It was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Ducking into the cathedral a few minutes late, we had missed most of the Scripture readings, catching a sentence or two of the Gospel reading as we took off our coats.
The fact that neither my Southern Born Woman nor myself recognized the person preaching made me wonder how long it had been since I’d been in church. The service program read “homily”, a reminder to the preacher to keep it short. In an age where boundaries are few and anything goes, “Homily” is a word which pleases me. As it turned out, the speaker ignored the written guarantee and delivered a sermon, which to my chagrin was a reminder that Lent is not necessarily a season of getting what one wishes for.
Lent is a counterbalance to the calendar, forty days in which to remind one’s self that we are but mortals in the hands of an Almighty Immortal. I’ve rarely done Lent like a pro; I’m a day into this season of fasting, and I’m still not sure what to give up. Chocolate? Facebook? Red meat? One year, I suggested to my friend Bryan Owings that I was thinking of giving up snide remarks. He reacted strongly, chortling, "Don't do it!", perhaps worried that I would shock my own system by avoiding what comes naturally.
Growing up with a Baptist preacher for a dad and a Lutheran organist for a mom, I had a slightly more ecumenical experience than your average Baptist, but Lent was certainly not a part of our vocabulary. Given the restrictions that many Baptists live by- no drinking, no smoking, no card playing, no movies, no dancing- I guess there was no need for a Lenten observation. After all, what was left to give up?
Sitting in Mrs Putnam’s fourth grade classroom at West Barrington Elementary School, Ash Wednesday always surprised me. There had been no Fat Tuesday Pancake Supper at Barrington Baptist the night before, no warning at all that half of my schoolmates would walk into our creaky old building looking like zombies, the cross of soot looking like an indentation in their foreheads.
By lunchtime, my Catholic classmates’ heads no longer had a visible cross, rather, a dark cloud just above the eyes, giving them an ashen, grave appearance. I was pretty sure Catholics went to Hell, but to see them looking so ready for the casket gave wheels to my imagination, and I sadly realized that many of my friends would be in that number below.
Rhode Island being a predominately Catholic state, Fridays were fish days in public school cafeterias, whether it was Lent or not. In those days, school was started with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer. I remember intoning the Lord’s Prayer for many of my school days, and all these years later, it’s difficult to imagine prayer in school as something unquestioned and taken for granted.
By the way, I’m not one of those people who wants prayer back in school. I think a person of substantial faith knows that anything done by rote usually amounts to nothing or, at best, lip service.
My Catholic pals could rattle off 10 Our Fathers faster than I could say it once, and of course, the Hail Mary seemed creepy to me; the idea of praying to Jesus’ mom. Nowadays, it makes sense to me to appeal to a person’s mother if you don’t feel like you can get his attention. But in grade school, all things Catholic seemed taboo and dangerous to me.
To be fair, all things Protestant were even more frightful to my Catholic friends. Once, Johnny Thompson, a boy who lived on my street, took a bike ride with me, and we stopped in at Barrington Baptist to say hello to my dad. I went into the building, but Johnny waited outside, superstitious that entering a Protestant Church might damage his soul in a way which would play itself out in years to come. Wherever he is today, I hope his superstition paid off.
When I was in the sixth grade, my friend Dickie Schmidt’s mother died of cancer. Dickie had two brothers and a sister, all adopted, and all hellions. Dickie smoked and cussed and stole money from his dad and Playboy magazines from the newstand in seedy Riverside, across the tracks. Maybe it’s Dickie who influenced my ideas about Catholicism.
My parents and siblings were on a church trip, and too young to get to go along, I stayed behind with a church family, the Sharps. So, on a Tuesday morning in 1964, Mrs Sharp and I entered St Luke’s Roman Catholic Church for Mrs Schmidt’s funeral.
The Latin service was unsettling and morose to my young ears, and, worse yet, something disturbing caught my eyes and wouldn’t let go. A crucified Jesus hung high in the center of the church, with the most pathetic look of self pity one can imagine, crimson paint dripping gaudily from a crown of thorns. This crucifix was not quite life size, giving Jesus the appearance of being perhaps four or five feet tall, and illiciting no pity from me.
This was quite an inauspicious beginning for a future ecumenical. I’m sure I’d been to other masses before, probably a Lutheran or Catholic wedding, but this is the one that I remember, perhaps because it was such a somber affair.
In my life, I have been at some funerals which had been joyous festivities, full of certainty in the afterlife, the weight of loss counterbalanced by the joy of celebrating a life well lived. My father’s funeral was certainly such an occassion, a common cup overflowing with sweet wine and salty tears. But Dad was in his eighties; Mrs Schmiddt was probably not even forty.
There were no smiles exchanged at Dickie’s mother’s requiem mass, no anecdote-filled eulogies elliciting chuckles and nods, and the scent of wonder and hope did not quietly steal among the congregants, kindling a sense of hope and comfort. Rather, the grey perfume of an apparently indifferent and unappeasable God stifled any notion that Mrs Schmidt was now resting in merciful hands.
As a child, I didn’t know that the requiem mass for Fran Schmidt was a vehicle in which to pray for her soul’s salvation from God’s terrible and swift judgement.
Forgive, O Lord,
the souls of all the faithful departed
from all the chains of their sins
and may they deserve
to avoid the judgment of revenge by your fostering grace,
and enjoy the everlasting blessedness of light.
Watching Dickie and his siblings and father file out behind Mrs Schmidt’s casket made me uneasy and sad for them all. As I watched them, I worried about my mother and dad. Quite suddenly, the possibility of walking behind their caskets with a churchful of onlooking mourners seemed viable. It was odd watching Dickie, all dressed up, uncomfortable in a starched white shirt, his maroon tie clashing with his wild red hair.
The casket rolled by Mrs Sharp and me, and as I imagined Mrs Schmidt’s little body trapped within, I assumed that her soul was now in hell, unless, as Dickie had told me, the prayers his family had paid their priest to say might bring her weary soul into Purgatory.
This first Catholic experience was simultaneously my first encouter with human death and grief, something worse than the loss of Frosty, my mother’s canary, who was replaced by subsequent canaries, all named Frosty, as if he was never really flying off to that great birdcage in the sky, instead continuing to drop dead, illicit a few of Mom’s sentimental tears, then laying stiffly in a shoebox buried by our rusting backyard swingset, until returning to his perch as if he’d never left. If I hadn’t been closely watching, Frosty would have made a solid case for reincarnation.
Lent brings me back to reality. To dust we return.
At Episcopalian funerals, I am always touched by the opening words the priest says, following the casket into the church-
“I am the resurrection and the life,' saith the Lord; 'he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
It doesn’t matter who is laying in that rolling box; my eyes will well up, sad for the mourners, sad for the mourned, yet hopeful enough to be grateful.
I think about my own funeral service occasionally. I have some sort of funeral plan tucked away in a bureau drawer, in the hopes that there will be enough twang and shuffle to send me out like it's Mardi Gras. Whenever I attend a memorial service or funeral (which seems to be becoming more frequent), I revise the plan. But hopefully, everyone who'll need to hear anything from me will have already heard it. I should go up to my bedroom right now and tear up my plans, and trust my children and my dearest companion to make my funeral be whatever it needs to be for them.
Mark Twain tapped into a real human emotion in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, when Huck and Tom found themselves hidden in the balcony at their own funeral service, looking down at who cried the hardest and who missed them the most.
When I’m gone to where I'm going, it’s unlikely that I’ll even want to attend my own service. But if I do show up, it will be with a new mind, a new heart, and no wear and tear on my old soul. On some rafter, I’ll finally be enlightened enough to show up at church without judging, unbothered by the out-of-tune pipe organ, unaffected about who’s not mourning, who didn’t show, who sang off-key, whose homily turned into a sermon, or who didn’t carry out my final wishes. Maybe I’ll tear up that piece of paper now, and let everyone off the hook.