Going Down to the River to Pray

Madi came home from college today.

Jack’s fidgeting gets more frenetic, pacing back and forth between his big sister in the living room, and me in the kitchen.  In my face he whispers desperately, “Is this really how I have to spend my last day of summer?”

I keep my voice low, but I won’t whisper back.  “Yes.  We are doing this for Madi.  You can’t get out of it.  None of us can.  Go enjoy the next few hours.”

Despite an upbringing shunning such things, Madi fell in with a Baptist church earlier in the summer.  They recruited her from table twelve at the Buffalo Wing restaurant where she waited tables the last three summers; invited her out to coffee, then lunch, then church on Sunday mornings and something they call small group on Thursday nights.

Small group is held in member’s homes and is made up of eighteen to twenty five year olds.  Most of them are already married, something that surprised Madi, but not me.  Sexual development and hormones don’t actually follow any indoctrination regarding premarital sex, and I remember vividly the pressure to give holy meaning to the weakness of the flesh.  The most devout will marry young so as not to have sex out of wedlock, while the most human will have sex anyway, but assign some permanence or significance to the relationship for no other reason than to feel right, or righter, with God.  I waited until she asked me to share my insights.

I admit I was leery when Madi made plans to meet the pastor and several of his assistants at a local bistro.  She said they had to meet on Tuesday, because the pastor was going to Mississippi on Wednesday.  My tongue struck quicker than my filter.  “Why?  Does he have to pick up more snakes?”

“How did you know?” she asked with eyes wide, like I was a palm reader telling her some deep, dark secret about herself.

I told her about the small sects of Baptist believers that routinely handle snakes to prove that God is protecting them.  Most of the deaths by snakebite in this country come not from people who accidentally wander into a pit of vipers, but people who are intentionally handling snakes; religious zealots account for a large number of those.

Online, Madi found many pictures of the pastor holding snakes, and she showed me.  Some were long and thick, some were short and striped.  Others were bright green and small as pencils.  Most were constrictors, but all were non venomous.  Begrudgingly, I told her it appeared that he was not a snake handler, but a snake enthusiast.  He does it for hobby, not for sacrament.  Not unlike the difference, I learned when I got married, between an Elvis impersonator and an Elvis tribute artist.

One Sunday afternoon, Madi met us at the local brewery when church let out.  We ate our carried-in burgers and drank our beer.  She mentioned that she was surprised not to run into any church members doing the same; it’s a small town.  Mike and I informed her that Baptists don’t condone drinking.  Or dancing.  Or cards.  I recounted one lovely and lavish wedding I attended at my mother’s church when I was a teen.  The reception was held in the church basement, with a long table of pot luck crocks and fold up chairs lining the walls for people to sit with their Styrofoam plates and eat off their own laps.  No first dance, no toast, no cake cutting ceremony.  Or maybe I’d already gone outside to hang out with the other bored teens by then, because I can’t think of any scriptural reason not to have a cake cutting ceremony – not even if you take or mistake everything quite literally.  A few days later, Madi reported that she’d asked small group about drinking and everyone claimed that they personally would never drink, but didn’t see a problem if someone else wanted to on special occasions.

My biggest concern came one evening while I painted my son’s bedroom.  Across the hall, I heard Madi listening to a podcast of the same hell fire and brimstone indoctrination my mother used to listen to on the radio and satellite television.  As if channeling her dead grandmother, I found her sitting at her desk, sewing something.  I listened quietly from the doorway, and only spoke up when I heard this man rail against ho-mo-sex-shuls and other despicable deviants.  I could not be silent any more.

“Is this okay with you?  This man is preaching hate and intolerance, and is precisely why I didn’t raise you in the church.  This is not Christianity, and it’s not alright.”

She told me she didn’t agree with him, but she was listening because she wanted to know what the church she was attending really believed in.  I took some comfort that if she was still listening and learning, it wouldn’t be long before she couldn’t stomach the lot, either.

Then about a month ago, Madi asked me if anything was on my schedule for August twentydunk eighth.  It was the day before school started for Jack and Cate, but we had no specific festivities for Back-to-School Eve.  And then she invited me to the river, where she planned to be baptized with about seventy other people on that evening.  Their summer recruitment plan had been quite fruitful and I could not help but wonder if there was an award to the top proselytizer; a trip to Mississippi and two free snakes, perhaps?

I felt nothing but worriment last week when I realized that the day was quickly approaching.  But man cannot live by dread alone, so I started planning ways I could take my sense of failure to instill my beliefs and anti-beliefs into my firstborn and turn them into something to look forward to.  Also, I wanted to take some of the gravity and significance out of the day.  I suggested that we tailgate the baptism; show up early with a bucket of chicken and some good tunes.  Apparently my eleven herbs and spices are not that original.  The event starts three hours before the actual dunking.  There is live music and the church is ordering Papa Johns for the masses.   I just hope that the pastor actually ordered pizza and, in the spirit of things, did not get carried away and order anchovies and crust in commemoration of the fishes and loaves.

I understood when she retook a philosophy class that she’d passed, but wanted to replace her grade to improve her GPA.  I voiced my strong desire that she retake driver’s ed before getting her learner’s permit.  It’s okay in my book to re-do things until you get them right, or right enough – but being born again?  She did it perfectly the first time; forty-five minute labor with no complications.  She was such a beautiful, easy child.  I don’t understand why she wants to be born again.  It’s like scoring a 1600 on the SAT and still wanting to take it over.

Jack is right to not want to spend his last day of summer freedom watching his sister sell herself into this church.  But that’s what we’re doing, because she is family.  And because I still hope that the steady, constant voice telling her that God is love, not judgement, not hatred, not damnation will come in louder and clearer than pulpit shouts of indictment and sentencing.  And because if she decides one day to get married, there’s no way I’m letting her have a dry reception in a damp old basement.

In Ordinary Time


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.