My friends received their first holy confirmation before they were ten years old. I was fourteen. I vaguely remember when my older brother Frank, aged nine, brought the catechism home to study. I could read the words but it baffled me. I refused to be confirmed. Recently I borrowed a copy of the catechism from the public library, a fat book which must be the unabridged version of the booklet I saw as a boy.
“Recall that you have received the spiritual seal, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding and courage and the spirit of right judgement and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the Spirit of holy fear in God’s presence. Guard what you have received.”
That’s a heavy load to lay upon a child. The sentence is full of abstract nouns – spirit, wisdom, understanding, courage, knowledge, reverence. And elsewhere there’s that menace: fear God, mortal sin, the devil, damnation. Yes, there is salvation. Through the gift of grace. Grace?
My father was an illiterate, anticlerical, naive anarchist. “Dominus Vobiscum! Mobuto! Massachusetts!” He’d say the words aloud. He loved the sound of mouth-filling vowels. He’d play his few scratchy LPs over and over: Verdi and Rossini overtures, a few arias, the marching band of the Italian Carabinieri. When congregants from St Thomas’s came to the house requesting donations, he’d tell them “Go to the Pope, he got plenty.” My mother always tried to head him off from the door.
Although devout, my mother stopped going to church, for good I thought, after she fainted in crowded Saint Thomas’s church during a long sermon one hot Sunday. Afterwards, unobtrusively, she occasionally attended Mass in the small, detached chapel of Saint Elizabeth’s, the the large, nearly defunct Episcopal Church that had been marooned by the influx of Catholic residents. It was quiet and sparsely attended. I remained adamantly unconfirmed. My mother was chastised for it, gently by Aunt Jennie and Pip, blatantly by that trouble-maker, Z’a Pina Graci.
My mother never grumbled about my state of sin, but to lighten her burden, I relented. I joined a group of nine year-olds, public school kids all, that met to study the catechism in a classroom at Saint Thomas’s elementary school. Sister Bridget, a young nun from Ireland was our teacher: I liked to hear her speak – the beginning of my fascination with things foreign. Sister Bridget never reproved my ill-concealed disdain of the simple minded question-and-answer book:
“Q.: Who made the world? A.: God made the world.”
She mollified me with adult asides. The class was ready to be confirmed in five or six weeks. I playfully, perversely, chose Aloysius as my confirmation name.
“He was a wonderful Saint!” said Sister Bridget.
I had to choose a sponsor. To punish Z’a Pina, I chose her husband whom I hardly knew: I would never be an ornament to St. Thomas’s, nor to Catholicism. Z’u Gaspare became my padrino, my “little father’; in Sicilian he was my “parinu”; in direct address, “Pari”, accent on the i.)
The officiating priest that confirmation Sunday was, I thought, condescending. Of course I was prepared to dislike him. It was my first and last holy communion. I seldom entered a church again, except for christenings, weddings and funerals. Until I went to Italy.
In Rome I grew fond of churches, visiting scores of them. My favorites changed as I discovered new ones. If I were near the Piazza del Popolo, I’d slip into Santa Maria to see the Caravaggios. On the Corso I seldom passed up Gesu. Santa Sabina was wonderful. Saint Peter’s, across the river, left me cold although I dutifully took visiting relatives and friends to see it. I took my father! “Dominus Vobiscum!” Santa Maria Maggiore was my favorite of the four great cathedrals. I’ll never forget Christmas midnight Mass there. I went with Diana Beames, an Australian friend who taught English at the British Council school in Via Babuino.
We stood behind temporary wooden barriers that defined a wide central aisle from front to back – the big churches have no fixed pews. Hundreds of candles burnished the magnificent mosaics on the walls, on the great triumphal arch, in the apse. The coffered ceiling was gilt with gold brought from the New World. We heard chanting. The front doors opened and a current of cold air invaded the church. Then the procession.
First came the gorgeously dressed bishops – maybe a cardinal or two – six or eight abreast, followed by dozens and dozens of priests, then ranks of plainly robed monks, and finally, who knows how many altar boys carrying tall candelabras; a gaudy phalanx come to celebrate a babe in a manger. The costumes, the heaving, murmuring audience, the flash bulbs, the chanting, the galaxy of candles, the glowing mosaics, the incensing urn swinging across the width of the apse, represented an overwhelming spectacle. Diana and I pushed our way through the crowd and we slipped out into the cold night before the Mass began. We lost our way briefly in the crooked little streets surrounding the church, a frequent occurrence in old Rome. We broke out serendipitously, like an unexpected gift.
Margie Crispin Ridge was unbaptized and unconfirmed. (Were we made for each other?) Margie’s mother, who was born into Methodism, had been alienated by its strictures. On Sundays, as a child, she hadn’t been allowed even to play with her doll. Helen Headley married Roy Ridge in 1930. Margie was their only child. She had remained unbaptized because her mother could never find a church that pleased her.
They bought a little farm house in Chester County and they joined Saint Andrew’s, a small Episcopal country church. It was built in the 1830s, a pleasingly austere building made of native stone with whitewashed walls. It was eminently suitable for a baptism, but Margie, by then a teenager, had no desire to be baptized. Her father was buried in St. Andrew’s churchyard in 1956, in a four person plot, with places for Helen Headley Ridge, for Margie and for Margie’s future husband.
Reverend Ken Werner, the pastor of Saint Andrew’s, was pleased when Margie asked him to marry us. He didn’t bat an eyelash when she told him that she was unbaptized and that I was a lapsed Catholic. The Reverend said his duty was to accept, not to reject. He baptized Margie three weeks before the wedding, with me standing as her godfather. In time our children were baptized in Saint Andrew’s too, so that Margie’s mother, after all, got to attend a baptism in a pretty church, twice.
We were married on a bright, cold, December afternoon in 1960. The snow storm of the decade arrived the next day. It swept up from the south, stranding several of our guests who had dallied in Ludwig’s Corner after the ceremony. Margie and I avoided the snow by immediately driving north; an overnight stay in Greenwich, Connecticut, thence to Vermont where Annie Steinert had kindly offered us the family’s chalet in Peterborough.
We arrived in the late afternoon dusk. It was ominously dark. No snow yet. I flicked the light switch to reveal handsome furniture, stenciled wallpaper and a large fireplace with stacked kindling on the grate. A large sheepskin rug graced the hearth. The room was cold. Margie stroked the thermostat and the furnace came to life.
She opened the fridge: a bottle of champagne and two kinds of pate. A can of Dinty Moore’s beef stew and a box of crackers sat on the counter top next to the fridge.
We went to bed early. It was pitch dark, eerily quiet. We were not afraid.
The earth moved. Ripples of aftershock.
The day broke, stilly.
“Margie, come.” Hand in hand, naked, we gazed upon the immaculate world we had created in the night: Eden regained. Communion, Confirmation, Grace. Joy!