon we hope will muffle the wailing and deflect the pain. No wonder so many people flock to the flocks. But there at the door are the Karl Roves and Jerry Falwells and Sarah Palins of the world, waiting unseen with the weaponized words of the Lord to melt down and re-forge our desperation into instructions for the ballot box, a comfort and belonging made of division from each other, and of writing checks.
I can’t be a part of it.
But one of the great gifts of adulthood (and psychotherapy) is the ability to stop the barreling train of thoughts and look around. What I was rejecting at All Saints and in the days to come was one wave in an infinite sea of spiritual traditions. The Catholicism of my youth, steeped in family dysfunction and ancient myth, coated in 21st century politics and human-made stricture. There are mountainous heaps of others. There are scholars who question, intellectuals who can separate their politics from their faith, people for whom the church is their only community, countless acts of charity. Still, the organizations will never be for me. What I lost that day was religion, but faith was all around me.
Faith in what? The answer is different for everyone. For some, it may lie in going to church to pray to an anthropomorphic God. For others, it may be meditating every day. As long as the result is kindness, and not cruelty or imposition of one’s own beliefs upon others, there is no judgment from me, and that in itself is a kind of liberation. The mystery of faith may lie in making peace with unanswerable questions. Faith that it is in the seeking, in committing acts of unrequited generosity, in appreciating the beauty of the everyday that we truly touch the divine. For me, that means studying Spanish. It means using language, my currency, to try to bring people together. It means quiet moments at home with my husband and our animals; gazing at the expanse of the ocean under a canopy of stars and feeling my wondrous insignificance; laying my heart at the feet of a dear friend and taking hers in my hands. I feel it most in the miraculous goodness of ordinary people, people who are made of light, people who walk through life knowing that one day they will die, and still reach out their hands to others and say, Peace be with you. People who say, La paz.