Thursday, January 6, 2011

Trials of a lapsed Catholic

"Are you going to go up?"

Ben sat with me and my siblings before midnight Mass at St. Paul on the Lake, a beautiful Catholic church on Lake St. Clair whose accompanying grade school I attended until I was thirteen. We had arrived over half an hour early, because that's how early you have to be there to get a seat on Christmas Eve, and I was explaining what would happen during Communion. Namely, that the congregation would proceed to the front of church and Ben could either wait in the pew (especially on Christmas, this is not an unpopular option for non-Catholics in attendance), or he could walk with us and simply not take the bread or wine. "Are you going to go up?" Ben asked me.

Half an hour: it wasn't enough time to answer.

The short answer was, of course, yes. ("I love Catholics," my fellow lapsed member Adam says. "Transubstantiation? No problem!") I may have chosen atheism, but I was born into Catholicism. It's like dyeing your hair brown after growing up a redhead; you might, with time, mimic the appropriate temperament, but full brunette-ness always eludes you because you spent your childhood with the vague awareness that someone might, again, try to light your hair on fire to draw some cruel-comical parallel. Maybe it makes you a little jumpier; maybe you're quicker to shove other kids on the playground. You can dye your hair any color you want, but you never really stop being a ginger.

So with Catholicism.

Especially in church, the redheadedness of my Catholic upbringing overwhelms me. The prayers work my lips, the Eucharist crosses my tongue, the Mass pulls me into the sit-stand-kneel-sing dance that I've been performing for decades. I recite the Apostles' Creed with as much thought and understanding--and certainty--as I sing along to "Love, Love Me Do" on WOMC. Catholicism is my background, my culture, my tradition; however small now, it is a part of who I am.

In this spirit, when I fell away from the Church in high school, I decided to continue attending Mass with my family. I don't go often--I don't think I've been more than twice a year since before college--but when I do, I sing the songs, I say the prayers, I take the Eucharist. It makes my mom happy (or at least prevents an immediate conflict), and, honestly, it feels familiar. Not comfortable--I can't ever really be comfortable in a place that echoes--but I remember what it's like to believe, even if I don't anymore, and it is familiar to go through the motions.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I had made my peace with Catholicism.

Cut to Christmas Eve, and a freshly imagined scene of my whole family joining the procession for Communion while Ben was left behind, alone, in our pew. I could easily justify smoothing over my internal contradictions when they were mine alone and not really at stake while I sleepwalked through Mass. But now, my internal contradictions had materialized in this freckle-faced man with a Quaker background. A man whom I didn't want to smooth over at all, and who couldn't take Communion with my family.


Being a lapsed Catholic, I think, has taught me a lot about being an adult: about knowing when to hold 'em, yes, and also knowing when to fold 'em, so to speak. I have no problem genuflecting on Easter and brunching with Ben every other Sunday of the year. It is probably this disposition, for better or worse, that allows me to contemplate a career in law. So my solution to the conflict at hand tended toward compromise.

"You can come with us," I said. "Come up with us and just don't take anything."

My sister, who has Celiac's disease, does this: she walks up for Communion but skips the wafers and heads straight for the wine. (Another reason Catholics are so great: sure, we believe in Transubstantiation, that the bread and the wine actually transform into the body and blood of Jesus Christ when the priest blesses them during Mass. But my sister has a pretty severe gluten allergy, so she doesn't eat the wafer. Because, body of Christ or not, it's obviously still bread. Also, Celiac's notwithstanding, Catholics love booze.) I figured Ben could do what my sister does, but avoid both the wafers and the wine.

Which, after some coaxing, he did.

I worry, abstractly, that a stronger person might have stuck by her convictions. She might have stayed behind in the pew with her partner, an action in line with her beliefs anyway. A stronger person might have.

As a lapsed Catholic, still plagued by redheadedness, I did not.


  1. Your heart remains open.

  2. Nice piece. I get it.

  3. When has Ben ever passed up food and booze?!?

  4. When I was rebelling against my Catholic upbringing, I used to go up to the altar, skip the host and instead collect dirty, puzzled looks. It severely disappointed my family, so I quit church all together soon after. I haven't been to mass in over 10 years and imagined the macabre rituality of it all would make me dreadfully anxious.

    You should try to track down the "Louie" episode about his experiences with Catholic school and his guilt over the crucifixion.

  5. Here, I found it:,vepisode,1,0

    I don't know how to hyperlink, so copy and paste.