I walked amongst saints. They stood tall and proud, looming over us, clutching rosary beads and spiritual books, not unlike their parishioners. The saints rode on pedestals that were elaborately decorated and carried on the backs of the faithful. They were led by Jesus Christ, his silhouette tall and brightly coloured, paving a clear path for his followers. Beside him walked Father Sam, a portly priest from Brooklyn who joyously led the crowd in songs praising his holy father.
I walked in the shadow of Santo Gerado, my family’s patron saint and whom many amongst my zii are named for. My nonna leant heavily on my arm for support and she tried to muffle her heavy breaths as she conversed with one of her friends. My nonna and the signora spoke a mix of Italian and English; their dialects varied so they would fill the gaps with English words when Italian wouldn’t suffice. The hybrid language was confusing to me and I struggled to understand the topic, even with the English words blended in. Unable to grasp the conversation, I remained silent.
The crowd was littered with family members. If I squinted, I could see my mother farther ahead talking to a distant cousin. My brother was within sight too; he carried Santo Gerado proudly, holding his fourth of the pedestal. All the saints were carried by boys and men, and the feminist in me raged, though I did not volunteer a shift. The bearers would share the burden, trading amongst the saints so that no one would get too tired; whenever a relief was needed a volunteer would appear. My brother had yet to ask for a reprieve and I rolled my eyes at him and continued walking.
I was formally introduced to God at three months old, although I imagine my parents had mentioned him once or twice before then. My memory of the day is a from of a home video my seven-year-old self watched; the VHS tape is currently buried amongst boxes in my home and I don’t have a VCR to refresh the memory. I recall rows of pews filled with people; in the front rows, there were almost a dozen families waiting with their tiny babies. I had fast forwarded through the tape until it was my turn. The priest held me out to the crowd and though my mother tells me that I was baptised by another priest, in a different church than the one my family attends now, my brain has superimposed Father Sam and the halls of Holy Rosary into the memory. Not-Father Sam announced my name to those gathered.
“The priest commented on how fat I was at my baptism!” I’ll say, when telling an anecdote about how chubby I was as a baby.
I took my turn at the stone basin. My mother’s brother and my father’s sister peer over me as Godparents. My zia turned comare held me as the priest poured the holy water over my head. I can’t remember if I cried.
My baptism was the first of three religious ceremonies I partook in. At age seven, I received the body of Christ as part of my first communion service. Dressed in a fancy dress covered in a starched white robe, I diligently stepped up to Father Sam and received the wafer. My palms were sweaty and the body of Christ stuck to my hand as I carefully lifted it to my mouth to be eaten. We had been told extensively how to place our hands correctly (right under left) and when to eat the wafer (placed in mouth before the priest, then chew as you walk away) and how to properly pray afterwards. To celebrate the next stage of my religious development, my parents held a large party at my zio’s restaurant on Corydon.
My confirmation took place earlier than normal. My mother begged the nuns to let me skip a year of catechism so that my confirmation would be a year earlier instead of being the same year as my brother’s high school graduation. Arrangements were made and I entered grade seven of Sunday school instead of grade six. There was something about confirmation class that was different from the Sunday school I was acquainted with; perhaps it was the new classmates or that the classes took place in a house converted by the church, or, maybe, that grade six year was more important than we had thought.
Something about that class felt wrong and awkward, and my stomach still twists when I recall it now. Our instructor was Mr. Dahl, or at least I think that was his name; he was tall – still is, I imagine – with greying hair that made him look much older than he actually was. I am sure that he taught us a plethora of things but I can only remember two of the lessons. The first is that he extensively covered the crucifixion, in more detail than the younger grades had allowed. The class watched The Passion of the Christ, but my mother deemed me too young for the movie and I stayed home those two Sundays (I still haven’t seen it, though a part of me is forever curious because it was forbidden). The other thing I remember is how he explained the origin of God.
“You have a can,” he held up a can, “and that can is made in a factory. That factory is made by machines made by people. Those people are made by their parents who were made by their parents all the way back to Adam and Eve who were made by God. With that mentality, someone should have made God. No one did. You need to wrap your mind around the fact that God was just there.”
And I couldn’t, and so my mother hates Mr. Dahl.
If I had to pinpoint a moment when things began to change, it was in that confirmation class. My mother blames Mr. Dahl for sparking that first flash of doubt, but I wonder if it would have happened regardless.
I used to read the bible for fun. I tried to encourage my family to read it before meals on Sunday and we even did for a few weeks before the habit pandered out. I was studying Indigenous Origin Myths in Social Studies at the time, and some part of my brain registered that there were some similarities.
When I prayed at night, I did so in my head, asking God for favours and guidance. Sometimes my prayers were answered, other times they were not. I began to wonder if he could hear me.
I lost three crosses before my mother deemed me unfit to wear them. They were jeweled things that family had sent over from Italy and she didn’t want anymore money to go to waste. When I was older and more responsible I would be able to wear them again. Now she wears them, linked onto chains with her own.
I had to google the word atheist. I had never known one before then. A person who thought that nothing had created us except for a freak accident of molecules and particles. That there was no God or Buddha or Allah watching over them and guiding them through life; how lonely an existence that must be. I rejected the thought. There had to be some magic in the world. I craved it, yearned for it even. Being an atheist meant a clinical and depressing world without unicorns or sorcery or gods and the depressing conclusion that reality was real.
An elementary school teacher taught me that there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. The truth is unknown because it is shaped by our perceptions; we see things differently from each other based on our experiences and point of views. What may be true to me is not true to you and therefore mankind is inherently unable to speak the truth. Hence, the must be false.
“The Bible was written by man and nothing written by man is the whole truth. It’s human nature to exaggerate or change a story even when you’re trying to be truthful. I still believe some of the things happened!” I would reassure them, “But I think that they were exaggerated or maybe twisted by someone’s point of view. I still believe in God,” I would be sure to say, “but I don’t believe in the Bible.”
I was 14 years old and obnoxious about it. Anyone who would listen, and some who didn’t want to, heard about my burgeoning doubts, much to my parents’ chagrin. My parents are not what can be considered zealots or overtly pious; they are quiet in their religion and honour God in their everyday actions. They let me talk everyone’s ear off and only chastised me if I tried to talk to my nonni about it. I had established a pattern of questioning authority and preaching my opinions; they thought it was a phase.
I think that it was when I declared myself agnostic, effectively denouncing my parents’ God, that they went to Father Sam. I guess they realised I was serious.
“How can we fix her?” Or perhaps they worded it some other way. I wasn’t there and I didn’t learn about this meeting until much later when my brother let it slip. I haven’t asked my parents what really happened, but they never tried to force me or yell at me for my religious choices and my brother told me that Father Sam had encouraged them to let me be.
I don’t know precisely when I donned the cap of atheist but I did it with the furor of a zealot. Every social media account proclaimed my atheism and in person it was announced whenever possible. I watched every television show that denounced religion, often when my family was in hearing. I removed the picture of La Madonna from where it had been hanging my whole life on my bedroom wall. “Where should I put this?” I had asked my mother, a smirk on my face. I think it’s in a box somewhere now, safely tucked away for when I change my mind. I was a unicorn in my own family; something unequivocally unique and polarizing. My nonna called me the devil’s spawn; my zio made jokes about how I had little horns; my brother would splash holy water on me to see if it would burn. I relished the attention. And I hated it.
Part 2 coming soon.