Growing up, I'd go to church or Mass every week with my family. In those days, one did not miss Mass. Coming from a large family (the eldest of six children), we always had two Mass times to choose from, the early one and the 12 Noon Mass. Since my parents were social butterfly types -- Saturday night was a time for neighborhood parties, dinner out or even late night Bridge parties in the dining room -- they often opted for the Noon Mass.
These were the days before Saturday night Masses, so no matter how late Saturday night droned on, the Sunday Mass obligation had to be fulfilled.
Living at home while a journalism school student just one year out of high school, I decided that I no longer wanted to go to Mass at all. I'd come to the conclusion that religion was crackers and that the study of literature and philosophy was far more worthwhile. "Religion is for old ladies and church mice," I wrote in my journal. "Do church mice read philosophy? Do they get into the world of ideas?"
On Sundays I'd tell my parents that I was going to the 7 a.m. Mass when I'd really drive around Chester County, find a place to park the car, such as a corn field (I grew up in the country), returning home in an hour or so. I got away with this for quite some time until I decided that I had to announce to the family that I was now an agnostic.
This happened when I was forced to go to Ash Wednesday service with my mother. We were standing in line to receive our ashes when I abruptly turned around and walked out of the church. It took a second or two for my mother to realize that I was no longer behind her. As I looked over my shoulder I could see her looking back at me in horror.
The look in her eyes told me that she knew what was happening.
My walking out was not a case of feeling faint or sick.
Those were old excuses, especially fainting, because as a boy I'd faint in Mass at least once a month, falling down in the pew till I hit the kneelers as one of the adult men rushed over and carried me out of the church. Usually I'd come to as I was being carried down the center aisle. The adult male would deposit me on a folding chair outside so that I could get some fresh air. My mother would be nearby giving me that worried look.
Why does this boy keep fainting?
The worst faint occurred in the little chapel of Saint Joseph in the Phoenixville hills. When I went down in the pew that Sunday my great aunt was attending church with us. She had never seen me faint before, so when she saw that my mother's reports to her were true, she waited until after I was placed on a folding chair on the church steps -- where I had a recuperative view of fields and trees -- before pronouncing her scary prognosis.
"You're just like your great Uncle John. He was an epileptic, and he would have seizures whenever he went into town and walked down Chestnut Street. Strangers would come to his aid and bring him back to the house. Sometimes he was badly injured."
I did not want to be like my great Uncle John. I knew did not have epilepsy -- at least that's what the doctors said. On a certain level, I always believed that I suffered from a weird spiritual malaise.
I was just a sensitive kid who fainted in church. And I think I fainted for a lot of reasons. Once I remember standing behind a tall gray haired man in Saint Patrick's church in Malvern. The color of the elderly man's hair had a slicked down silvery gleam to it, and I noticed that the more I stared at the man's hair the queasier I felt and the harder it was to take my eyes away. Then, before I realized it, the dizziness came. I tried to fight the onslaught but there wasn't enough time to sit down and put my head between my legs (a way to ward off any fainting spell).
Before I knew it, I was on the floor. To this day, whenever I stand behind a tall man in church who happens to have thick shiny silvery hair, I think of the childhood fainting episode. The power of that memory can still make me feel queasy at times.
Since church became a place for fainting, I was soon afraid to go to church.
I didn't faint in supermarkets, movie theaters, drug stores or barber shops. I didn't faint at Cub Scout meetings, Boy Scout camp, during swim team practice, when I tried to be a caddy at the local country club, but only at Mass. And it was just Mass -- not the Stations of the Cross, May processions, or Benediction. I never fainted in school, despite getting my wrist slapped and my ears twisted by the sternest St. Joe nuns imaginable. Fainting always happened when I was surrounded by a sea of tall adults who seemed like a forest of trees. First, I would begin to feel claustrophobic, then dizzy until I was on the floor by the kneeler.
But I was no longer fainting in church when I walked out of church on that Ash Wednesday.
My father blamed my Ash Wednesday walk out on my reading James Joyce, while my mother blamed it on my friendship with a family down the street. The family who lived down the street were bohemian literary types. They were free-thinkers; and listened to Ravel's Bolero, read Henry Miller and liked modern art like Jackson Pollack.
"I'm now an agnostic," I told my mother in the car in answer to the question why I'd walked out of the service.
"A what?" she said. "You mean you no longer consider yourself a Catholic?"
"No mom. I don't believe anymore." Then I rattled off a number of book titles and tried my best to quote some of the philosophers I was reading. Mom, however, was in no mood for an intellectual discussion. During that ride home there were a lot of tears, and I am surprised, given the emotion of the situation, that she avoided having an accident.
A few days later, I was marched into church and forced to go to confession. "Bless me father for I have sinned," I said, "I am here against my will. My parents are watching me outside the confessional. I no longer believe. They are very upset and so they are forcing me to make this confession."
I had the feeling that my parents had called the priest beforehand and gave him the rundown on what had happened because he seemed a little too calm as I told him my story.
He asked softly, "What led you to think this way of thinking?"
"I've been reading books, father," I said, mentioning a string of writers like Albert Camus and Bertrand Russell. I even mentioned the Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton.
"Thomas Merton?" father replied. "Most people who read The Seven Story Mountain make plans to go into a monastery, not run away from the Church."
The confession was a stalemate, and there was no absolution. When I merged from the curtained booth, I could see that my parents had a look of hope in their eyes, as if the mere physical act of walking into the confessional booth would work some magic and make me the way I once was.
"Did you make your confession?" my mother asked. "Are you ready to go to Holy Communion tomorrow (Sunday)?"
"No," I said. "I told the priest that I was being forced to confess, and he said that confession should be voluntary."
Talk about going out of your way to make your life difficult!
And so off I went, into my young adult life, first to Baltimore, then to Boston and Harvard Square, where the whole world seemed non-religious, where nobody went to church, certainly not the smart Harvard scholars, the stoned hippies, artists and writers or the ideologue radicals with their placards and their thick books. People were simply too cool for church. And when I did meet a churchgoer in the Harvard Square rooming house where I was living, I was shocked that such a person existed. Where did he come from? Even more shocking was the fact that he admitted publicly to going to church.
He was an Armenian Orthodox Christian, and his hobby was collecting icons. His room was full of icons, from Russia, Turkey, Greece and the Holy Land. His collection, according to one housemate, was vast.
"I can show you these icons," he said to me one day in the building's communal kitchen, dressed in his white shirt and tie, a total and complete nerd before the word was even coined.
I told him I'd think about seeing the icons because yes, I'd always had a fascination with icons. One could still like icons, appreciate their artistic quality, even as an unbeliever. Many icons, after all, were close to being works of art. But I never did take him up on the offer.
In Harvard Square, the only cool religions were Near Eastern religions like obscure Zen practices, Yoga, or (to some degree), the Hare Krishna movement. The Quakers were alright because they were largely secular (agnostic Quakers were common), but more importantly they were about peace and justice.
When I did come back to religion many years later, as a seasoned adult wayfarer with several mystical experiences under my belt, my parents were glad although the emphasis on church and religion had already died a quiet death in the larger society. By that time, some of my relatives and siblings had already stopped going to church. When they stopped going, they didn't make a big deal out of it; they just no longer found it relevant to their lives. They issued no statements; nothing was nailed to the cathedral door. As a result, there was no scandal because rather than claim that they were agnostic or atheist, they claimed indifference, which in some ways is far worse than standing up and saying you're an atheist, for at least an atheist has convictions...
Indifference, I've found, rarely lasts forever. Two years ago when I gave one of my sisters an Icon of the Theotokos for Christmas, she looked at the icon and burst into tears. While I'm not sure what the tears meant, I felt that something within her was beginning to change.