Smells and Bells

Before bed last night, I unclasped my necklace and was dismayed when the pendant slid off the chain and out of my grasp. I didn’t see where the pendant landed, so I dropped to the floor and started searching.

StAnthonyReflexively, I began, “Dear St. Anthony,” (why do I always begin my St. Anthony prayer with a business letter salutation?) “Please help me find this pendant. It belonged to my great-aunt Eleanor and it’s very dear to me. Thank you.” I stood up and immediately saw that the pendant had fallen neatly onto the bedside table. Good old St. Anthony. He comes through every time.

St. Anthony prayers notwithstanding, my relationship with Catholicism has always been rocky. Diplomatic relations between the Church and me began to go downhill when I was in kindergarten: bored with incessantly coloring Biblical pictures, I drew a red beard on the Virgin Mary. It was nothing personal. I’ve always liked Mary. I was just making a statement. Of course the nuns were freaked out, my parents thought it was hilarious, and my parochial education came to a screeching halt soon thereafter.

The Virgin Mary, in the village of Ungiasca, Italy

The Virgin Mary, in the village of Ungiasca, Italy

I made my First Communion at 8 years old but decided as a teenager not to be Confirmed. I could never really buy into the idea that we, as Catholics, were among the privileged few who would gain admission into Heaven, if such a place even existed. Later, I visited the Vatican and was stunned by displays of jewel-encrusted Bibles and vestal garments that made Liberace’s wardrobe seem Amish by comparison. After that, the old “pass the hat” routine during Mass seemed a little disingenuous.

And yet, whenever I lose something, I beseech St. Anthony for help. On bumpy airplane rides, it’s the Hail Mary that finds its way to my lips. I never fail to thrill at the scent of incense at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, or the sound of “…Through Him, with Him and in Him, in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours Almighty Father, forever and eeeeee-verrrrr,” however tunelessly it may be intoned. “Smells and bells,” says my friend K., “smells and bells.”

Our Lady of Health, Cinque Terre, Italy

Our Lady of Health, Cinque Terre, Italy

Growing up Catholic, I always felt like something of an interloper, born into a faith I was unable to wholly embrace. Yet, when I lived in Italy, it was my uneasy Catholicism that first made me feel at home. The ubiquitous street-corner shrines to Mary and other saints were constant reminders that, despite the German-Norwegian blood flowing through my veins, I wasn’t so foreign after all.

Catholicism’s contradictory mix of reserve and pageantry is an indelible, irrevocable part of my identity. While I no longer identify as a practicing Catholic, I am a deeply cultural one. What can I say? I love the “smells and bells.”

Photo by Eli Wolf

Photo by Eli Wolf


10 thoughts on “Smells and Bells

  1. Beautiful writing and sentiment! I am reminded of a statement I read awhile back, written by an atheist, that seems to fit. “How envious I am of Catholics and Jews whose Faith seems to become a part of their very blood and remain with them long after their educated brains have rejected it.” I could almost smell the incense and burning votive candles when I looked at that beautiful photo.

  2. I can totally identify with you. I too was raised catholic and spent eight years of my life in a catholic, all-girls school, and then went on to four more years of catholic education at a Catholic college. It was during those years that my relationship with the Catholic church started to wane, and it was specifically when I took my required theology classes, both of which were taught by an ex-nun and an ex-priest.

    Since then, I’ve been a very bad catholic! I hardly ever go to church, yet I really enjoy the peace and solitude of sitting in an empty church, the older ones, like St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Ave, not the more modern churches. There’s something soothing about the way the candles flicker in the light and the echoey din of people trying remain quiet as they shuffle around the church, that I find calming. While I don’t go to church, I do meditate daily and yes, I too include my favorite saints in those meditations; St. Jude, Mother of Perpetual Help, Virgin de Gualupe. And I find myself also asking St. Anthony to help me find lost items as if it were second nature.

    I think that no matter how much I disagree with the church, there are those things that have been ingrained in me since my childhood that will never go away. And to be honest, I’m not sure that I want them to!

    Loved your post! Love your blog!

    • Hey, Rebecca–thanks so much for writing. I, too, feel most Catholic when I’m in a church by myself, just taking in the sights and sounds….and, yes, the saints find their way into my meditation as well. Thank you for your thoughtful response and for reading!

  3. I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  4. Dear friend(s),

    The catholic church is not at all what you believe it is. I say this respectfully. The “jewel-incrusted bibles” and the splendor of vestments can be explained.I am an older catholic who abandoned practice for a long time so I understand. I have been back into the fold and never happier than now, the last part of my life.
    I believe there is a more profound explanation for your attraction to the “smells and bells”, it goes back to your baptism when the seal on your cute tiny forehead made you a child of God, He claimed you.
    You obviously are an educated and very intelligent person: investigate what the Catholic Church is really about, talk to the right people/priest, read and you might find yourself back home.
    That is what I wish for you and I will say a heartfelt prayer with this in mind.
    Pardon this long comment, I had stumbled upon your site as I was looking for an image of St Anthony to bring to one of the female inmates I visit weekly at the local jail.

    • Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful words. I’m glad that Catholicism provides such a refuge for you. That said, I can’t think of a single satisfactory explanation for an organization that has failed, time and time again, to acknowledge and correct the horrifying pedophilia of so many of its leaders. I cannot in good conscience belong to an organization that speaks out against condoms in AIDS-afflicted African nations. And I will not belong to an organization that has systematically oppressed women for as many centuries as has the Catholic church.

      As I said, the ritual, pageantry, and sensory experiences of my Catholic childhood remain an indelible part of my identity. I believe spirituality and religious practices are deeply personal and do not criticize or fault anyone for his/her religious beliefs or affiliations. But my relationship with Catholicism will remain cultural, not religious. My best wishes to you, and sincere thanks for reading.

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