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Amy Fries

Losing My Religion

     We held our CCD-Confraternity of Christian Doctrine--class in Sister Anna Marie’s piano room in the convent of the Most Blessed Sacrament. I knew it well. The brown-and-white checkered linoleum floor, the kind that was all over schools in the 50s and 60s, the kind often found now to contain asbestos. The 50s green vinyl couch with peg legs, the kind you stuck to when your legs got sweaty. The walls barren except, of course, for the omnipresent 3-D crucifix. No sleek modern symbols here. This was the body of Christ, nailed in twisted, contorted pain onto the cross. The room reeked with the stench of Lysol or some other disinfectant that novice nuns regularly swabbed all over the convent.
But the most outstanding piece in Sister Anna Marie’s room was the piano itself. Plastic wrap-a.k.a. Cellophane-covered the entire upright except for the keys. That way Sister Anna Marie could protect it from the grubby fingerprints of her halfhearted charges.
     I took lessons from Sister Anna Marie from the third grade through the eighth, or 1968 through 1972. She looked ancient to me then, though she was probably only in her 70s. She was tall and lean. Bits of gray hair poked through the white underbonnet of the habit that framed her face. Vatican II (the liberalizing document freeing Catholics from the mysteries of Latin and black cloth among others) had occurred in the early 60s and nuns were free to doff the head-to-toe black garb. But not Sister Anna Marie. She was too old, I suppose, to change her habits. So she remained with the starched white material pinched about her face.
     Sister Anna Marie had a reputation as a dictatorial terror, hovering over the metronome that clicked, clicked, clicked away the nanoseconds of children’s half hour lessons. If you failed to tinkle the ivories to the beat, her hands would clap in your face, her foot would stomp on the linoleum until your heartbeat, the metronome, the clapping, and the chords melted into one monstrous internal melody.
     She screamed at kids on the asphalt playground and warned girls what the public school boys would do when we made that treacherous move from Catholic school to the den of secularism just one block away. Once, she told me, she had taken off her shoe and flung it at one of those public school boys who had been “harassing a Catholic girl” outside the convent.
“I hit him,” she said with glee. “He ran away.”
     Perhaps she had done some girl a life-saving service, been a pioneer of the women’s self-defense movement. Perhaps she had hit someone’s boyfriend on the head with the heel of her big, black shoe.
     She had a cluster of warts on her tongue. During my lesson, she sucked on ice cubes she kept in a glass near the piano. One day the ice was down to three well-sucked cubes, now oval in their melting state. I guess I was having trouble keeping up with the metronome that day or was otherwise lackluster. She asked me what was wrong, and I made the mistake of telling her I had a sore throat.
     “Here,” she said handing me her glass, “suck on these.”
     I took the plain glass in my hand, everything of course being plain and utilitarian in the convent, and looked long and hard at those wilted slivers. Then I titled the glass, slid those ice cubes into my mouth and sucked on them, just as Sister Anna Marie had ordered.
     Occasionally, she took to the bench herself. She would throw back the wide sleeves of her habit to her elbows. I can’t remember exactly what she had under those sleeves. Sometimes I see tight white cloth covering her forearms to her wrists. Other times I see strong bare arms, almost man arms. Then she’d play Beethoven or Mozart or Bach. She’d play them the way they should be played, sometimes with wild abandon, sometimes with a haunting, quiet grace. She would take over a piece the way someone who is a brilliant musician would grab an instrument from someone who has been torturing it for hours to show you how it’s really done. At those moments, I thought Sister Anna Marie the finest pianist I had ever encountered.
Who is this woman? I would wonder. How did she get here hiding beneath voluminous black, with three-foot-long rosary beads for a belt and a wedding ring that marked her as a bride of Christ? How did she go from promising pianist to coerced teacher trapped in a smelly, cement-walled convent pestered by children she obviously disdained?
    Wondering about the nuns, questioning their choice of such a strange existence, I see now as the first seeds of my doubt.
After an eight-year-stint in Catholic school, I did make the risky move in 1973 to the public domain. Sister Anna Marie offered to keep me on as a student. But I declined, choosing instead to pursue activities like the student newspaper and cheerleading in my new world free of mysterious black-clad apparitions gliding and swishing through hallways, rulers in hand, ready to crack wandering students back into place.
     Which is why, at 14, I was now at CCD, the classes for those no longer receiving religious instruction on a daily basis. Sister Peter Damien and Sister Luke presided. They were the hip nuns, the post-Vatican II nuns. Instead of the black habits they wore plaid, itchy wool suits or jumpers. They also took men’s names. This was somehow supposed to be a sign of liberation. Previously, all the nuns had women’s names: Sister Mary Catherine, Sister Alma, Sister Mary Ida, Sister Mary Faith, Sister Rose Gertrude, Sister Paulette, Sister Cecelia. Today, they get to keep their own names unless they’re heathen names like Tiffany, Amber or Amy.
    We all sat there, stuffed into Sister Anna Marie’s piano room, and Sister Peter Damien, a small, twentysomething nun with a pretty, delicate face and short black hair cut somewhat fashionably, at least for our small western Pennsylvania steel-mill town, said:
     “What do you kids want to talk about today? Really,” she encouraged, “you set the agenda. Ask anything you want.”
Twenty teenagers, ranging in age from about 13 to 16, stared at the brown-and-white checkered linoleum floor, at the crucifix, at the plastic-wrapped piano.
     “Anything,” Sister Peter Damien coaxed. She was pretty and thus a novelty for kids who were used to the scarier, more mystical authority of the black-clad ruler bearers. Her good cheekbones and flawless complexion loosened me up. I volunteered.
     “Yes, Amy.”
     “Is there really a God?” I asked.
     Sister Damien gasped. She swayed to the side, the motion of someone receiving some incomprehensible bad news. “We can’t talk about that! That’s not a point of discussion. Of course there is a God!”
     Despite the protestations, the cover-ups, the silencing, doubt existed then as surely as it does now. I have followed its long fault line ever since I uttered those words in a convent so many years ago. Yet something about expressing doubt remains a don’t-ask, don’t-tell notion, a deep, dark secret better not discussed.
     So naturally I gravitate toward it.
   To steal a line from the Catholic theology of probabilism: ubi dubium, ibi libertas. Where there is doubt, there is freedom.

True Confessions

     Prior to voicing that question-Is there a God?-in Sister Anna Marie’s piano room, I had been a devout elementary school student. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Luke 18:16)
     And come to Him I did. Like every second grader in Sister Cecilia’s class, I raised my arm eagerly every time we were asked: “Who wants to be a nun or a priest when they grow up?”
     “I do, I do!” we all shouted.
     In fact, that year I announced proudly before the class that when I grew up, I wanted to be either “a nun or a cat burglar.”
I was such an obedient, unquestioning soul in those days that when I was in 6th grade, 11 years old, I opened the door to the confessional, knelt down on the red pad of the kneeler, clasped my hands together and said: “Bless me father, for I have sinned. I have committed adultery.”
     Of course I had no idea what adultery was, but that previous Sunday, Father had urged those who had wandered to go to confession and seek forgiveness for the sin of adultery. And so I did.
Father now sat on the other side of the confessional in silence, stunned I’m sure. He finally responded: “In thought, word or deed?”
     Now this really threw me. Not knowing what adultery was, I could hardly tell if I did it in thought, word or deed. But thought seemed the safest bet.
     “Thought,” I said after a moment.
     “Oh.” I could hear the relief in his voice. “Say six Hail Marys and don’t do it again.”
     My last true moment with the church was on New Year’s Day, 1973, the day after my idol Roberto Clemente-a famous baseball player who played right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates-died in a plane crash. I had witnessed his 3,000th hit, his last hit, a few months prior on September 30th. My older sister, now a practicing Catholic, had wanted to defect to Big Boy’s restaurant for a bear-claw pastry instead of going to church. Usually, I would have jumped at the opportunity. But still in shock and grief, I felt a powerful need to connect with others and pray for our fallen hero.
I then entered that long, self-absorbed span of teenage years. My friends and I went to church begrudgingly, preferring instead to sleep in. We begged, pleaded, stonewalled, bargained, lied-anything-to avoid the CCD classes that doubled the amount of time we had to give up on a Sunday.
     My lackluster attitude disappointed my father, I’m sure. He loved the Catholic Church. He wanted us to move to another house, a less attractive house in every way, solely so we could be within walking distance of our church-Blessed Sacrament. He counted priests and nuns among his best friends, and they sometimes came over to our house for Sunday dinner.
After Vatican II liberalized church rules, the parish priests selected him to be one of the laymen who administered communion. His hands shook violently when he dispensed the host. My friends would ask me what was wrong with him. On the one hand, I felt mortified; on the other, protective. Even then I knew that his shaking was a sign of his belief in the awesomeness of the task he conducted. He literally trembled before what he believed to be the presence of God.
     I was astounded at those moments by his vulnerability, the depth of his faith, and the enormous gap I saw growing between us.
     My father died of a heart attack when I was 21. Shortly before his death, he developed a nervous habit of praying obsessively. His lips moved constantly, his head bowing up and down at the dinner table, in the car, while watching TV. Those memories haunt me. I see him in a corner, alone, praying. I would like to go back and put my arms around him. Though I have no idea what I would say.

Sins of the Fathers

     A year and a half after my father’s death, I was married in Heinz Chapel, on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. I had asked the head priest of our hometown parish-Father Walter Benz-to officiate at the ceremony. He and my father had been close. Father Benz was one of the clergy who visited our house. A tall, imposing figure, he looked more like George C. Scott playing a corporate CEO than any priest we had seen in our small town. He drove new, expensive model cars. I want to say Cadillac or Lincoln Town Car, but perhaps it was only a large Buick. The rumor mill declared him an only child from a rich family. Either because of his last name or the fancy cars he drove, we imagined him the heir to the Mercedes-Benz fortune. To us, the townsfolk, he seemed an elegant, sophisticated presence amidst a largely undereducated population heavy on second and third generation Italians, Poles, Irish, and Czechs.
     He presided over my father’s funeral and gave a moving eulogy. But when I asked him a year later to officiate at my wedding, he declined. I was being married in a chapel, and he didn’t do chapels. Church rules didn’t prohibit a priest from performing a wedding at a chapel, but he personally was against it.
     I was disappointed and somewhat miffed because my father had donated many hours of service to the church, but I accepted his decision. He was a man of principle, I told myself, and he couldn’t compromise.
     In September 1998, front-page newspaper stories in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette zapped the man-of-principle theory forever. The article reported that Father Walter Benz “was accused” and “allegedly admitted stealing $1,000 a week for 20 years at two suburban churches-Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament and St. Mary of the Assumption Church.” According to subsequent articles, he used the money “for gambling trips with a church secretary. Authorities also seized antiques, a gun collection and other items-including a Buddha statue-from the home the two shared.”
     Because he was terminally ill, the police decided against arraignment.
     But the story spread like wildfire throughout the community anyway-classmates and neighbors who hadn’t talked in years picked up the phone to say, “Can you believe what Father Benz did?”
     The outrage was largely personal. A friend told me that her mother, who was dying of cancer, had requested a favorite non-religious song for her funeral. Father Benz denied that request, saying it wasn’t the “protocol.” I remembered layed-off steel-mill workers and my mother and father with five children, four in college, giving scarce dollars to the Church only to have a significant portion wind up in the pockets of Father Benz.
     But I realized that something else bothered me, something larger than the human failings of greed and hypocrisy, something more than the juicy scandal of a liar revealed.
     The errant ways of Father Benz crystallized a concern that had been growing and seething inside me for years-that those who interpret God and religion for the rest of us are in fact human, and thus fallible; and that those who interpret God and religion for the rest of us have been limited until very recently to those who are male.
     Who are these men? These priests? I wondered. As a child, I had questioned the nuns, those who were merely servants in the house of the Church. As an adult, I began to question the priests --those considered the emissaries of God on earth.
In the years I went to church, 1959 to 1980, I heard many priests rail against birth control and abortion, yet never once in my estimated 1,100 attendances at mass (we went on Fridays in Catholic school as well as Sundays) did I hear a priest condemn or even mention rape or sexual abuse. I heard rants against “whores” and “painted ladies in short shorts,” but I never once heard a condemnation of prostitution as an exploitation of the destitute and disenfranchised. I heard many a sermon about the role of women in the home, but I never once heard a priest mention domestic violence or wife beating as it was called in those days.
     In the 80s and 90s, my anger spread from the source of my experience-the Catholic Church-to other religions that degrade and negate women: religions, or sects of religions, that today don’t allow women to initiate a divorce, speak in church, seek custody of children, get an education, file charges against an abusive husband or even hang on to their genitalia, to name a few.
The more I looked, the more examples of female exclusion and marginalization, big and small, I found.
     For instance, my sister attended pre-Cana (wedding preparation) classes in the early 80s. She and her fiancé sat down at school desks with the rest of the class. A man, part of the lay couple teaching the course, stood up and wrote in large capital letters on the blackboard: KISS THE PENIS. After the laughter died down, the couple went on to promote this as an alternative to intercourse when the stars weren’t right for natural birth control. “Remember ladies, kiss the penis,” was the rallying cry for the day. Not only did he give my brother-in-law a one-liner to employ for the rest of his life, but he also failed to mention the reciprocal act.
     Talk about a one-way street.
     Despite my burgeoning feminist perspectives, however, after my father died in 1981, I considered returning to the Church he loved. “Inactive Catholics Rediscover Your Faith” read the banners flying from many a church.
     I decided to start at the beginning. I bought a Bible. I thought if I’m going to rediscover Christianity, I better read the instructions. However, despite my best intentions, I didn’t get far. Lot stopped me cold.
     “Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom-both young and old-surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Genesis 19: 4-8
     What’s going on here? I thought. Lot, the supposed good guy, the moral center in this story, is offering up his daughters to be gang raped? Further investigation revealed this as one of those passages most likely to be used against gays and lesbians. The general evangelical Christian interpretation is, as I understand it, that the “sin” of homosexuality is deemed greater than that of raping girls or giving up one’s daughters to be raped.
     The footnotes on the Lot passage in the NIV (New International Version) Study Bible, proffer another theory for Lot’s behavior: “Ancient hospitality obliged a host to protect his guests in every situation.”
     So Lot’s daughters’ lives run a distant third not only to beliefs about the “sins of homosexuality” but also to issues of hospitality?
     In investigating the theology behind Lot, I came upon Judges 19:22-29, a story eerily familiar. This time it’s a generic “old man” and not Lot who is asked to deliver his male guest to some lurking rapists. He offers his virgin daughter and concubine instead:


I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man don’t do such a disgraceful thing. But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak, the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, ‘Get up; let’s go.’ But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home. When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel.

What could possibly be the moral of this story? The NIV Study Bible is not helpful. The footnotes on the passage say: “Dismembering the concubine’s body and sending parts to each of the 12 tribes was intended to awaken Israel from its moral lethargy…” It does go on to say that it is “ironic” that such a moral wakeup call was issued by someone so “selfish and insensitive.”

Desperately Seeking Something

     I had both my children baptized in the Catholic Church. Neither my husband nor I “believed” at that point, but two things made me do it: family politics and fear. Eight years in Catholic School had left its mark, visions of limbo, purgatory and hell danced in my head. Just in case I was wrong, I wanted my children to have that insurance policy. Truth be known, I even baptized them myself in the powder room of our split-level house when they were each just three or four days old. You’re only supposed to resort to that in emergencies, but post-partum hormones and old time religion are a potent mix.
     A monsignor, as opposed to a mere priest, baptized my eldest daughter. This impressed the devout in the crowd. I was pleased as well, and I liked him. I had decided to keep my birth name when I married, and we gave my daughter my last name as her middle name. Some other family members weren’t keen on either idea. It had caused a lot of grumbling. But the monsignor made a point of publicly saying how nice it was to add the mother’s last name to the child’s.
     Therefore, I was shocked in 1992 when I opened the paper to discover that this same monsignor had committed suicide after a charge of sexual molestation had been leveled against him. Child molesters are consistently at the top of my mental “hit” list. Yet I had liked him. He seemed like such a decent person. Maybe in most of the moments of his life he was. I don’t know. Nothing made sense anymore. Even my instincts I could no longer trust.
     Still, I felt driven to give my children at least an education in religious matters. I called upon the Methodists, Episcopalians (whom I’m told are similar to Catholics without the Pope), Quakers and Buddhists (the woman on the phone laughed at me when I asked her if she could sum up Buddhism in a nutshell). I ended up with the Unitarian Universalists. This is the self-described “church of the open mind.” Which means it has no dogma. Which means it’s not officially a religion, more of an ethical society.
     I bought my children a book: “What Is God?” It said things like, “Maybe God is what you feel when you stand on a very high mountain.” “Maybe God is an eternal mystery.” “If everything is God, Then I am God, You are God, All of us are God!”
I actually agree with much of this. But those thoughts are too abstract for children to understand. For a while, my daughter talked to trees thinking they were God.
     I bought another book, “Heart Talks with Mother God,” by Regina Oliver and Bridget Meehan, a pastoral associate who has written much on the feminine divine. According to this book, the Bible uses “feminine images” to describe God’s love. For instance, the authors present the following interpretations: “God is like a nurturing mother feeding her suckling infant at her breast (Isa 49:15; 66:11-13).” “God is like a mother eagle who teaches her young eaglets to fly (Deut 32:11-12).” “God is like a grandmother who shares traditions and family secrets with her grandchildren (Ps 128:5).”
     God as both man and woman? Why had I never heard this mentioned before?
     Heretofore, I thought modern man had created God in his image alone. A bit of megalomania unrivaled in the universe.
Now, I felt inspired by these new revelations. At my niece’s baptism, I stood near the altar of the beautiful, historic St. Mary’s Church in Alexandria, Virginia. I had been asked to be the godmother but the pastor nixed me (no Unitarians, he said). I stood before a statue of Mary, one of my favorite representations of her. She is alone, which is rare, usually she is cradling Jesus. She stands with her arms spread out, her palms upturned. She is standing on top of the world.
     If only God could be represented as both mother and father, I could get into this.
     But alas, God is not. Maybe some day.
     In 1991, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States approved for liturgical use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which uses language that “includes” women by rejecting the use of masculine-gender nouns such as “man,” when used in a generic sense to mean everybody. But the Pope rejected it. The bishops appealed the decision and the case is pending.
In 1992, the Church of England voted to allow the ordination of women as priests. The Episcopalians followed suit in 1997. Also that year, the Catholic Theological Society of America unanimously resolved that the Vatican was not infallible in its ruling excluding women as priests and called for further study of the subject. Due to a shortage of priests and growing pressure from progressive segments in the church, many believe that in several generations women will be ordained as Catholic priests.
But by that point, I’ll be dead. So to my list of vices-doubter, rebel, traitor-I add another: impatient.

The Mystery

     My mother kept for many years a Catholic Elementary School primer, which I loved. It had a passage that said, to the best of my recollection: “What is electricity? No one knows. God made electricity. God is a mystery.”
If asked today to give a quick scientific summary of electricity, I couldn’t. So I can see the appeal of returning to the mystery: I don’t know. God made electricity.
     It’s hard being out there without a dogma to hang onto.
     I still have pinned in my purse a St. Christopher's Medal; it says, "I am a Catholic, in case of accident notify a priest." I still have my father's worn wooden rosary beads, the lacy Spanich silver rosary beads I received for my Confirmation, my Limoges Communion dish given to me by my godmother, my scapular, the religious cards marking the deaths of my closest relatives, a 2" x 3" plastic folder pocketbook with the blessing of St. Francis, and a 2-inch silver cross pendant with a small crystal circle in the center, which when you peer inside reveals The Lord'd Prayer in the tiniest print imaginable.
     I treasure these objects. They comfort me. But I can’t fool myself. They aren’t holy relics anymore, but the souvenirs of my childhood.
     I no longer have the faith of my father. But does that mean I no longer have faith?
     The magical, mystical sense of the sublime I used to get from light streaming in through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral, I now get from light streaming in through the bare branches of trees in the woods.
     When I look at my daughters--as babies sleeping in my arms, as children rolling in the leaves, as teenagers dressing for the dance--I get a glimpse into that abstract slogan, God is love.
     When I see an ambulance parked outside the school--lights flashing, paramedics running with a stretcher--and I know my daughter is one of a handful of students inside practicing gymnastic stunts, I am instantly snared in that age-old web of fear and      God. Who wouldn’t I strike a bargain with at such a moment?
     For some, for me, the oceans of doubt and faith will forever churn together. But that’s all right.
     I have always loved islands. I love to stand on the edge of the water and imagine myself adrift in a big, blue sea. At those moments, I don’t feel that nihilistic, existential terror of “I am but a speck in the universe” and “food for the worms.” I feel an excitement, an all-encompassing almost electrical connection. And I am open to that electricity, to that mystery, which I am told is God.

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--Loose, Cindy. “2nd Man Accuses Monsignor,” Washington Post, September 12, 1992.
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--Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe, editors. The Woman’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.
--The NIV (New International Version) Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corp., 1985.
--“http://www.ely.anglican.orgPriests (Ordination of Women) 1992, A Measure passed by the General Synod of the Church of England,
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