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.
Reflexively, 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.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.”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.”