Catholics are going to hell. I know this because the second Southern Baptist phase of my mother’s religious evolution coincided with my formative years, and she told me so. Repeatedly. This alone would have made catholic boys wildly attractive to me, had I known any in my small Appalachian town. As fate would have it, I didn’t actually meet any until years and years later, after my mother transitioned into her Extra Terrestrials Created the Universe phase. And wouldn’t you know it? I married the first one I met.
While engaged, we sat before a vicar who unwittingly blew the starting whistle on what became, for me, a seventeen year wrestling match with Catholicism. By that time, I didn’t believe in marriage or God, but since both were important to the man I intended to spend the rest of my life with, I thought, what the hell? This was before I learned the important lesson that things you don’t believe in can still eat you right up. Correction: This was the beginning of that lesson, and another story for another time.
The vicar emphasized that the Catholic Church would never recognize my marriage to my catholic fiancé unless I had my first marriage annulled. I had so many questions.
The first being, the church recognized my first marriage, the one where two non-Catholics got married outside of a catholic church? Yes. They did.
Secondly, but the church won’t recognize a Catholic’s marriage if it takes place outside of the Catholic Church? That is correct.
Third, how does that make even a little bit of sense? Cannon law. But for the low, low price of some tens of hundreds of dollars, the Church can erase the first marriage, write the second one, and we could live holy ever after. Happiness not guaranteed. Installment plans available. Must be over the age of reason. Offer invalid outside of the continental U.S..
In the end, we hired a retired pastor who ran a wedding chapel beside a laundromat and imported him to the North Raleigh Hilton where we intended to have a non-religious ceremony. Our plans were foiled when the father of the groom slipped the reverend a twenty to insert a reading of one of the Corinthians and the Lord’s Prayer.
Yea. That’s where our plans went awry.
For the next decade I continued to butt heads with the Church through a botched conversion and then at every point along the arc of our marriage; birth, death, infidelity, divorce…. And then it was over. When you’re not catholic and find yourself no longer married to someone who is, all of that just falls away. But not quickly if you’re a Virgo that just doesn’t let shit go.
Almost another decade has passed and I find myself remarried, this time to a man who converted to Catholicism in order to marry his ex-wife. He remains mum about how much he ever believed, but he stopped practicing when that marriage ended. And like the beliefs of my mother before me, mine have also evolved. I still don’t believe in marriage, but I believe in mine. I do believe in God now, but not in an institutional kind of way.
Last year I began a pilgrimage to unravel the mysteries of passion, something my mother had, but that I lack. It started with an itinerary to put myself in the way of passionate people in order to better understand them. I’m still processing what I did and did not get from my trip to Graceland for Elvis’ birthday last month, and happily planning for my trip to St. Peter’s Basilica for Easter mass next month. It has occurred to me that unlike my trip to Memphis, maybe I should prepare a little for my trip to Rome. So in addition to meat and all beverages that are neither water nor alcoholic, this Lenten season I am giving up my long grapple with Catholicism.
On this Ash Wednesday morning I sat in St. Catherine of Sienna’s parking lot and silenced my cell phone to the best of my ability. I ran through the mental checklist of rituals from all those years ago when we attended St. Raphael every time we visited my in-laws in Pittsburgh. I remembered to cross myself, but forgot to genuflect. For the first time ever, I did not feel like an imposture. I wasn’t there out of some familial obligation. I was there seeking understanding, just like everyone else; even if not understanding of the same thing.
The music was simple and the ritual of it all was quite moving. The priest read the Gospel, then in the brief silence between the Blessing and the Distribution of Ashes, my phone received an e-mail – a sound that apparently does not turn off with any of the settings I adjusted in the car. The perturbed look on the faces of the elders around me was no match for the horrified look of the little girl sitting immediately to my left as the four notes of the Mockingjay whistle rang out loud and true from my purse sitting between us on the pew. I volunteered her as tribute and gave her a perturbed look of my own. On the outside, it might have looked like a frown and wrinkled eyebrows, but what I was trying to convey on the inside was, Hey kid, thanks for taking this fall for me. I owe you one.
If by any chance my mother was right about where these people are headed, I’m probably going to be spending an awful lot of time with them in the afterlife.