Monday, April 19, 1993

St. Joseph’s Askew / Photo jbutsky

St. Joseph’s Askew / Photo jbutsky

I was raised Roman Catholic. Most Sundays my father drove my sister and I south, across the Massachusetts border, to Connecticut. The trip took slightly over 30 minutes and ended at St. Joseph’s, the nearest Catholic Church. The three of us filed quietly up the stone steps, walked to a pew near the back where my father let us in ahead of him before kneeling and crossing himself.

For many years the church provided routine. Over the course of 50 minutes I marked up my mental checklist. Kneeling. Check. Standing. Check. Sitting. Check. Communion. Check. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Check. I followed my father’s lead and never moved before he leaned forward, knelt down, or stood up. I bowed my head next to his and prayed for our pets. The basket came around twice and my father made sure that we each had a crisp dollar bill to drop in amongst the checks and coins. It was just about time to go once we all started shaking hands with strangers. Soon the two men who collected our temporary funds walked backwards down the aisles, the signal to rise from the pews and make our way to the front doors.

I stared at the Stations of the Cross. They hung along the walls, sculpted in three dimensions. The detail was graphic and mesmerized me as the priest read Corinthians. He started strong, powerful and the end He was hunched, beaten, and struggling. I followed His journey, partially blocked by the columns lining either side of the nave, ending at the transepts. It was agonizing and destined to be relived each Sunday.

We crowded towards the exits where the priest waited, shook hands, and wished us well. I once heard him speak to someone about a mundane topic. I don’t remember what was said, maybe the day’s football game. It unnerved me that he knew of such things. My image of him studying the bible in the monastery at the back of the church gave way to images of priests crowding around the television cheering on the Patriots.

My mother, a Lutheran, so rarely accompanied us to church that I considered switching religions from an early age. We always sat closer to the exit when she came to church. I thought it was born out of a need to flee should the congregation learn of her presence. I later considered that she might not have wanted the parishioners sitting behind her to notice the solitary woman as her family received communion.

I lived in a small town with a population of less than 900 and children were a rarity. Five or six of us attended catechism at the local library. We sat in a circle amongst the tales of Twain, Potter, and Seuss and discussed bible passages. For the first time in my life the rituals began to take on meaning. They were fantastic and suited the environment where we learned.

My hand clutched the action figure in my jacket pocket. It was Man-At-Arms from the He-Man collection, a collectible I liberated from a Caldor on our way to the late morning mass. The congregation faced forward, dead eyes absorbing the priest’s sermon. The light shining through the stained glass outline of Judas seemed to spotlight my place amongst the pews. I refused my father’s requests to take my jacket off as sweat beaded on my forehead. My wet palms slid across the sculpted plastic figure hidden from view.

Once I was out of grammar school I rarely attended church. My father woke early and drove to Connecticut for the early mass. He sometimes returned before I made it out of bed. He ate breakfast in near silence and spent the remainder of his mornings in the garage, replacing air filters, draining oil, and blowing on spark plugs.

By high school my excuses for not accompanying my father had lost believability. Stomachaches were for toddlers and “playing deaf” hadn’t worked in years. My sister went to college and took with her a near perfect attendance record of churchgoing. I hated myself for not keeping my father company on those Sunday mornings. I imagined his drives, a solitary pilgrim making his way across the border to sit alone among the families. He spoke sparingly to strangers so I wondered if those sitting near him thought he lost his wife and children to some horrific highway accident.

Guilt occasionally provided the fuel to propel me to the car and make the early drive to St. Joe’s. He smiled a bit more those mornings and peppered me with questions about school and my friends. He was downright chatty some Sundays. I followed him to the garage on those days and held a steady flashlight as he worked away under the hood.

I sat in the back of the church with my father and mother on Sunday, April 25, 1993. I don’t remember the sermon however the theme was familiar. The priest discussed the disciples, the Romans, persecution by the government, and faith. Suddenly I had a revelation. It was completely unexpected.

I remembered the previous Monday. I had spent the day watching the reports from Texas. The compound was burning and reports said dozens were presumed dead, many of them children. The government defended its actions and his photos were splashed across the newscasts.

I was not aware of his politics or his messages. To say I was naïve at the time would be an understatement, but I was impressionable. I saw the basic facts. A small group listened to Koresh, placed their faith in him, believed him to be a spiritual leader, and were persecuted for their beliefs.

Then the question came: why Jesus and not Koresh?

It was as clear as day. Why had history chosen Jesus to rise above other religious leaders and join the ranks of major religions? Would monuments be built to Koresh hundreds of years from this day?

I sat next to my mother when my dad went to receive communion and never followed Him again.


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