Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Today is Ash Wednesday and it always reminds me of the Catholic envy I had in elementary school, pre-4th grade. It began when I realized that all the Catholic kids in school got to come late on Ash Wednesday AND they had these smudges on their foreheads that were put there on purpose by the priest at church. They got to give something up for the six weeks until Easter. Not something they didn't care about, but something that mattered a lot. Something that would be a sacrifice and require discipline, like ice cream or watching the Partridge Family or roller skating.

We were Unitarians which meant that I could wear whatever I wanted to church and we would hang out in the field next to the church and look at the flowers and play Red Rover. There was no talk of God or Jesus, and definitely no talk of the Devil or Hell. It was all about the community of man and our responsibility to that community. All in all it was pretty boring, but I did look forward to the donuts when the grown ups got finished listening to the boring minister. Being Unitarian meant that I wasn't all indoctrinated in some fundamentalist form of religion and my parents didn't care if I went to church, or temple with my friends of different faiths.

When I went to church with my Catholic friends, I was really envious of the rituals around the Catholic church like the little bird bath in the front for cleaning your hands and the kneeling in the aisle before you got to go in and sit down. I totally dug the incense cage that got swung around emitting smoke that smelled like the incense my dad burned in his office. There were hand gestures and call and response and lots of changing of positions from sitting to on your knees to standing and sitting again. And everyone did it all at the same time - they all knew what to say and when to do stuff. I watched them intently and earnestly mimicked every thing they did. My favorite part was going to the front of the church to have a little cracker snack. I wasn't so crazy about drinking out of the same cup as everyone else even if they did wipe it off. It was only after church when my friend explained that you were supposed to go to confession before you were allowed to get the cracker snack that I realized I had committed a faux pas. She explained the confessional was like a closet that you went into and kneeled which turned the lights off and made it dark and then the priest who was sitting on the other side of the wall in the closet slid open the partition and you told him all your sins.

Being a Unitarian the whole concept of sin eluded me so she had to explain that pretty much everything we do in the course of being human is a sin, like thinking mean thoughts, or wishing that you had Star's cool hairdo, or talking back to your mom - all sin. But if you told the priest about it he would give you some prayers to recite and then you'd be good with God again. I wondered if I was going to go to hell for eating the cracker without getting in the closet and telling the priest about my sins. My friend said that since I wasn't Catholic I couldn't confess, but I shouldn't go up for a cracker the next time.

I was left feeling guilty about having the cracker without confessing and worried that I was going to go to hell which I knew nothing about, but it sounded like a pretty bad place.

I wasn't so keen on going back to church with her after that. I didn't know the moves, I couldn't go to confession, I couldn't get the snack. I didn't want to sit alone in the pew as everyone else went to the front of the church. Everyone would think I was a big sinner.

When I decided to discuss all these heady matters with my father he didn't want me going back to the Catholic church. He said it would mess with my head too much. He told me that sin was a concept made up by the men who ran the church to scare people into doing what they wanted.

And shortly after that I was watching "Chiller" on KTLA - a show that predated Elvira's show, but basically a Sunday afternoon scary movie featuring slasher movies and monster movies. The movie that I saw so soon after my foray into the Catholic church was about a girls Catholic school run by nuns and one very evil looking priest. Students at the school started disappearing under mysterious circumstances and it turned out that those nuns and that priest were actually witches and a powerful warlock doing the Devil's bidding. Looking for a young virgin to be his bride. I had no idea what a virgin was, but I didn't want to be one.

Um, did I mention that I wasn't allowed to watch Chiller because 1) I was prone to serious nightmares and 2) I had a hard time separating truth from fiction when it came to movies. I was like nine and these were simpler times.

So anyway that movie, along with my limited understanding of the Catholic church, my father's comment about "the men in charge making up sin" and the whole idea of going to hell for just being me all left me pretty much traumatized.

All of which gave me the greatest compassion for my friends who were raised in the Catholic church. No wonder they got rid of their virginity as soon as they possibly could.

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