Rosaries and Radicals
By Sheila Luna - Scottsdale, Arizona, USA - [DATE]
When I was eight years old, I fainted in church. I don’t know whether I was touched by the Holy Spirit or just had the chicken pox. Adults hovered over me like humming bees. My mother carried me out of the church and fanned me with a prayer book.
My parochial memories consist of morning mass in a foreboding church and jumping rope in the cement courtyard over which loomed a grimy, armless Saint Pascal. Nuns in black, flowing gowns floated ethereally around with watchful eyes, armed with rulers and rosaries. I was intrigued by them and terrified at the same time. They were married to Jesus. I wanted to be too. The incense infused words, unless you eat this flesh and drink this blood made my legs wobble under my little plaid skirt.
Ingrained in me like stubborn bloodstains were the Ten Commandments, the difference between a venial and a mortal sin, and never put your feet on the kneelers in church. I had a few venial sins under the belt of my blue plaid uniform. I knew shoplifting was wrong, but I had to try it anyway. Once, when I was twelve, I hid the latest issue of Teen Magazine under my coat, slid a silver ring into my pocket and snuck out of the store. During confession, I told Father Flanagan that I stole a cookie from my little brother instead. I had no doubt that he could see through that screen and into my soul, and I was afraid he would reveal my crime to the cops. He told me to say ten Our Fathers. I doubled it and hoped God would understand.
My mother prayed the rosary every day -- her voice a buzzing sound wafting from the bedroom, changing tones like a soft breeze. When my father was unemployed, she made me say it with her. On our knees, next to her bed, surrounded by all shapes and sizes of the Blessed Mother, my mother and I would chant the words, our fingers laced with beads. I marveled at how she maintained her concentration and never skipped a Hail Mary. Sometimes I would open my eyes in the middle of a decade to look at her. Transfixed in another world, her skin seemed lit from within. “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” she would say and slowly tilt her head forward in slow motion right before the word Jesus. Her fingers played with the beads like an expert oboist.
When my dad finally landed a job she said, “See, it worked.” None too soon, I thought, as my knees were becoming crippled. Years later, I would realize that the essence of the rosary is not just word repetition or a test of mental and physical stamina, but meditation on the grace of God. The word prayer comes from the Anglo-Saxon “bead” or bede, which is derived from biddan “to ask.” Frequent repetition of a prayer was believed to increase its efficacy. Early rosaries consisted of beads carved from rosewood and called wreaths of roses so that petitioners could keep track.
When I was a little older, I began questioning religion and ritual and faith.
“Mom, how do you know that water is really blessed?”
“We believe that it is,” she would say. “It’s holy water.” And she would dab some on my forehead. I loved the coolness on my face, but I doubted whether it could cleanse me, like Zest.
“So, if it is holy and it evaporates and becomes part of the clouds and then it rains, is everybody blessed?”
“You ask too many questions, Sweetheart. We must believe some things without knowing for sure. It’s called faith.”
Doubting the authenticity of holy water as a young girl would evolve into questioning the morals of society in my adolescence. While other girls my age were listening to The Doors and baking hash brownies, I was looking at pictures of a wrinkled nun in a white, blue-bordered sari washing the sores of starving children, caring for decrepit people along dusty roads, and traipsing around the slums of Calcutta like a luminous angel. Somehow, I didn’t feel right, sitting comfortably in my bedroom with record albums carpeting the floor and clothes cascading from my dresser drawers. Like Mother Teresa, I wanted to share in the “interior desolation of the poor.” I could not justify society’s selfish materialism. So, one year I boycotted Christmas.
“I’m not going,” I said defiantly.
Every year, our family went Christmas shopping together. After arriving at the mall, we would scatter like rats to our separate holes and then meet at an agreed upon time. We would always leave loaded with bags and secrets and declarations, such as wait until you see what I got for you. It was the threshold of Christmas -- our family ritual.
“It’s tradition,” my mother replied. “We’ll have lunch at Fuddruckers.”
“How can you be so materialistic?” I cried. “I don’t want any part of it. What about all the poor people?”
“C’mon, don’t spoil it for your mom,” my dad said, taking me aside. “She looks forward to this day all year.” I knew he understood me. I knew he’d much rather be sitting on the patio doing crossword puzzles and listening to his Neil Diamond cassette tapes than battling crowds of anxious shoppers.
“I’m not buying anything and I don’t want any presents.”
“Good, more for us,” said my brother, who already had a list of everything he wanted, including a G.I. Joe.
“I’m giving my money to the poor people in Africa,” I said. I received a weekly allowance for cleaning the toilets and I was prepared to donate all of it.
“That’s really generous of you, Sweetheart,” said my mother. I could tell she was more worried than moved though. “But just come with us today?”
I went, but I moped. As soon as we returned, I retreated to my room and whimpered. In retrospect, I suspect a portion of those episodes were adolescent hormones run amok, but nevertheless they informed my worldview as a young adult.
“Time to eat.” My mother poked her head in my room and noticed my tears. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing.” At the sight of her, I began weeping. “I hate Christmas anymore. It’s too commercial.” A fortress of books about Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, and Dorothy Day encircled me on the bed.
“What’s this one about?” she asked, picking up a worn and dog-eared library book.
“It’s about this woman who started the Catholic Worker movement. She was so cool. She started a newspaper during the Great Depression but then turned it into a homeless shelter for poor people who didn’t have anywhere to go.”
“So, Dorothy Day was like a saint?”
“She was also a pacifist,” I said. “They sent her to prison for her anti-war protests. She’s my role model. I want to change the world.”
My mother sat down beside me and flipped through the book.
“The greatest challenge is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us,” she read aloud. “That’s really beautiful, but I don’t want to be bailing my daughter out of jail.” She winked.
“I just want to help people. Why should people suffer when we have so much?” I poised myself for an argument.
“There are not many young girls today with such strong convictions,” she responded. “The world needs more people like you. But, it requires a lot of strength and sacrifice.”
“I’m afraid sometimes,” I exhaled a lungful of pent up tension. “Maybe there is no God and I’m just confused.”
“Well if it’s any consolation, Mother Teresa had the same fears. She called it the darkness. She felt separated from God sometimes too, but it only led to a closer union with Him. And look at all she accomplished because of her faith.”
That day in my room, surrounded by posters of Jim Morrison and Mother Teresa and after a disastrous family shopping trip, I felt a sudden burst of love for my mother.
“Did I ever tell you that I wanted to become a nun when I was your age?” she said.
Shocked, the heavy book dropped on my toe. Dorothy Day stared up at me.
Before I could respond my mom said, “But then I met your father and then a year later, I had you. We just have to be thankful for all the gifts we have right now.”
A knock on the door disrupted our brief hug. “Speak of the devil,” she smirked, as my father burst in.
“Hey, dinner’s getting cold,” he said. A stubborn Irish writer, he was unemployed again. He could not take orders or succumb to peddling insurance or selling used books, so he had trouble keeping a job. He’d much rather be chained to his typewriter on the living room floor. I was always in awe of my father’s grit and creativity, but just then, I recognized my mother’s strength and perseverance. Employed or unemployed, published or not, she always supported him, just as she supported the family by being the sole breadwinner at times. She knew that someday he would write a book. She had faith.
I was only learning the meaning of the word.
Throughout my life, I’ve had this recurring dream where all my teeth fall out. Sometimes, my teeth crumble to pieces. I find myself accidentally chewing on them, rolling them around in my mouth like broken Jolly Ranchers. When I wake up, I am so happy. I have all my teeth and immediately feel grateful, as if it were a prayer answered. My personal relationship with God has been a little like this dream.
“It’s like the wind,” my mom often said, referring to faith. “We can’t see the wind. We can only feel it when it touches our skin or blows our hair.”
The neglected campfire of my youthful idealism has since fizzled out, and I still sometimes struggle with my faith. But, I admire people like Mother Teresa, who sacrificed so much for the poor, and Dorothy Day who spent her entire life trying to make the world a better place. I know that my convictions are not as powerful as theirs were, and while I did time as an adolescent abbess, I now want food processors and the right shade of lipstick just as much as the next woman.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that we cannot see what we believe in either, but know it’s real by the joy we feel in our hearts. In my effort to deepen my faith, I realize that spirituality begins with God, not the self. Mostly, I realize that it’s people like my mother who really deserve the credit for changing the world, who every day, and not with gale force winds, but soft breezes, realize the joy of living and the importance of family and the value of the little things done faithfully and with love.