for Zucu and Eric
Yesterday morning, I was talking with a friend about her difficult issues with her father, and was sadly reminded of my own. Later in the day I happened to pick up an article about pedophilia in the Catholic Church—celibate priests (called Fathers) who rape young boys on kneeling stools at the altar—a not-uncommon practice known about by the priests in the Church hierarchy, but not so much by the rest of us.
I’ve heard the rumor that the practice of celibacy was originally started to prevent sons of the clergy from inheriting family property that would otherwise go to the Church! Who knows, maybe it really was all about money…but its effects were to make monsters of many otherwise healthy young men.
So, still gagging, I am trying to take a closer look at my own family history of love and abuse. As a young girl I had crushes on friends and teachers—all those natural longings for love and attention that girls have—but my father was not on the list. For as long as I can remember, he represented danger. He was a man who literally beat up boys I played stickball with. It was dangerous for the boys in our Brooklyn neighborhood to even trade stamps with me! My father warned me about “boys getting out of control” when I was 11 and I had no idea what he was talking about. Unless he was talking about himself.
Writing so recently about Franco, my young love, it all came back—the good and the bad—that natural attraction to another being, that heightened feeling in my body and soul like no other, that magnetic pull towards a fulfillment my mind did not even try to understand, but my body could not resist—a natural act we call sex that most every animal and human experiences, inevitable and irrevocable, essential and dangerous—the handmaiden to love itself.
It is, after all, that very act that perpetuates the species, so who decided it was sinful? Without it, we wouldn’t even be here, for God’s sake! And yet it is named as a mortal sin in the catechism—’Eve’s sin’—that every child of the Church memorizes at an impressionable age, exactly the age that trusted priests wearing solemn robes choose for raping young boys at sacrosanct altars.
How in hell have we gotten so off the track, and stayed there so long?
My own father was 19 years old when I was born, still a kid himself, and my mother was 17. Neither had been sufficiently parented themselves, their parents still shaking from their own escapes from ghettos and pogroms just years before, and I was born shortly after the Great Depression ended, during the Second World War.
I imagine that my birth must have been, at first, a welcome relief to the family nightmares, but then the War continued and the sadness intensified with more combat deaths in the family and everyday life turned even more horrific around us as the grown-ups grieved yet more losses, and hardened to brittle shells of fear.
I still remember my mother going cold with the loss of her brother just as Armistice was declared, as her grief and rage took over, and I could see the ‘blood behind her eyes.’ Not motherly love. She essentially disappeared, leaving us all on the other side of a closed door where she wept unceasingly, and my father, in helpless desperation, reached to his young daughter for comfort.
I can still see the desperate need on his clenched teeth, his mustache like a black gash over his top lip, and feel his too-tight grip on my body. My instinct to self-protect by wriggling in his lap and curling my body away from him, seemed to be what he wanted me to do. Even now, I handle pain by holding my breath and curling up when things are too hurtful to bear.
I multiply this for all those violated boys at the altars of Christendom for who knows how many centuries, and their doctrinally celibate violators no doubt consumed by desperate need and self-hatred, and wonder how have they managed to live—with themselves, with one another, with the Church?
Why didn’t they all leave and shout the truth? Well, neither did I. I wonder about the soul of Jesus sunk in depression feeling that his mission went awry. I wonder about the ordinary people in congregations who needed to believe they were safe in God and the stringent rules of His earthly Church.
Now what do we do?
So I went off to France to learn about Medieval Christianity, studying the Last Judgment scenes in 12th century churches, especially where ugly demons with pitchforks pushed sinners into the fires of Hell. I wondered who created those demons in the first place, and who defined who was a sinner evil enough to be so cruelly treated by an ugly demon? Not God, certainly. So what part did Fear play in the psychology of religion, and who made those cruel and unnatural rules of celibacy in the first place?
I needed answers.
I was trying to understand a God who would punish me for feeling sweet and passionate love for another person—like Franco, for example, with whom I had recently performed music on the altar of an ancient church in Ravenna. We were not sinning by loving one another, and we played gloriously together, gifting the congregation and ourselves with such a treat of heart-opening pleasure.
Nor was it a sin to love Martine, my beloved friend at the Institute, a mystic with a sense of adventure and a deep love of God. She and I were a mischievous team who questioned everything, and laughed a lot. Her thesis was about The Miracle of Lazarus and our professors jokingly introduced us to visitors as “Mlle. Martine, who has risen from the dead and Mlle. Caroline, who is “plonge dans L’Enfer” (plunged into Hell).
When, after our last exams she entered a Convent as a Novitiate I was bereft to lose her, but I needn’t have worried because in less than a year she escaped from those walls at a run, saying it was crazy in there! She told me about having to bind her breasts, shave her head and forget that she had a woman’s body. “Impossible!” she raged. She suspected hanky-panky when the priest came around—nuns, after all, could not be allowed to perform the Mass—and the daily bickering amongst the women drove her crazy!
So, what to believe? I am still attracted to the music and the soaring architectures of great cathedrals; I still feel the sublimity of silent worship with others and the awe of the ineffable for which there is no name. I still long for shared worship with a loving community, but in the end I found that neither in Church nor synagogue nor meditation hall.
But I found it, years ago, dancing and singing at a Black non-denominational Christian church in my neighborhood! After a long search, there it was a few blocks away from home!
We got down there, singing our hearts out together and rocking our bodies to the beat, feeling the joy and spreading it into every crevice of the church and our fellow congregants—Thursday night rehearsals and Sunday morning Church.
That came closest to what I’d been looking for—even though I am neither dark-skinned nor Christian—that swelling of joy and belief in the heart, recognizing that for all our fear and trembling, our sinning and our greed, we are alive in a miraculous universe in fabulous bodies and can rise to the occasion of our lives and our times and reach for that joy even when things looked hopeless, for it is Real!
More real, certainly, than an economy that works only for the rich, and sciences that unthinkingly destroy the environment!
Because ultimately, nothing is hopeless, no matter what, and ‘reaching for the stars’ or raising our frequency of vibration is what life on earth is all about, which to me means learning to reach for love—in the natural world, in one another, in life itself. What a gift, even when things look hopeless, it is to be found right here where I started. Even though it took a quest to faraway lands to discover the gift of loving in my own heart.
Singing praise is one way, I discovered, and dancing together to a beat; and laughing our heads off and kindness and generosity, feeding one another and giving comfort and sleeping soundly with good dreams at the end of each day. And loving one another and loving ourselves—most important of all.
And none of this costs a cent.
So that, I believe, is my task here on earth, to keep my finger on that pulse of joy even in the midst of every fear that confronts me every day, no matter what. I imagine that if you and I are to be Saved, love and joy are what will save us—nothing less.
Who asked for this? I ask myself at least once a day, scratching my head nervously as I search the sky for a miracle.
I suppose it was I who asked for this, because I am absolutely convinced it is there, alive and well. Please help me look?