I‘ve decided it’s best for me not to get confirmed.”
I’ll never forget the face my grandmother made when those words drove their way out of me with a sheepish rasp. I was 16 years old when I revoked my membership from the Catholic Church in front of Uncle Nick, Aunt Sal, and Grandma Doris over pizza on a school night.
If you ask my close family members, they might tell you that my childhood relationship with religion was a troubled one. I grew up in Los Banos, California — a small agricultural town in California’s Central Valley. Some of my earliest memories are carved in the walls and buried in the knee-rests of the pews of Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church, which is tall and off-white, with a bell tower whose toll can be heard resonantly in each home bordering the nearby canal bank.
When I arrived at church, usually at around 5 p.m. on Saturdays (or occasionally Sunday mornings at 11 a.m.), I could hear the good Catholics priming their pipes to sing the gospel as I dipped my right hand into the fountain. “N‘name of th’ Father, Son, ’n th’ Holy Spirit,” I mumbled to myself under my breath, sighing deeply as I wiped my hand, damp with Divinity, onto my untucked, too-big button down shirt. On Easter, I’d hear: “Josh, do you see Grandma? I can’t find her. Where the fuck — oh god, sorry, sorry. I know, I know.” My mom would catch herself mid-sin, quickly sneaking in another Sign of the Cross for safe measure. I could never tell if she was apologizing to me, or to herself, or to Jesus, or to the sad-looking Saint Michael pieced together in stained glass on the wall to the left. As the altar boys set the stage and took their places, I listened to my mom and grandmother gossip with Rose or Gloria or Dolly or Diane. Their grandsons and granddaughters were doing well and were my age and were already in sixth grade. They’d ask me if I knew them, and though I didn’t, I said “kinda” nonetheless.
Everyone quietly finished their conversations as the man in white robes stood before the altar and sang: “Aaaaaahhh-layyyyyyyy-louuuuuuu-yaaaaaaa” in different intonations, filling the audience with a holy-ghost-esque introduction. As the crowd hummed off-key echoes of the choir, I often thought about angels. I thought about my grandfather, who had died five months before I was born. I wondered every night before I went to bed if he loved me, wondered if he was watching over me like my mom said he was. At this age, I used to feel a strange mixture of comfort and uneasiness when I thought of my grandfather spectating about my life: I was too young to know if he was up there, dispensing judgement on my actions, but it was nice to know that someone cared enough to watch.
For the next hour and a half, I stood up and sat down and stood again and sat down — a sort of worshipping wave. I ate some crackers that tasted bad, and if you were old enough and chose double the holiness over cleanliness, you drank the blood-wine from a gold-bronze chalice. Each time this happened, the man in the white robes would say, “The Lord be with you,” and we looked him in the eye and said, “And also with you.” If I was lucky, he got tired and cut his sermon 15 minutes short, and I got back to my Xbox 15 minutes earlier. If I wasn’t so lucky, the guy had a real long one in him, jam-packed with Jesus sightings and love for one’s neighbor. Collection baskets were passed left and right as I threw in the $5 bill my grandma handed to me. I wondered what they did with all that money — if that’s how the man in the white robes made a living.
For the first 11 years of my life, for all it was worth, I was Catholic. Catholic as hell. There I was, alongside my grandmother, trying to keep up with the gospel songs, stealing glances over my shoulder to see what page we were on.
If I was lucky, he got tired and cut his sermon 15 minutes short, and I got back to my Xbox 15 minutes earlier. If I wasn’t so lucky, the guy had a real long one in him, jam-packed with Jesus sightings and love for one’s neighbor.
In 2008, I began seeing political signs stabbed into the crisp-cut, kidney-shaped lawn of Saint Joseph’s: “Yes on 8: Restoring Marriage and Protecting California Children.” “Protecting me,” I repeated in my head, in the passenger seat of my grandma’s Oldsmobile. “Should I thank them?” When I got home from church one evening, I went on the Internet and googled “Yes on 8” and became angry. I had never met a gay person in Los Banos but I didn’t know why God didn’t like it. At times, I had found myself somewhat attracted to certain boys. I had never thought it a bad thing, and I wondered if God would be mad at me for that. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt.
I kept going to church for the next month or so with my grandma. Each Saturday, I would take my place in the pew and hold my right arm over my stomach. Throughout the masses, I would feel intervals of a strange nausea — like my stomach was rotting. While we sat and stood and sat and stood again, I thought about God and how everyone around me perceived him. I imagined they must’ve felt righteous, with their lawn signs and their rosaries and their blonde children with the tucked-in shirts and white dresses. I knew their children, and when I told them what I had learned about Prop 8, they almost always shared the same sentiment: Marriage was meant to be between a boy and a girl, and the Bible says so. This is what children my age were taught by their parents and what some of them will certainly go on to teach theirs. I could not accept the idea of a god being eternally loving, but somehow also hateful and vindictive. I thought about God not existing, and what it would mean for all of them if he didn’t, and what it meant for me if he did. Me. An 11-year-old with too much unrestricted Internet access and too much free time, questioning the existence of God in God’s own house, for Christ’s sake.
It was Palm Sunday, 2008, the Sunday before Easter in which Catholics are given blessed palms to symbolize the triumph of Christ. I thought about the Catechism I attended several years ago, where I learned how to be worthy of receiving my First Holy Communion. I remembered a nun teaching us that blaspheming Christ, and even Our Lord God himself, could be forgiven, but that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit meant eternal damnation — no questions asked. As I remembered the Sister and the worried kids in my Catechism class, I thought about the Holy Spirit, and I wondered if maybe he or she didn’t exist. My stomach felt like it was being stabbed. I began to sweat profusely as I strangled the thick, leafy stalk of blessed palm in my hand. The man in the white robes chanted incantations but I could not hear words forming as his lips moved. My ears rang violently. Chlorophyll stained the grooves of my fingers.
On that day, when I approached the man in the white robes to receive my communion, I held the cracker in my mouth for the entirety of the second half of mass. Chrysostomos — that’s Greek for “golden-mouthed.” On our walk back to the car, when my grandmother looked away, I scraped it from the roof of my mouth with my index and middle fingers and flung it into the parking lot bushes. I felt awful. Dirty. Blasphemous. I was ashamed to be a Catholic.
By the time I reached eighth grade, I had stopped going to church altogether. My belief in the Church’s values and the Holy Trinity had more or less disintegrated. At this age, I kept my blasphemous sentiments away from most of my family. Instead, when prompted with questions regarding my refusal to dedicate an hour or so to God every Saturday, I retorted with scientific findings I learned from my earth science textbook. I could answer every question they hurled at me from the Bible, but when I shot them things such as, “Why does the Bible only account for several thousand years of the Earth’s existence, instead of the several billion it’s been around for?” they couldn’t answer. My mom sometimes asked me, with a cacophony of disappointment and anger cracking her voice, where I thought my grandfather had gone after he had his heart attack. I couldn’t answer that. It made the rotting feeling come back.
I didn’t feel guilty when my grandma told me she missed going to church with me, but when my grandfather smiled at me behind the glass frame on my shelf, I couldn’t look at him. Sometimes, I had nightmares of being buried alive. I could see the flesh decaying on my arms and a hole would appear in the bottom of my coffin. I would wake up, sweating and gasping — a familiar feeling of falling.
On that day, when I approached the man in the white robes to receive my communion, I held the cracker in my mouth for the entirety of the second half of mass. Chrysostomos — that’s Greek for “golden-mouthed.” On our walk back to the car, when my grandmother looked away, I scraped it from the roof of my mouth with my index and middle fingers and flung it into the parking lot bushes.
Throughout the following years, into high school, I found it easier to come to grips with the probability of remaining six feet under for the rest of eternity. Doing nothing after death, aside from decomposing and experiencing rigor mortis, seemed OK to me, as long as I led a fruitful life before that happened. During my junior year of high school, after not attending church for four or five years, my mom asked me over lunch, “Are you going to get confirmed?”
I took a bite of my Togo’s sandwich, “Mm,” I mumbled, full-mouthed, and swallowed hard. “I can’t, Mom.” Telling her was the easy part: By then, my mom no longer went to church. She says she doesn’t need some man in a building to tell her how to talk to God or to her father. She’s a bad Catholic but an exceptional human. I’ve always admired her for that.
“I know,” my mom looked at me. “But you should think about it. You’d have a Confirmation party.” This meant I’d make a lot of gift money from all of my relatives. For some reason, when a teenager gets confirmed in Los Banos, their families shower them in cash. I guess nothing says “Congrats on saving yourself from eternal damnation” better than money for weed. My mom drove a hard bargain, but a year of Confirmation classes, lying to a priest’s face, lying to a church full of witnesses, lying to each of my family members and lying to myself wasn’t worth a few hundred dollars. I told her this. I told her that I couldn’t look the man in the white robes in the eyes, and tell him “I do,” when he asked me if I have rejected Satan and accepted Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, into my heart.
On the verge of tears, I told her I couldn’t give my soul to a church or god who didn’t want my gay friend to one day marry the woman she loved. She looked at me over the crumpled sandwich wrapping paper and said, “I know, and you shouldn’t. It’s OK. I love you.” I realized then that my mom had always respected my opinions as if I were an adult, provoking me until my true emotions come out — only then believing me. But at that moment I also thought of my grandfather — I wondered if he was watching, and if he thought what I was doing was right. To me, it felt right. Cathartic, really.
Over pizza several days later, my aunt and uncle were apathetic about it — they could’ve guessed I wasn’t going to get confirmed. Their concerns lay more in the practical applications of being a “real” Catholic. For an otherwise devout family, choosing not to be confirmed was social suicide: I couldn’t marry into the church, become someone’s godfather or baptize my children. I acknowledged and accepted these facts as they were told to me. My aunt and uncle, who are also my godparents, shrugged. My grandma, on the other hand, made it clear that she was fucking pissed.
My grandmother is, by definition, a model Catholic. Catechism teacher. Singer of the gospel. Confession goer. Fearer of God. Faces ad orientem, or toward the east, during the Eucharistic Prayer. When I told her I wouldn’t get confirmed, she asked me why. I told her, just like I told my mom, but with less conviction. I was nonchalant and apathetic, barely intoning my words. But it happened just like that. Our pizza was getting cold, and the local newscasters spoke loudly and professionally on the big screen behind me. Children ran about the parlor, shoes squeaking, vocal chords squeaking, innocence squeaking. My grandmother looked at me in disgust and then at my mom with helplessness. Her eyes spoke words she would repeat to my mom during each subsequent phone conversation: “Why don’t you just make him do it? You know you have the last say in this, Kristie. He needs this.” My mom never tried to explain it further. She just retorted, “He can’t.”
I guess nothing says “Congrats on saving yourself from eternal damnation” better than money for weed.
All my friends went through the classes and had big Confirmation parties during their senior year. Some, I attended. Some, I did not. In passing, at my best friend’s celebration, I was told his grandmother had referred to me once as a “heathen.” In a strange way, hearing that felt good, felt right. Everyone was dressed in white. I wore a flannel and jeans and a heretical smile. Something kept them from burning me at the stake. I enjoyed the sun and the Anchor Steam in the cooler.
The year 2016 marks seven years that I have not stepped foot in Saint Joseph’s, with the exception of a couple funerals here and there. The thought of sitting through a Catholic mass reminds me of green palms, dissolving crackers and the rotting feeling, and when my grandmother reads this, she will probably shake her head in a disappointment that has yet to resolve itself. I know she loves me, but I do wonder if she ever thinks about the possibility of my damnation.
If you ask me today whether I believe in God, our conversation may go in a variety of different directions. If I have a midterm coming up, sometimes. If I have been on a James Joyce stint, probably not. If you ask me on Sproul Plaza, absolutely not. And if you ask me at night as we look up at the stars after passionate sex, could be. Ultimately, I have concluded not to conclude. I don’t know if there is a god. I don’t know if he’s a he or she or they, if he hates my gay friend or is gay himself, if he is Catholic or agnostic. Coming to UC Berkeley has made me OK with that. Among the plethora of clueless souls pushing themselves closer to the undertow of the lake of fire, or to the static dark of the earth or to gates of pearl, I take solace in the fact that no one truly knows in which direction they’re spiraling. As a college student, I have come to know impermanence on a personal level. People are always coming and going, giving life, dying, living, and drifting slowly and entropically. On occasion, I think about death, and I am not as terrified as I used to be when I was younger. Wherever we go, I don’t think there will be a rotting feeling in our stomachs and arms or a falling feeling from underneath us. Whether there is God or there is ground, I imagine we will land upon it eventually.
I do not think any less of anyone for being a Catholic or for getting confirmed. From parish to parish, tolerance and open-mindedness exist in different levels, and each Catholic incorporates their own internalized beliefs to somehow fit their religious philosophy. My battle with Catholicism was entirely personal. And to be confirmed, I believe, would have been a disservice to myself — a denial of the natural transience of life and an admission of fear of the beautiful unknowns.
If you ask me today whether I believe in God, our conversation may go in a variety of different directions. If I have a midterm coming up, sometimes. If I have been on a James Joyce stint, probably not. If you ask me on Sproul Plaza, absolutely not. And if you ask me at night as we look up at the stars after passionate sex, could be.
Today, the glass picture frame of my grandfather sits upon an Ikea shelf in my single bedroom and smiles at me like he has all these years. I like to think he’s glad I didn’t get confirmed — that I made the right decision. I think he knows I would have been lying to him, as well as myself. At times, I feel a presence within and around me that feels supernatural — that feels like what is happening to me is happening for a reason. I don’t know what the sensation is, but, occasionally, I smile at it.