I'm not sure if this is official Church policy or not, but I remember my mother telling me that artwork wasn't allowed in the chapel because that was the beginning of the slippery slope into idol worship. I also remember being taught that the ancient Egyptians and other idol worshipers of the Old Testament literally worshiped their idols, believed the workmanship of their own hands were actually gods with power. How silly they were! Well, no, how silly my mother was not to realize that the idols were only visual representations of the gods these people believed in.
Many times we were taught that the only two churches that could possibly be true were either the Mormons or the Catholics. It was either the Catholics who had the true priesthood keys handed down since Peter, or the Mormons who had the true priesthood keys restored through Joseph Smith. Every other Christian church was just a splinter group and could be doing no more than playing make believe at their services since they didn't have any real authority.
I'd heard a rumor that the Catholics prayed to Mary, and that appealed to me very much, possibly because I was never close with my mother. I prayed to Mary a few times, but then felt guilty about it because of all my mother's warnings that apostasy starts with the tiniest diversions from the Truth and the Right Way. There was something about all the imagery and relics and trappings of Catholicism that seemed so much more mysterious and alluring than Mormonism is my childhood and adolescent mind.
But there were a couple of things that knocked Catholicism out of the One True Church running for me. (Looking back now, these were not at all good reasons, but this was how I thought at the time.) One was a family trip to Southern Arizona where we visited some of the old Spanish missions. I thought they were fascinating, but I remember my father affirming that he sensed a spirit of darkness in those places. (From an adult perspective, I think more than likely he was just uncomfortable because it was unfamiliar.) The other was a discussion with a friend in high school. We were both gung-ho about seminary and had just had another lesson about how we were one of the only two churches that could possibly be right. And she said, "But you look at some of the stuff that the Catholic church did, and you know that just can't possibly be anything from God." Hmm, that makes sense, I thought.
None of our seminary lessons covered the Mountain Meadows Massacre. We only talked about how much the early Mormons were persecuted, ironclad evidence they were doing God's will. Any wrongdoing on their part was glossed over and justified if it was mentioned at all. I was a diehard, nerdy, scripture-lovin' super seminarian, but I never heard about Mountain Meadows until two years after I'd left the Church when I watched Helen Whitney's documentary The Mormons on PBS. There goes the Mormons' "holier than thou" card when it comes to religious violence.
I graduated high school and began college at Arizona State University. My favorite spot on campus was Danforth Chapel. It was non-denominational, just a nice quiet place where I liked to go to be alone with God. The Mormons also had an Institute and chapel on campus, but Danforth felt holier to me. There was a daily Catholic mass there, and I used to go to that, just because I liked it. I was still very much a believing and practicing Mormon at this time, but I'd always had a fascination with other religions. My parents had taught me with well-intentioned smugness that other religions were full of good people who were doing "the best they can with what they know." We were superior because we had the Fullness of the Gospel, but those other churches had a lot of good too, even if they weren't as ultimately awesome as we were. So I went to mass pretty frequently. I liked the ritualism of it. I liked when we all wished each other peace. I even took communion because at the time I didn't know that non-Catholics weren't supposed to.
Also, I was a Spanish major, so Catholicism interested me because of its importance in the Spanish-speaking world. I had a Catholic classmate and I went to mass with her at the Newman Center. This was where I learned that I shouldn't be taking Catholic communion. Another time, I went to a lecture there about the book of Revelation. Afterward they served cookies and punch and I remember thinking, Wow, our churches really aren't that different after all.
Now like every church, the Catholic Church is full of flaws: too many rules, too much obsession with humanity's "unworthiness," too many hang-ups about sex (or not enough when it comes to priests and kids), way too patriarchal. But I still have a soft spot for all the symbolism and the rituals and history and heritage. Catholicism offers so much for the imagination to latch onto, so many potential corridors for the mind to wander. I don't believe in their authority; I think they're just playing make-believe like every other church, but I like make-believe.
I ran the Twin Cities Marathon last October, and either just before or just after the 26-mile marker (it's all kind of blurry at that point), I passed the Cathedral of Saint Paul. I was down that way this last weekend and decided to take a look inside. It was a Saturday morning and a wedding was taking place. A few tourists were milling around the peripheral parts. I wandered through the side chapels, one for Mary, one for Peter. The sheer size of the place was astonishing. Exploring the place reminded me of reading a poem, something new to discover and consider around every corner, some new meaning to extract, some new way to be changed.
They had a special display of a replica of Michelangelo's Pietà.
I wanted to press my cheek up against hers.
The lyrics of a song I sang in recital a couple of years ago came to mind:
Ah! Sore was the suff'ring borne by the body of Mary's son.
But sorer still to him was the grief which for his sake came upon his mother.From "The Crucifixion," from Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs.
I went back to my hotel for a nap, then slumming in bookstores and coffee shops, then back to the cathedral for the Saturday evening vigil. I stood and sat and recited "And also with you" with the rest of them. During the homily, the priest asked how many parents put as much effort into making sure their children get to heaven as they do into making sure their children get to college. Could it be, he asked, that heaven doesn't seem like a real place to us, that it's in the same category as fairy tales in our minds? Well, for me personally, yes actually. But he made some nice points about making heaven more of a real part of our lives here and now, about going before the Lord and saying, I have become aware of something unheavenly in my life, and I want this encounter with you to change me.
Isn't that really the point of any religious practice?
And I know you don't need religion to be good or to be happy, but I still like it. I like the ways it stimulates my imagination, and it is through my imagination that I become a new, and hopefully better, person.
When it was time for communion, I went forward with the rest of the congregation, crossed my arms over my chest to indicate that I would not be partaking, accepted the priest's blessing and returned to my seat.