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Cleaning For Christ: Losing Religion But Finding Faith

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CLEANING FOR CHRIST         

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/12950131@N06/13898438004/: Parroquia de los Santos Cosme y Damián,Cuauhtémoc,Ciudad de México
Parroquia de los Santos Cosme y Damián,Cuauhtémoc,Ciudad de México
(image by Catedrales e Iglesias)
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I never understood what was 'good' about Good Friday. I was told that it was a holy day, which did nothing to explain why banks, courts, the post office, schools and libraries were closed. But something pretty damned important must have been afoot to shutter the American Stock Exchange for a full day. For me it was just another occasion to be religiously confused. Jesus was hanging on the cross so it was time to clean my drawers.

My family didn't go to church on Good Friday. Scores of pious parishioners attended the official agony marathon from noon to three--about as long as an NFL football game minus the tailgate parties and beer. But far from the incense and incantations, my siblings and I spent the afternoon cleaning for Christ. We couldn't go out to play or even amuse ourselves indoors. Jesus was dying, God dammit.   He was scourged and tortured and breathed his last in the company of two criminals for our sins, so the least we could do was sweep under the beds and fold some laundry. Just to add to the fun, there'd be no meat at dinner and snacks were definitely out.

Now, I was just a kid. All things adult and forbidden--sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll--were years away. But the underlying message was that I was somehow a co-conspirator despite the 2000-year gap between the crucifixion and the jumble in my sock drawer.

This was all rather puzzling, but especially the focus on torture, since my religion claimed love as its brand. Saints were known more for their painful exits than for the love they spread here on earth. Everywhere you turned, someone was taking it in the neck, the chest, or in the case of St. Apollonia--the mouth. All her teeth were knocked out before she was burned, so now she's the patron saint of very expensive dental implants. St. Sebastian looked like he was used for target practice by blind archers. And I remember an image of St. Lucy as a pretty young woman in full make-up bearing a platter of eyeballs--her own. She looks like a server delivering the special of the day in a small plates restaurant.

How do I know about these atrocities?   Good children received holy cards depicting the saints in extremis. Like baseball cards for religion geeks. I suspect that the purpose was to help us appreciate how fortunate we were by comparison, but the implied question was always how would you hold up if they came after your eyeballs?   I gave it a lot of thought while simultaneously calculating the odds that I'd be called upon to surrender a body part for Christ on my way home from school in Van Nuys--a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles--even with the godless communists devouring large parts of Eurasia.

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Trying to penetrate the logic of my religion with a child's mind was a fool's errand. If I shared my qualms, I was told to take it on faith, which meant shut up.   Since doubt spread like the common cold, skeptics were invited to kneel on the linoleum for a spell. So I adopted an expression that  said "I believe" as protective coloration and put my curiosity on mute.   But eventually the questions outweighed the answers and I dropped out. I haven't had neat drawers since.

I still boycott meat--for health reasons not piety, but it's my only tangible souvenir from nearly twenty years of observance. Except that from time to time I was visited by a vague nostalgia for something... divine. Perhaps if I'd been raised by atheists or wolves I'd be free of this sense that there are sacred things in this life. Or maybe the longing is innate. More nature than nurture. All I know is that the urge to be in awe lingered and dug deeper into my heart.

Eventually I realized that factual information and logical thinking might not be enough to guide me through the labyrinth of life. So I made up my own rites. Holy days, sacraments, relics--the lot.   Holy days were child's play and none of mine require kneeling. The first day that smells like autumn is definitely holy. Every full moon. Afternoons that morph into that brilliant hot pink of a winter sunset. Opening day of sweet pea season. High waves plowing toward shore as the wind hurls their foam back toward the horizon. Days like this have a permanent place on my liturgical calendar.

But there are also pop-up holy days that happen only once in a lifetime. They're unpredictable but indelible. My first glimpse of Paris after dark. The day a man at the Bodleian Library handed me a wooden box of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings and invited me to leaf through them with my hands sheathed in white cotton gloves. The night I met my husband. The morning we chased an iceberg along the shore in Newfoundland.

I have sacraments, too. The baptism of rain on a summer afternoon unleashing that slightly acrid wet-cement smell.   The first sip of wine so earthy and red that it stains your tongue. Kisses--the real sacrament of love. Homemade soup on a cold day.   Starting a fire from kindling as fine as hair and convincing it to keep you and your book company until m idnight. Reunions with dear friends. Holding a baby.

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And relics--a word that's frequently used to describe people of my age who wander into a trendy club. In the past, relics were objects of veneration and big business in the church. They included body parts that seemed to multiply like the loaves and the fishes and items of the St.-Astroturf-blew-his-nose-on-this variety.   My current catalogue of holy things doesn't include a single cuticle, molar or garter from Mary Magdalene. I venerate jumbo-sized objects. Buildings like the public library in Manhattan guarded by a pair of marble lions. Two-hundred-year-old houses on Beacon Hill. The Bradbury building in Los Angeles. Central Park in autumn is undeniably a study in awe. And there's a one-mile stretch of beach in Big Sur where I'm certain someone divine goes to get away from it all.

Then I have a whole collection of tiny relics that are truly priceless--a black and white photograph of three-year-old me sitting on my dad's knee at the park in a world that seemed perfect.   Also his gold baby ring no bigger that an aspirin and an envelope of flower seeds he gave me forty years ago, labeled with his elegant handwriting. And I think words are holy objects because when the perfect one drops into my head, sparking a turbo-charged chain reaction of phrases and paragraphs, it feels like divine intervention.

But my greatest inspirations come from the ministering spirits in our midst. While Vatican-sponsored sainthood is rare--only 10,000 card-carrying saints in over two thousand years--I think beatitude has reached pandemic levels. The world is thick with people attending to life with reverence. Spending themselves generously to help the rest of us. Teachers, writers, small farmers still growing real food, animal rescuers, maintenance  workers, tech-support voices in the night, emergency responders and librarians.

And let's not forget the millions of single parents--moms or dads--who are everything to their kids. Security blanket, short-order cook, laundress, companion, counselor, driver, admonisher, cherisher, and bulwark against the world. While some of us are debating which happy hour to patronize, scores of selfless people are using love and courage to build strong families one challenging day at a time. These are my saints.

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Laurel Schmidt is an author and educator. She has published books in the areas art, leadership and learning and has now turned her humorous, incisive and occasionally irreverent gaze toward the challenge of aging without getting old.

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Cleaning For Christ: Losing Religion But Finding Faith