On little (lost) lambs

It was the Our Fathers that usually elicited gasps.

Growing up Catholic and attending 12 years of Catholic school provides one with a host of memories. I think of them now in sensory fashion.

The smell of wet wool skirts in the winter when snow fluttered down to dampen my plaid jumper during recess. The pungent aroma of incense inside a dimly lit church, priest in cassock walking the aisles, swinging the censer as he walked.

Eyes adjusting to the dimly lit church, focused on the candles burning at the altar. Feeling the stare of the ever vigilant Sister Maurice or Sister Mary Thomas burning a hole in the back of my head as they looked for heathens who might dare to whisper in God’s house.

Hearing the slam of the kneelers in sharp contrast to the silence of the sacristy,  as the boys purposely let them fall. Knowing they would pay for that later with a pull of the ear or detention when the nuns could get hold of them. Listening to the soft organ music played before Mass, before Ms. Hurley would really ratchet it up during the service. Mid-Mass, the sounds coming out of the organ pipes were likely so loud I wanted to cover my ears. I always wondered if she was trying to show us what hellfire would sound like, should we decide to stray that far afield.

Feeling the kick against the sole of my feet, trying to knock me off balance as I knelt. Knowing only the usual troublemakers, Dean or Brian, were bold enough to try that move under the watchful gaze of Sisters You Know Who.

You with me on this one? Good. We’ve set the scene.

Catholics have cornered the market on guilt. At least during my grade school years we had. We did not just sit in church for Masses. We confessed.  A lot. I still wonder why the powers that be thought young children should have to confess that often. I used to make things up to confess because I didn’t have enough to say. Which is ironic because in the very act of being purged from my sins, I was sinning by lying. Which gave me something to confess the next time. Oy.

We would enter the private confessional box, softly confess our sins and be given an individual penance—usually prayers—to complete. Your penance was supposed to be kept private. We were savvy little sleuths, however. You could easily gauge by either the movement of lips or the length of time spent on the kneeler after confession the penance someone had been given. Three minutes or so was acceptable. Any less meant you had not been forthright. Any more? Your soul was truly besmirched.

Interior of catholic church: confessional detail, 150 years old, made of wood

Our penance was usually a mix of Our Fathers, Hail Marys and the Glory Be. I often wondered why, when I was mean to my sister, a Hail Mary would fix things. I didn’t mind the penance because saying a couple Hail Marys certainly was easier than having to treat her well.

At our parish, Hail Marys and Glory Bes flew fast and furious. They covered your usual petty crimes of conscience—mistreating a sibling, losing focus during Mass.

But see someone silently mouthing an Our Father after confession and you knew they had gone far beyond petty crimes of conscience into the heavy stuff.

An Our Father meant you had—gasp—talked back to your parents or cheated. And you were pushing the venial sin limit, feeling the hot fires of hell looming closer and closer. Usually not just one, but several Our Fathers were required to speed your soul back to safe territory.

Which is why the Our Father elicited gasps from your classmates. Except when Dean or Brian said it; Our Fathers were du jour for them. They knelt for a longer time after confession than it takes most people to eat breakfast. We were used to it.

As a girl who read every saint biography in our parochial school’s library by grade two, I did not have to say many Our Fathers. I knew the rules of the road. I was aiming for sainthood by age 20 and too many Our Fathers would doom me.

Alas, I fell short of my sainthood by 20 goal. And the life I have lived, while not dooming to eternal hellfire, qualifies me as no saint.

“Our Father . . . “







29 Comments Add yours

  1. reocochran says:

    K~ I have had a Catholic grandmother and her daughter, my Mom, was raised with stern looks and grandma’s, “silent treatment.” Being Episcopalian, the kneelers, incense, white Sunday gloves and genuflecting are all familiar. I feel more guilt being the oldest and responsible one. I have not lived life in an orderly fashion and when I go to H.S. or college reunions people are shocked I have been married 3 x. Certainly, I would consider myself blessed but not a saint! 🙂 ~ R.

  2. You’ve built up the scene wonderfully, I was there kneeling with you, my senses overloading. I’m not a Catholic but always think the trappings of that religion are very atmospheric.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you! I was hoping to put you on those kneelers right along with me:). While I do not agree with all of the church’s positions, I still very much appreciate a silent church, candles lit, incense in the air. Nothing more peaceful, except possibly nature.

  3. srbottch says:

    Growing up in central Mass (as in the state in New Engl) I was surrounded by Catholics, nuns in full habit chasing us off the parochial school playgrounds, every other kid whose last name began with an ‘O’, and crowded Streets in Sunday mornings when every. Butch, and there were plenty, had a half dozen services. The one benefit for a nonCatholic was every Friday, small, greasy restaurants were selling battered fish n’ chips. Oh, the crunch if the greasy crust was fantastic and probably contributed to my cholesterol problem in later years. (I write a blog, ‘My Mother Was Catholic, My Father Was …..Handsome’. Go find it buys sentimental). Nice job!

    1. candidkay says:

      Fish fries! The bane of my existence growing up. I always begged for cheese pizza:).

      1. srbottch says:

        Well, that’s ’cause you’re not a New Englander, where we ‘paak’ our ‘caas’…

      2. srbottch says:

        PS. Deep dish or thin crust? Uno’s or Due’s (sp?)…

  4. I wasn’t brought up catholic but we were church goers and then there was ‘the look’ my mother would give me. That was enough.

    1. candidkay says:

      Oh, I know that look! My mother had one also. I’m sure it was similar to the one the nuns gave us. That look could stop a truck, right? 🙂

  5. Beautifully crafted. It felt as if we were all perched beside you, decoding penance and tallying mischief.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you:). I think it’s hard sometimes for people who did not grow up in that environment to imagine it, so I take your words as high compliment!

  6. I wasn’t brought up catholic, but you give a fascinating portrait of that life. Loved this post.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you:). I didn’t realize, growing up, that not everyone had a similar frame of reference. Amazing how sheltered we can be . . .

  7. I went right back in time with you, watching, smelling, feeling. We had a lot of good Catholic girls in our public high school, and by the time they were that age, I could sniff out their Catholic guilt a mile away. It’s such a shame the church has so much of it wrong, because with it’s scope and power, it could create amazing healing instead of having caused so much wounding, beginning with its own priests (I mean the religion being wounding to the priests, causing them in turn to act out). If they understood anything about Kundalini energy, they’d see that they got the whole sex thing completely bass akwards.

    1. candidkay says:

      I think the new pope is bringing a lot of people along. I hope he continues to . . .

  8. Oh the memories!! They are the same for a catholic, even here in Australia! I can visualize them all with you. I realized a few years ago that each Sunday we all said the same words “Lord I am not worthy to receive you” Now I look back and say “Hell yes, I am worthy! Worthy of it all girlfriend, with or without sainthood. Ha 🙂

    1. candidkay says:

      Have you seen Spotlight yet? It will bring back memories galore! At least re: Catholic culture at that time.

      1. No I havent’ but I have heard it’s great. Our parish priest only a few years ago was arrested for downloading child pornography! It is still very current in our society and I have so much compassion for those who are abused. It is so very wrong on every level.

  9. fritzdenis says:

    Our parish had a good cop/ bad cop set of priests. The bad cop was six foot four, smoked cigars and had a scowl that looked like Judgement Day had arrived early. His line to the confessional was always short, and the nice cop priest’s was two or three times as long. I was standing in the long line one day, and the angry priest stepped out of his booth and gestured at us to come over to his line. Three of us dragged our feet over to the other side of church, and I hurriedly revised my list of sins. I figured that I could always come back the next week and tell the nice guy the whole story.

    1. candidkay says:

      Lol. You are reminding me of my son’s first confession, in which the “rock star” priest had a line a mile long and other priests not so much. I think you were smart to revise. God knows (literally) how many Our Fathers you would have been given had you not:).

  10. George says:

    I had the same twelve years of catholic school education in addition to be an altar boy for ten years so I know exactly where you’re coming from and what you’ve seen..:)
    We all fell short of sainthood…:)

    1. candidkay says:

      Aw, come on. You mean I can’t call you St. George? Sheesh:). Altar boy and all . . .

      1. George says:

        I still have scars about having to dress up as St George for Halloween. But that was a different post..:)
        Yes, altar boy. There are some stories there…:)

  11. But He has seen your journey, and asks nothing of you, but what you ask of yourself.
    When you find that love of self, He will smile…all that went before He gave with great love, so that you can find you…even the Dean’s, Brian’s and the odd nun or two in your life, they too have great purpose.
    When you find your fears and with great love of self you go through them, on the other side of those is a love like no other….that is God embracing your journey as you realise what it has taken to at last find the love that we all seek.
    Beautifully written Kay, brings back many memories of where we once were, and just how far we have come 🙂

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you, Mark! Love that image of walking through the fear. I picture it to be coming out the other side, into the light–and realizing the fear was just formless clouds, never as solid as it seemed.

      1. They are only ever as big as we make them Kay. And we can make some beauties. Must be that incredible love inside us all, it will make whatever we focus on 🙂

  12. Jan Wilberg says:

    Growing up Catholic seems like it was so much work, I wonder what I did with all my extra Methodist time. There is a beauty in the confession/penance thing, at least for us outside the faith, and that is it seems that things can be done and over with faster and more explicitly. That’s probably a great approach to a lot of things.

    1. candidkay says:

      Lol. Perhaps I should have been Methodist. That found time sounds wonderful:). Growing up Catholic was a lot of work–stations of the Cross, Lent, Mass, fasting, confession, All Saints Day, etc. But I must say, despite my disagreements with many of the church’s views, I still get misty-eyed when I enter a silent church and smell the incense.

  13. A very interesting perspective!

I would love to hear your thoughts on this post. Drop me a line.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s