Last summer two good friends of mine asked if I’d be the godmother to their then unborn but since deliciously adorable son. I cried and said yes and thank you; grateful for family, more good family. A few weeks later I mentioned that I’d never been confirmed, opting instead to play Dorothy in my middle school production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Rehearsals conflicted with confirmation class and my priorities were clear, despite my mother’s disappointment. When I mentioned this, my good friend gave me a long, quizzical look, “But you agreed to be our baby’s godmother.”
And that was the moment I leaned into a new turn on my spiritual path.
This morning I attended mass at Saint James’ Cathedral in Seattle, in preparation for starting adult confirmation class there this Wednesday, a commitment I wasn’t willing to make four years ago for my brother Frank’s daughter, while the horrors of sexual abuse within the Church were still being unearthed. A lot has happened since then. My brother has passed away. I have two new nieces in need of godparents. And Pope Francis has been elected and become a voice in the world who I want to listen to. He has softened the church I grew up in, to a whole host of people who matter to me including women who have had abortions or exercise their power to choose in other ways. He has taken on climate change seriously and has not only spoken of, but practiced peace. And he’s basically called Donald Trump a schmuck. So suddenly, this feels more like a church, and a religion, and a sangha of sorts, that I can abide in. At least a little.
Saint James’ Cathedral is grand. Towering ceilings balanced on thick, shiny pillars, speckled with light filtered through vivid stained glass. It brought to mind the lions of Saint Mark’s in Venice, where I prayed for my brother’s relief from a vicious mental illness, and the tall, gentle canopy of La Sagrada Familia, the first church I ever wanted to come back to again and again. Saint James is laid out like a cross, seats on four sides and the altar in the middle. Theatre in the round. And, like the Pantheon, there is a circular skylight carved at the top of the center dome, where sunlight and real god beams in.
Parking was always sort of a thing at my church growing up, Saint Vincent de Paul’s in Churchville, NY. And staking your claim to a good pew, also sort of a thing. Getting to the church on time was stressful for my family, as we were always dragging my youngest brother Adam, who happened to be autistic and also very, very loud, along with us, usually clutching an unruly lego model with lots of small, loose parts. Late.
So I got to Saint James’ early. Found a good spot. And then a good spot. Prayed for a little guidance on this path. To be able to ask the right questions, about how Jesus Christ really functions as the only son of God even while we are all his children. And about how the Church can continue in the terrible shadow of such widespread and sinister sexual abuse of children, how does one integrate that hypocrisy with the scripture? And what about ladies? How do they fit into this whole order? God, please help me to ask those questions. In the right way. That won’t get me kicked out of confirmation class. And please help me to hear answers, even when they come from places I don’t expect.
I sat there and thought about all of that. And watched the homeless men shuffle and the suburban moms glide into the pews around me. And I got really quiet, and I cried. Wept really. Sitting there, waiting for mass to begin, with my eyes closed and my heart suddenly so sore. This happens to me in holy places. And sometimes during sex. Also when I’m alone in my house, wandering around, and I suddenly get overwhelmed with gratitude for all the people and love I’ve been gifted. And it happened this morning, in a church, at once so perfectly familiar and so ornate and foreign. I didn’t make any sounds or anything; I just closed my eyes and let the tears run down. A weather pattern playing out, wiped away now and again with one of my brother Frank’s old handkerchiefs marked with “K.”
The mass was hard to understand – not the scripture, but the actual words. While theatre in the round can be an exciting concept, if it is staged under a dome and poorly amplified, it drastically loses its meaning. So I stared at the ceiling, a habit I developed in grade school during those endless Sunday mornings while my mother tried to keep my brothers shushed. I’d count Saint Vincent de Paul’s ceiling tiles, white and simple in that old country church. I vaguely remember coming to 117 or 119 depending on how I’d count the half-tiles on the corners. Saint James’ has an excellent ceiling, ornate and boasting that skylight escape hatch. I wanted to point it out to the little girl with the fidgety ponytail in front of me, as she sped through her block letter word searches and pulled anxiously at her stretch pants.
But then the priest got to my favorite part, when we pray for peace. Not only for our own hearts, he said, but for the world. For the wars in the holy land and the violence that plagues our cities. Peace between our leaders and in our own relationships during times of stress. “Peace be with you,” I extended my hand to the little girl and then her mom, to the quiet man sitting behind me and then to the usher making his way up the aisle, who looked like he might have had Down Syndrome. And also with you.
This is going to be a complicated process, I think. I am grateful to the babies in my life who have challenged me to step foot back there, into the church of my ancestors. The one that gave my grandma Rita a faith so strong and sweet, she seemed to sip from a deeply divine spring and laugh lightly about it when things were hardest. I expect I will be wading through my own deep skepticism and layers of indifference, but I am interested in trying. Curious. How I might come to a holy place of my own, that feels true and that I can share with my family, both the ones who are gone and the ones just arriving, new.