My First Grave Sin: A Christmas Story

Three years ago, on my last visit home to New York, I re-read my mother’s first young adult novel, and was stunned to discover she’d mixed up her virgin martyrs.

“St. Agatha lost her breasts, not St. Agnes,” I lectured. “And who’s this St. Theresa whose throat was supposedly slashed in a bathhouse? That’s St. Cecilia. Teresa, no ‘h’, was a mystic and reformer of women’s monastic life; Thérèse was a memoirist who wasted away from tuberculosis. Who let this thing go to press, anyway?”

True to her catechesis, my mother hung her head. “You lose track after a while,” she sighed. “All the stories start to dissolve into one big ocean of goodness and gore.”

A big ocean of goodness and gore. That’s certainly the impression of the Church I carried with me when I was growing up, probably because so much of it came from people like my mother — ex-Catholics with an artistic bent. To this day, I can’t witness an infant baptism without thinking of that scene from Godfather where Michael stands in for Carlo and Connie even as his goons wipe out the heads of three or four rival families. Coppolla, Scorcese, Jim Carroll — even Morton Downey, Jr. — all impressed me with the idea that a Catholic outlook, a Catholic sensibility, held the key to something primitive, authentic, and vital that was missing from my world of shabby-genteel secular humanism.

And so, for a while during my teen years, I dabbled in Catholicism. I took to wearing a miraculous medal and a brown scapular. Learning to make the sign of the cross, I made a point of doing so at odd moments, unconnected with prayer, just to see how it felt. The apartment where I lived was practically squashed between two elegant old churches — St. Elizabeth of Hungary’s and St. Monica’s — and I made a habit of popping in when the mood struck me, to smell the incense and practice genuflecting. For two years running, I showed up at school with crosses of ash smeared on my forehead. Using a ball-point pen I sketched out a crucifixion scene on the white leather sleeve of my cross-country letter jacket.

One thing I didn’t do was attend Mass. For the life of me, I can’t think of why not. We’d covered the Reformation in sixth grade, and again in ninth grade, so I must have had some idea of what went on at the altar, and why it was important. Maybe I sensed I was living through a period of intense but fleeting enthusiasms and thought it best that the serious practice of religion not become one of them. Or maybe I was thinking in the opposite direction — noting that Scorcese and Coppolla no longer attended Mass, I might have reasoned it played no great role in the sustenance of genius. Here, in my idea that a world religion could be compressed into an aesthetic, I should probably acknowledge my debt to Madonna. I don’t remember liking her music, but I suppose I had, like the rest of the country, to admire her nerve.

Even this tenuous attraction faded after I went away to ASU as an undergrad. My chief focus was on earning the grades I’d need to get into grad school, and I was never so superstitious as to believe religious kitsch could help. But at Christmas of 1995, when I came home following my first semester of grad school, I felt a sudden hankering for the package deal. After giving the matter scarcely a moment’s consideration, I threw on an overcoat, sortied from the West Side apartment my mother now shared with Bob into an unseasonably warm night, and made it to St. Patrick’s just as Midnight Mass was beginning.

The inside of the cathedral was lit up bright as the Javits Center during an auto show, which surprised me. The pews were packed, which didn’t surprise me, but which meant I needed an usher’s help to find a seat. (It was between the aisle and a Filipina whose head just barely reached my elbow.) Cardinal O’Connor must have been presiding, but I was so far away that nothing he said or wore made any impression.

As I look back now, it seems natural that I should have felt enrapt at seeing all the tics and images I’d borrowed together, arrayed in good order. On the contrary — I was, if anything, underwhelmed. Maybe the bright lights killed the mystery, or maybe it was the fact that so many of the songs we sang were old holiday standards. (Once covered by the likes of Jim Nabors and Kenny Rogers, “Joy to the World” loses much of its power to evoke the heavenly choir, at least in these ears.) What I am trying to do, I guess, is explain why, with a sense of going for broke, I stood up when the signal came and joined everyone else in the Communion line.

It didn’t take much, really. All I had to do was allow myself to be swept forward by the mob. From a distance, the transaction looked simple: a bow, followed by a quick handing-off of the Host. The Extraordinary Minister was a fat, jolly, friar-ish looking man who seemed to be enjoying himself. In my moral imagination, all these comforting details conspired to relocate my project from the world of interdicts and excommunications, about which I’d written A papers for 400-level medieval history classes, to the realm of underage drinking.

And then, my turn came. The EM beamed holiday cheer and said, “Body of Christ?”

His tone was interrogative, but I had no idea what the answer — the password — might be. If it had appeared in any sumptuously violent gangster movies, I must have missed it for all the sumptuous violence.

Still smiling, he asked, “Are you Catholic?” To own the ruse at this late stage would have been humiliating. I nodded, preparing to swear I’d grown up behind the Iron Curtain where attending Mass meant courting trouble from the secret police.

He took me at my nod, though. “You say, ‘Amen’ or ‘I believe’, okay?”

I nodded again, and we took it from the top. “Body of Christ?”

“Amen.” I took the host; it tasted like cardboard. I left before the dismissal.

“They’ve set aside a special place in hell just for you,” my mother told me when I returned home that morning and told her what I’d gotten up to. But her grim prediction could hardly have done more to burst my bubble than than the kindliness of that EM. He’d seen through me, I was quite sure, but had decided, for some reason, to humor me. As it always does, being humored made me feel small and ridiculous.

Maybe in the hope of expiating the sin of that first, unworthy, Communion, I rarely commune at all now. Three or four times in a given year is a lot for me. If I can’t make a firm purpose of amendment, I don’t even bother — who would I be fooling? I suppose abstaining does keep me cut off from the primal, life-giving, genius-stoking stuff of Catholicism, but I get another facet of the Catholic experience in spades. That taste of cardboard was my first taste of unworthiness, and by extension, of Catholic guilt.

In Defense of Cool Old Symbols
Give Me A Palanca, and I'll Move the World
Obergefell and New Identities
Hiding My True Colors

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