Monday, January 10, 2005

Prostrate Before the Holy Virgin

“God works in mysterious ways. You think you have a plan, but God has His own plan.”
It was the weekend and time for my theology lesson from my mother, the patron saint of finding something good out of the deepest, darkest pile of shit life has a way of throwing at you. After a million years as her son I was used to it. Still, I could tell something was different in her voice that made her proselytizing different, more urgent than before.

“Want to tell God a good joke?” she said over the phone. “Tell him you have plans.”

“Yeah, ma, yeah.” I was barely listening still there was something in her voice that was different. I could not put my finger on it – it was just a feeling. I was having a hard time of it lately, and she knew it, though I don’t know how she knew it.

“Ma, I really do believe everything works out in the end. I know I need to keep believing, but can’t you let me keep faith in my own way?”

I could hear her deflate over the phone. “He knows what’s best for you,” she said, “even if you don’t. Oh I know you and your brother laugh at me and how you used to laugh whenever your Father and I took you to church.”

This was somewhat true. My mother was a Catholic witch, and we did laugh at her adherence to the rituals, spells, incantations and the patriarchy, but I could not tell her this. “Your Father is turning over in his grave,” she said.

“When did we make fun of you?” I complained. I heard the defensiveness in my own voice going into the handset of the phone.

“Oh you know, laughing at the priests and the people who attended mass, you always laughed at the readings. Then as you got older you brought all that godless literature into the house, Nietzsche and Marx. Would it have killed you to read some Thomas Aquinas? Some St. Augustine? How about some Papal Encyclicals?”

In point of fact, I had read some Aquinas and some Augustine and the all Vatican Council II documents but I was in no mood to argue.

I thought of my Dad.

“Well, I’m sorry, Ma. Kids should never treat their parents that way – especially mothers. You know how you held us together. You know, especially after Dad died.”

“Oh, I know,” she consoled “You were just kids. What did you know?”

But I could still feel the sting in her voice. It never occurred to me until just then how painful parenting could be. I knew it was fraught with perils and dilemmas and all sorts of trade offs, but no one ever talks about the pain of parenting.

“You’ll come back to God, just you wait. You are still young.”

“Yeah, I know, there are no atheists in foxholes and on deathbeds.”

“That’s right, dear, and even if you never go back to Him, I had you baptized you are His whether you like it or not.”

I felt like I was part of a cult; like I was part of some X-files episode where the alien ships would return and claim what was theirs and I would be among them.
I heard the loon clock go off in the background over the phone. I always hated that clock, but my Dad had bought it for my Mom.

“Still got that Loon clock, huh?” I asked her.

“Isn’t it wonderful? You father bought that for me the year before he died.”
I interrupted her.

“Yeah Mom, I know, you’ve told me before.”

“It’s such a sad sound, don’t you think?” she said after a slight pause. “I know how much you boys hated it – still your Father and…”

I stopped her there. I didn’t want her to finish the thought. “I know, Ma, I know.”

“Still”, her voice rebounded as though she had been asleep and was suddenly awakened, “that reminds me – it’s almost time for Mass. Do you want to make an old lady happy and come take me to Mass? There is a Mass over at Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt and Father Donally is saying the Mass. You remember him, don’t you? If we get there early we can get a good seat and be the first to receive communion.”

I stifled a chuckle. She didn’t realize what she had said. “Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt?” I asked.

“No, I meant Peace – what did I say?”

“You said ‘Guilt’ – you said ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt.” I was laughing now and I felt the same way as when my brother and I would make fun of people in Church, and the priests and even the statues. Like the time someone broke off Jesus’ first finger while cleaning the statue. His right hand was held up to his heart with the first two fingers extended, only with the broken pointer finger it looked like Jesus was flipping us the bird. This kept my brother and me laughing for months until they fixed it.

“You know what I meant,” she said, “Don’t be a weisenheimer!”

Weisenheimer? That was something my Dad used to call us. I never understood where he got that expression. My Dad was a strict German Lutheran with family from upstate New York. How did words like “weisenhemimer” creep into his vocabulary?

“Did Dad really believe in all this, Ma? I mean the religion and all,” I asked her out of the blue. It caught her square and unready and she flailed for a response.

“Oh, why, I suppose – you know he converted to Catholicism, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I knew that,” I responded. This always made me think of my Father in a different way – sort of a romantic way – a man willing to forgo his own Lutheran faith for the love of a woman. Still, this was not a great leap of faith, was it? I mean he converted from being a Lutheran to becoming a Catholic. It was not quite like him needing to get circumcised or anything.

I had to change the subject. All this talk about “Our Lady of whatever” made me think of our trip down to Santiago de Chile, years ago, when I took my mother to visit my brother. My brother had been living in one of the worst barrios in Santiago with Maryknoll Missioners and I went with her to visit him.

“Remember the time we were in Santiago, and we went to visit the Lady of Santiago?”
The Lady of Santiago was this huge statue in the center of Santiago that tourists flocked to from all over. It was not quite as large as the famous statue of Jesus that overlooked Rio de Janerio, but it was still pretty big and just as imposing.

“You know, if you ask Mary to bring things to Jesus she will. She will intercede for you.” My mother was still teaching.

“Yes, Ma, I know that. Do you remember when we went there and you were so busy looking up at the statue, you fell over in a small ditch?”

She started to laugh and it made me feel it was okay to start laughing as well.

“Yes, yes, I was laid prostrate before the Holy Virgin,” she tried to get out between huffs of laughter. That is what we told people. We were made prostrate before the Holy Virgin. It was our own personal, private miracle though it was less of a miracle and more of just an act of clumsiness. Still we thought it was pretty funny.

I thought of how she raised eight children, and supported five of them alone without her husband after my Dad died with no income. I thought of those Christmas evenings, the house decorated as best as she could, and how we never went without during that whole time growing up. I remember those times when she sat there with the lights out in the dark, crying and me, playing Christmas carols on my guitar as a teenager, incapable of even reckoning such grief and loneliness let alone being able to do anything about it.

It was at this moment that my faith crystallized. I don’t know if Mary was a Virgin or if God was one person in three. I don’t know if I believed in a first coming or a second coming. But I did believe in the strength of the woman on the other end of this line. I did believe in that sort of resiliency and bounce to life’s misery. I did believe that this is the power that moves the world, no matter what the cynics say and if this is faith, then yes, I believe. And it didn’t matter how I expressed it, but, as in my Mother’s case, it mattered that I lived it.

We talked some more about that trip to Santiago, and I glanced up at the clock.

“Ma, let me hang,” I said. “Let me come over and pick you up and we can go to Mass together.”

I heard an audible gasp on the other end of the phone, then silence. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect she was crying.

“God does work in mysterious ways,” she said.

“Just think of it as just another soul made prostrate before the Holy Virgin.” I said to her.

I heard her giggle, and for the very first time that I can ever recall, she sounded like a little girl.


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